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Humans vs. Chicken: Dispatches From the Front Lines

Ubiquitous feral chickens on Kauai
By Richard Dahl on February 25, 2021

A condo dweller in Ybor City, Florida, has had enough of his noisy and destructive neighbors who think they rule the roost.

Why, he wants to know, are they free to wander around, damaging property and relieving themselves wherever they want? Why are they free to wake everyone up at 4 a.m. with their noise?

This might sound like a common occurrence anywhere. But in Ybor City, the situation is a wee bit different.

That's because the troublemakers in question are chickens – yes, chickens. And in Ybor City, a historic neighborhood within the city of Tampa, they are protected by ordinance and tradition.

The unhappy resident, 69-year-old Steve Calkins, took his complaint to the city recently, and that is what they told him. Their hands are tied. Live with it.

Growing Populations of Wild Chickens

If this were just an isolated incident, it probably would not attract much attention. But it is not an isolated incident. Numerous parts of the country are dealing with expanding populations of “feral chickens" that are causing problems for their human neighbors, and some are considering laws and ordinances to help humans in the effort.

Most of these locations are warm-weather coastal or island vacation destinations where the chickens are loved – and fed – by tourists who consider them charming. Stories of serious disputes between humans and chickens have surfaced in Key West, Florida, and several locations in Hawaii and California.

(The U.S. isn't the only country dealing with these feathery hotspots. On the island of Jersey, a British Crown dependency near the coast of Normandy, France, the feral chickens have gotten so bold that they're chasing joggers. In Titirangi, New Zealand, villagers emerging from a pandemic lockdown last year discovered that the local feral-chicken population had exploded, prompting some to compare it to “something out of a Stephen King movie.")

History and Tradition

So, what is going on? Why have some locales become havens for wild chickens?

In some places, like Tampa and Key West, the chickens are protected as part of bird sanctuaries for all feathered creatures within the municipal boundaries. In Kauai, Hawaii, a large wildlife refuge is the primary home of the feral flock.

And then there's history and tradition. In Ybor City, the chickens are believed to be the descendants of chickens brought to the area by immigrants 100 years ago. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the cigar-making factories that provided many jobs for them had to fold, prompting the laid-off workers to farm – and raise chickens – in their backyards.

Times have changed, but the chickens have remained and been embraced by many in the community. Ybor even has a Chicken Society that is devoted to maintaining harmony between chickens and humans by cleaning up chicken droppings, among other activities.

In Kauai, Hawaii, the chickens are believed to be descendants of those from a more distant past—from those of Polynesian voyagers at least 800 years ago. In other words, the chickens enjoy a certain mystique and many locals love them for that reason.

In Key West, they're known as Key West Gypsy Chickens, which are believed to be descendants of jungle fowl from Cuba and other Caribbean Islands and brought to Key West by immigrants as food. The Gypsy Chickens are also descendants of cockfighting chickens that were simply released when that activity became illegal.

Like Ybor City, Key West has an organization that strives to maintain order between chickens and humans. The Key West Wildlife Center loans out humane chicken traps for people to haul in unwanted neighbors for shipment to mainland farms.

Actions at City Hall and the Statehouse

Like other locales, though, Key West had sharply divided feelings about feral chickens, and recently the anti-chicken faction enjoyed a small victory. On Feb. 2, the Key West City Commission passed an ordinance making it illegal to feed feral chickens, imposing a fine of $250 for the first day of violation and $500 a day for repeat offenders.

The idea is that chickens become more aggressive and dangerous if they think they can get free handouts from people. City Commissioner Mary Lou Hoover said constituents have reported being attacked by chickens when they put dog feces in the trash, thinking it's food.

In Hawaii, meanwhile, the faceoff between humans and chickens became a statewide issue recently when lawmakers considered a bill, HB 524, that would establish a fine of $500 for the feeding of any feral chicken in the state.

On Feb. 4, the bill made it to the House Committee on Health, Human Services, and Homelessness, which decided not to act.

The testimony provided to the committee gives an indication of why members deferred action: While some people hate the chickens, others love them.

“The feral chicken population here (and elsewhere) has exploded!" wrote Honolulu resident Robert Marks. “Well intending neighbors feed these birds, which makes them propagate and spread far and wide. … It has really gotten bad."

Brianna Pelekai, however, countered that feral chickens are native to the islands and are being discriminated against. “The life of 'feral' chickens is hard. People harass and harm these chickens for no reason. Chickens are such great and amazing animals…"

It's probably safe to say that feral chickens and humans will simply continue to scratch out their ongoing coexistence on Hawaii – and in Key West and Ybor City and elsewhere. The chicken lovers and chicken haters will continue to ruffle each other's feathers, and the chickens themselves will have plenty to crow about at 4 o'clock in the morning, just like they always have.

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