PORT CHARLOTTE — Charlotte County has hatched its latest phase to fight against some diseases: new chickens.
County public works staff ordered 75 female chicks in February from a specialized facility in Ohio.
“They’re shipped by air, so they literally get to us the day after they hatch, which makes them all healthy and viable,” Charlotte County biological specialist Beth Kovach said.
The sentinel chickens go on patrol when they are fully feathered — at about 3 months old, Kovach said. They will be stationed on a type of watch around the county with a blood sample taken weekly to look for “specific mosquito borne viruses.”
The diseases include malaria, West Nile virus, yellow fever and Zika.
“Zika is the one we are most concerned about in the area,” Charlotte County Mosquito Management Director Scott Schermerhorn said.
Unlike humans, chickens don’t get sick from mosquito bites.
“Once they are bitten, they become carriers of the disease, but they are immune,” Kovach said. “They help us track where the diseases are spreading, but there is no harm to them.”
Schermerhorn said they are a “first line of defense” to monitor for disease throughout Charlotte County, but otherwise “live as any normal chicken would.”
“For example, if a West Nile antibody is present, we know mosquitoes in that area are carrying the virus,” he said.
Eastern equine encephalitis, St. Louis encephalitis and West Nile are the three that are most common in the area, Kovach said.
“Those are things that humans and also horses can get sick from.”
The birds go through a “scared phase” for the first few weeks, and them become super curious, Kovach said. They will start to lay eggs at about five months, usually during late summer and they lay different colored eggs.
At the end of the year, the chickens are given away to residents involved in 4-H groups.
“We start with a fresh batch each year. That way we know they haven’t been exposed to mosquitoes,” Kovach said.
Kovach, along with biological specialist Sydney L’Heureux, visit the birds weekly and draw blood through their wing veins. They return to the lab with the samples and test the blood.
The chickens are disbursed in groups of three at various sights around the county.
The endeavor is called “chicken cooperators” and the county provides the coop and feed to residents who agree who house the chickens, and in return, the residents get to keep the eggs.
Schermerhorn said one of the challenges the department will be facing this year is the debris piled up in the swales from Hurricane Ian.
“Those are always going to hold water and we’re going to have to spray more often in those areas,” he said.
Every fall, Kovach and L’Heureux spend time with students in Charlotte County Public Schools teaching the importance of mosquito control.
They bring along Lavander and Clementine, ambassador chickens from last year, to educational programs.
“They’re very calm around people, so we take them to all of our outreach events,” L’Heureux said.
The program has been going on for decades, said Kovach, who has been with the county for more than 20 years.
Anyone who wants to apply to host chickens at can contact Kovach at email@example.com — but there is currently a waiting list.
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