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Feral Chickens

There are places all over the world where domesticated chickens have reverted to living in the wild. Some have been the victims of natural disasters while others, unfortunately, have deliberately been abandoned by their owners. In many areas, chickens can’t survive for long due to inclement weather or native predators. Places with temperate climates, easy access to food and an absence of predators make ideal environments for rogue birds. The most well known are in parts of the southern USA (California, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Florida), Australia, Bermuda, the Cayman and Virgin Islands, New Zealand and Hawaii.

I don’t know much about Hawaii; my knowledge, limited to popular television shows or documentaries, can be summed up in a few words: surfing, tropical shirts, luaus, Polynesian grass skirts, hula dancing and of course, feral pigs and chickens.

Feral refers to an animal (or their descendants) that has escaped from captivity or human home and is living more or less as a wild animal. Chickens are well suited to feral living: they are domesticated enough that they can easily live close to people, can produce enough offspring to increase their population and are able to evade predators by roosting in trees.

In my small community, Gabriola Island, off the west coast of Canada we have several flocks of feral turkeys and peacocks. At one point, there were feral Guinea Fowl, but they’ve been wiped out by aerial predators (we have no large predatory land mammals). They are a bone of contention: some folks support their population growth by feeding them, others don’t mind driving slowly when a flock crosses the road, while those who live in the areas the turkeys inhabit find them problematic.

They have to deal with dug up gardens, poop on porches, or dented cars where they’ve been pecked. I have to say, as someone who lives far from any of those flocks, I get to enjoy them without the downside of sharing close quarters. I love seeing the feral peacocks and even had one visit our property once, but am glad I don’t have to endure their loud calling.

Some islands in Hawaii though are inundated by recent unfettered growth in the roving flocks of chickens.

The first people to inhabit Hawaii were Polynesians, arriving at least 800 years ago. They travelled long distances and took their chickens, similar to Red Junglefowl, the ancestor of the modern-day chicken. The archeological record shows that chicken fossils dating to the Polynesian era, long before Captain Cook arrived in Hawaii in 1778, were found in a cave on Kauai. Post contact, Polynesian chickens were bred with those brought by British explorers. Hawaiian chickens are considered relatively recently developed from their wild form.

Until four decades ago, Kauai chickens were descendants of those strains that were living in contained areas of the island and in small numbers. Then they began mating with farm chickens that escaped in the aftermath of Hurricane Iwa in 1982 and Hurricane Iniki in 1992. Those birds had greater fertility and were adapted to a wider range of habitats allowing them to prosper.

In their homelands, male Red Junglefowl live in home ranges that they protect from other flocks. Roosters will typically have multiple hens they watch over, and sometimes one or two subordinate males. The forests and undeveloped areas of Kauai reveal a similar social structure, with small groups consisting of one or two males and a few females.

But similar to domestic chickens, the ones in more urbanized areas of Kauai appear to be more tolerant of other chickens. Red Junglefowl are seasonal breeders; domestic chickens, on the other hand, mate and lay eggs year-round. Kauai’s chickens appear to follow a mixed breeding pattern — while they do breed throughout the year, their breeding behaviors have seasonal peaks. Over time, the feral birds may eventually adopt a more Red Junglefowl-like breeding behavior, as they divert their energy from rapid growth and reproduction to improved immunity and physiology, that allow them to better survive in the wild.

Feral chickens are found on other Hawaiian islands, but in smaller numbers, probably due to the presence of egg eating mongooses (introduced to kill rats) and fewer coop escapees in areas spared by the hurricanes.

Annual bird counts organized by the Audubon Society support that there is a correlation between the increasing numbers of chickens on Kauai in the years following each hurricane.

A Bitchin’ Chickens’ follower, Sheri, is limited by local Oahu bylaws to keeping only two chickens (which seems a bit restrictive), but has many tales of her interactions with the feral flock around her townhouse complex.

“I appreciate online support as I learn about chickens and what I can do to help feral birds live better lives, especially in a place where they get very little love. While the flock here lives in relative peace and contentment, in other housing areas (such as the military bases) they are removed, with the groundskeepers often taking the mama hens and leaving the babies!

I see quite a few posts about this on our local Hawaii Wildbird Rescue group. Recently someone has been poisoning the feral chickens and people are finding them in parks shot by crossbows and left to die. It’s quite awful how cruel people can be.

On the other hand, the overpopulation of feral chickens is something the state, cities and counties haven’t dealt with effectively. Recently my state representative introduced a bill to make it illegal to feed them. It didn’t pass, but it does demonstrate the level of frustration people have, as well as the lack of education on how best to resolve the issues.”  

She’s intervened when one hen presented with monofilament wrapped around her leg and toes, nursing Flame back to health before returning her back to the flock. To read the case study click here.

Challenges

  • The full impact of large feral populations on native flora and fauna is unknown.
  • Feral flocks pose a risk to gardens and agriculture.
  • They could be vectors for disease. Many feral chicken flocks live in parks and nature reserves, and could contract diseases from migrating birds and spread them to other wild birds or to domesticated chicken flocks.
  • They are at risk of predation from dogs and cats, and being hit by cars.
  • When people get fed up with the birds they may take matters into their own hands and use inhumane methods to exterminate them.

In some places in the world feral chickens are afforded no protection and people are free to harvest or eradicate them. In Hawaii feral flocks enjoy some protection as ‘wild chickens’ in nature preserves, but if they wander into developed areas or private property, they are considered domestic chickens with no sanctuary. People are free to trap and kill them. Some farmers pay workers to shoot them while others offer a $5 bounty on each chicken.

There is an upside of feral chickens – some folks love them. In many places they are a tourist attraction and are the catalyst of other business offshoots (e.g. T-shirts, ceramics, art). One of my chicken keeping friends, a self-described chicken addict, got married in Hawaii and managed to work feral chickens into her wedding party and photos.

Credit: Live Science; Nature; Sheri Hoomanawanui. Featured photo: Honolulu Civil Beat.

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