Migrating birds as dispersal vehicles for West Nile virus

Jennifer Owen
Frank R. Moore, University of Southern Mississippi
Nicholas Panella
Eric Edwards


Whereas migrating birds have been implicated in the spread of West Nile virus (WNV), there is no direct evidence of birds actively migrating while infectious. The role of birds in WNV dispersal is difficult to assess in the field. However, this role can be evaluated experimentally because birds in migratory disposition display increased locomotor activity or restlessness under captive conditions. We tested the following hypotheses: (1) migrating passerine birds continue to exhibit migratory activity while infectious with WNV and (2) the migratory state of the individual affects the magnitude of viremia. We examined the migratory activity of two neoarctic-neotropical passerine migrants, Swainson's thrush (Catharus ustulatus) and gray catbird (Dumetella carolinensis), during acute WNV infection. All gray catbirds and six of nine Swainson's thrushes exhibited migratory activity while infectious. Moreover, migratory status did not appear to influence viremia titers, as might be expected if individuals were immunosuppressed during migration. Therefore, we demonstrate that migrating passerine birds are potential dispersal vehicles for WNV.