chickens in key west

If you’re talking about Key West, chickens seem to be everywhere. Visitors may be surprised to see a clucking hen followed by her waddling brood of chicks scratching around tables at an outside cafe or wandering in and out of busy, downtown traffic. A large contingency of people consider these “gypsy chickens” an important link to “Old Key West” and insist that they’re part of the city’s old-world charm. Just as many people say chickens are a nuisance and a serious threat to public health. It’s become a heated debate and the responsibility of devising a plan to settle the argument rests squarely on the shoulders of the city government. The Chicken Wars have begun.

These controversial birds have called the island home for almost two hundred years, brought here by early pioneers as a much needed source of meat and eggs. When thousands of Cubans fled the Revolution in the 1950’s, many found refuge and employment in Key West’s lucrative cigar business. They brought their loud, colorful birds with them. Lots of them. As meat and eggs became readily available in local markets, the need for individual families to keep chickens evaporated and the lucky birds were set free to roam the island and reproduce. Not surprisingly, the flock on this small island has grown to over 2,000, their only natural predators being falcons, hawks and feral cats. Speeding cars and mopeds are not “natural” predators.

Admittedly, some of Key West’s global appeal is its laid back attitude of anything goes but some say it’s gone too far. Quite literally in fact. Chickens and roosters go. A lot. Droppings from a holding pen were blamed for beach water contamination a couple years ago and scientists claim they may carry parasites such as coccidian, which is a serious threat to AIDS patients. Asthmatics should be warned to keep their distance too because chicken dander can trigger an attack. A word to the wise; these birds are pretty good fliers. If you drive a convertible remember to put the top up when you park it or you’ll return to find the inside decorated, courtesy of those roosting in the trees above. They have amazingly good aim and a twisted sense of humor.

In addition to serious potential health threats, there’s the noise! Imagine you’ve paid $250 for an overnight stay at a private and posh B&B. The chicken that seemed so endearing when you watched it walk down Duval Street at happy hour is a far cry from the rooster crowing loudly outside your window at 4am. By the way, it’s a myth that roosters crow only at dawn. If only that were true, the Chicken Wars may not be so damn intense. The truth is that roosters crow all day and all night. Barking dogs, headlights, other roosters, a slight breeze…all of these things trigger the rooster’s noise maker. You know what else makes them crow? A person hanging outside their bedroom window yelling “Shut the hell up!” It’s one thing to be on vacation and have your expensive night’s sleep interrupted but if you’re a local and you are wakened night after night by these noisy pests, you just might get a little fed up.

The defenders of these scrappy birds say if you don’t like the chickens then leave. The birds were here first. They insist that the birds keep the cockroach and scorpion populations under control, which benefits tourists and locals alike. Local hawks and falcons make meals of young, small chickens and raccoons enjoy a steady diet of fresh eggs, satisfying their healthy appetite and hopefully giving them less reason to rummage through your trash can in the middle of the night. The radical defenders claim that the birds are good for tourism. I’m not aware of any chickens that charge to have their picture taken so I don’t really understand that part of the argument by the Chicken Lovers.

Since the Chicken Wars started about fifteen years ago, the city officials have tried to maintain their good humor. I suppose in the grand scheme of things, a chicken problem for the Mayor of Key West pales in comparison to the issues facing the Mayor of NYC. The Mayor acknowledges he’s in a no-win situation. Whether he turns a blind eye to the birds or sends them off to become Chicken Nuggets, he’ll anger about half of his city’s population.

In response to repeated demands, the city has attempted to reduce the number of chickens roaming the island. A few years back, they created a new position on the city payroll. The “Chicken Catcher” was paid to trap birds and relocate them to a free-range farm further north. Rumors that the birds were actually being killed prompted local chicken huggers to tamper with trapped birds and set them free. According to some, the Chicken Catcher was dropped from the payroll and written off as bad idea. By other accounts, he received so many death threats that he quit and went into hiding. Some called him a chicken.

The bottom line is that for now the chickens are safe and they seem to know it. Just look at how proudly they strut while holding up a line of cars as they slowly meander across the street. Whether you prefer to see them as colorful residents deserving their freedom or fried extra crispy on a platter for Sunday dinner, the controversy needs serious attention. Or does it? This is Key West after all where anything goes. Live and let live. Why not mix up something refreshing in the blender, crawl into the backyard hammock and relax…just be sure there aren’t any birds roosting in the trees above you. And by all means, doze with your mouth closed!