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West Nile Birds

Friday, September 27, 2002 at 3:35 PM

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While human cases of West Nile virus have been worrying public health officials, wildlife experts are concerned about its effect on birds. Owls and hawks began dying in Louisiana in July, but then the virus skipped to Ohio. Since August, more raptors have died in this state than in any other and scientists don't know why. One Ohio bird rehabilitation facility has been particularly hard hit. ideastream's Karen Schaefer has more.

Karen Schaefer: Late summer/early fall is usually a slow season at the Medina Raptor Center near Spencer. Owners Bill and Laura Jordan normally see fewer than a dozen sick or injured birds in August and September. This year, there’s been an epidemic number of birds with West Nile virus.

Bill Jordan: Through this week, we’ve had 59 birds coming in with symptoms of West Nile virus. The survival rate on the ones we’ve taken in has been very low. We’re losing 70-80 percent of them, most within the first 72 hours.

KS: Bill Jordan says he believes survival rates in the wild are even lower. When the couple gets a bard owl or a red-tail hawk that’s sick, Laura Jordan says they have to move quickly.

Laura Jordan: Immediately we give fluids, because most of the birds - at least from the wild - they are coming in very dehydrated. And then after they survive the first three days - or if they survive the first three days, which many of them don’t - then we can move on into oral slurries which we create with a maximum calorie diet. We treat them for brain swelling…

KS: Even if the birds survive, many cannot be released back into the wild. Laura says brain injuries sustained while a bird has the virus are often permanent, leaving the victim blind or unable to remember how to fly or even hunt for itself. Bill says many of the scientists they’ve talked to are worried about the long-term effect of such a massive die-off of raptors.

BJ: It’s an epidemic by any definition. Whether it plays out to be an ecological disaster I think is yet to be determined. I think when you remove predators from the top of the food chain, then you allow the prey species below that to multiply unrestricted.

KS: This summer, West Nile has also moved into songbird populations. Even hummingbirds have been affected, leaving scientists wondering what will happen next year. In the meantime, Laura and Bill Jordan are taking care of as many birds as they can - and hoping for an early frost. Karen Schaefer, 90.3.

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