The Florida Keys boasts a variety of flora and fauna, and tourists flock to the region to soak up the sun and enjoy the climate. The area has tried hard to protect its vanishing native wildlife in recent years, and repel the invaders who could harm the natural balance. But not all invasive species are of the ‘exotic’ variety.
There’s a really corny joke that starts with “why did the chicken cross the road?’ Well, in Key West—the chickens are always crossing the road. Or hanging out by the local bars. They also love to chill out by the beach, where Patty Shanafelt runs a business renting lounge chairs and umbrella’s to beach goers.
“Just like people think birds carry a lot of diseases, we carry more diseases than the birds do. People forget we are also animals and we carry lots of diseases," she says.
Shanafelt has just finished feeding a mother hen and her chicks which walked up to her booth. But she says don’t be mistaken—not everyone in Key West is fond of the feisty fowl.
In a place where invasive species like iguanas abound, the most common of all, the chicken, draws a lot of ire. They crow at all hours of the day and night and they strut the streets like they own it. While they don’t get any special protections in the Keys, residents cannot shoot them, and cruelty laws are enforced. In case anyone is wondering—these are wild, feral chickens and don’t make a good dinner. Tom Sweets, Executive Director of the Florida Wildlife Center points out, the chickens don’t have many natural predators.
“We get hawks migrating through but they don’t really get the numbers down," he says. "This being Key West, you’ll hear a lot of different stories about how they got here, but its sort of a combination of everything.”
The Wildlife Center caters to birds, with a mission to rehabilitate and release injured animals, including ones considered invasive.
The chickens came to the Keys in waves—from early settlers who used them as a food source, to the people who used to work in the old cigar factories.
The Wildlife Center has a deal with the city of Key West to relocate the chickens to new homes elsewhere. While some consider them pests in Key West, Peggy Cootz the center’s animal care director, says they’ve become a big hit with farmers and ranchers.
“What a key west chicken does better than any animal on the planet is pest control," Coontz says. "And with the desire to be organic growing in popularity, people are looking for new ways to keep their bug population down that are effective and cheap. And we have a bunch of very willing volunteers.”
At one point, about 10 percent of the city’s population were chickens. And they’re an island icon. But they also poop—leading to concerns about the quality of the water, and the beaches. Furthermore, the population is spreading up the Keys, leading to concerns they could crowd out some of the last remaining native species of the Florida Keys.