Bird Flu Fears May Clip the Wings of Key West Chickens

Maryann Mott
for National Geographic News
April 28, 2006
Locals might say no other American city loves—and possibly hates—chickens more than Key West, Florida.

The free-roaming birds are thought to have been introduced to the tiny island decades ago by Cuban immigrants for cock fighting. Today the chickens number about 3,000.

From the post office to the grocery store, the cackling fowl can be seen and heard just about everywhere on Key West, the southernmost island of a chain stretching off Florida's southern tip (see map).

But that may soon change.

City commissioners announced their intention last week to remove the chickens from all public places as part of a larger avian influenza plan being developed.

"It's just a reasonable effort by government to fill its primary responsibility, which is the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens," Key West Commissioner Bill Verge explained.

How and when the chickens will be removed hasn't been decided yet, he said.

Migratory Risk

Key West is one of many areas in the United States bracing for the arrival of bird flu, which is expected to hit sometime this year. (Read "U.S. Bird Flu Plan Taking Shape.")

Wild bird migration is one way scientists think the flu may be introduced into the country.

Some migratory waterfowl carry the H5N1 virus, experts say, and can pass it to poultry flocks that lie along their migratory routes.

That's a concern, Verge says, since Key West is on two major flyways.

So far, human cases of bird flu have been reported in nine countries, resulting in 113 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.

Most human cases have occurred from direct or close contact with infected poultry or contaminated surfaces.

But not everyone is worried about a bird flu epidemic.

"There's always a scare," said Katha Sheehan, owner of The Chicken Store in Key West. The Chicken Store sells paraphernalia to preserve the famous—or infamous—fowl.

"Remember the year 2000? Then it was anthrax and airline safety. There's always some kind of tremendous public scare that we have to deal with, and now it's the avian flu," she said.

Sheehan believes the virus is simply an excuse to get rid of the noisy chickens that annoy some tourists and residents.

"This is a village that never sleeps," she said, as a rooster crowed in the background. "People are up all hours of the night partying. Those people particularly want to be sleeping in until noon, and the chickens do not."

For years the birds roosted in huge banyan trees found on just about every block, Sheehan says, hiding them from view and absorbing their cackle. But recent hurricanes have knocked down most of the banyans.

"It was a much quieter city when I first came here 22 years ago," she said.

Chicken Sanctuary
To house the chickens and keep them safe, Sheehan would like to see a combination rooster sanctuary/pet cemetery built on nearby Stock Island, a former landfill that closed about 12 years ago.

"It could go from being a liability into actually being a tourist attraction," she said.

This isn't the first time the city has tried to get the fowl population under control—and ruffled a few feathers in the process.

In 2004 a local barber turned "chicken catcher" was hired by the city. About a thousand birds were ultimately captured and relocated to a farm in Broward County, says Verge, the city commissioner.

Since then, he says, the population has doubled.

"We've never been overrun with chickens like we're overrun right now," Verge said.

A 30-year-old city ordinance requires chickens to be caged and kept on an owner's property. Verge admits, though, that the law has never been enforced, resulting in the poultry population explosion.

Sheehan believes any crackdown on the old ordinance is bound to fail, because it wouldn't take into consideration people's attachment to the feathered animals.

"There are a lot of people here who adore chickens," she said. "And they're going to continue to adore chickens. They're going to keep bringing them in. They're going to hatch them out. They're going to dump them in places where they're least expected."

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