- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 21, 2002

RICHMOND (AP) The West Nile virus could have dire consequences for many bird species, scientists said.
The mosquito-borne virus already has been confirmed in about 120 species, although crows and their relatives, the jays, are most susceptible. Hawk, owls, falcons and songbirds are among the other victims.
Human infections have followed the virus' appearance, with more than 1,500 illnesses and 71 deaths attributed to West Nile this year. Eleven Virginians have tested positive for the virus. None has died.
Nationwide, more than 5,000 dead birds tested positive for the virus this year. Tests in Virginia found nearly 500 birds, mostly crows and blue jays, infected with the virus. Other Virginia birds killed included doves, cardinals and small falcons called kestrels
"There is no question that West Nile is a bigger threat to birds than people," Bryan Watts, director of the College of William and Mary's Center for Conservation Biology, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Birds serve important functions. For example, without scavengers such as crows, "the stench along our roadways would be much more powerful," Mr. Watts said.
It will take a couple of years to determine whether the virus will significantly reduce bird populations, he said.
For every bird found dead, "there could be thousands" that die undiscovered, said Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, an animal hospital at Waynesboro.
But Mr. Clark said people are overreacting to the threat of West Nile, heavily spraying their yards with insecticides that could hurt people, animals and beneficial insects.
"It's like using atomic weapons to swat flies," Mr. Clark said. "Homeowners are getting crazy."
He recommends that people engage in "rational mosquito control" by getting rid of old tires and removing standing water.
West Nile is spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes to birds, humans, horses and some other mammals. Nationwide this year, more than 4,600 horses were infected, including 17 in Virginia.
Many of them had either not been vaccinated or had not received the full course of vaccinations before becoming ill.
The equine vaccine is the only vaccine available against West Nile virus; efforts are ongoing to develop vaccines for humans and birds.
The virus also apparently can infect wild mammals, such as squirrels and raccoons. Lab tests have found antibodies to the virus in a few domestic mammals, including cats and dogs, but not documented illness.
"Since cases in these species were not being seen, it is thought that like people, chances of these animals coming down with clinical illness after infection is rare," said Dr. Emi Kate Saito, who coordinates the West Nile virus surveillance at the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis.
The virus also has attacked captive birds, including flamingos at the Smithsonian National Zoo in the District and the Philadelphia Zoo.
At the Mill Mountain Zoo in Roanoke, a female bald eagle named Athena fell ill to a respiratory infection in mid-August and had to be euthanized.
The body tested positive for West Nile virus.
"You are most susceptible when your resistance is low," said David Wood, the zoo's general curator. "She was a prime candidate for West Nile."

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