May 2012

Kauia-it, please!

By David Feela

A couple we know sat down at a local coffee shop and told us of their excellent trip to Kauai, one of the Hawaiian islands which offers to tourists – among many pleasures – more than 9,000 acres of coffee beans. They mentioned the beautiful Napali coast, the exceptional “little Grand Canyon,” snorkeling with turtles, cascading waterfalls, lush tropical vegetation, and of course relaxing on a multitude of white sand beaches. They never mentioned the chickens.

Like the cows of India, feral chickens roam the island under what must be a protected sacred status among its residents. The birds are everywhere, clucking and crowing, scratching in the gravel along the roads, along hedgerows, and laying their eggs in the ruff beside all the manicured greens at every resort golf course. They show up in parking lots to dodge impatient motorists, strut beside the beaches, and they’re usually hanging out in clutches of a half dozen or more – literally, gangs of chickens, rousing quite a few hackles with their chicken language.

The idea that roosters only crow to greet the morning sun – a sort of rural early risers’ alarm clock – is a myth. For 10 days outside our window – though it sounded close enough to be broadcast from under our bed – hours before any inkling of dawn, two menacing gangs had their lead roosters rehearse what I can only describe as a poorly acted version of “West Side Story.” They continued the performances until dawn, and often beyond.

Island folklore excuses the chorus and rationalizes the plentitude of chickens by praising their toughness. It says, for instance, that if a person boiled a chicken in a pot with a lava rock, the rock would come out the more tender. I just don’t see any evidence to prove the theory has been sufficiently tested.

My wife’s nephew told us another mythic tale about the rise of the wild chicken, that during early island history some chickens were considered sacred and some were just domestic stock, but a storm loosed them from their confines and the caste system was broken.

Since no one could be certain which chickens were sacred and which were to be served up for dinner, the people of Kauai elected not to eat any of these free-ranging chickens. He told us this story while consuming a Hawaiian chicken pizza at a local restaurant, a smile on his face nearly as wide as his pizza slice.

An appetite for cock-fighting may also have prompted all the current chicken trouble. Filipinos supposedly introduced the brightly colored cocks, and Walla, the wild chickens, to breed a betting empire. In this version of good and evil, like the snake in the Garden of Eden, the rooster must be held accountable for all the Garden Isle’s ills.

In 1863 Mark Twain lectured in New York about his visit to the Sandwich Islands (which is how people referred to Hawaii in the 19th century). He joked about the natives’ dietary habits, boasting that they “... are very hospitable, and feast their guests on roast dog and friccaseed cat.” I’ll admit, I saw very few cats – the few I did see looking very feeble and mangy – and all the dogs taken for walks appeared well fed and on leashes, under the stern instruction to avoid direct eye contact with the chickens.

However the birds propagated to a population that equals or (as some say) exceeds the 65,000 residents of the island, the truth is that the birds have virtually no predators, isolated as they are within a tropical 562-square-mile coop by that beautiful blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

The most serious threat to their livelihood is, perhaps, a tourist rental car. I saw a few fatalities flattened against the pavement, though there was no way to tell if the feathered speedbumps were the result of accidents or premeditated poultracide committed by temporarily insane, sleep-deprived guests on the island.

I’ve heard all the explanations, and the most reasonable one I encountered for the plethora of chickens blames Hurricane Iniki in 1992, a fowl wind which unleashed and scattered the island’s feathered stock. And since birds tend to understand wind, their survival at least seems plausible. Just do the math: 20 years + unrestrained cock-a-doodle- doing = a bevy of chicks.

In the end, I prefer cows to chickens, which is why I returned to rural Montezuma County. I’ll never live in a tropical paradise. And besides, I’m not a fan of SPAM, a product which Hawaiians consume more than any other State in the Union. Why is SPAM so popular in Hawaii? If you ask me, it’s because it sits in a can on the shelf, so quietly.

David Feela writes from Montezuma Couny, Colo.