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Raptors Dying of West Nile Virus

The Raptor Center

College of Veterinary Medicine
1920 Fitch Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55108-6108

Contacts: Dr. Pat Redig, Director, 612-624-4969
Sue Kirchoff, Public Information Coordinator, 612-624-3781

Posted 09/26/2002

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL (Sept. 3, 2002) -The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine is receiving reports from all over the Midwest about raptors sick or dead from the West Nile virus, says Dr. Pat Redig, The Raptor Center's director.

"As of Aug. 23, there have been confirmed cases of West Nile virus causing death in raptors in Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, and Ohio -- most since July 15," he says. "There are many more suspected cases, and the geographical distribution and range of species affected changes every couple of days. In recent days, it seems to have hit Minnesota."

Kathryn A. Converse, wildlife disease specialist with the National Wildlife Health Center in Madison, Wis., confirms that her organization has received reports of increasing numbers of raptors being picked up sick or dead in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, and Iowa.

"Ohio has reported well over 100 great horned owls and red-tailed hawks, and each of the other states have estimated 'dozens' of birds," she says.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, each of the contiguous states except Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Washington had suspected or confirmed cases of West Nile virus in birds as of Aug. 21. Raptor species reported to the Centers for Disease Control's West Nile Virus avian mortality database include bald eagles, golden eagles, ospreys, merlins, Cooper's hawks, and several species of owls. Even companion birds, from zebra finches (a tiny bird native to Australia) to macaws (a large, colorful parrot native to South America) are reported to have died from the virus.

As The Raptor Center works to get the word out to nature centers and zoos that have captive raptors, it continues to receive dozens of calls and e-mails a day from concerned veterinarians, wildlife rehabilitators, and others who care for birds of prey. Their main questions: How can we protect raptors and other birds from the West Nile virus? Is there a vaccine?

The single best way to prevent West Nile virus in birds is by protecting them from mosquito bites, Redig says. While there is a vaccine for horses, veterinarians don't know for sure whether the vaccine will work for other species.

"What we know so far is that two doses can be given three to four weeks apart with no apparent side effects, at least in birds tested to date," Redig explains. "We have no idea if this confers protection, but it doesn't appear to do any harm and it may prep the immune system to react more vigorously if the bird becomes infected."

The Raptor Center's first suspected case of West Nile virus was in a great horned owl admitted Aug. 23 from Dakota County, for which it is awaiting test results from the Minnesota Department of Health. They are also admitting an unusually high number of owls and hawks - some from other states such as Iowa, Illinois, and Ohio - in which West Nile virus is "strongly suspected."

In the meantime, The Center has 101 patient eagles, hawks, owls, and falcons and about 30 education birds that it is trying to protect from the virus. Many birds normally housed outdoors have been brought inside, and the usually bright and airy education courtyard is shrouded in dark mosquito netting. Staff and volunteers are at work stapling more netting to outdoor cages and flight pens.

"We're doing whatever we can to protect these birds," Redig says. "These raptors are very special, very important, to all of us."

Established in 1974, The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine specializes in the medical care, rehabilitation, conservation, and study of eagles, hawks, owls, and falcons. In addition to treating approximately 700 birds a year, the internationally known program provides training in raptor medicine and surgery for veterinarians from around the world, reaches more than 250,000 people each year through public education programs and events, and identifies emerging issues related to raptor health and populations. The majority of its funding comes from private donations.

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