The stalwart Conch Republic chickens that freely roam the streets of Key West are both adored  and reviled by local residents. Over the years there have been campaigns to rid the city of the birds, especially when the avian flu or other bird-transmitted epidemics threatened. 

But eventually calmer heads and the birds themselves prevailed. Today the Key West “gypsy” chickens pretty much have the run of the island. Reports say there have been free-roaming chickens in Key West for some 175 years, probably originally brought to the island by early Cuban settlers. In some ways the feral chickens seem to provide one valuable service, cleaning up bits and pieces of food that find their way to the streets and gutters of the busy town. No doubt the chickens also consume their fair share of bugs and weed seeds as well. But more importantly the touch of “character” they add has to be immeasurable. Tourists just love the birds.

Recently while strolling the calmer side streets of the old town with its lovely old Conch homes, we encountered several clutches of newly-hatched fuzzy chicks alongside their mother hens. Each time we noticed a rooster nearby as well, a bit surprised that they seemed to form a tight family bond. We later came to understand just how tight those bonds are for the Key West chickens, as we witnessed a life and death “chicken drama” that probably occurs much more often than most visitors to the colorful town would realize. As we waited at one of the bus stops we enjoyed the sight of a mother hen with nine fuzzy little chicks. Again, nearby was a rooster as well.

Tourists stopped to snap pictures and watch the little family. The mother hen didn’t seem to mind at all as she and her chicks busily pecked the ground for food. In a moment we realized why she seemed to find comfort in their presence as a large hawk swooped down upon the chicks.

Before the diving hawk could get close the hen flew up five or six feet into the air in a noisy fury to rebuff the attack. When the hawk retreated to a nearby palm tree to rethink its strategy, the rooster came in closer. Over and over again the hawk dove on the family of chickens, even as amazed tourists stood close by. No hawk we’ve ever encountered would have made a strike in such proximity to humans.

Town chickens and town hawk. All those birds were obviously used to lots of human company. We can’t report on the eventual outcome as we purposely moved to another bus stop down the street, indeed to avoid witnessing what was likely to come. As we left, the hawk could be seen waiting patiently for its next opportunity to strike. Perhaps the hen and rooster prevailed this day, we cannot say for sure.

But one thing was for certain, this type drama no doubt plays out frequently on the streets of Key West as all players seemed quite accustomed to their parts that day.