Back to BTTW Main Page

Back To The Wild

West Nile Virus had devastating effects on Ohio's Hawks & Owls in 2002


Dear Friends:

This is my final update to ODNR, Division of Wildlife. They are looking at records from all rehabilitators in Ohio who received raptors suspected to have West Nile Virus. So far, no lab results are back yet confirming that WNV is what took such a toll on these birds. It has been devastating and of unbelievable magnitude. As suddenly as it began in mid-August, it has abruptly stopped. This is a great relief to all, but not knowing the answers and what will happen next summer is haunting. Hopefully, the greater percentage of raptors who survived this, have built an immunity, and will not be at risk next year and can even pass the immunity on to their offspring. Sure hope we have some answers soon. Thanks everyone, for your kindness in words of support and to those who were able to help us financially to deal with this - it has given me great moral support! 

Here is an update of raptors received at my center since August 14, 2002. We are all in hopes that this is a final tally and that this crisis is truly over!

Thanks so much for your words of support you have shared with all rehabilitators.

Sincerely, Mona

bird carcasses

This is a sad and horrific account of the magnitude of the toll that West Nile Virus took on Ohio's birds of prey. At Back To The Wild, there was a total of 105 dead raptors, with this photograph showing Great Horned Owls, a Coopers Hawk, a Screech Owl, and a Red Tail Hawk. These raptors died between August 20 and September 20, 2002 in Erie, Huron, Lorain, Ottawa, and Sandusky Counties of Ohio.

An ODNR press release about the connection to the West Nile Virus is reproduced here.

October 21, 2002


COLUMBUS, OH -- West Nile virus is the presumed cause of death for hundreds of owls, hawks and other birds of prey in Ohio this year, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Wildlife.

Test results issued by the National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) in Madison, Wisconsin, supported similar findings by pathologists at the Ohio Department of Agriculture that indicated some raptors found sick or dead in Ohio during July and August suffered from West Nile virus.

The NWHC labeled their results as "presumptive" because active virus was found in both hawks, but in only two of the five great-horned owls. However, findings did not suggest any other cause of death for the birds submitted. NWHC pathologists now believe that West Nile virus may be transitory in the blood of some birds and may dissipate by the time infection has resulted in death.

According to ODNR estimates, several thousand raptors in Ohio have been affected by the virus, which is carried by mosquitoes. Not all the infected birds died; many survived the disease on their own and some are recovering at raptor rehabilitation centers around the state.

Ohio appeared to be at the center of an unprecedented raptor die-off that swept through the Midwest in late summer. While birds in other states were also affected, Ohio's case count was the highest, ODNR officials said.

Reports of dead and ill birds have diminished significantly in recent weeks and wildlife biologists believe the disease is at the end of its run for this year.

“Temperatures are cooling and we've already had frost in much of the state, killing off the mosquitoes that carry the virus,” said Pat Ruble, wildlife administrator at ODNR.

Ruble added that hunters now in the field need not fear contracting West Nile virus through handling or eating waterfowl or other wild birds. However, he cautioned hunters to always exercise the following practices when handling any wild game:

  • Avoid handling any bird or animal that appears sick
  • Wear vinyl gloves when field dressing any game
  • Cook game birds until well done
  • Soak utensils used to prepare game birds for 20 minutes in a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water

For further information contact:
Mark Shieldcastle, ODNR Division of Wildlife
(419) 898-0960
Jane Beathard, ODNR Media Relations
(614) 265-6860

ODNR web page

Dear Friends:

This is an update on a wildlife crisis in Ohio that is hitting this rehabilitation center and many other rehabilitation centers and zoos throughout Ohio! It is widespread and is now affecting over 31 States and Canada. In just two weeks, almost every center in Ohio has experienced unheard of admissions of dying and sick Great Horned Owls daily, from the wild, plus Red-tails, Cooper's Hawks and various other raptor species. Most are Great Horned Owls - and most all have head tremors and other neurological symptoms. Many are dying quickly, within 48 hours, though a small percentage seem to be recovering. Most are found standing or laying on the ground, unaware of their surroundings and allow you to just pick them up. Today, I received eight more affected Great Horned Owls, two Red-tails and yet another call just now about another Great Horned! It is unbelievable. How many birds are down out there that aren't being found?

The count by type of bird is occasionally updated by Mona.

Worse yet, many centers have begun losing their Education Birds to this mysterious illness, with no warning. Some of these birds have been captive for 20+ years. Rehabbers are devastated. I have lost four caged birds here, and fear for the Bald Eagles and other raptors at our center. A rehabilitator in Willoughby Hills has lost her program Snowy Owl and most centers have lost Barreds, Great Horneds, Red-tails and Kestrels, Merlins and Bald Eagles and two Golden Eagles. Several Falconers have lost their birds as well, including Gyrfalcons.

