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Feathered platoon to protect the troops

Nearly a month ago, the Marines of the 7th Regiment were given 43 chickens to raise and nurture, chickens that were to repay them by helping detect a possible Iraqi chemical or biological attack.

Within a week and a half, 42 were dead, although no one suspects foul play.

On Friday, the Marines got a new avian force _ a company of pigeons.

The birds are meant to be the military equivalent of a canary in a coal mine. During a possible invasion of Iraq, they are to ride with a caretaker in armored vehicles. If they start to get sick, it could indicate a chemical attack and give the Marines a chance to put on their gas masks.

The United States says Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has several chemical and biological weapons at his disposal for use against U.S. troops. President Bush has threatened to invade Iraq to force it to give up those weapons.

U.S. troops have prepared for the worst.

They have been vaccinated against anthrax and smallpox. They have gas masks belted to their hips at all times and have been trained to put them on in nine seconds, with their eyes closed and while holding their breath.

They have been issued special camouflage suits with charcoal linings, rubber boots and gloves, atropine to counteract nerve gas, and packets of charcoal to deactivate any chemicals that may land on them.

To detect an attack, the Marines have special chemical-sensitive tape and paper, a chemical agent monitoring machine, a packet filled with detection ampules and a vehicle, the Fox, designed to take test samples while moving.

"And we've got the pigeons. Hoorah!" said Chief Warrant Officer Rob Garcia, 34, of West Paterson, N.J., who's in charge of chemical and biological defense training for his battalion.

But first came the chickens.

They arrived at this Marine camp in northern Kuwait more than three weeks ago and were billeted in a coop.

Things were going fine until three of them died one night.

"It was pretty much steady like that, except some nights when we had major massacres of like nine," said Lance Cpl. John Frawley, 20, of Stony Point, N.Y. "About a week, week and a half, they were done."

One chicken, nicknamed "Turkey Thunder," was rescued from the coop by the 3rd Battalion, 11th Regiment. It now lives in a tent with Marines from the artillery battalion, though it appeared to have a little cough Friday night.

It is unclear why the chickens died.

Some believe they had the flu.

Others said chickens were simply not meant to live in the desert.

Lt. Col. Michael Belcher, commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion, does not blame his Marines for the deaths. The chickens looked a little peaked that first day, and he believes the birds' death warrants were signed long before they ever moved to Living Support Area 7, as the camp is called.

But he wanted to do everything possible to make sure their pigeon replacements did not die.

"They get bottled water," he told Frawley, who was charged with finding "pigeon-qualified personnel" to care for the birds. "I don't want them spooked."

Belcher held out hope that if all goes well, the birds could receive a most honorable discharge.

"We'll release them in Baghdad," he said. "Like doves."