For the Birds Radio Program: Mona Rutgers dealing with West Nile Virus.
One of the saddest stories I’ve read in a while comes from Mona Rutgers, the director of the Wildlife rehab center in Castalia, Ohio, who gave me my education owl, Archimedes. Right now Mona is in the middle of a horrifying nightmare. She writes:
In just two weeks, almost every center in Ohio has experienced unheard of admissions of Great Horned Owls daily from the wild [plus] Red-tails, Coopers and other raptor species. Most are Great Horneds - and most all have head tremors and some with paralysis of the legs. Many are dying quickly, within 48 hours, though a few seem to be recovering. Most are found standing or laying on the ground, unaware of their surroundings and allow you to just pick them up. Today, I received eight more affected Great Horned Owls, two Red-tails and yet another call just now about another Great Horned! It is unbelievable . How many birds are down out there that aren’t being found? There are 18 sick birds here and I have begun euthanizing several. A few are recovering and then will be immune for the rest of their life to West Nile.
Worse yet, most centers have lost Education Birds that have been at our centers for 10 or more years. They die overnight, without warning. Rehabbers are devastated. I have lost four caged birds here, and fear for the Bald Eagles and other raptors at our center. [One of my colleagues] has lost her program Snowy Owl and Merlin and most centers have lost Barreds, Great Horneds, Red-tails and Kestrels. I have heard several Falconers have lost Gyrfalcons.
We cannot protect our birds, as we don’t have results back yet, and we can’t move them to safer quarters, because doing so would cause major stress and weaken their immune systems. We are all suspecting West Nile. Bringing them into our centers means that mosquitoes feeding on them can fly about the program cages and infect those birds. This is a great health risk and even euthanizing any incoming birds doesn’t protect our Education Birds, because they are coming from every county in Ohio and if it is West Nile, that means the mosquitoes are out there anyway. We know we can’t save all these incoming birds and shouldn’t, but we do have to protect our permanent residents at our centers. Next year, the weaker ones should be eliminated from the environment and those that survived will be a perfect example of nature’s efficient system of “natural selection.”
My veterinarian was here until 11:30 p.m. collecting blood and tissue samples and we packaged entire birds on ice to be sent to the Ohio Dept. of Health and the National Health Animal Diagnostic Lab in Madison, WI. One center sent in two Great Horned Owls and one Red-tail and all three tested positive for West Nile.
The advice from Federal and State agencies is to put mosquito netting over all our cages! Absolutely impossible! Some of the cages are over 60 to 100 feet long and 16 feet high. How can you mosquito proof that?! Humans will not get the West Nile virus from contact with an infected bird in their area, but must be bitten by a mosquito who has bitten an infected bird. However, lab technicians have contracted West Nile from the blood of infected birds, that came in contact with cuts on their hands.
As a former rehabber, I can’t even imagine how heartsick and frantic Mona Rutgers must be right now. West Nile Virus is yet another tragic result of an introduced species, this one an African mosquito, wreaking havoc with the environment. We are taking special notice because this disease affects humans as well as birds, though birds are far more vulnerable to the pathogen. But even if the disease had no implications for humans, this magnitude of avian deaths is horrifying, and scary for the implications as northern birds bitten by mosquitoes but not yet sick migrate to the tropics, where West Nile Virus has not yet arrived.
Hawaii lost virtually all its native birds at low elevations when mosquitoes were introduced. Pesticide sprays that kill adult mosquitoes have been almost completely ineffective at holding West Nile Virus at bay. Most of the mosquitoes harboring the virus breed in backyards and holding tanks rather than in natural swamps, and the pesticides specific to larvae that are applied to limited aquatic hatching grounds seem to be more effective, and to have fewer side effects for humans and birds both. It’s hard to say just how high a toll West Nile Virus is going to exact in the long run. But in the short run, it looks like we better fasten our seatbelts, because we’re in for a bumpy ride.