Temporal and spatial changes in the enzootic activity of western equine encephalomyelitis (WEE) and St. Louis encephalitis (SLE) viruses were monitored at representative wetland study sites in the Coachella, San Joaquin, and Sacramento valleys of California from 1996 to 1998 using three methods: (1) virus isolation from pools of 50 host-seeking Culex tarsalis Coquillett females, (2) seroconversions in flocks of 10 sentinel chickens, and (3) seroprevalence in wild birds collected by mist nets and grain baited traps. Overall, 74 WEE and one SLE isolates were obtained from 222,455 Cx. tarsalis females tested in 4,988 pools. In addition, 133 and 40 seroconversions were detected in 28 chicken flocks, and 143 and 27 of 20,192 sera tested from 149 species of wild birds were positive for antibodies to WEE and SLE, respectively. WEE was active in all three valleys, whereas SLE only was detected in Coachella Valley. Seroconversions in sentinel chickens provided the most sensitive indication of enzootic activity and were correlated with seroprevalence rates in wild birds. Avian seroprevalence rates did not provide an early warning of pending enzootic activity in chickens, because positive sera from after hatching year birds collected during spring most probably were the result of infections acquired during the previous season. Few seroconversions were detected among banded recaptured birds collected during spring and early summer. Age and resident status, but not sex, were significant risk factors for wild bird infection, with the highest seroprevalence rates among after hatching year individuals of permanent resident species. Migrants (with the exception of mourning doves) and winter resident species rarely were positive. House finches, house sparrows, Gambel’s quail, California quail, common ground doves, and mourning doves were most frequently positive for antibodies. The initial detection of enzootic activity each summer coincided closely with the appearance of hatching year birds of these species in our study areas, perhaps indicating their role in virus amplification. Bird species most frequently positive roosted or nested in elevated upland vegetation, sites where Cx. tarsalis host-seeking females hunt most frequently. These serosurveys provided important background information for planned host competence and chronic infection studies.

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