We are all suspecting West Nile. There is no confirmation on this, as most of our dead birds have been sent to State and National Animal Health Labs in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin and no results are back yet. Marianne Socha, DVM in Huron, was here until 11:30 p.m. one evening, collecting blood and tissue samples and we packaged entire birds on ice to be sent to the Ohio Dept. of Health and the National Health Animal Diagnostic Lab in Madison, WI and Lynn Arnold, DVM in Milan and Jamie Lindstrom, DVM in North Ridgeville once again have willingly given their advice, time and expertise to help us through this. I am truly indebted to them. Seven out of eight Birds of Prey sent in to Health labs by other centers, so far, have tested positive for West Nile, but testing positive does not mean that is what the bird died from. Other testing being done includes testing for any toxins, and looking at a parasitic fly, called the Hippoboscid fly or flat fly, that is a blood sucking parasite of birds. These flies seem unusually abundant on birds this summer and may be carriers of a virus or are weakening the birds. We cannot even take steps to protect our Education Birds, as we don't have all the results back and don't know what to protect them from. We know we cannot save all these incoming birds and probably shouldn't. Bringing possible infected birds into our centers means that mosquitoes feeding on them can fly about the program cages and infect other birds. This is a great health risk to other animals at the center. Euthanizing any incoming birds doesn't necessarily protect our Education Birds, because downed birds seem to be coming from every county in Ohio.

If it is West Nile, that means the mosquitoes are out there anyway. The advice from Federal and State agencies is to put mosquito netting over all our cages, but this is virtually impossible. Some of the cages are over 60 to 100 feet long and 16 feet high. Even if we moved our birds into smaller enclosures or safer quarters, doing so could cause major stress and weaken their immune systems, making them more susceptible. Also, it is thought the mosquitos may have already infected the birds several weeks ago and the incubation period is just now bringing the birds down. It is thought that birds who survive the West Nile Virus this year, should be immune to any future outbreaks in subsequent years. That means, through "natural selection" weaker ones should be eliminated from the environment and those that survived will be a perfect example of nature's most efficient system of balance, but there seems to be too many dying, maybe ones that shouldn't.

Humans will not get the West Nile virus from contact with an infected bird, but must be bitten by a mosquito who has bitten an infected bird. However, lab technicians have contracted West Nile from the blood of infected birds, that came in contact with cuts on their hands. Never touch a wild bird of prey without gloves for general health reasons and definitely be aware they are very dangerous with beaks and talons, even if they appear very sick and weak. Very few humans become seriously ill from exposure to West Nile, if their immune systems are not compromised - most will suffer flu-like symptoms and fully recover.

Rehabbers everywhere are facing this devastating crisis and are running on nerves and little rest and a great support system networking with our fellow rehabbers, veterinarians and State and Federal Wildlife agencies. We are anxiously awaiting test results so we can act on this and halt this terrible disaster.


Mona Rutger
Director of BACK TO THE WILD


The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has issued a warning that people should leave birds of prey alone if they are found sick or dead.

If you find a raptor (owl or hawk) that appears to be
ill or dead, leave it alone.
Please report such incidents to ODNR through their web site at:
Use this page in particular to report a dead raptor:


From the ODNR web page:

Report sick birds online

Reports of an unusually high number of sick or dying birds of prey -- such as hawks and owls -- across the state have prompted the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) to warn anyone who might encounter these animals in the wild to avoid handling them.

“Because these birds have strong, sharp talons and beaks, they can inflict serious injuries to people not experienced in handling them,” said Pat Ruble, an ODNR wildlife administrator. “If people find a dead or injured raptor, we are advising them to leave it alone.”

Anyone finding a sick or dead raptor can report the discovery to a local raptor rehabilitation center or through the ODNR web site at A statewide list of raptor rehab centers is available from the ODNR pages.

Between 100 and 150 sick and dying raptors - mostly owls and hawks - have been reported statewide within the past several days. Initial testing has been completed on several of the birds and some have tested positive for West Nile virus. The National Wildlife Center in Madison, Wisconsin is currently testing some of the birds to determine the actual cause of death. Many species of birds can carry West Nile virus without showing any symptoms, and West Nile virus is not necessarily fatal to all birds.

According to the Ohio Department of Health (ODH), people cannot contract West Nile virus from birds. The disease can only be transmitted to humans through the bite of an infected mosquito. If the birds' deaths are attributed to West Nile virus, it would not represent any additional threat to people.

“But, at this point, we don’t know what is killing the birds, and that’s another reason for people to not handle them,” said Ruble.

State wildlife biologists ask that in addition to staying away from sick or dying birds, that such incidents reported to ODNR through the department’s web site at

The ODNR Division of Wildlife indicated there is no need for additional collection of dead or dying hawks and owls, and confirmed enough of the birds have been collected to allow for accurate testing. The agency will distribute further information when testing has been completed. Test results from Wisconsin are expected within the next several days. ODH recommends that dead birds should only be handled with rubber gloves.


Back to BTTW Main Page

BACK TO THE WILD home page URL is:

This page was last modified on December 31, 2002.

This page created and maintained with a Macintosh computer.
Made with a Mac