The facts about crows and West Nile virus

Ah fall, the changing colors, the arrival of mushrooming season, and the gratuitous consumption of hot drinks makes this season a favorite of mine.  But if you live in a temperate zone like the PNW, there’s one drawback to fall; West Nile virus (WNV).  Make no mistake, since its first appearance in the US in 1999, cases of WNV have been documented year round.  Outbreaks, however, typically peak in late summer and early fall which is why you often start to see increasing media attention directed towards the discovery of crow corpses.  Such is the case with a recent die-off in Spokane which inspired a fleet of recent articles.  My favorite was a post from an otherwise predominately car-focused site called The News Wheel which included the following passage:

“In either case, authorities are telling residents that, should they find a dead or dying crow in the street, that they should under no circumstances handle them…In the mean time, it may be a good idea to replace your car’s windshield cleaning fluid with holy water (just in case).”

I suspect some sarcasm was at work there but, in truth, people can get very worked up about WNV.  So here are some FAQs about crows and WNV intended to keep you safe and informed.

What is WNV?
WNV is an arthropod-borne virus which can cause febrile illness, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) or meningitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord).  It was first documented in the US in 1999, and exists across most of the world (sigh; the costs of globalization)1.

Why are crows associated with WNV?
No, this isn’t unfair prejudice at work, corvids really do have it rough when it comes to this disease.  In all the documented cases of WNV 80% of them have affected corvids, despite its presence in 300 other species of bird2.  The connection between WNV and climate change means that corvids could be in big trouble which you can read about in a previous post here.

What does a bird sick with WNV look like?
Most birds who contract WNV will survive, but for the many crows and other corvids what won’t, symptoms include trouble with balance both at rest and while mobile, and lethargy.  There won’t be any way to tell if a dead crow is infected simply by looking at it2.

Can I get WNV from touching a crow?
According to the CDC, there is no evidence that a person can be infected by direct contact with infected birds, dead or alive3. That being said, always use gloves when handling wildlife.

Can people get WNV?
Yes, though keep in mind that the virus really doesn’t want to be in you.  Humans and other mammals are considered ‘dead-end’ hosts meaning we generally don’t develop a big viral load and the virus cannot be transmitted from you to other humans via mosquitoes1.

How is it spread?
Mosquitoes, mosquitoes, mosquitoes.  They bite the infected bird and then bite you.   And very, very rarely through blood or organ transfusions, and from mother to baby during pregnancy or by breast feeding1.

transmission cycle

How worried should I be?
I’m not a doctor so let’s let the numbers speak for themselves on this one.  Here are the key stats you should know c/o the CDC1:

  • 80% of infected humans will not develop any symptoms.
  • Of the 20% that show symptoms, most will look like the flu.  It will suck, but you’ll recover just fine.
  • Only 1% of infected individuals develop life threatening symptoms.
  • As of September 22, 877 people have tested positive for WNV in 2015.  Of those 43 have died. That’s about half the number that will probably be killed by bee stings and twice as many as will be killed by cows4.
  • For a look at the average annual WNV incidence by state from 1999-2014, check out this map from the CDC.  Suffice it to say, in most states the incidence per every 100,000 people is less than 1.  As a reference point, about 5-20% of the population gets the flu every year and about 36,000 die as a result5.

How can I protect myself?
The CDC recommends an integrated management plan that includes:

  • Mosquito surveillance (are there lots around, how often are you getting bitten, are illnesses being reported etc.).
  • Reduction of breeding sits (i.e eliminate standing water around your home).
  • The use of chemical and biological mosquito control.
  • And finally, education (which by reading this you’re already doing!).

So, does a dead crow in your yard mean it’s time to break out the hazmat suit? Definitely no, but do Fish and Wildlife a favor and report your crow carcasses.  And if any of your neighbors start to panic, calmly and gently give them the facts.  Or just send them this meme I made you:

IMG_2711(1)

Literature cited

  1. http://www.cdc.gov/westnile/faq/genquestions.html
  2. http://www.seattleaudubon.org/sas/LearnAboutBirds/SeasonalFacts/WestNileVirus.aspx
  3. http://www.cdc.gov/westnile/faq/deadbirds.html
  4. http://wnyyradio.com/news/25-shocking-things-more-likely-to-kill-you-than-a-shark/
  5. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/disease.htm

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Filed under Crow behavior, crow conflicts, Crow disease, Crows and humans

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