What You Should Know about Birds and the West Nile Virus
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Am I putting birds in danger of West Nile by having bird feeders out?
No. West Nile is spread when a mosquito bites an infected animal, acquires the virus, then bites another animal. It is not spread directly from bird to bird, or from contaminated surfaces. However, there are other diseases that birds can catch from contaminated surfaces, so it is always a good idea to keep your feeders clean (disassemble feeder if possible, clear feeder of any seeds sticking to it, wash in a 10% bleach solution, rinse and dry thoroughly) and to clear debris from under the feeder.
Can I or any member of my family catch West Nile from infected birds?
No. There are three known ways for humans to acquire West Nile: mosquito bites (as described above), organ transplants, and blood transfusions. It is not spread by casual contact with infected humans or animals. Remember, even though West Nile is new to North America, it has existed in Northwest Africa for decades. If human-to-human transmission from casual contact were possible, it would have been reported before now.
Is there anything I can I do to stop West Nile, in birds or in humans?
Nothing can be done against the virus directly, but you can help reduce its spread by controlling mosquitoes. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in still water, so survey your property for standing water, and get rid of any you find. If you have a birdbath, change the water every 48 hours. Any eggs laid in your birdbath between water changes will not have enough time to develop into adults. You can simply pour the old water onto your lawn or garden - any mosquito larvae present will die.
Mosquitoes will not lay eggs in moving water, so you need not worry about a backyard pond with a circulating pump, a fountain, or a birdbath with a dripper.
To avoid mosquito bites, use protective clothing and an insect repellant that contains DEET. Follow the directions carefully and use caution when applying repellant on children.
The West Nile "season" will be over in your area as soon as a hard freeze takes this year's mosquitoes out of commission. Of course, this means that warmer areas of the country will have to continue their mosquito precautions year-round.
I've found a sick bird. What do I do?
Birds generally don't have symptoms of West Nile until the final stage, when the virus has caused encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain. These birds tend to look drowsy or "drunk" - they are unable to fly, walk properly, or sometimes even stand upright. If you find a bird in this state, it may have West Nile or it may have another illness or a head injury. Call a nature center, wildlife rehabilitation center, or veterinarian in your area and describe the bird's symptoms. They will advise you on whether they will treat the bird and can give an idea of the costs involved (some non-profit wildlife rehab centers will accept animals at no cost or for a small donation, but most vets will charge you for their services). They will also give instructions on capturing and transporting the bird.
Is there a way to prevent mosquitos and still use my bird bath?
Yes. Install a "Water Wiggler" in your bird bath. Water Wiggler's unique agitator action creates continuous ripples in water, preventing mosquitos from laying eggs in bird baths.
As described above, you can't get West Nile from touching an infected bird, but wild birds can carry other diseases and parasites that humans can catch. So it's not a good idea to touch the bird with your bare hands. Use disposable gloves (plastic bags over your hands will do in a pinch). Call your local health department (listed in the blue pages of your phone book) and see whether they are testing dead birds for West Nile. If they are, they will give you instructions on how to "bag" the bird and where to take it. If they are not testing birds, simply bury the bird. Even if you haven't touched the bird with bare hands, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after you handled the bird.
Also keep in mind that a dead bird has not necessarily died from West Nile. Birds die all the time from natural causes, we just happen to be paying more attention to birds lately because of West Nile.
Helpful links for West Nile information:
The Centers for Disease Control West Nile Page
Lots of valuable information on West Nile, includes links to state and local health agencies.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The website of the U.S.'s most respected center of bird study, with frequent news updates on how West Nile is affecting wild bird populations.
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