Saturday, January 22, 2011

Do backyard hens lead to feral populations of chickens? CLUCK thinks not.

One opponent of backyard chickens in Sarasota has forwarded CLUCK with an interesting news story from West Lakeland. The news story features a population of feral chickens that Lakeland is trying to do something about with mixed results. Our critic closes with a snarky "Thanks for bringing the possibility of this to our community." The implication is that backyard hens in Sarasota will inevitably lead to feral chickens roaming the streets. And a local blogger (Critter Comments) has posted an entry wondering: "Sarasota. The new Key West?"

West Lakeland

CLUCK is intrigued by the West Lakeland footage, but is by no means convinced it has any relevance to what Sarasota has adopted. 

Watch the video and you'll notice a preponderance of roosters. In fact, these feral birds look like game fowl, suggesting that this population might not be derived from escaped female pets that were acquired for egg production, but rather a population of chickens managed for the production of aggressive males.

A quick review of the relatively restrictive Lakeland City Code suggests these birds (and their ancestors) are probably from illegal, and not legal, stock.

Key West

Key West is the poster child for what we are trying to avoid. Key West let a situation get out of hand. And its not residents who have their allowable four chickens that are the problem.

The problem is the so-called ‘gypsy chickens’ of Key West that are a feral, wild population – just like feral cats or iguanas or Muscovy ducks that no one takes care of, but which somehow reproduce and survive. According to one article:

Though it is thought that these birds have been in Key West for over 175 years, their numbers certainly grew in the 1950s, when thousands of Cubans fled the Revolution and came to Key West to support a booming cigar industry. These Cubans brought their chickens with them. The birds were used for meat and eggs, but the roosters were especially prized for their beauty and prowess for cockfighting. 

It doesn’t help that some tourists feed them and consider them part of Key West’s quirky charm.


So, although it is tempting to connect the dots (backwards) and assume feral chicken problems result from escaped legal chickens, it may be far more likely that feral chickens result from escaped illegal chickens.

CLUCK believes illegal chickens might be more likely to lead to feral flocks for which no one takes responsibility.

Why might that be? Because illegality and the threat of fines creates a strong disincentive for being responsible or claiming ownership. “Oh, THOSE chickens. Never saw them before. No idea who they might belong to.” 

If we have a reasonable, controlled program that allows people to have a few hens legally then the odds are better of avoiding a situation where people get chickens and deny ownership, claiming “Who me? The’re not mine”.


So how is the City of Sarasota to avoid becoming the next Key West or West Lakeland? 

Here some components:

• Be rigorous about hens only. As long as we only have females, there is no chance of establishing a feral, reproducing population. There may be a bird on the loose, but it cannot turn into a flock.

• Be vigilant about cockfighting -- here again, the key is roosters -- no roosters, no cockfighting. 

• Encourage people to get breeds well suited to urban areas -- some of the heavier, or more mellow breeds (such as Silkies, Cochins, Faverolles, Orpingtons or Brahmas.) not the flighty and feisty varieties such as game fowl and lightweight better-flying bantams.

CLUCK is not in a position to offer a reward, but we can lay down a challenge: Bring us evidence of a community with a feral chicken problem that resulted from people being allowed to keep only hens. 

We're hypothesizing that feral chicken populations result from one of two situations:

1) Communities where all chickens were illegal and the laws were not enforced, and

2) Communities where both hens and roosters were allowed.

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