A chicken’s paradise

One image burns in Brenda Diederich’s memory above all others.

Of the dozens of scenic snapshots and picturesque landscapes the Kansas native has recorded in her mind over the last three years visiting family on Kauai, one memory stands above the countless sunsets and sandy beaches.

Diederich was sitting on a bench in Koloa on the South Shore with her grandson watching a handful of feral chickens picking for scraps in the grass.

Finally, after scrounging on the ground long enough, the flock wandered into Sueoka’s Grocery store to see what it could muster up.

“I fondly remember a mother hen with a huge brood of fluffy chicks exploring inside that giant door — and one of the store clerks giggling and gently shooing them back outside,” the Wamego, Kan., resident recalled. “A lot of people had gathered to watch the baby chicks and everyone was grinning. How often do you get to see a delightful chicken family grocery shopping on Sueoka’s old wooden floorboards?”

Now, whenever Diederich visits Kauai, she enjoys waking up to the sound of roosters crowing and the “bug patrol” that they provide for the neighborhood. It’s the sound, a reminder, that she’s on a peaceful vacation.

“Kauai chickens are beautiful,” Diederich wrote in an e-mail. “To imagine the islands without them causes me distress!”

Not everyone is clucking the chicken’s praises though.

Over the years, the island’s feral chickens — whose roots date back to Kauai’s plantation days — have become a common sight for both residents and visitors, and a broad range of attitudes toward them has followed.

But what started it all — what let the hen out of the hen house so to speak — was Hurricane Iwa in 1982 and, 10 years later, Hurricane Iniki in 1992.

Chickens were on the island before either storm, but they were contained. It wasn’t until the damaging winds blew across the island did the birds get free.

“In those years, it was not uncommon for plantation workers to grow their own vegetables and raise chickens,” Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources spokeswoman Deborah Ward wrote in an e-mail describing the chicken’s history on Kauai. “The hurricanes came with so much force, the wind ripped open the chicken coops.”

Literally, the birds flew the coop.

“This,” Ward wrote, “was the start of the Kauai chicken story.”

Running afoul

Since then, feral chickens have become entrenched in Kauai’s landscape — they have even been found along the Na Pali Coast on the Kalalau Trail and their images are plastered on T-shirts and hats at countless souvenir shops across the island.

But how have these feral chickens been able to thrive?

The answer, according to the DNLR, is a combination of factors.

Basically, they’re tough from years of surviving on their own and they reproduce like rabbits.

Wild chickens on Kauai, Ward said, “are hardy and resilient,” the result of years of cross-breeding for food production and disease immunity.

As for reproduction?

One chicken will lay around three dozen eggs a year, Ward said. And they have few, if any natural predators. That means while the birthrate continues to hum along, a predator population isn’t at the other end to balance things out.

“Feral cats and dogs are the common predator on Kauai but they haven’t kept the chicken population in control,” Ward wrote. “Barn and Hawaiian owls may contribute to take a small percentage.”

On other neighbor islands, Indian mongooses, which were introduced in 1883 to control rats in the state, have kept chicken populations under control.

But that’s not the case on Kauai, where there are very few Indian mongoose, if any. Two were recently trapped in Lihue in 2011.

Ward said that if the mongoose were to inadvertently become established on Kauai, chicken numbers would drop.

“This is because chickens are ground nesters and Indian mongoose are notorious egg stealers,” she said.

But that’s not a viable solution, some state officials say. Introducing mongoose would decimate other animal populations besides chicken, and that’s not a benefit to the island.

“As the largest of the main Hawaiian Islands without mongoose, Kauai functions as a refuge for some of our native shearwaters, petrels, and other endangered bird,” said Joshua Atwood, DLNR invasive species coordinator. “The introduction of mongoose to Kauai would decimate these endangered species, and would not result in the disappearance of chickens from Kauai.”

A Kauai Humane Society program that once allowed people to trap feral chickens and turn them in has been since discontinued, too.

KHS Director Penny Cistaro said staff members now discourage people from bringing in feral chickens unless they are sick, injured or in distress. The shelter was euthanizing too many chickens to keep up with demand or costs before discontinuing the service.

“They’re a part of our landscape just like the egrets, pigeons, sparrows and finches are,” Cistaro said of the chickens. “If people find animals that sick, injured or in distress, we’re more than happy to help, but people shouldn’t bring in healthy animals seen as a nuisance. It’s hard to quantify what a nuisance is to one person because it may not be for another.”

A plan of inaction

So what has been done and what can be done to address the burgeoning population?

Actually, not a whole lot.

“We get a lot of calls asking us what can be done about the chickens,” said Ward. “But our answer a lot of times is ‘not much.’”

The DLNR allows residents to trap and dispose of chickens on their own — as long as the chickens are not captured and released alive elsewhere — or hire a trapper to remove them.

