West Nile virus looms over state grouse

The Pennsylvania Game Commission recently acknowledged that our ruffed grouse populations in Pennsylvania declined by 63 percent from 2001 to 2005.

Most serious grouse hunters have been aware of the disappearance of our greatest native gamebird for quite some time, so the PGC’s recognition of that fact offered no special revelation for them. More important, of course, is why we are losing our state bird at an alarming rate. Unfortunately, few answers were forthcoming.

In 2015, PGC biologist Lisa Williams began research to learn if ruffed grouse were being affected by West Nile virus. By exposing grouse chicks hatched from wild grouse eggs to WNV, the researchers discovered that most of the young birds succumbed to the disease in their first weeks of life. Next, Williams organized a project that allowed grouse hunters to submit blood samples from harvested grouse to provide information on the extent of WNV in wild grouse in Pennsylvania.

WNV was first detected in the United States during the summer of 1999 in New York City. Within three years, WNV had expanded to 44 states and 5 Canadian provinces. At the same time as the initial WNV outbreak in New York City, health officials also discovered a similar epidemic of WNV in birds in that region.

WNV has since been detected in 300 species of birds in the United States. Although most birds survive exposure to WNV, crows and blue jays frequently die from infection to WNV. The aforementioned PGC study also seems to indicate that ruffed grouse are adversely affected by WNV. There is no evidence that humans can be infected with WNV by handling live or dead birds, but reasonable caution and protection should always be employed when handling any dead bird or mammal.

WNV is primarily transmitted to both animals and humans by mosquito bites. Birds continue t be the primary hosts for the disease. According to information on the Centers for Disease Control website “In North America, cases of West Nile virus occur during mosquito season, which starts in the summer and continues through fall. WNV cases have been reported in all of the continental United States. There are no vaccines to prevent or medications to treat WNV in people. Fortunately, most people infected with WNV do not have symptoms.

About 1 in 5 people who are infected develop a fever and other symptoms. About 1 out of 150 infected people develop a serious, sometimes fatal, illness. You can reduce your risk of WNV by using insect repellent and wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants to prevent mosquito bites.”

After doing some personal research on WNV, several things occurred to me. First, the depressing realization of yet another ecological nightmare for which there are no easy or immediate answers. In some ways, WNV is somewhat like chronic wasting disease (CWD), the super nightmare currently threatening our wild deer herd, not only in Pennsylvania but also dozens of other states as well, in that there are no vaccines to prevent or medications to treat infections of CWD or WNV. While there is no evidence (so far) that humans can contract CWD, we have been warned not to consume the meat of any deer known or suspected to be infected with CWD. On the other hand, humans certainly can contract WNV, yet there are no such recommendations against consuming the meat of ruffed grouse or other birds that potentially could be infected with WNV. Would it really be safe to eat a grouse that had WNV?

CWD has been around for 50 years, and about the only thing we know for sure about that insidious disease is it always spreads and where it occurs it always gets worse. WNV has already decimated more than 60 percent of our grouse population. Will WNV continue to wipe out our ruffed grouse and other species of birds? Mosquitoes have seemed to be especially prevalent this summer, probably because of all the standing water about from the incessant rains we have experienced. And because mosquitoes are the primary vector for WNV, will there be increased occurrences of WNV in both humans and wildlife? Let’s hope some of those answers are forthcoming soon.

Special presentation

The John Kennedy Chapter of Trout Unlimited will feature Mike McFarland of Bellwood as a special guest speaker at their regular monthly meeting this Tuesday, September 4, at 7 p.m. McFarland started building fishing rods as a hobby when he was a teenager. That hobby evolved into a part-time business and later to a full-time profession, and he has built rods from just about every material, from split bamboo to the latest high-tech composites. He founded the McFarland Rod Company in 1997 and has expanded the company to include a full blank-rolling facility.

McFarland fiberglass and graphite rods and blanks are now sought after by anglers and rod makers around the world. McFarland is a highly skilled fly caster who participates in tournament casting through the American Casting Association and is a four-time winner of the Hardy Cup.

McFarland’s presentation will focus on rod design and rod blank construction and how the different materials used affect rod performance. He will also display some of the raw fiberglass and graphite material and mandrels that are used to produce finished rod blanks. The public is invited to attend this informative free program at the Allegheny Township Volunteer Fire Department located at 651 Sugar Run Road, Altoona.