Published July 10, 2003, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Dead blackbird tells no tale about West Nile virus.”
2014 Update: The Centers for Disease Control website is the best place for West Nile Virus updates and information: http://www.cdc.gov/westnile/index.html.
By Barb Gorges
While I was away over a weekend, my friend Ruth left two phone messages. The first, left Saturday, was, “Call me.”
By the time she left the second message Sunday morning, she knew she wouldn’t reach me before leaving town herself.
Apparently, she had found a dead blackbird while mowing her neighbor’s lawn. Would I find out if it had West Nile virus? Instructions for retrieving the double-bagged body followed.
Well, what are friends for? However, I hoped the neighbors weren’t watching as I pulled up in Ruth’s driveway late Sunday afternoon, got out of the car, walked to the big black plastic trash can provided by the city, lifted the lid, removed the carefully wrapped package and left with it.
The bird had been gently roasting all day in the solar-heated garbage container, but it only gave off a faint smell. At home I put it in the refrigerator until appropriate offices would be open on a weekday.
A few weeks before, a neighbor had called about dead blackbirds in her yard, concerned about West Nile virus. I had given her my best guess on who to call. Now it was my turn to find my way through bureaucratic channels.
Turns out the state veterinary lab has a special, toll-free, West Nile virus hotline, 877-996-2483. Among other information in its extensive message, it listed the only species of birds accepted for testing: crow, raven, blue jay and magpie.
Based on Ruth’s description and its heft, I knew without having to open the package, this dead bird was not one of the four species mentioned. So I unceremoniously removed it from the fridge and dumped it in my own big black garbage container.
We will never know if Ruth’s bird died of West Nile or something else.
Previous to the coming of the virus, people reported dead birds in their yards for which the cause of death apparently was not a predator or an accidental collision with a window.
There are a host of bird diseases and sometimes the avian amenities we provide in our yards lead to an unnatural concentration of birds and the setting for a mini-epidemic.
A few years ago a woman called me, reporting 30-40 dead blackbirds in her yard. If memory serves, autopsies diagnosed salmonella.
Disease around feeders and bird baths is more likely in summer. So if you notice sick or dead birds in your yard—and you haven’t sprayed chemicals lately—put away your feeders for awhile.
It breaks up the party and encourages the birds to go after all those annoying bugs hanging around the garden and patio. Otherwise, wash your feeders frequently.
Birds and other animals can be carriers of West Nile virus and when a mosquito bites one of them before biting humans, there’s a slim chance for serious medical problems for the humans.
However, Cheyenne and Wyoming, with the exception of mountain snow melt areas and some streams, are the most mosquito-free places I’ve ever lived.
Wyoming has other insect diseases of concern besides West Nile. No one this time of year spends the day afield without checking for ticks afterwards to avoid Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
Diseases carried by insects have always been around and have had major impact on civilizations.
It would be nice if we could do away with all creepy-crawlies. Of course, that would mean no more songbirds since so many are dependent on insects for food. Even a lot of the seed-eating species depend on insects and other arthropods to feed their young.
There is worry that West Nile will itself decimate bird populations. Chickadee numbers seem to be declining in the northeast, where West Nile was first diagnosed on this continent (American Birding—The 103rd Christmas Bird Count, National Audubon Society).
And animals recovering from West Nile virus appear to have permanent brain scarring (Smithsonian magazine, July 2003).
My advice is to take recommended precautions. Empty standing water every couple days, use mosquito larvae-eating fish in ponds, dress appropriately for areas with lots of insects and monitor your own patch of terra firma for changes.
A couple blue jays showed up in my yard this spring for a few days and then disappeared. West Nile crossed my mind. But the quiet was, apparently, due to nesting. This morning the racket in the alley turned out to be a young blue jay.
Oh good. Come on over son—help yourself to some of the bugs in my yard!