The state agency also issues permits to farmers and land managers to remove “certain species of birds and mammals” causing crop damage. But, since feral chickens are not protected by the DLNR, permit are not required to remove or dispose of them.

County of Kauai spokeswoman Mary Daubert said the county hasn’t implemented any population control measures in recent times, but recommended that residents and visitors contact a pest control company if they experience persistent problems.  

Although feral chickens have not been deemed by the state Department of Health to be a bona fide health issue that requires drastic population control measures, some measures have been taken to address it.

A bill passed by the state Legislature and signed into law earlier this year modified state statutes by adding “odors and filth resulting from a person feeding feral birds” to a short list of Department of Health nuisances that must be investigated and abated, destroyed, removed or prevented.

That bill could cover Kauai’s chickens.

The only other defined nuisance on the list, prior to the bill’s passage, was “toxic materials that are used in or by-products of the manufacture or conversion of methamphetamine and clandestine drug labs that manufacture methamphetamine.”

The changes also allows anyone — rather than just the state sheriff, all police officers and physicians — to report “the existence of any nuisance injurious to the public health” to the state Department of Public Health, which could, in turn, issue warnings or ordering property owners to stop feeding birds excessively.

But Rep. James Kunane “Jimmy” Tokioka, who was one of 13 who introduced the bill, said the law was created to discourage people from feeding pigeons in their backyards excessively but acknowledged that the bill’s broad language could also include feeding feral chickens.  

“It could apply but I don’t know who would be doing that on Kauai,” Tokioka explained.

Mixed thoughts

Although state and county officials say there isn’t an count on how many chickens are on the island, many agree feral chickens have become a part of the island’s character over the years.

Some entrepreneurs have even taken that idea and turned the island’s iconic chickens into a profitable industry.

Chicken-themed merchandise, such as magnets, T-shirts and hats, are not difficult to find in stores across the island.

C.G. Custom Prints Owner Donovan Claytor, who owns the Kauai Chickens trademark, has been selling the company’s hats and T-shirts, emblazoned with designs of chickens for the past decade.

And the demand for his products, he said, has been a steady one.

Claytor said he first tested the response to his company’s T-shirts out of Meyvn Clothing Company in Kukui Grove Shopping Center, and within the first few days of placing them on the shelves, all of the shirts were completely sold out.   

“When you have the response from the tourists who say, ‘How wonderful. That’s so cool,’ and take pictures of them, I thought, ‘Wow, maybe they can bring something back from Kauai that tells that story,” Claytor said. “It’s a great conversation piece.”   

Over the years, Claytor said he began distributing his products to stores across the island as people caught on to the concept, and as of last week, he now distributes Kauai Chicken merchandise to 12 stores on Kauai.

“I think it’s basically an icon to Kauai,” said. “You do have some tourists who don’t like chickens, but for the most part, what we’ve seen is that tourists think it’s a really unique thing for Kauai, because they see them running around — you can’t see that anywhere else in the world.”

So, what do some visitors think?

Kay Ann Coy, a first-time visitor to Hawaii from Indianapolis, said the feral chickens haven’t bothered her during her stay on Kauai and added that they help contribute to the island’s rural landscape and atmosphere.  

“It’s kind of unusual,” Coy said on Tuesday during a visit to Opaekaa Falls in Wailua. “I kind of feel like the whole island is a farm. They’re also really colorful — they’re the prettiest chickens that I’ve seen.”

Not so, others said. Once the novelty wears off, they become a major pain in the beak.

Anahola resident Dorothy Kulik said she moved to Kauai in July and thought they were cute for the first six weeks.

But now?

“They’re now a pain in the butt,” Kulik wrote in an e-mail about the issue. “Issue: Noise.”

Kulik said she is also concerned about “a vermin infestation,” and a possible bird flu epidemic from chicken feces could spread across the island if the chicken population is not controlled. Her suggestion would be a two-birds-with-one-stone type of proposal.

She’d prefer to turn the chickens into dog food.

“Because I support 100 percent Kauai sustainability and because I understand the feral chickens are too tough to eat, I highly recommend the establishment of a local pet food factory promoting gourmet pet food ‘Made with genuine Kauai feral chicken,” Kulik wrote.

Regardless of which came first — the chicken or the human — others said the island is just as much the bird’s home as anyone else’s.

“It’s their home just as much as it is ours,” said Precious Huntsberry, visiting Kauai for the first time with her husband, Paul Huntsberry, from Las Vegas.

“We think it’s great,” Paul Huntsberry added, watching the chickens run around while the couple was hiking around  Opaekaa Falls. “It’s all natural — it’s their environment.”

• Darin Moriki, staff writer and photographer, can be reached at 245-0428 or dmoriki@thegardenisland.com.

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