Saturday, September 29, 2012

Why the Feral Chickens of Key West are an Irrelevant Worst Case Scenario

Many people seem to anchor their objection to backyard domestic hens based on their experiences in Key West, Florida, where feral chickens are common. Some visitors find these wild birds to be part of Key West's quirky charm and character -- one of the city's best known restaurants, Blue Heaven, is famous for the chickens roaming about. 

Other people, including one County Commissioner, apparently find the feral chickens presence and behavior alarming or disturbing. As a result, the Key West feral chicken situation is frequently cited as either an inevitable or plausible result of what would happen if were to allow backyard chickens in our county. But that sky-is-falling, worst case scenario is not likely and unsubstantiated claims such as this reflect both the ignorance and discrimination backyard chickens face.

Today's domestic chickens are the result of selectively breeding wild pheasant-like birds called junglefowl, primarily the red junglefowl. In fact, they are so similar that domestic chickens can interbreed with junglefowl. The junglefowl, which feed and nest on the ground, have survival skills that allow them to persist in the wild, where presumably they face a variety of predators. The junglefowl have several traits that contribute to their success. They can fly well enough to escape many predators and can roost in trees at night, they can run quickly, and they can hide (the females, which incubate the eggs are more cryptically colored than the males). In addition they can be aggressive and assertive. The male roosters are relatively fearless with their sharp spurs and will defend the hens.  Some roosters have no problem attacking a human that is 25 times its weight. That would be like a human attacking a two-ton aggressor. In fact, the internet provides advice on how to protect one's self from an attacking rooster. This pugnacious spirit is a defining characteristic of junglefowl as well as chickens bred for fighting.

We tend to think of the value of chickens in terms of eggs and meat and assume that reflects their historic value as well. But the Encyclopedia Brittannica is of the opinion that Humans first domesticated chickens of Indian origin for the purpose of cockfighting in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Very little formal attention was given to egg or meat production.  Whether or not that is true, cockfighting has been one aspect of chicken domestication for at least the past five thousand years. In other words, in addition to selectively breeding some chickens for egg production, or meat, or tameness, or plumage, some chicken breeders have been focused on fighting skills and these birds are the most similar to wild junglefowl. Here's how Wikipedia puts it:  

"Game fowl are more closely related to their wild cousins "jungle fowl"; a shy wild chicken from forests in South Central and Southeastern Asia. Game fowl are physically more similar to jungle fowl than domestic chickens and are bred to retain these physical attributes as well as the jungle fowl's natural territorial instinct."

If you compare the appearance of gamecocks with red junglefowl (photos below), you'll see they are remarkably similar, no doubt a reflection of retaining the wild aggressive behaviors of the junglefowl.
Photo from Kong's Red Junglefowl  

Gamecock photo by Flints from Wikipedia
Comb has beeb trimmed. 
Historically, cockfighting has been more culturally accepted in some Asian and Latin American countries than elsewhere, and has long been (and continues to be) an accepted component of Cuban culture. As a result, no one should be surprised if cockfighting is found in areas of the US with significant Cuban populations. Many coastal communities in Florida have longstanding relationships with Cuba that date back centuries. These include Ybor City, Miami, and Key West. Of course, not all Cubans condone cockfighting and their have been plenty of cockfighting rings that have nothing to do with Latin Americans or Florida coastal cities.

Nevertheless,Ybor City, Miami, and Key West all have feral chicken populations, and have for many years. One author I read believes fighting chickens have been in Key West for 175 years, but that their numbers were augmented Cubans who moved their after the Cuban Revolution. As a practical matter, it doesn't really matter if Florida crackers, or Cubans, or Bahamians brought their ancestors.

I was in Key West recently and had a chance to photograph the birds. The picture below is from the Naval Base and shows a rooster escorting a hen and her chicks. Note that the rooster is very conspicuous (and seems to match the photos above), the hen less so, and chicks are harder to distinguish. This family group looks remarkable similar to the red junglefowl. Why is that?

The answer should be obvious. These birds are very similar to wild junglefowl for two reasons: first they are probably descended from birds bred for cockfighting (which rewards pugnacious behavior) and, second, there are heavy selection pressures on chickens in the wild. Individuals that cannot fly well enough to roost or can't otherwise cope don't live to reproduce, so birds bred for eggs, meat, or tameness are weeded out.

