If you’ve noticed wild chickens running around the islands and assumed that they were always part of our tropical landscape, you would be wrong.
When I was growing up in Hilo, of course people owned chickens — for food, feathers, fights — but none ran willy-nilly around town. There were enough humans doing that, some local, some imported, all stinky. But not chickens which, on Hawaii Island at least, were well-contained, groomed and mannered. Even the roosters crowed when they were supposed to.
Back then, we were told that if we wanted to see wild chickens, we had to go to Kauai. There were many reasons to go to the Garden Isle, but for kids, chickens running loose was as big a draw as Waimea Canyon.
Some say that the hurricanes of the 1990s are the reason for all the wild chickens on that island, with gale-force winds blowing open cages and freeing the birds, but the story I grew up with is a much earlier one involving the sugar plantations in the late 1800s.
When plantation owners discovered that rats were gnawing on cane stalks and ruining their crops, they imported mongoose from Southeast Asia. Somehow, they heard that these two pests were natural enemies and in a misguided attempt at early bio-control, brought in mongoose to fight the rats.
Unfortunately, someone neglected to do his homework, because rats are nocturnal and mongoose diurnal, so a 150 years into this ill-conceived project, I suspect these two adversaries haven’t even met yet. But rest assured that both rats and mongoose have settled in and made themselves at home in our welcoming islands. Mahalo nui loa, babooze sugar barons.
But back to chickens, because unlike nene, they are neither endemic nor indigenous to these Hawaiian Islands. As with almost everything else, they arrived by boat and have been part of local cuisine ever since: chicken lu‘au, chicken adobo, chicken long rice, chicken teriyaki, chicken pariya, chicken feet. Who doesn’t love to eat chicken in any way, shape or form? We’ll even devour them as nuggets.
What do wild chickens have to do with plantations, rats, and mongoose, you are asking, so let me get to the point and tell you the story as I learned it.
While our sugar geniuses were delivering mongoose to ostensibly eradicate rats, the animal crates for Kauai fell in the ocean, drowning those hapless critters. Mongoose love to eat chicken eggs, so with no mongoose on our northernmost inhabited island, the chickens celebrated giddily, laid eggs profusely and raised chicks devotedly; hence, wild and happy chickens running pell mell around Kauai, but not on the other islands thanks to the presence of mongoose. And yet, in a recent and revolting development, there are now wild chickens overrunning all the islands!
Sugar plantations are gone, so who’s to blame? I’ve been mulling this over, and here’s what I think: Responsible for the current population explosion of wild chickens on all Hawaiian Islands are foodies who want fresh eggs for their frittata from free-range chickens. This is a noble pursuit, but auwe these back-to-the-land types are not following through on their quest for down-to-earth authenticity.
The circle of life says that you come into the world, make a contribution, then depart, leaving it a better place than when you arrived. Applied to chickens, this means that when the hens can no longer lay their prized eggs, they should be honored one last time by going into the pot and onto the dinner table.
But our squeamish gourmands have no desire to wring necks, pluck feathers and gut innards. Instead, when ‘ono for their favorite dish, they run down to the nearest supermarket to grab chicken parts pre-shrunk in plastic. But the backyard coop is left open, their chickens escape, and oh, well, bye-bye beloved birds who then become homeless, roaming the countryside scratching for food. And now, Kauai can no longer claim fame as the only island with feral chickens.
This is my wild chicken theory. I’m sure you have a better one.
Rochelle delaCruz was born in Hilo, graduated from Hilo High School, then left to go to college. After teaching for 30 years in Seattle, Wash., she retired and returned home to Hawaii. Rochelle welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears the second and fourth Monday of each month.