The Secret Life of Poultry: Kauai’s Feral Chickens
Reading Time: 5 minutes
When I was a child, I learned about the famous feral chickens living in Hawaii and even back then they caught my interest. At some point in my growth toward an adult, I’d forgotten about them. I recently came across a social media post about them and all my previous awe and excitement came rushing back. These chickens are known for their beautiful array of colors. I find it incredible that they can cohabitate with humans yet remain distinctly wild.
I learned a little of their history. Chickens aren’t native to the islands but were brought over by Polynesian settlers around 300-800 AD, though this is up for contention. The original birds were close to Red Jungle Fowl. I’ve always been drawn to the exotic look of the Jungle Fowl varieties and used to daydream about having elaborate chicken aviaries where these rare breeds roam.
The Jungle Fowl, over time, became the wild chickens on the islands. All the islands of Hawaii have resident feral birds, but they are mostly seen on Kauai. Here is where the lore comes! Previously, there were two devastating hurricanes that pummeled Kauai island. Hurricane Iwa in 1982, and later Hurricane Iniki in 1992, blew over structures — including chicken coops — releasing countless domestic chickens into the wild population.
Then, a biological marvel happened. Instead of perishing in the wild, the domestic chickens integrated themselves into the existing wild flocks and thrived. Lack of natural predators, favorable weather, and abundant food lead these birds toward interbreeding and creating their own unique niche in the ecosystem.
This story blew my mind. It’s a wonder to me that the domestic birds not only survived these hurricanes but went on to flourish and grow into what they are today. I was hooked, and I reached out to user TropicalBabies on the Backyard Chickens forum. She lives on Kauai and kindly answered my abundant questions.
TropicalBabies told me that the feral chickens are a part of life on Kauai, and they are notorious for them. “You can’t walk two feet without running into a chicken,” she said. She pointed out that a large part of their durability is that Kauai doesn’t have any mongooses, as the other islands do. The mongoose is a natural predator of the chickens and helps keep the population down by eating eggs and chicks.
The sugar cane industry introduced the mongooses to help fight the population of rats, but they were never released on Kauai. The only animals on Kauai that target the feral chickens are dogs, cats, and the occasional resident. (Not all the humans are happy about the number of chickens sharing their home.)
For folks like TropicalBabies, interacting with the chickens brings enjoyment. She spoke of the colors and individual personalities, showing me that though the chickens are feral, they still facilitate relationships with their human neighbors. “I have watched generations hatch and die. It is always a little heartbreaking,” she said.
TropicalBabies boards her horses at a ranch near her home and always throws out a little bit of feed for the chickens when she’s there. The chickens, in turn, have learned to wait for food from her and other passersby. “When families visiting from the cottages stroll by to look at the horses, I always give the kids feed and let them enjoy the flock that waits for breakfast or dinner or sometimes just a snack.”
She’s not the only one, either. It’s common for tourists to become fascinated with the chickens as well and toss them snacks. Tourist shops and museums sell small packets of chicken feed to encourage visitors to interact with the chickens. As a result, the chickens now linger in the parking lot for these stores, waiting for handouts. The Director for my college, Jodie Covert, went on vacation and raved about the chickens. She interacted with them and took a multitude of pictures, much like most tourists to the area. “I LOVE the chickens!” She exclaimed.
Amber Ka’ai’ai, the secretary for the same college, was born in Hawaii. She spoke to me about the complete ordinariness of having chickens everywhere growing up. “It’s just a normal thing if you are raised like that.” She told me that her family and friends who still live on the island post pictures on social media and the chickens will be in the background, but no one pays it any mind.
I inquired about the personalities and mannerisms of the feral chickens, and TropicalBabies had a great response. She offers a frontline insight into their character and has even adopted a few of the chickens into her own chickens. “I have adopted a few of the pasture chicks that were orphaned by hungry cats or dogs and added them to my flock,” she told me. She says the feral bird lay small brown eggs, and they prefer to make their nests in the tall grasses.
“The girls I have are friendly since I have had them from day one. They are smarter than my domestics (Buff Orpingtons, Barred Rock, Brahma, Easter eggers), very resourceful, easy keepers, and can hop a five-foot fence without a problem,” TropicalBabies offers. I spoke to a few different people and they all agree: the feral chickens are intelligent and able-bodied. In fact, the Kauai flocks have come so far from a biological finesse standpoint that breeders are looking towards them for information about making domestic chickens hardier.
TropicalBabies shared some pictures of her wild hen, Jasmine, who has gorgeous color patterns and blue earlobes. She told me that even with the primary and secondary feathers snipped on her wings, Jasmine can still fly up to the top of her fencing. She’s a wonderful mother and very sweet.
As for coloration in the wild, the possibilities are endless. Some of the birds still look like their gamey ancestors, whereas some have adopted more modern assets. It is common for chicken-owning residents of the island to simply release their unwanted roosters into the wild population, including breeds like Silkies. TropicalBabies described a rooster with a huge comb and beard who had a domestic Silkie father and a feral mom. “Some of them get so ugly they’re cute,” she said.
It’s fascinating that this “breed” has developed and found a niche over a relatively short span of time from an evolutionary standpoint, and it’s something to keep an eye on throughout our lifetimes. We are awarded a unique opportunity to watch a changing ecosystem with friendly, feral chickens at the heart of it. We can only imagine the possibilities over the next couple of decades as it continues to develop. Although these birds may be commonplace for the residents of Kauai, I still consider visiting the feral chickens of Hawaii a bucket list item for any serious chicken lover. It’s definitely on my list.
Originally published in the December 2019/January 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.