They’re everywhere strutting among the tourists and locals; crowing, pecking at bugs, and scratching in the landscape. Key West takes free range chickens literally. And in Mallory Square, their famous shopping and sunset attraction, the town’s 2000-3000 feral chickens fully appreciate that they’re protected by local ordinance.
Given the community’s isolation early settlers brought domestic chickens with them for meat and eggs. In the 1860s when Cubans began moving to Key West, drawn by the tobacco and cigar industry that once dominated the town’s economy, they brought “Cubalayas”, their cockfighting chickens. As improved transportation infrastructure connected the Florida Keys to the rest of Florida, Key West residents no longer needed to raise their own chickens and many were released. By 1970 the town outlawed cockfighting and the Cubalayas were left to fend for themselves. The small lean chickens called Gypsy Chickens that currently wander the streets of Key West are the result of interbred domestic and Cubayala cockfighting fowl.
They’re the subject of artists; the towns many art galleries feature chicken inspired paintings and sculpture. Chicken themed key chains and coasters can be found in tourist trinket shops. Even an entire business, Funky Chicken Store, features the local chickens. They’re valued for keeping the local cockroach and scorpion population under control. However, they also tear up gardens and crow in the early hours and periodically, fed-up residents try to convince the city council to amend the local ordinance and fines that forbids cruelty to the Gypsy Chickens.
Cruelty apparently doesn’t including humane trapping. Problem chicken can be trapped and taken to the Key West Wildlife Center. From there they get transported to farms in central and north Florida where their aggressive behavior is valued – they’re ideally suited to pest control.