West Nile Virus and Hunters

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Even though catching the West Nile Virus while hunting is a very remote prospect, making plans for the upcoming game bird hunting seasons should include precautionary measures.

West Nile virus is a mosquito-borne disease that can cause encephalitis in people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Birds are the natural hosts for this virus, which can be transmitted from infected birds to humans and other animals through bites of infected mosquitoes.

More than 100 different species of birds have tested positive for West Nile virus, according to Guy Moore, who coordinates testing of suspect birds as director of the Texas Department of Health's statewide field surveillance program. But, "doves are very low on the totem pole. It's mostly found in the corvid species, like crows and jays. We're going to find this virus all over the state eventually because birds are carriers, but I know if I get the chance to go dove hunting I'm not going to let it stop me," Moore added.

Even though state and federal public health agencies consider the risk of contracting the virus from harvested birds to be extremely low -- there is no evidence that a hunter can get the virus from handling live or dead infected birds -- some common sense safeguards can further reduce exposure, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

"In response to concerns expressed by dove hunters, we are encouraging hunters to wear rubber gloves while cleaning and handling their birds," said Vernon Bevill, TPWD game bird program director. "Rubber gloves are cheap and, really, wearing them should be a common practice when handling and cleaning any game animal."

According to published health reports, human illness from West Nile virus is rare, even in areas where the virus has been reported. The chance that any one person is going to become ill from a mosquito bite is low (only about one percent of people who are bitten by an infected mosquito ever become seriously ill).

"The reality is that there are billions of mosquitoes in Texas," said Bevill. "You could be bitten by a mosquito while sitting on your back porch just as easily as if you were in a field hunting doves. This virus is here in Texas and I know that when I go hunting I'm going to take reasonable precautions. But I'm not going to let this trap me in fear, because the potential of catching the disease is, in my view, a low risk. I probably stand a significantly greater chance of having a wreck on the way to the dove field."

Bevill said he plans on taking the following precautions:

  • Using mosquito repellent containing DEET.
  • Wearing long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
  • Avoiding harvesting birds that exhibit erratic behavior (infected birds do not like to fly or may be flying very slow).
  • Wearing rubber gloves while cleaning and handling birds and meat.
  • Thoroughly cooking meat.

Some hunters have also expressed concern about their dogs contracting West Nile virus, but according to Kathryn Converse, Wildlife Disease Specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey's National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin, "There appears to be a low risk of disease even though dogs do get infected. As far as I know, none have been reported dead from the virus except in South Africa."

Extensive information about West Nile virus can be found online. To learn more, check out the following Web sites: