Secret Life of Poultry: Fighting the Bite
Mosquitos suck. That's their whole deal. But what does this have to do with chickens?
Mosquitos suck. That’s their whole deal. Then there is itching, welts, sometimes embarrassment, and even diseases. But what does this have to do with chickens? Well, a month ago I would have said not a single thing. That is until a post by Tara Beaver, owner of Beaver Vineyards, was brought to my attention. She says, “Random fact — some of my chickens were used by Sacramento County to track West Nile Virus.”
Wait, what? Hold on.
She went into some more detail on her post and the fire was lit. Farming people all over her Instagram page were curious about how chickens help monitor West Nile Virus. I love chickens, but I’m so passionate about science and viruses as well so this story nugget sent me over the moon. I immediately got into contact with Tara, who put me into contact with Luz Robles, the Public Information Officer for Fight the Bite. The resulting phone call was only a little awkward with a little (a lot of) extra fangirling, but I learned many exciting facts about the program.
Spoiler alert: It’s amazing.
In California, there is a program called the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito & Vector Control District, and it is by far the largest, most preemptive program of its type. These people are so incredibly passionate about stopping the spread of diseases and annoyances not only from mosquitos but from other pests as well, such as ticks and yellowjackets. They believe that prevention is key. One of the ways they prevent outbreaks is by monitoring the prevalence of diseases in the Sacramento and Yolo area. They do this with the help of chickens.
Every spring a dedicated team of scientists drops off small flocks of chickens at strategic locations across the area. Chickens are a dead-end host of West Nile Virus, meaning they don’t show any signs or symptoms of having the disease, they don’t get sick, and they are incapable of passing it on. They place six flocks of six chickens each, for a total of 36 chickens placed strategically throughout the Sacramento-Yolo area.
So how does this work? From May through October scientists visit each flock and they take blood samples from each chicken. They do this every other week during mosquito season. Not only are the chickens tested for West Nile Virus, but also for Western Equine Encephalitis Virus and Saint Louis Encephalitis Virus.
Something interesting happens when mosquitoes bite. Only females bite because they need to obtain protein required for making eggs. Males don’t have the facilities. When they do this, they inject a small amount of saliva and an anticoagulant into the host. When they bite a host that is infected by a disease, usually an infected bird, they pick it up and carry it to the next bite victim where they then pass it on. In our case, that victim is a chicken, and these special chickens are used for the early detection of those viruses. If a chicken shows up as positive in one flock, then the scientists know that the virus is active in that area in particular. From there they begin an array of countermeasures, the first being setting traps out for the mosquitos.
Only two mosquito species in the Sacramento area are known for carrying disease, so the mosquitos are brought back to the lab and separated by species. Only the females need to be tested for the disease since they are the only biters. Once the results are in and the team can tell how prevalent the virus is in that area, they decide if they have to spray those places to reduce the risk of residents getting bit.
The District also has a very extensive and effective public outreach program. They teach personal responsibility, encourage residents to drain stagnant water, and report dead birds. Mosquitos breed in water and only need two days to reproduce, and dead birds could be hosts. Their outreach program has a considerably sized laboratory. “90% of work conducted year-round consists of inspections,” Luz told me. They focus on following leads to reduce the population. They even have an education-based Mosquito Awareness Week during April 21st-27th before mosquito season really kicks off.
Last year, four chickens and four wild birds tested positive for West Nile Virus. At Fightthebite.net, it is possible to track the prevalence of a virus in a certain area. The District published records of where animals tested positive to help residents prepare with preventative measures. They are also very open to contact with questions and will come out to do a presentation and educate groups.
Not only do these chickens and the scientists who care for them do a considerable amount of work for residents in the area, one of their programs is great for other pets too. The Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito & Vector Control District collaborates with local veterinarians to determine the amount and location of heartworm cases. Heartworm can affect dogs, cats, ferrets, and in rare cases, humans. Out of the species of mosquitos that are capable of passing along a disease, one of them is Aedes sierrensis. This species prefers to feast on mammals, including humans and dogs. These cases are then documented, mapped out, and made available online so animal owners can take appropriate precautions.
So, what happens when the chickens retire? The flocks are only used for one season, then they finish living with their host family. That’s how Tara came to have these chickens. The story goes that a couple of years ago, Tara’s grandparents were approached by Sacramento County about keeping chickens on their property. All they had to do was collect eggs, and the county would feed the chickens and do everything else. In the fall, after mosquito season, the birds would be given to her grandparents to mix in with their existing flock.
Currently, Tara’s grandparents don’t keep a permanent flock of chickens, so after a few months of enjoying fresh eggs they pass them on to Tara to keep. Each year six new chickens are bought. Not only is it completely free of cost for them to be a flock owner, they know they are helping a huge amount of people in the Sacramento area stay safe.
Luz was undeniably passionate about the mission of the program and invited us all to the Fightthebite.net website to learn more about the programs at the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito & Vector Control District. She also mentioned that most places have mosquito programs that you can get involved with, and there are universal precautions anyone can use to decrease mosquito populations. These include removing stagnant water, keeping ponds clean, using repellant, and set mosquito traps.
Tara Beaver can be found at Beavervineyards on Instagram, where you can see stories about her cute and heroic mosquito program adoptees.