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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The impact of West Nile virus on the abundance of selected North American birds

Ivo M Foppa1*, Raphaelle H Beard12 and Ian H Mendenhall34

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Epidemiology, Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

2 Dept of Emergency Medicine, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

3 Department of Tropical Medicine, Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

4 Program in Emerging Infectious Diseases, Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School, Singapore

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BMC Veterinary Research 2011, 7:43  doi:10.1186/1746-6148-7-43

Published: 11 August 2011



The emergence of West Nile virus (WNV) in North America has been associated with high mortality in the native avifauna and has raised concerns about the long-term impact of WNV on bird populations. Here, we present results from a longitudinal analysis of annual counts of six bird species, using North American Breeding Bird Survey data from ten states (1994 to 2010). We fit overdispersed Poisson models to annual counts. Counts from successive years were linked by an autoregressive process that depended on WNV transmission intensity (annual West Nile neuroinvasive disease reports) and was adjusted by El NiƱo Southern Oscillation events. These models were fit using a Markov chain Monte Carlo algorithm.


Model fit was mostly excellent, especially for American Crows, for which our models explained between 26% and 81% of the observed variance. The impact of WNV on bird populations was quantitatively evaluated by contrasting hypothetical count trajectories (omission of WNV) with observed counts. Populations of American crows were most consistently affected with a substantial cumulative impact in six of ten states. The largest negative impact, almost 60%, was found in Illinois. A regionally substantial decline was also seen for American Robins and House Sparrows, while the other species appeared unaffected.


Our results confirm findings from previous studies that single out American Crows as the species most vulnerable to WNV infection. We discuss strengths and limitations of this and other methods for quantifying the impact of WNV on bird populations.