Counting Chickens in Key West

Counting Chickens in Key West

There’s not much going on around the old suburban homestead in January. With the chickens on strike (no eggs since before Thanksgiving), the garden buried under a blanket of snow, and wind chills hovering in negative double-digits, it was time last week for a trip to my favorite island paradise, Key West, Florida.

Now, there are a lot of things I love about the southernmost city, but as someone who raises chickens as pets, I am especially enamored of Key West’s large population of feral fowl.

Chickens in Key West

Why did this family of chickens cross Duval Street? Probably to beg for food at an outdoor cafe.

You can find chickens pretty much everywhere in Key West – roosters proudly strutting down the streets of Old Town, mother hens stopping traffic on Highway 1 to escort their babies out of harm’s way, entire chicken families begging for tidbits at restaurants and cafes.

Rooster in Key West

A rooster eyeing my fish sandwich at BO’s Fish Wagon.

And if you don’t see the chickens – although they’re pretty hard to miss – you certainly hear them. Key West roosters don’t limit their crowing to sunup; cock-a-doodle-dos ring out at all hours of the day and night. But it’s the early morning crowers that can be especially troublesome. No one wants a noisy rooster outside their window after a late night on Duval Street when they are nursing a hangover and trying to get some sleep.

Yes, there are those who aren’t as charmed by the “gypsy chickens” – as they are known – as I am. Besides the noise, people complain about chicken poop on their cars and damage to their gardens. Some say the chickens pose a threat to public health. Others consider chickens to be an invasive species that threatens the island’s indigenous plants, insects, and lizards. But, really, isn’t anything that keeps Key West’s scorpion and cockroach populations under control a good thing? And there are a whole lot of people who make a living selling chicken-themed art and souvenirs to tourists who want to take a little local color home with them.

Hen and chick in Key West

A mama hen and baby looking for handouts at BO’s Fish Wagon.

Chickens in Key West

Love them or hate them, chickens are a colorful part of Key West history. Today’s gypsy chickens are the descendants of chickens brought to the island by settlers for meat, eggs, and cockfighting entertainment. Cuban immigrants who came to Key West in the late 19th century to work in the cigar industry and in the 1950s to escape the Cuban Revolution brought their own breed of “Cubalaya” chickens with them. As poultry and eggs became readily available in the markets and cockfighting became illegal, the chickens were released by their owners or escaped from their enclosures to roam the streets freely.

Key West chicken

A descendant of a Cubalaya?

As the gypsy chicken population grew and concerns about avian diseases like bird flu intensified, some citizens began to call for the eradication of the gypsy chickens. In 2004, the city of Key West established the post of “chicken catcher” to relocate chickens that were deemed a nuisance to a free-range ranch on the Florida mainland. However, the post was eliminated after members of the pro-chicken camp began tampering with the chicken catcher’s traps.

In 2009, the city reached an agreement with the Key West Wildlife Center to provide rescue, care, and adoption services for the feral chickens in exchange for city funds. The center provides humane chicken traps for property owners to use to trap nuisance chickens. Chickens brought to the center are provided food, shelter, and necessary medical attention. The center then finds homes for the birds on the mainland with people who agree to keep them as pets and not make them dinner.

Who knows, maybe someday I will bring a Key West chicken home with me.

Key West chickens

For more information, visit the Key West Wildlife Center website.

Have you been to Key West? If so, what did you think of the chickens? Love them or hate them? Please share your stories in the comments section below.