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Stuart Johnson, Deseret News
Randy Sessions from the Box Elder Mosquito Abatement District puts sentinel chickens into a container Monday.

PROVO — Despite their best efforts to get out of it, Luella and Lacy Leghorn are among the 450 sentinel chickens posted throughout the state to herald West Nile virus activity.

Sentinel chickens — slick cream-colored leghorn girls — were stacked seven cage layers deep in steel mesh towers Monday for the annual distribution, which drew mosquito abatement staffers statewide to the Utah County mosquito abatement office.

The placid poultry are a reservoir for the virus and one of the first places the virus is typically detected, according to Utah County Health spokesman Lance Madigan. Unlike horses and people, which may become very sick when infected but are "dead-end" hosts, the sentinel chickens show no symptoms. So blood is drawn from their wings each week to check for it.

Ideal conditions for the virus-laden mosquito population include a wet spring and very hot summer, but it's impossible to predict how severely West Nile will hit an area, said Gary Hatch, Davis mosquito abatement director. Around April, mosquito control teams go after larvae, then spread their efforts to include adult winged beasties, an effort that continues well into September. In Utah, urban dwellers C. pipiens and marsh-loving C. tarsalis carry the virus.

People can take steps to protect themselves. Health officials promote wearing long sleeves and pants when outdoors from dusk to dawn, the hours these particular mosquitoes snack. They urge use of mosquito repellent, especially with DEET. And they counsel cutting back grass and getting rid of pooled water in the yard, among other steps.

The mosquito abatement crews brought everything from dog crates to slatted wooden boxes to transport the chickens, which will be placed in small groups at preselected sites known for mosquito activity.

Needs vary in communities. Salt Lake City's mosquito abatement assistant manager Dennis Kiyoguchi, for instance, picked up 20 birds, as did Magna and South Salt Lake to round out coverage in Salt Lake County. Utah County maintains four flocks of five birds each, while Brett Marchant and Whitney Peck grabbed 30 birds for Summit County. Hatch picked up 60 birds that will be distributed in a dozen Davis County locations.

Early in the process, Luella Leghorn evaded capture and claimed a shady spot on the trailer under the stacked cages, until Randy Sessions, Box Elder's mosquito abatement manager, grabbed her for the trip north, along with 60 others that will be split between his district, Bear River and Logan. Magna's Ryan Lusty cornered Lacy as she was sneaking across the parking lot.

John Johnson picked up 10 sentinels for two little flocks in Sevier County, then loaded an extra 20 that will serve as "reservists" for southern Utah. Sevier, he noted, is one of the rare Utah counties that has had no detected West Nile virus, although one resident got the virus while out of the area. "It's not if, but when," Johnson said.

Mosquito pools are also tested statewide for West Nile. But this year, the state lab will not test dead corvids — a bird family including crows, jays and magpies — and raptors for the virus, although Salt Lake Valley Health Department will as part of a study. "It wasn't the most effective surveillance tool we've had," said Jodee Summers, an epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health, so it was cut when funding dropped.

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