In the past two years, regular customers at the upscale Whole Foods grocery store in Kailua have been noticing an odd phenomenon — more and more feral chickens are roosting in the parking lot.
Whole families of birds –roosters, chickens and chicks– are perching in and under the trees near the entrance to the store, nesting near the area where the shopping carts are stored, and strutting up and down the rows of the parking lot. They’re also crowing. A lot.
Inside the store, a 5-pound, free-range chicken from California costs about $20. Outside, in the blocks surrounding the store, about three dozen are roaming free.
“I don’t remember there ever being chickens like this. Never. Maybe on the Pali, but never like this,” said Amanda Gomez, 29, of Kaneohe, scanning the Whole Foods parking lot. “There are so many moms and babies. They love this area right here.”
Opinions are divided over the feathered newcomers. Some in Kailua admire the birds’ bright plumage and see them as charming wildlife. Some are irritated by their incessant crowing. Some wonder if they could carry disease and some are growing afraid of them. Some have a live-and-let-live attitude toward the birds.
And some people want the government to get rid of them.
“Are they pests or are they pets?” asked Scot Matayoshi, who serves on the Kailua Neighborhood Board. He has been pushing for the city to trap and remove the birds, particularly the roosters, but said that his effort has been controversial to some people on the board who would prefer the birds be left in peace.
“Whether or not one regards feral chickens as pests is a matter of individual preference,” said Sheila Conant, a professor emerita at University of Hawaii and an expert on Hawaiian birds. “Having a neighborhood rooster that crows in the middle of the night or very early in the morning could certainly be exasperating. At the moment, I don’t mind the chickens. They can be fun to watch.”
According to the Hawaii Department of Health, the birds don’t present a public health risk. The federal Centers for Disease Control, however, advises that people who have physical contact with poultry or poultry waste are at risk of salmonella infection. The germs can get on the hands, shoes and clothes of people who have contact with the birds or their saliva or droppings.
Complaints about chickens came up last month at the Kailua Neighborhood Board meeting. Board members passed overwhelmingly a motion asking the city of Honolulu to revise its feral chicken removal program to focus on trapping and removing roosters. They said that would be cheaper than eradicating both males and females.
But Matayoshi said city officials told him they haven’t been able to find a pest removal company that wants to remove the birds. There’s only one company on the islands, Sandwich Isles Pest Solutions in Pearl City, that can be hired to remove bothersome birds, and the city does not have a standing contract with the firm for the work, Matayoshi said.
Harold Scholes, a pest control consultant at Sandwich Isles Pest Solutions, said the company catches and euthanizes unwanted chickens for private clients. For $300 a week and $115 per trip to each site, the company will set up a trap, provide it with bait and water, and remove the animal humanely. He said that other parts of the island, not just Kailua, have seen an increase in feral chickens.
According to Sherilyn Kajiwara, director of the Honolulu customer services department, the city manages feral chicken issues only on its own property, and only on a case-by-case basis. Other property owners — whether private owners, the federal government or the state government — are responsible for dealing with their own problems.
But in response to growing calls for action, the city last year added what she called a “fowl response component” into its animal control contract with the Hawaiian Humane Society. The Humane Society began handling the job in January.
“Under the city contract, the HHS will respond to public complaints related to pet fowl nuisances,” Kajiwara said in a statement to Civil Beat. “It does not address feral animals and does not have a fowl eradication component.”
She referred further questions to the Hawaiian Humane Society.
Suzy Tam, communications director for the Humane Society, said the $80,000 contract for poultry remediation services calls for the Humane Society to respond to “nuisance” complaints. That’s defined as any animal “making noise continuously for ten minutes or intermittently for 30 minutes or more,” and causing a disturbance, or owning an excessive number of animals.
Violations can lead to fines of up to $50 for a first offense and up to $1,000 for further offenses.
She said the Humane Society does not remove nuisance chickens, whether owned or free-roaming.
Tam said the Humane Society has gotten 289 complaints about chickens since late January, with calls coming from all over the island. She said they have mailed out 83 warning letters and issued six citations to residents with chickens on their properties during that period, but have no way of comparing the numbers to previous years because the contract is new.
“Are they pests or are they pets?” — Scot Matayoshi
Outside Whole Foods in Kailua, there is a whole range of perspectives about the chickens and speculation about where they came from.
Dallas Pabilona, of Hayward, California, a tourist, squealed with laughter when she spotted a cocky rooster strutting in the median in front of her car. She was dismayed to hear that some people want to cull the flock.
“If they weren’t here, where would they live?,” she asked. “This is everybody’s home.”
Bob Beard, the oceanarium manager at the Pacific Beach Hotel and a long-time Kailua resident, on the other hand, scowled at the birds as he sat at an outside dining table near the entrance to Whole Foods, only a few feet from a rooster perching noisily in a tree.
“They’re chickens,” he said. “They do what people like to do. They copulate. I’m surprised there’s not more cats around—there’s a lot of free meat.”
He also thinks they’re dirty.
Michael La Rochelle, 25, a nanny and student, said he called 911 one day this week after spotting a young man trying to catch a large rooster with a kind of lasso. He said Kailua police said they would check it out. When he returned, the man was gone, and the rooster was still the cock of the walk.
La Rochelle said he thought the man was trying to catch the rooster to use it for cock-fighting. “He was going after a rooster,” he said. “If he wanted to eat it, he would pick a chicken.”
Pumehana Piko, who grew up on Molokai and Maui but who has lived on Oahu for 14 years, said she believes the chickens in Kailua have been released or escaped from cockfighting businesses because they seem unusually fierce. Cockfighting is illegal in most parts of the country but is only a misdemeanor in Hawaii, and the events can be popular and well-attended.
“They breed for chickens that are aggressive,” said Piko, 37. She said people who organize cockfights earn big money from it–$5,000 or $20,000 for a match—and that more people are trying to get into the business.
“You’ll see kids try to grab them for pets or experiment to get them to fight each other,” Piko said.
Pauline Menor-Ozoa, of Kailua, who works in the human resources department at Queen’s Medical Center, also believes the chickens are escapees from cockfighting operations.
“My girls are afraid of them,” she said. “Usually chickens run away, but these follow you and look at you.”
Conant, the bird expert, said she is growing curious about why chickens are proliferating so quickly. In an email to Civil Beat, she said she believes that more people have been raising chickens to get their own fresh eggs, and that when it proves troublesome to care for them, they are releasing them, and they become feral.
“Feral chickens, much like feral cats, can do quite well without assistance (food or shelter) from people,” she said in an email to Civil Beat.
She identified one of the birds at the Kailua Whole Foods as a rooster, and she said his color patterns and the lack of any unusual plumage characteristics, such as feathers on the feet, or an ornate crown of feathers or distinctive markings, make it likely the bird is what is known as a “jungle fowl.” That’s the common name for the wild species from which modern chicken breeds have been developed.
There are more than 200 breeds of chickens, Conant said.
“Once individuals escape and breed on their own, they revert back to the appearance of jungle fowl in very few generations,” she wrote.
Why Kailua? And why Whole Foods? The managers at Whole Foods, as well as their public relations firm, declined repeated requests for comment.
So for now, the question is open. Perhaps the fowl feel particularly safe there.
After all, the chickens only need to cross the road.
On the other side, they get to the Kawainui-Hamakua Marsh Complex, the largest single wetland in the state, a safe haven for birds.