Sarasota County's mosquito management program depends on some clucking amazing participants to provide nature's first warning signal to West Nile Virus.
For 34 years Sarasota County has used strategically placed chickens to serve as a warning signal for four types of diseases and viruses born from mosquitoes. They're called sentinel chickens, which are ordinary young chickens who haven't been exposed to Encephalitis or other viruses and have their blood tested regularly to test for diseases.
It's "power to the poultry," says Natalie Osborne, who is in charge of the Sarasota County Health Department's Mosquito Management sentinel chicken program.
As mosquito control in Sarasota County is set to have its budget increase, sentinel chickens take up a small fraction of the $3 million mosquito management budget, said Health Officer Chuck Henry, who places the cost at around $15,000.
Osborne spoke Wednesday evening at a Citizens Lobbying for Urban Chicken Keeping, or CLUCK, to praise her peeps who act as the first warning signal to dangers of mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus, St. Louis Encephalitis, Eastern Equine Encephalitis and Haemophilus influenza.
"Chickens are amazing because once the virus gets in them, their antibodies shoot up," Osborne explains, giving both a signal that the chickens are infected, which means these mosquitoes could bite a human in the area, too. And because of those antibodies, chickens can fight off the disease and survive, she said.
The county uses 13 flocks at a time with five to eight chickens, spread out at sites near schools, wastewater plants, swamps and parks where mosquitoes will easily swarm. Sarasota along with Manatee County are two of the strongest sentinel programs in the state in terms of sentinel chickens per square mile of coverage, Osborne said.
About 1,182 sentinels are used across the state, according to Osborne.
This year, 16 sentinel chickens in Sarasota County tested positive for West Nile Virus, which prompts the mosquito management program to go into action and start spraying, Osborne said.
The mosquito management program is not wholly dependent on the chickens, Henry told Patch. The Health Department also uses mosquito pools to collect mosquitos to determine what type of species are in an area and what if any diseases they are carrying thanks to a type of DNA technology, he said.
The aerial and roadside spraying along with staffing is what makes up a considerable part of the mosquito management budget, Henry explained. Partly because the Health Department focuses on purchasing environmentally friendly chemicals to kill larvae and adult populations, which cost more,he said.
But, oh, to live the life of one of these sentinel chickens. It's one of luxury, as it should be being bit by mosquitos and having blood drawn, Osborne said.
"Sarasota County chickens are spoiled. They get held, they get treats," she said. "It's like after a kid gets their blood drawn and they get a sticker or lollipop."
Or in chicken terms, that's corn on the cob, lettuce, a plate of cottage cheese, she said.
It's probably one of the more sustainable programs in the county considering what the chickens provide in terms of public health — and for the free eggs.
Osborne will wash or bleach eggs and donates some to the All Faiths Food Bank, Salvation Army and some are left over for health technicians.
"Some are given the the fire chief to feed his crew," Osborne said. "The chief came over one day and wanted to fry eggs for his crew."
After a chicken tests positive for a virus, they're placed in old dog runs from the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office for observation, and once their health returns to normal, it's time for a free range home.
It's not easy work at all, Osborne said, having to battle with some chickens, especially leghorns, to get a sample, and to cooperate with neighborhoods.
"If I have a chicken cage somewhere and enough residents complain, I have to move the cage," she said. "I have no choice. Other times neighbors are happy to have the cage there because they know their area is being watched for virus."