City's Stray Chickens: Friend or Foe?

Until last October, the city used to pay a guy $14,000 a year to round up the thousands of stray chickens that roam our pockmarked streets. In a story in this week's New Times, Lesther Jorge, the last Chicken Buster, toured some old battle sites, like Overtown, the Gaza of stray fowl.

He found that in his absence the cluckers have multiplied furiously, like Gremlins. One dilapidated tenement near Gibson Park he'd cleared back in September was overrun with the animals. "Think about it, one chicken can lay 15, 20 eggs, and maybe 10 of them will hatch," Lesther says. Even when he was actively working, he estimated he caught only 30 percent of the thousands of chicks around town.

The city eliminated Chicken Busters last year in the middle of a $118 budget crisis. Without them, what can you do to keep the birds at bay? A poultry expert at the University of Florida, the improbably named Gary Butcher, got all zen when asked about it: stop worrying and learn to love the chickens.

"If you're talking about hens, they're less of a disturbance than dogs," he said. "They don't bark. They don't attack strangers or the mailman. We should get rid of dogs instead of chickens."

Roosters, on the other hand, might only be an inconvenience to suburbanites who like to sleep in late, Butcher said. But as far diseases go, wild chickens are no more of a threat than squirrels. Butcher, whose got several degrees in avian virology and runs the avian disease department at the university, is an admitted chicken cheerleader. And he's noticed he's not the only one. "For some reason, it seems in the last several years people are showing more interest in chickens," he said. "I think there's this move back to nature, where people want to have farm animals as pets."

The Times of Higher Education, a British academic journal, offered its own chicken encomium two weeks ago. Peter Lennox, "a senior lecturer in spatial perception in artificial environments" at the University of Derby, described a sort of Tao According to Chickens in his piece "Pecking Order."

So what do I get from chickens? Simple lessons like these: competition without co-operation is nonsense...Reward and risk go hand in hand. The top cockerel has to take the biggest share of both. A flock can manage without a cockerel, but a cockerel without a flock is nothing... Everyone should have a place in the pecking order. Strive for your place in life, not someone else's ...Don't let "flock-think" smother your own opinions; give yourself space to be an individual.

New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean has also become well known for tweeting about her chickens, Tookie and Merry-Go-Round. Last year she filed a 4,300-word story about the chickens she's kept for the last two years. "Chickens," she wrote. "Seem to be a perfect convergence of the economic, environmental, gastronomic, and emotional matters of the moment."

For Harry Wilcox, an avuncular 63-year-old who regularly feeds the chickens that gather behind his Overtown tenement, the benefits are more tangible. "Eggs," he said. "You gotta go in the bushes and look for them, but the eggs are good."

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Erik Maza