Microbe: Are We Ready for the Next Plague?

By Alan P. Zelicoff; Michael Bellomo | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 1
THE BIRDS THAT
FELL FROM THE SKY
West Nile Virus

It had been brutally hot in New York City during the summer of 1999. Since the end of spring, the humidity had been hovering at levels that would plaster a freshly ironed shirt to one's back in a matter of minutes. For that reason, the die-hard fitness addicts who did their jogging along the riverfront walkways or in the parks did so perhaps a little earlier than usual so as to burn off calories without risking heatstroke.

At the northern end of Queens, where the Civil War–era Fort Totten juts out into Little Neck Bay on a compact knob of land, it was probably these early-morning risers who began making grisly little discoveries in late June. All over the north side of Queens, residents began reporting unusual numbers of dead crows scattered throughout parks and open lots where the birds would commonly roost. The sanitation agencies that handle animal control would likely have been annoyed by the pickup in business, but would have not sounded any alarm bells to the public health agencies. Certainly, an uptick in the number of deaths in a common bird species that was noisy and not particularly liked would hardly merit a second glance.

Crows are the best-known members of the Corvid family of birds. The family includes magpies, jackdaws, rooks, and Edgar Allan Poe's favorite bird, the raven. Corvids have extremely large, well-developed brains for

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