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Wanted: Dead birds in good condition
Health department needs your help in the war against West Nile

Sunday, July 02, 2006
Daily Southtown
by Gregg Sherrard Blesch

American crows and blue jays told health officials where West Nile was thriving since the virus first swept through Illinois in 2002.
The birds proved good hosts to the virus, and their dead bodies — big and easy for regular folks to notice and identify — were collected and tested.
But so many have died that the Illinois Department of Public Health is scouting for other species to substitute as sentinels.
For the first time this year, the agency is collecting a wide variety of dead birds to be tested for West Nile.
"We're accepting basically any of the perching birds, any of the birds you'd find in the back yard," IDPH entomologist Linn Haramis said.
Jeanne Foody Galzin, Oak Lawn's health inspector, said city workers have collected about a dozen grackles, finches, robins and redwing blackbirds.
West Nile infections typically pick up in late July and August. The virus, which killed 12 people in Illinois last year, sickens just two in 10 who get bit by an infected bug.
In 2002, the virus sickened 884 Illinoisans, resulting in 67 deaths.
This year, health officials want any bird that's been dead less than 24 hours and doesn't appear to have had a run in with a window, car or predator.
As Galzin puts it, they'll take any bird that's in "good condition except for the fact that it's dead."
Cook County Department of Public Health has gotten more than 500 reports but determined just 52 of them to be worth submitting for testing.
"We can't possibly pick up every bird that gets called in," spokeswoman Kitty Loewy said. In fact, the county has a seasonal quota of 75 set by the state.
Carcasses are deposited in frozen Styrofoam containers to be passed along to laboratories at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Department of Agriculture in Galesburg.
Experts wonder whether any species will prove a suitable substitute.
"A tanager, catbird or finch, or some of the smaller birds — they're not easy to spot when they die, and they're probably eaten very quickly," said Bob Novak, director of the medical entomology lab for the Illinois Natural History Survey.
"Really trying to get an idea of the mortality and survival rate of birds is very difficult," Novak said.
A big reduction in titmouse and chickadee populations corresponded with the massive crow and jay deaths attributed to West Nile, said Doug Stotz, a conservation ecologist for the Field Museum.
"It may be West Nile," Stotz said. "They weigh half an ounce and are two inches long. Even I don't tend to notice dead chickadees."
Crow populations in some parts of the Chicago area are at 10 percent of what they were before West Nile hit in 2002, Stotz said.
Jays have recovered better, he said, mostly thanks to "immigrants" from other areas finding habitat vacated by the dead locals.
Stotz said health officials are wise to research new ways to track the virus.
"West Nile, it's effect on humans is, in relative terms, fairly minor," Stotz said. "But it's a good model for this kind of disease coming through the system.
"They're trying to understand what's going on out in these populations — why we have big years; why we have years that aren't as bad," Stotz said. "Something more severe is certainly going to come along."

Want to help?
To report a dead bird, call the Cook County Department of Public Health at (708) 492-2650 or the Will County Health Department at (815) 727-8490.

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