Not every Key West chicken looks like a red junglefowl. In fact, many Cuban fighting cocks (I was in Cuba recently too) look different, some with many white feathers. But their combative disposition and survival skills remain. The Key West rooster below has some white feathers, but one look at the spurs on this animal should make one think twice about approaching.

CLUCK has reason to believe gamecocks are being raised and bred for fighting in Sarasota County, and that is something animal control, code enforcement, and other law enforcement entities should be doing more about (instead of harassing families with laying hens). Click here to read about a cockfighting arrest in Sarasota in 2008.

But none of this explains why Sarasota won't turn into another Key West. The answer lies in the diversity of chicken breeds.

While some chicken breeders selected for fighting ability, others selected for egg-laying and tameness and these are the breeds naturally favored by backyard chicken fans. I have a four-foot high fence around my chicken yard and none of my birds has yet to fly over the fence. These poor flying skills mean they would not last long if I wasn't locking them up at night. I have no rooster to protect my hens, and the hens are not survivors. But I don't have to worry about being attacked by my birds or having them fly away. What parent would want aggressive, mean-spirited gamefowl for their family?

Consequently, many of the breeds favored for backyard pets are heavy, mellow, poor-flying types. One breed that is very popular is the Silkie, which has a feather mutation that make it unable to fly. But they are soft and fluffy and endearing. One variant of the Silkie is the Showgirl, shown below. You can imagine how long this flightless, fluffy morsel would last on the streets.

CLUCK has yet to find any evidence that any of the roughly one dozen feral chicken populations in the US resulted from escaped backyard hens raised for eggs. That's why the Key West story is not very relevant to our situation. 

But there is some evidence that backyard egg-laying chickens are not the source of feral populations. A recent article profiling the rise of feral chickens in the 9th Ward of New Orleans following Katrina contained the following quote: "The birds don't appear to be fugitives from the growing number of New Orleans homesteaders who raise chickens for eggs and meat." As you might expect, photos accompanying articles on Post-Katrina feral chickens depict wild-type gamecocks and not popular backyard breeds.

Therefore, our hypothesis is that virtually all feral populations have resulted from situations where birds being raised for cockfighting escaped (they are flighty) and survived. In situations where domestic egg-laying breeds are found running at large, we predict they will either be eaten and disappear, or interbreed with escaped gamecocks.

If Sarasota wants to avoid the possibility of feral chickens, CLUCK makes these suggestions:

1) Allow reasonable keeping of hens. Right now the penalty for having a rooster is the same as a hen - so there is no discernible disincentive to keeping roosters. Having both sexes obviously increases the risk of a wild reproducing population.

2) Promote family-friendly breeds that are less flighty and pugnacious -- these breeds are very unlikely to survive on their own, but they make much better pets. 

3) Be vigilant about roosters --- that task is made easier by the fact that they crow and announce their presence. "If it crows, it goes." Without roosters there will be no cockfighting and no reproducing populations out of captivity.

4) Spend scarce code enforcement and animal control dollars on the real problem-- the breeding of fighting cocks for illegal fights. This cruel practice is outlawed now in all States and appears to be the source of feral flocks.

5) For its part, CLUCK will appeal to local chicken producers to not sell breeds known for their fighting ability.


Anonymous said...

Is this also true of the feral chickens that we currently have in northeast Sarasota County - around 45th and Lockwood Ridge Road?

Cluckers said...

Don't know yet. We'd have to know more about them. Are they simply a foraging flock that the owner fails to keep on their property? That is, do they return each night to a coop? (Chickens have fairly high fidelity when it comes to roost sites.) Are there roosters as well as hens? Are there chicks? How many chickens do there seem to be? Is it one flock or several independent flocks? How long have chickens been seen there running at large? What do they look like? Answers to questions like these would help determine if this is just a poorly managed flock or an actual feral population reproducing on its own.

Anonymous said...

This has been a problem for years so I doubt it is a poorly managed flock. They live in the wooded areas and don't seem to belong to anybody.

Cluckers said...

Dear Anonymous: the more information we have about these birds, the more we can understand their exact status. Do you have a sense of how many years? Can you answer any of the other questions in my preceding comment? I drove through the area one late afternoon and saw and heard nothing. Is there an epicenter or a reliable place to see them?

Cluckers said...

So Anonymous, It is hard to tell if you are interested in actually figuring out what is going on in that area, or just lobbing grenades.

CLUCK did find an unconfined rooster a few blocks south. It appeared to be a classic gamecock, but whether it is descended from birds bred for fighting, or is the result of selection pressures that pushed other breeds towards the wild type is hard to say.