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Foul fowl: Hawaii locals overwhelmed by wild chickens

Although some may consider them a charming island quirk, many Hawaii residents say feral chickens are nothing to crow about.

HONOLULU (CN) — Although many destinations have their share of distinctive animals, Hawaii boasts a particularly unique range of creatures that call the islands home. For all its incredible biodiversity, however, Hawaii has instead become dominated not by the gentle Hawaiian sea turtles or the adorable Hawaiian monk seals it is known for — but by a growing population of chickens.

Jokingly referred to as the real state bird over the Nene goose, the wildfowl have grown to record numbers on each of the Hawaiian Islands. Kauai especially hosts massive colonies of these feral chickens, but even on the more metropolitan island of Oahu the chickens are everywhere.

As a relatively isolated island chain, there are few species that are endemic to Hawaii. The chicken is not one of those species. Their proliferation has become the source of some debate.

Locals throw around the theory that Hurricane Iniki in 1992 may be to blame for destroying coops and fences containing the farm animals. Some speculate the chickens have a longer lineage in Hawaii: a 2015 study traced the genome of the feral chickens of Kauai and found traces of DNA belonging to the culturally significant red junglefowl brought by ancient Polynesians when they first settled in Hawaii. Still others believe the chicken problem is really a people problem, pointing to the popularity of cockfighting on the islands that encourages the population growth.

Regardless of their origin, the chickens have become mascots of the islands. Tourists delight in seeing the normally cooped-up creatures roaming the islands with impunity and gobble up chicken-themed souvenirs. For many locals, however, the novelty has worn off and become a true nuisance as the increase in feral chickens has been accompanied by rising property damage, disease risk, and noise disturbances.

“Myself and neighbors have been complaining for several years now that we are not able to get any meaningful rest or sleep; the roosters jump on the fences/trees near my apartment building and crow, loudly, daily as early as 3:00 a.m.!!  Further, throughout the day, from my unit on the 3rd floor, I can hear the chickens cackling throughout the day,” Oahu resident Murdoch Ortiz said in written testimony supporting government oversight of controlling feral chicken numbers.

Aside from the noise, residents fear the chickens and their droppings could pose disease risk in the islands’ already strained environmental systems. The chickens can be aggressive too, often chasing people trying to walk past them.

And the chickens do indeed frequently cross the roads, although the "why" of the joke has become less important than the danger the chickens pose to drivers who brake suddenly for clusters that wander onto roadways. Homeowners complain of scratched up gardens and damaged property. And the chickens disrupt businesses as well, leaving smelly droppings near restaurants and bothering customers.

All of this has led to growing clamor for the state to take action against the foul fowl, but progress to actively reduce chicken populations has been slow. An ordinance proposed in Honolulu would place a $500 fine for feeding the birds. In early July, signs declaring ‘DON’T FEED FERAL CHICKENS’ went up in several Oahu parks.

Some residents worry that merely warning people off from feeding the wild birds isn't enough to really control populations. (Candace Cheung/Courthouse News)

The Department of Customer Services of the City and County of Honolulu has also implemented a trapping program. The program has had a modicum of success, with only 67 chickens caught over several months. The department had been budgeted $7,000 for the traps and City Council members questioned the effectiveness of the program when discussing the future of feral chicken control at a budget meeting in May.

“We really want to try to bring costs down and that needs additional time," the department's director Kimberly Hashiro told council members. "We’re looking at a dual trap contract, where we have multiple vendors in place and we can analyze the productivity of each."

A bill for the 2022 legislative session proposing a five-year plan to curb chicken populations with the introduction of a bird feed meant to prevent eggs from hatching went nowhere. No agencies stepped up to allocate resources for the plan, to the relief of those who opposed the bill on environmental and animal cruelty grounds.

Although detractors of the bill conceded the number of chickens on the islands has become untenable, some have implied that the bill's plan to wipe out the chickens bordered on animal cruelty.

“Please protect the lives of innocent animals, and not create a bill that generates a 'kill' mentality because something is a 'nuisance.' Use this opportunity to teach the community ways to provide rescue and peace and not torture,” Oahu resident Heather Chapman wrote in testimony against the bill.

A petition questioned the use of the Ovocontrol bird feed and written opposition to the bill pointed to the possible contamination this could introduce to Hawaii’s soil and water. Some wondered how the state would plan to keep other birds, especially endangered native species, from eating the feed. Even some of the most vehement supporters of the bill, driven to the brink by the early-morning crowing, questioned whether the bird feed was the most humane method.

Feral chickens are not the only creatures to enjoy unrestrained growth on the islands, highlighting Hawaii’s ongoing fight against invasive species. The islands lack natural predators, making it easy for invasive species to find a foothold and eventually grow to eclipse endemic species, with some even become the predators themselves. Coqui frogs, named for their distinctive loud and incessant croaks, are widespread on the Big Island, where they decimate native insect populations, disrupting ecological processes and human sleep schedules.

Even larger mammals have been added to Hawaii's invasive species lists.

The axis deer, initially a gift to King Kamehameha V in the 19th century, thrive on Maui and Molokai. Like the chickens, residents complain the deer run rampant, destroying native flora and encroaching on urban communities. Not even a growing hunting industry has been able to make a significant dent in their populations.

This past week, Governor David Ige declared emergency relief for Maui to address axis deer control. But there has been no such relief so far for those besieged by the feral chickens.

Chickens on Oahu. (Chris Marshall/Courthouse News)

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