Barred Rock Hens

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(Host) Commentator Nils Daulaire reflects on chickens, the Avian Flu and whether or not the sky is falling.

(Daulaire) A friend of mine keeps a few Barred Rock hens – just for eggs, she says, not for meat. They’re really pets – some of the old girls eat feed and give nothing in return – and there’s one that likes to be picked up and patted.

But if you look that hen in the eye, you see why chickens aren’t as popular pets as dogs, cats – or even ferrets. That golden eye isn’t much like ours. Its blank regard has more in common with the eyes of cold-blooded creatures – snakes, lizards and crocodiles.

And no wonder. Scientists say that birds and mammals parted evolutionary ways when dinosaurs started sprouting feathers. So chickens and humans look at each other from across a gap of eons – and divergent genomes.

Still, we have a lot of genetic code in common, and when chickens sneeze, the human race sometimes catches cold.

Avian influenza is a special threat to chickens living in crowded farmyards and in the food industry’s super-packed chicken factories. Right now, a new variant of avian flu is ravaging flocks in 10 Asian countries. More than 60 million birds have been slaughtered to stop the virus’s spread, but the outbreak is far from contained. In Vietnam and Thailand, it has managed to cross the species bridge a few times and a small number of people have gotten sick through direct contact with infected poultry. So far, it has taken 16 human lives.

But once in a long while, an avian virus makes the inter-species jump so successfully that it can then pass from person to person. When that happened in 1918, 45 million people died worldwide. It happened again in 1957, when the Asian flu took 70,000 lives in the U.S. alone. The “Hong Kong flu” of 1968 killed 34,000 Americans.

It’s not surprising, then, that scientists and health officials are watching the latest bird virus carefully. The strain of the new flu that has just been detected in some Delaware factory farms is different from the one that has sickened people in Asia, but officials have already ordered more than 12,000 birds destroyed.

Of course, it’s probable that this avian flu – like others that have raised alarms in recent years – won’t learn to pass from human to human. I’m not Chicken Little, the sky isn’t falling, and there’s no need for panic.

But there is good reason to raise concerns about the wisdom of food industry practices that – in Delaware and elsewhere – bring millions of chickens together within a few mile radius. What about the antibiotic-stuffed cattle on factory feed lots, and the disastrous environmental impact of many fish farms? We should ask whether we really benefit when we permit food to be produced in such unnatural, unhealthy ways.

In my friend’s yard, the pet hens peck corn off snow. Sometimes I’m given a dozen of their eggs, and I’m grateful.

Chickens and eggs – the endless cycle. Let’s just make sure we know what we’re hatching.

This is Nils Daulaire.

Doctor Nils Daulaire is President of the Global Health Council, headquartered in White River Junction. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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