Visitors to Hawaii’s island of Kauai are surprised and often delighted to spot chickens nearly everywhere. Kauai’s wild chickens lead strings of chicks across shopping center parking lots. Rooster crowing seems to come from every direction, and often cars must stop to prevent hitting the abundant birds as they prance across roads.
It wasn’t always the case. Hawaii is one of the world’s most remote places with thousands of miles of the Pacific Ocean separating it from any continent. Until relatively recently, by geologic time scale, it was devoid of people and chickens but supported a diverse array of plant and bird species. With the exception of bats, seals, and whales the Islands lacked mammals. Somehow, around 800 years ago, intrepid Polynesians crossed the ocean in outriggers to find and colonize the islands. They brought along chickens in those big canoes, and the birds thrived in Hawaii’s gentle climate. Centuries later, Captain Cook and other Europeans rediscovered Hawaii, called them the Sandwich Islands, and began introducing dozens of species of plants and animals. Many survived with gusto, including wild hogs and rats, which soon became pests. Predatory mongooses were released to prey on rats. But they soon found the flightless, native birds easier to catch.
The birds Polynesians brought to Hawaii closely resembled Red Jungle Fowl, the ancestor of modern chickens. Many years later Filipino people moved to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations. Cock fighting was one of their favorite hobbies, so they brought their own aggressive strains of chickens. Neither Jungle Fowl nor fighting chickens lay many eggs or get big enough for much of a meal so, eventually modern productive breeds were imported and kept in hundreds of backyard flocks throughout the islands.
Then mother nature took over. In 1982 fierce Hurricane Iwa hit the Islands. A decade later, Hurricane Iniki again tore through Hawaii destroying buildings, crops, and fences, freeing many backyard flocks.
Hawaii’s feral chickens are, today, a genetic blend of Jungle Fowl, fighting birds, and a host of domestic breeds. Mostly they look like Jungle Fowl. They are small, quick, and adaptable. Most roosters have brilliant reddish hackles, big combs and crow endlessly. Most hens have small combs and are more varied in coloration than cocks.
Some people call them wild, while others consider them feral. Either way these once domestic birds now roam on all of Hawaii’s islands. They are most abundant on Kaua’i because it is the one island that’s free of mongooses. This aggressive weasel was introduced to eat rats but found chickens and their eggs easier to catch and tastier than rodents. Because Kaua’i is mongoose free its wild chickens have no significant predators.
They seem to be everywhere. Enjoy a meal in an open-air cafe and chickens scurry about seeking scraps that fall from the table. Hike up a mountain trail and roosters serenade from the nearby dense jungle. They are hard to spot in the dense foliage but sit for a moment and pull a granola bar out of the pack and soon chickens seem to magically appear seeking a tidbit.
Kaua’i’s wild chickens have lost many of the traits of today’s productive breeds. They lay white eggs but not many of them and they are small. In Hawaii’s mild climate hens hide their nests and incubate eggs at any time of year. It’s common to see chicks swarming around their mother in any of the Island’s seasons.
Tourists enjoy the wild chickens, but they are not popular with many residents, especially gardeners. For them, wild chickens are just a nuisance. Sometimes they trap and kill them. Local people commonly joke that making a meal from a chicken involves boiling it in a big pot for a few hours along with a couple of rocks. By then the rocks will be more tender than the chickens and make better eating!
In addition to colorful wild chickens Kaua’i offers visitors magnificent beaches, rugged Waimea Canyon, steep mountains, abundant resorts and restaurants, and unusual natural and cultural history. There’s even the huge Kaua’i Coffee Company plantation that welcomes visitors. Kaua’i is a delightful place to visit. Flights to its main town of Lahue (pronounced lahooey) connect with Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and a few other cities.