To explain the patchy distribution of West Nile virus (WNV), we propose that avian immunity encountered by Culex vectors regulates WNV transmission, particularly at communal bird roosts. To test this hypothesis, we selected two test sites with communally roosting American robins (Turdus migratorius) and two control sites that lacked communal roosts. The density of vector-vertebrate contacts, represented by engorged Culex pipiens, was 23-fold greater at test sites compared to control sites, and the density of blood-engorged Cx. pipiens measured in resting mosquito traps correlated positively with the presence of robins and negatively with the presence of other birds, confirming an attraction to robins for blood feeding. WNV transmission was alternately up-regulated (amplification) and down-regulated (suppression) at both test sites. At one test site, infection in resting Cx. pipiens surged from zero to 37.2 per thousand within four weeks, and robin immunity rose from 8.4% to 64% before reducing to 33%. At this site, ten potentially infectious contacts between vector and vertebrates (including nine robins and a mourning dove [Zenaida macroura]) were documented. Infectious vector-vertebrate contacts were absent from control sites. The use of infectious vector-vertebrate contacts, rather than infected mosquitoes, to evaluate a transmission focus is novel.
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Vol. 43 • No. 2