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The sky is falling 

Our current chicken coop is a simple enough affair. Fifteen-feet square, facing south, blue front door, big windows, salvaged metal road signs on the west side, old tin country store signs facing east. Dozens of chickens have called it home in the last 25 years. I built it in the heyday of chain saw carpentry, lots of cedar posts, everything was recycled (or "liberated" as we used to call our tobacco barn reclamation efforts back then).

I've never "named" my chickens like we do pets, but each one has a personality. Grey Chicken is the fearless one, Brown Chicken is the bully (chickens invented pecking order, but I bet you know that), Black Chicken likes apple cores, Yellow Chicken, in her coop role of underchicken, says "excuse me" way too much, and White Chicken, well, she's just plain vain about her feathers.

In the morning I give the chickens fresh water and scratch and in the evening they give me a handful of brown eggs with yolks as orange as the setting sun. All day long they make compost for the garden and tease the dogs from their roosts.

Together we worry about avian flu.

Unlike a modern-day commercial poultry factory, a rural chicken coop is nature's Grand Central Station. Cats prowl the roof, squirrels dance along tree branches looking for access, black snakes are tempted by the eggs, and mice dare each other to make a dash for the feed. Once in a blue moon a possum or a raccoon comes midnight shopping. All day long, little wrens and chickadees fly in and out and check out the menu. Are those tiny, cute guests H5N1 carriers?

The cable video of the mass slaughter of chickens in Asia breaks my heart. I understand it all. Bird flu has a 50 percent mortality rate across the board, for the old and young, healthy or sick. And bird flu is coming.

Rose Hoban, WUNC-FM's health reporter, spoke recently of the state's 5,000 poultry farms and processing plants. Chicken farming is a $2.5 billion dollar industry in North Carolina, the fifth largest in the country. Hoban reported that three years ago, up in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley, four million chickens were killed to thwart a previous "H" flu.

A few weeks ago, Chicken Little was the top grossing film. We all yucked it up. The irony that we could be cleaning out all of our coops for good by the time the DVD hits the shelves can't be missed.

If this were "dog flu" or "cat flu," I'm not sure we would be doing things much different; 50 percent mortality is a scary number. And I'm not even saying "spare the chickens" yet.

But my chickens are good chickens, never done anyone any harm, and I worry about their fate.

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