Pat’s Wildways: Free-ranging chickens of the Keys

By Pat Foster-Turley
September 9, 2021

I’m sure many of you have heard about the chicken issues in Key West, but I finally got to see it for myself.  On our recent Keys vacation we were headquartered at a wonderful place on Plantation Key, the Ragged Edge, which was close enough to Key West for a daytrip but far enough away from all the hubbub and crowd-exacerbated Covid issues.   We arrived around lunchtime, and, with my pre-visit Internet sleuthing I found a small Cuban restaurant with an outside patio that I wanted to try.

A patron at a Cuban café in Key West attempts to feed a chicken a plantain on a fork.

This small café, tucked behind the Smallest Bar in Key West, was a chicken paradise. We settled into a small outdoor table and were entertained by chickens as we awaited our lunch.  One cocky rooster with huge spurs was begging for handouts from the table next to us, and the patron there was holding a fork with a whole cooked plantain, poking it into the bird’s face.  Chickens peck at food—they don’t grab entire chunks like this in their beaks but the diner was determined.  Meanwhile in a small patch of dirt nearby a hen with three chicks was scraping up a hole for her brood, that soon crawled in underneath her, hidden from sight.  When the diner with the plantain left I gave the rooster more of what he was looking for:  rice and beans and crumbled corn chips.  Soon the hen and her chickens came over too to eat this feast.  It was all very fun, but unsanitary I am certain. And their restroom was unsanitary to the max too, but that’s another story.

Elsewhere in the Keys chickens were roaming too.  In one convenience store parking lot I photographed a couple of “free range” chickens posing right in front of a fried chicken sign—if only they knew. And even our place at the Ragged Edge was full of chickens that greeted us when we returned for the day, and begged at our screened-in porch door for handouts too.  I kept some leftovers in the refrigerator to share with them as well.

With all these chickens around I got curious and did a stint of Googling to find out more. There has been a long running controversy, in Key West especially, about the loose chickens. Loose chickens here apparently originated from backyard chickens that were released, and others came from released fighting cocks when these fights became illegal. Over the years the loose population expanded, helped along by the many chicken-lovers who fed and encouraged them.

Two free-ranging chickens parade in a convenience store parking lot in front of a fried chicken sign.

Like most everything else these days the feelings about chickens are very polarized here.  Some people love them for their cuteness and spirit; others detest them for the noise and waste they spread through the city. Cultural chicken wars ensued. But in January 2021 the Key West City Commission sided with the chicken detractors and made feeding roaming chickens illegal, not that this stopped anyone in the Cuban café we visited that lunchtime.

Now there is another solution to the chicken problem. The Key West Wildlife Center provides traps for those who want to remove the chickens from their area. The center then cares for the chickens, makes sure they are healthy and then what? Don’t they get overrun with captive chickens? What do they do with them?  Does someone eat them or what? Humane advocates are watching closely and even they seem happy with the solution.

It turns out that chickens are a blessing for organic gardeners, and these healthy chickens are given to farmers that take care of them and let them roam in man-made tunnels in between the rows of vegetables where the chickens can spend their days eating bugs and weeds that plague the crops.  Looking this up online I’ve found that there are many types of chicken “chunnels” that can be purchased, and many designs for those who want to make their own. Who would have guessed?

There are also “chickens of the trees” in the Keys, another name for the green iguanas that have settled into the Keys for the long haul. And, as the name implies, some say these pest iguanas “taste like chicken”.  Stay tuned to hear more about this in next week’s story.

Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island.  She welcomes your nature questions and observations.  [email protected]