That’s ‘SENTINEL’ chicken to you, buster

Published 2:12 am Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Staff Writer

They are in two five-member phalanxes, one on each shore of the Pamlico River, guarding oblivious county residents against vile pestilence.
They are the sentinel chickens of Beaufort County.
These front-line fowl live in the buggiest parts of the county, and officials with the county’s Department of Environmental Health draw their blood periodically, looking for signs of mosquito-borne illness.
“For the cost and the efficiency of it, this is definitely one of the better ways,” to look for bird-borne illness, said Eugene McRoy, a program specialist with the Beaufort County Department of Environmental Health.
Chickens one through five are kept near Pamlico Beach. Chickens six through 10 are just east of Southside High School.
Several diseases, including West Nile Encephalitis and Eastern Equine Encephalitis, spread naturally in wild bird populations via mosquito bites. Those mosquitoes can then also spread the disease to humans and livestock, including chickens.
Testing the chickens gets easier through the season, as the birds calm down, McRoy said. But the chickens do have personalities, and some are more amenable to testing than others.
McRoy remembered one chicken who remained difficult to test all year.
“We named her Mike Tyson,” he said, “because she would just try to box at you every time you went to get her.”
When the chickens do pick up a disease, their immune systems promptly crush it, creating antibodies, McRoy said. When county blood tests find those antibodies — which most recently happened two summers ago — officials can alert the public and increase pesticide spraying in particular areas, he said.
The county provides the chickens, erects a small pen to hold them and feeds and waters them. Residents who allow the chickens on their properties keep the eggs.
Ola Forbes, whose property houses chickens six through 10, said he knew he lived in a low area and was amenable to the idea when McRoy approached him.
“I grew up with chickens because I grew up on a farm and enjoy hearing them and eating eggs and everything,” Forbes said.
After one season of work (May to the start of November), the chickens are retired, usually to someone’s house, where they typically stay in the egg-production business, McRoy said.
Chickens that do test positive are retired earlier, and replacement chickens, which have been kept in pens with tiny, mosquito-proof mesh, are brought in.
During the season, the chickens are kept in individual cages to make it easier to identify which chicken is which at blood testing time, but the conditions are relatively pleasant, McRoy said.
“These chickens are living it up compared to KFC Chickens or Bojangles Chickens,” he said.