West Nile virus is called that because it was first identified in the West Nile Valley of Uganda. It is a virus that affects birds and can be deadly to them, but it can also affect humans, who can contract the illness through the bites of mosquitoes which have previously bitten infected birds. The summer, of course, is mosquito season, and this, too, is the season when West Nile virus is most likely to be seen.
In our area, a woman from northeast Houston recently became the first identified case of the disease this year. Mosquitoes carrying the virus have been found in 38 zip codes of Harris County and public health officials in adjoining counties are trapping mosquitoes to check for the virus. It has also been found in the county where I live, Montgomery County.
Since West Nile virus was first found to have migrated to this country, more than 200 species of birds have been found dead of the virus. Periodically, there have been big die-offs of birds in some areas. Members of the Corvid family, crows and jays, for some reason seem to be particularly susceptible to the disease.
Birds that have the disease do not normally show any symptoms until the final stages when they may appear drowsy and drunk and unable to fly. Birders sometimes ask if there is any way they can help to prevent the disease and wonder if having a bird feeding station in their yard helps to spread it. The answer to both concerns is essentially "no" since the disease is spread by mosquitoes. You may help to inhibit it by seeing that there is no still standing water in your yard where mosquitoes can easily reproduce, but beyond that, there is little that an individual can do.
But what should you do if you find a dead bird? You can contact your local health department for instructions. In some areas, they collect birds for testing, especially during the summer months. It is a wise practice to avoid touching any animal dead from unknown causes. You should use plastic disposable gloves or a plastic bag to pick the bird up to dispose of it.
Birdwatchers.com has more helpful information about the disease and about how to respond if you find a sick or dead bird.