Hawaii’s Feral Chickens Are Out of Control
Polynesians brought chickens’ wild ancestors to the islands. Europeans brought domestic chickens. Now they’ve mixed, and are everywhere.
On the island of Kauai, wherever humans go, chickens go too. Hens and chicks kick around in grocery-store parking lots and parks. They’re visitors to cookouts and picnics. On popular hikes, many people are rewarded at the end of the trail with a picturesque view of the island and a small flock of chickens. The birds kick up newly planted condo landscaping and community gardens. Restaurants hand-paint signs asking patrons not to feed the fowl.
These are not your average chickens. Descended from birds brought to the island in centuries past, they are now feral, surviving on their own, which suits them just fine. The hens are drab and blend into the bushes. The roosters are a mixture of orange, mahogany red, and iridescent black. At night they roost in trees for safety. In the morning, roosters begin calling long before dawn—and continue all day long. All roosters do this, but these ones live among people instead of in industrial barns. Even so, tourists seem to love them. When I was there a few years ago, I saw souvenir shops full of T-shirts and caps that referred to the roosters as Kauai Dawn Patrol.
Local lawmakers have attempted to keep the population under control, because although some chickens are a local curiosity, too many are a nuisance. They’re loud. They scratch up landscaping and farmland. They regularly get in the way of cars. But so far nothing has worked. In the fight between humans and chickens, the chickens are winning. This may be the chickens’ most powerful survival trait: They thrive in proximity to humans and human-created environments, Eben Gering, an evolutionary biologist at Nova Southeastern University who has studied feral chickens, told me. They’re chickens, yes, but thanks to their origins, they have supercharged survival skills.
The origin story of these particular chickens begins with Polynesians who brought pigs, dogs, and small fowl with them when they took their outrigger canoes across the oceans to settle places such as Easter Island and Hawaii. Researchers have found markers in both ancient and modern chicken DNA that trace back to precontact Polynesian fowl and can be used to show when and where the birds were transported. Those brought to Hawaii were actually red jungle fowl, the wild ancestor of the modern chicken. Over the years, those birds mixed with domestic chickens brought later by European colonists and others. In the late 20th century, major hurricanes Iwa and Iniki hit the Hawaiian Islands and destroyed chicken coops, freeing flocks of domestic fowl to roam. The chickens, especially on Kauai, where they don’t have predators such as mongooses (which were introduced in a failed attempt to control the rat population on other islands and have since made themselves at home), are uniquely adapted to their circumstances.
“One of the reasons that red jungle fowl were domesticated into chickens and that they make good agricultural animals is that they were pretty hardy and adaptable to begin with,” Gering said. Both wild and domestic genes contribute to the chickens’ success. Because they live in a wild environment where humans no longer treat their maladies, they have genes that correspond with greater parasite resistance than the average domestic fowl has. Many of Kauai’s feral chickens are able to reproduce year-round (jungle fowl reproduce seasonally) but take better care of their eggs than domestic breeds: They’ve retained genetics that make them inclined to incubate eggs—something bred out of many modern production lines.
“In many ways they are just as wild as the wild animals,” Dominic Wright, a biology professor at Linköping University, in Sweden, told me. He keeps a flock of red jungle fowl for research and said that the hybrid chickens on Kauai, which he studied with Gering, look and act almost exactly like his birds. Both species’ males engage in “tidbitting,” dancing and clucking to call hens over for a special edible treat they’ve found; their crows are similar too. Over time, the chickens of Hawaii have managed to rewild themselves while keeping the best parts of domestication.
“They’re not the smartest birds, but they’re smarter than people give them credit for,” Gering said, in part because chickens are social learners that empathize with other members of their group. “Those attributes tend to be helpful in adapting to new environments,” Gering told me. Chickens share that trait with what some might say are one of the most successful and resilient animals on the planet: Homo sapiens.
In other words, the chickens aren’t going anywhere. Once a species like chickens has become established, getting rid of them is hard, and humans aren’t helping. Hawaii has tried, unsuccessfully, to establish fines for people—tourists and residents alike—who feed the chickens. Some people do hunt and eat the chickens. Others eat the eggs. None of it has been enough to make a significant dent in the population. In 2022, Hawaii lawmakers attempted to pass a bill that would have considered the use of an avian birth control to manage chicken populations, but it didn’t pass. (Tools for population control—whether birth control or poison—can also find their way into the environment or the wrong species.) The birds are craftier than they seem. Over several months last year, officials on Oahu spent $7,000 on traps but have caught only 67 birds.
Humans like to categorize the animals around us. This one is a nuisance; that one is worth protecting. This animal is productive; that animal is destructive. These judgments have some reason to them: Controlling invasive species is important, especially when it protects sensitive plants and animals that can’t adapt as well to a changing environment. “On islands, the primary driver of biodiversity loss is invasive species,” Christy Martin, the program manager for the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species, told me. A major worry, Martin said, is that chickens might be a disease reservoir for illnesses that can kill native birds. Yet the chickens are simply trying to live their lives in a world where we make it easy for them, even when we don’t intend to. “We plant nice fields full of food and assume animals can read signs that say No Trespassing,” Bethany Brookshire, the author of Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains, told me. “If we learned more about how those animals behave, what they need, and changed our behavior accordingly, we could probably save ourselves and them a lot of headaches, traps, and poisons,” she said. But it’s easier to be annoyed with animals who aren’t playing our games by our rules.
The feral chicken is likely in Hawaii to stay, and could easily be seen as another pest among the many that seem to be taking over these days. Pythons are eating their way north through Florida. New York City has hired a rat czar to deal with increased rodent activity. Australia is still trying to manage its rabbit population more than 150 years after one settler imported 24 rabbits onto his estate. The animals always get the blame for their behavior, but to have a chance at controlling them, we will have to change our own. And at the same time, we could better appreciate the value chickens have just by virtue of being chickens, dinosaur-like birds that roam the landscape.
Once, the islands’ chickens were a valuable food source for people who lived there, though “I can’t say they were ever as revered as the forest birds,” the featherwork artist Kawika Lum-Nelmida told me. But, he added, they are in some old songs and stories going back to the legend of Maui. Many examples of precontact featherwork, such as the ʻahu ʻula cloaks worn by high chiefs and kings or the scepterlike kāhili standards, incorporated roosters’ black tail feathers into their designs.
Lum-Nelmida often gets calls from people when they find native birds that die, because he has permits that allow him to use wild-bird feathers in his work. “No one ever calls me when a chicken dies,” he said—no one thinks the birds have value. Only when their feathers are made into something else, black glinting with blue and green in the light, do people find them beautiful. The feather is the same; it’s our perspective that’s changed.