How did the wild chickens in Hawaii and other states become feral? A combination of accident, incident and evolution.
If you want true free-range chickens, from birds that don’t live by fences or rules, visit one of several warm states. Wikipedia reports facts about chickens and populations in California, Louisiana, Florida, Texas, Hawaii, and several island countries. And they’re not the fragile chicks and pampered hens we keep in our coops. These birds are well suited for their environments and it didn’t take them long to adapt. Genetics had already done much of that.
Modern backyard chickens aren’t too different from their ancestors, the Indonesian Red Jungle fowl. They’re larger, heavier, and have evolved thyroid glands which allow them to lay eggs almost daily. But the instincts to hunt and hide are still there.
How there are wild chickens in Hawaii and the contiguous United States is simple. Accidents and incidents.
Local lore says coops blew open during two hurricanes: Iwa in 1982 and Iniki in 1992. The Audubon Society’s annual bird counts confirm that populations of wild chickens in Hawaii jumped a few years after each hurricane. Perhaps more birds exist on Kauai because the hurricanes only sideswiped the other islands. Or maybe fewer exist on the others because mongooses were never released on Kauai.
But chickens were on the islands before that. Polynesian people kept chickens, which were much like red jungle fowl, and they arrived in Hawaii at least 800 years ago. Bones dug from caves indicate the Hawaiian natives had their own breeds, since South American chickens do not have the same genetic signposts. Studies of modern wild chickens in Hawaii confirm they have a mixture of ancestral DNA as well as that of European breeds. The result is that some of the wild chickens in Hawaii look truly wild, as if they had just come from Indonesia, while some others look like the fat hen on a carton of eggs.
The wild chickens in Hawaii are a local attraction but they aren’t always a delight. The roosters crow at all hours, just as domestic roosters do. Chickens cross the road into oncoming traffic. They fly over fences and into gardens. Large flocks damage native plants and can spread diseases to wild birds. For a while, the Hawaiian Humane Society and police handled animal disturbances such as barking dogs and crowing chickens. The Hawaii Game Breeders Association loaned cages to catch birds. But even that ended because there were too many chickens in addition to ducks, peacocks and exotic birds that had been let loose. There just isn’t enough space or money to contain them. The HGBA still gets calls for help. They can only advise that residents can trap the birds but can’t kill them.
Though the birds have been described as “rats with wings,” they do some good for the state. They eat bugs and Hawaii is full of bugs. The wild chickens in Hawaii delight tourists so much that shopkeepers sell souvenirs printed with Kauai’s “official” bird.
The Sunshine State’s poultry problem mimics that of wild chickens in Hawaii. Though the most famous flocks are in Key West, they are also in Gotha, St. Augustine and Key Largo. It’s said there have always been chickens in Key West but wild populations grew when cock-fighting became illegal and people stopped keeping backyard flocks for meat. Locals call them “gypsy chickens.”
Locals have a love/hate relationship with the birds. Often certain individuals love them while others want them gone. Key West chickens have protected-species status, so people can’t kill or injure them. Creative plans evolved for controlling the birds, one of which involved turning an oversized mountain of trash into an island for the chickens. Others suggested releasing foxes or native bobcats, which would also cause problems with the local wildlife or people’s pets.
In 2004, Key West hired chicken catchers to deal with the problem. The birds are caught live and delivered to the Key West Wildlife Center then to organic farms on the mainland. They are kept for eggs and bug control.
The Florida chickens do have a charm, though. Tourists imagine they’re like the chickens running around towns further south in the Caribbean, an integral part of the blend of Cuban, American, Bahamian and West Indian cultures. And though the locals with gardens disagree, cameras constantly snap pictures of the colorful animals.
Hurricanes, feral chickens and New Orleans. It’s easy to surmise what happened. Just as with the wild chickens in Hawaii, cages blew open in the storm. Hurricane Katrina occurred in 2005. Over ten years later, residents of the 9th Ward say they don’t see many stray dogs but everyone has stray chickens. And though many New Orleans residents follow the surging trend of urban homesteaders, the chickens don’t appear to be escapees from backyard flocks. They’re too hard to catch.
Weekly, the SPCA dispatches officers to respond to calls about chicken noise. Once they manage to wrangle the birds, they send them to a nearby farm. In the 7th Ward, a group of swift adolescents sneak up and grab the birds.
Unlike in Hawaii and Florida, residents of the 7th through 9th Wards seem to be fond of the chickens. There are a few gripes over roosters crowing or of protective broody hens attacking small dogs. Residents watch over the animals, even feeding them. They’ll keep track of populations and chase off predators.
Far from the stormy origins of the wild chickens in Hawaii is a simpler story: a poultry truck overturned in 1969. That’s the explanation most commonly attributed to the flock living under the Vineland Avenue off-ramp of the Hollywood Freeway.
Other stories tell of adolescent twins that rescued chickens from a school that raised animals but was closing. They hid the birds until the roosters started crowing, at which point the girls hiked to an open area near the freeway and deposited the chickens. Another claims that a man named “Michael” and his brother, as children, rehomed their pet chickens beneath the freeway after receiving too many complaints from neighbors. But the theory of the overturned truck has been supported by at least one witness.
In the 70s, they were described as Rhode Island Reds: a flock of fifty that gained local celebrity status. For a while they were called “Minnie’s chickens,” named after elderly Minnie Blumfield who spent $30 of her Social Security check each month to feed them. She became too frail and the chickens were relocated to a ranch in Simi Valley, California. But people couldn’t catch them all and those remaining spawned another flock. Several other attempts to relocate the Freeway Chickens had the same results.
Now there is another colony, the New Freeway Chickens, breathing fumes two miles away at the Burbank ramp.
Throughout their decades of existence, the Hollywood Freeway Chickens inspired several creations. The video game “Freeway” appeared in 1982, challenging players to help a chicken cross the road. Actress and animal activist Jodie Mann wrote a screenplay featuring the birds. And famous author Terry Pratchett wrote a short story titled “Hollywood Chickens,” seemly inspired by the spreading colony.
Small Municipal Flocks
Other cities wage battles with chickens that hide behind crates and consume garbage. In the Bronx, animal workers removed 35 chickens after neighbors complained, saying the birds were believed to be the city’s largest brood of wild chickens. Miami and Philadelphia also have problems with feral chickens.
In the middle of Phoenix, Arizona, hundreds of roosters roam a several-block area alongside guinea fowl and even peacocks. Some neighbors say they are from a chicken farm that shut down decades ago, but nobody really knows. The Phoenix birds are friendly, asking for handouts, but the crowing annoys neighbors.
Means of dealing with feral birds differs from prolific wild chickens in Hawaii, protected Key West chickens, and random flocks in New York and Arizona. Attitudes differ from region to region. But one facet remains constant: efforts to collect and rehome them result in more hatches and resurging populations.
Do you have feral chickens where you live? How do you think local authorities should handle them?