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Where Are the Crows?

The most obnoxious bird alive. Associated with brazen, loud noise from the treetops and power lines. Dozens disrupt the peace of an otherwise calm neighborhood. This can only be the crow; those big, ebony, ‘caw!, caw!’ animals that wake you up many mornings and seem to have no other purpose than to terrorize other birds and rattle human sensations.

Have you heard any lately? Think a minute.

If you’re like me, you listened one morning and said to your partner, “You know, I haven’t heard any crows. None. That’s odd.”

It’s not just odd; it turns out to be another startling example of how nature can be disrupted, a fragile environment shaken.

Shortly after wondering those crow thoughts, you might have come across this story that appeared, via The Associated Press, last May: “Birds that once flourished in suburban skies, including robins, bluebirds and crows, have been devastated by West Nile virus, a study found.”

Well, ok. That’s sad. Devastated? Surely that means they’ve been hit and they’ll be around again soon, not that I’m looking forward to their return.

Turns out the status of the crow is much more significant than you might have thought. Because this same article — based on research published in the scientific journal, Nature — offered this additional information: “In some places, such as Maryland, crow loss was at 45 percent, and around Baltimore and Washington, 90 percent was gone.”

What the…?

Gone? Ninety percent? What would wipe out almost all the crows around here?

Think back a few years when we first were alerted to troubles associated with dead crows. A new disease that can be fatal to humans was traveling slowly from the New York area and down the Eastern seaboard. West Nile virus.

It didn’t hit home until an April 2002 announcement by the Virginia Department of Health that “a dead crow found in Arlington has been confirmed to have West Nile virus.”

For a time we were told to call our County health department and report any dead crows that we might come across.

I didn’t think much about it until one morning, as I was approaching the Custis Trail for the walk to work, I saw a dead crow; a big dead crow, lying in our neighbor’s front yard. It sort of jolted me. One of those harbingers of an ecological concern lay right in front of me. So I called. By that time so many dead crows were found that the County would take note and collect the dead bird on its next general sweep of the area, rather than respond immediately.

In the meantime we’ve been told to be sure to turn over pots and lids and pans that collect standing water, so the West Nile mosquito would have less opportunity to breed.

Every once in awhile we’d hear reports of a death of a person, but it was always somewhere else: New York in 1999, New Jersey in 2000.

Closer to home first deaths came in D.C. on Sept. 9, 2002 and Northern Va. (not Arlington), Sept. 24, 2002. Then Florida in 2002; Iowa and Kansas in 2003; South Carolina 2005. And this year: South Dakota in July; New Mexico and California in August; Missouri in September; Idaho on October 3; Arizona on October 8.

Here in Arlington the health department recorded our first human case of West Nile in the Lyon Park neighborhood on August 31, followed up with spraying for West Nile mosquitoes in that area on September 13.

No one’s died in our little County yet, but the huge swath of the country reporting West Nile deaths makes that possibility much too likely here. This thing isn’t going away.

The important thing for us to remember is to keep standing water out of our yards. And, given this first human case, we need to take seriously the cautionary actions recommended by the County’s Environmental Health Bureau: wear long pants and long sleeves when you’re outdoors, try to stay indoors as much as possible around dawn and dusk, and use insect repellent.

Frost will kill the mosquitoes soon for this year. But we know West Nile will remain in incubation until next Spring.

This is all hauntingly similar to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The crows are gone and, but for few, not likely to come back. Deaths in humans are popping up all over. And now we know we’ve got at least one Arlington mosquito that’s infected one of us.

Beware, take care, and understand why the crows are gone. Those loud, obnoxious animals are mostly dead. It’s sad and scary; and, you know, I really do miss them.

Nick Penning (www.nickpenning.com) is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.

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