Dead crows found near Bluffton school complex tested for West Nile

Head veterinary technician Misty Devlin holds onto one of the drunk crows found in Bluffton Thursday evening at Coastal Veterinary Clinic.
Head veterinary technician Misty Devlin holds onto one of the drunk crows found in Bluffton Thursday evening at Coastal Veterinary Clinic. Sarah Welliver

More than twenty dead crows discovered near the Bluffton public-school complex since Wednesday might have suffered one of two things -- disease or drunkenness.

Several of the bodies are being tested for West Nile virus and other diseases, school and state health authorities said Thursday.

A local veterinarian, however, said the birds could simply have been drunk after eating too many fermented berries.

The "very strange event" began Wednesday when a Bluffton Elementary School student stepped on a dying crow that then pecked him on the elbow, Beaufort County School District spokesman Jim Foster said. The student was not seriously hurt and was treated by the family's doctor.

When principal Christine Brown walked the school's grounds Thursday in search of more bodies, a living crow fell from the sky and landed at her feet, Foster said.

In addition to the 20-plus crows found at the school complex, residents of the surrounding neighborhood also have reported dead and sickly birds.

Foster said Bluffton-area principals have sent an email to parents informing them the birds are being tested. Teachers supervising students outdoors are warning them not to touch sick or dead birds, and to tell an adult if they spot one.

S.C. Department of Natural Resources staff bagged five of the crows for testing, S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control spokesman Jim Beasley said. Results of tests for West Nile virus and eastern equine encephalitis will be available next week, he added.

Veterinarian Ben Parker of the Coastal Veterinary Clinic examined six live crows that residents brought in Wednesday.

At first, the birds were disoriented, weak and couldn't fly, Parker said. By Thursday, all of them showed signs of improvement.

That's why he thinks the flocks may have gotten into berries or fruit that ferments at this time of year.

"They'll eat a lot of these berries, and basically get drunk," Parker said.

The birds wouldn't be getting better if they had eaten a toxin, such as a pesticide, or had West Nile, Parker said. He plans to release the birds today.

While Parker doubts the crows can become so intoxicated they die, the dead ones could have flown into windows, branches or been run over by cars since they take several days to sober up.

That's not an explanation DHEC Region 8 environmental health services director Blaine Lyons has considered.

If the testing for West Nile or other diseases is negative, the dead birds will be sent to Clemson University for toxicology tests, Lyons said.

The department's advisory not to touch birds with bare hands stands, although West Nile is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes that have fed on infected birds.

Recent heavy rains mean an increased number of the pests, Lyons said.

Sampling of Beaufort County mosquitoes has not detected a single case of West Nile so far this year, despite hundreds of positive samples in nearby Chatham County, Ga., Beaufort County Mosquito Control director Gregg Hunt said.

Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/BlufftonBlogIP.

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