- Written by Donna Perdue
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A visit to Key West gives a whole new perspective to the term "free range chicken." Fifty percent of the Key West wants the birds to stay, the other half wants them gone!
Whoever thought that roosters only crow at the break of dawn must have been living in a fantasy land. Tourists may be surprised to find them roaming the streets all over Key West and then awakened at 3 a.m. by the very loud "Cockadoodledoo." (Nothing that some ear plugs or a nice Dream Machine can't fix.) Once they get started, it can take hours for them to settle down. A rooster will crow every time a car's headlights come around the corner and shine into its roosting place, or a dog barks at the moon, or even (and this is really annoying) when you shout at the rooster to shut up. Key West is famous for its "anything goes" attitude, but crowing roosters and clucking hens just don't fit in with the posh resorts and multi-million dollar houses the island now boasts.
Some people find them tolerable and a very important part of Key West's history and quirky charm; some think they are randomly interesting and are quick to snap photos or purchase paintings featuring the colorful Gypsy roosters during their stay. Still others (mostly locals) find them annoying and want them gone. When the city council and neighborhood organizations bring up the topic of having them removed, it can get down right ugly and heated at those meetings. Pro-chicken forces want them left alone and anti-roosters want them silenced by any means. For now, they are protected by law, although occasionally the Key West "Chicken Catcher" is employed to round a bunch up and move them to a nice rural retirement home on the mainland.
Back in the 1800's, chickens were a big business in Cuba. Chicken breeders had purchased several varieties of the Filipino fowl in Spain and brought them to the island. Once there, they were bred with chickens of European origin. The resulting variety, selectively bred for size and aggressiveness--- yup, I'm saying they were bred to fight, was named the Cubalaya.
In the 1860's, Cubans, unhappy with the way things were going in their own country after the Ten Year's War, began to move to Key West. Many brought their love for cockfighting (and their chickens) with them. Lots of Cubans followed, drawn by the prosperous cigar industry, and lots of chickens moved to Key West too. By 1890, more than half of Key West's population was Cuban. Albeit a back-alley, bloodthirsty sport, cockfights were nonetheless quite popular. Even the upper class folks found themselves invested in the sport. Luckily for Cubalaya chickens in this southernmost city, cockfighting was outlawed in the 1970's. Not so luckily, it put the chickens out of business and most of them were set out on the streets of Key West. Around the same time, eggs and chicken became plentiful at markets so a lot of domestic chickens on the island lost their homes. Long kept in their coops in backyards throughout the island, most were left to roam free. Senor Cubalaya, may I introduce you to Miss Domestic Hen? Nature took its course...with few predators on the island (except hawks and feral cats) the "wild" chicken armies thrived on a diet of native insects and lizards.
These birds are absolutely self-sufficient, though they will gladly accept hand-outs or leftovers from humans. They eat just about anything, but most often can be seen scratching in the dirt for bugs and worms. The Key West chickens are smaller and more colorful than chickens bred for meat and egg production. It is said that the meat of a Key West chicken is very tough and gamey, while the small eggs are tasty. They are surprisingly good fliers, and if you are vigilant, you can find them roosting in trees at night. The roosters are territorial, and often fight violently amongst themselves. Mother hens are protective of their eggs and chicks, and breed prolifically year-round.
Some consider the chickens very invasive. They often destroy indigenous plants and feast on native insects and lizards. To the dismay of residents, the roosters have spread up the Keys, and, thusfar, have been found as far up as Marathon Key. Many locals complain that the roosters tear up their yards, poop on their cars, and crow loudly outside their windows. However, the chickens are said to keep the local cockroach and scorpion populations under control. Smaller chickens serve as prey for local hawks and falcons, and the eggs feed Key West's raccoons. There is also no denying that tourism, which is the major industry of Key West, has benefited from the presence of these amusing, photogenic birds. Local artists capitalize on this and create many rooster influenced pieces that tourists love. Even the popular bracelet-maker, Pandora, has a sterling silver rooster charm that can't be purchased anywhere but at their exclusive dealer on Duval Street.
The Current Solution
The Key West Wildlife Center is working with Key West. The center serves as a holding center for troublesome roosters (local can borrow traps from the Center for a small deposit.) The birds are then adopted by people living beyond the Keys, The new owners must sign an agreement stating the birds are to be pets not meat. The adopted chickens arrive with a signed letter from the City Mayor that certifies their authentic breeding as "Key West Gypsy Chickens."
Today, gypsy chickens rule Key West. With all the exotic animals as sea turtles, alligators, dolphins and the endangered manatee that can be found on the island, none can steal the limelight from the Key West's famous cats and roosters. You can see them in the trees at twilight--occasionally (watch out) a little gift might drop right in front of you. You can hear the roosters' crow more than you might like. And there are always babies following behind mother hens. It's a rather amusing situation if you take it all in stride.
Where else in the world could a chicken live such a good life-- in its own little Poultry Paradise, as it were?