When chickens get hot, they don't sweat. They drop dead.
Were the country not in the grip of one of the most severe heat waves on record, this would be little more than another of nature's intriguing facts.
But, with daily temperatures that most chickens don't encounter until they are revolving on a rotisserie, the nation's poultry industry is getting fried.
Nearly eight million birds have died of the heat and the losses -- many of them on the Delmarva Peninsula -- are expected to run up to $15 million.
"It's the most serious loss the industry has ever experienced in recent memory," said George Watts, president of the National Broiler Council, a Washington-based group that presents the $10 billion poultry industry.
Growers in Texas and the Midwest have been hit the hardest, but the 3,000 poultrymen on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia, where the broiler industry is a $1 billion-a-year industry, lost half a million chickens last week.
"When it hits 98, they start to kick," said Easton grower John Sherwood who lost 2,500 birds on Wednesday.
To the growers, temperatures in the 100-degree range are known simply as "the death zone." While industry officials said yesterday it's too soon to know how many chickens have died in the current heat wave, it's certain that the loss will translate into higher chicken prices in the supermarket.
Robert Blades of Country Pride, one of 11 processors on the Delmarva Pennsula, said yesterday that the losses "are going to have an impact" on the retail cost of chicken.
For 70-year-old grower Clark Sewell of Trappe, Md., who lost 1,000 birds last week, the heat already has cost $2,000.That's not to mention the extra hours he and his 38-year-old son, John, have put in in their four aluminum-roofed chicken houses where the ammoniacal odor of 52,000 broilers stings the nostrils.
Sewell's birds are at their most critical stage. Seven weeks ago they were just bits of fluff with three-quarters of a square foot of room per chick. wNow a week from processing, they weigh nearly four pounds and are packed as tight as Beach Boy's fans on the Mall.
Mantled in white feathers and radiating 106-degree body heat, the birds able to cool themselves only by panting like a dog. Together they can raise the temperature in the coop to fatal levels unless they have strong ventilation.
So the Sewells have spent much of their time trying to keep the chickens cool installing fans, blowing mist through the barns, cleaning screens and "walking" the birds-an hourly prowl to keep the chickens moving.
"They don't have the sense to get to a cool place themselves," said Sewell, who has raised chickens for 20 years.
"This is the first year we've ever had this problem with the heat," he added. "This house was over 100 Wednesday. After seven weeks, you think about chickens when you go to bed . . . and you think about them when you wake up."
For many Delmarva farmers, chickens are the least of their worries. Most have corn and soybeans and livestock and like their counterparts all over the drought-stricken areas of the country, they are being hurt as much by the lack of rain as the sweltering heat.
Virginia's Argicultural Commissioner Mason Carbaugh warned yesterday that the lack of rain could cost farmers in his state more than $100 million if the weather doesn't break in the next few weeks. Cattle aren't eating, and in some areas half of the corn crop has been lost, he said.
Despite the rains that hit the Washington area Monday night and again yesterday, agricultural officials said yesterday the prolonged dry spell already has done its damage to farms in the Mid-Atlantic area.
Yesterday's scattered thundershowers dropped .11 of an inch at National Airport, .75 of an inch at Dulles International Airport, but nothing on Salisbury, Md., on the agricultural Eastern Shore. Today's forecast calls for more scattered thunderstorms and temperatures ranging between 85 and 90 degrees.
Scientists at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg are fretting that the prolonged heat could activate "a silent extinction mechanism" in the reproductive organs of cattle and other large mammals.
Abrupt temperature rises can slow reproduction, but whatever the result, it couldn't affect production until the erly part of the century, said Dewey M. McLean of Tech's geological sciences department.
Whatever evolutionary developments the heat may prompt, chances are chickens will never be induced to sweat. "A bird does not prespire, that's a natural phenomenon of nature," said William R. Stephens, executive director of the Delmarva Poultry Institute. Researchers have been trying for years to come up with a featherless chicken, one that would be less likely to overheat, and certainly would be easier to pluck.
If Clarke Sewell could design an ideal chicken it would have no wings. "They can't fly with their wings, but they can sure kick up a storm of dust, he said.