We assayed for West Nile virus (WNV) antibodies to determine the presence and prevalence of WNV infection in three raptor populations in southeast Wisconsin during 2003–04. This study was conducted in the framework of ongoing population studies that started before WNV was introduced to the study area. For 354 samples, 88% of 42 adult Cooper's hawks (Accipiter cooperii), 2.1% of 96 nestling Cooper's hawks, 9.2% of 141 nestling red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis), and 12% of 73 nestling great horned owls (Bubo virginianus) tested positive for WNV antibodies by the constant virus–serum dilution neutralization test. Samples that tested positive for WNV antibodies were collected across a wide variety of habitat types, including urban habitats (both high and low density), roads, parking areas, recreational areas, croplands, pastures, grasslands, woodlands, and wetlands. Based on the increased prevalence and significantly higher WNV antibody titers in adults compared with nestlings, we suggest that nestlings with detectable antibody levels acquired these antibodies through passive transmission from the mother during egg production. Low levels of WNV antibodies in nestlings could serve as a surrogate marker of exposure in adult raptor populations. Based on breeding population densities and reproductive success over the past 15 yr, we found no apparent adverse effects of WNV infections on these wild raptor populations.
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Vol. 49 • No. 3