BROOKSVILLE — It's not in her job description, but Rene Snow has just become a chicken phlebotomist.
Snow is a technician and coordinator with Hernando County Mosquito Control. Her growing responsibilities are part of a new county program designed to help keep track of mosquito-borne illnesses.
And it turns out skeeters love chickens.
A human might get only 20 bites a night, but a chicken can get up to 200, Snow said.
The sentinel chicken program, which is funded through Mosquito Control's operating budget, has been used in neighboring counties for several years, but has never been done in Hernando County, said Dr. Guangye Hu, who directs Mosquito Control.
Learning from counterparts in Citrus County, Snow helped design five cages and located five chicken caretakers across the county. Those willing to look after the birds get free eggs and fertilizer. Snow worked to find locations that already had chickens in order to help attract as many mosquitoes as possible.
The chickens, which Snow cared for since they were wee chicks, have grown large. They were recently moved to their new locations around the county and will have their blood drawn weekly. Blood samples are sent to state health officials, who test for Eastern equine encephalitis, West Nile virus and St. Louis encephalitis.
When a bird comes up positive for anything, it is removed from the flock and replaced with another bird.
"For chickens, carrying those illnesses poses little risk to them," Hu said. And the birds are actually still safe to eat.
If several chickens in one flock test positive for a virus, it likely means the virus is more active in that area, and is an indicator of danger to humans. Mosquito Control will then boost its mosquito eradication efforts in that region to decrease the chances of humans being infected.
"Surveillance is the most important thing," Hu said. "You need to know where your enemies are before you take action."