Key West has a lot of off-beat charms, but one of my favorites has always been the chickens, dubbed gypsy chickens by locals.
The feral fowl that frequent the streets and alleys of Key West seem like the perfect metaphor for Key West -– historic, colorful, sort of wild, a little noisy and occasionally annoying.
You don’t have to work hard to spot Key West chickens — you hear them crowing and see them strutting everywhere. The colorful roosters and the mother hens followed by lines of tiny chicks weave in and out of traffic and through outdoor cafes all over town. Key West residents call them gypsy chickens.
There have always been chickens in Key West. When people stopped the laborious process of turning live chickens into Sunday dinner many decades ago, some backyard chickens gained their freedom. Other roosters were released when cock-fighting became illegal.
The chicken population grew so large that in 2004, Key West hired a chicken catcher to reduce the number. His work was controversial – plenty of people cherish the chickens — and the post was discontinued that year when he quit.
The chickens may have fans, but they also have detractors.
“They crow at all hours,” explained Debbie Britten, a volunteer at the Key West Wildlife Center. “They’re like some of the people down here – they don’t know when to quit.” (Honeymooners, this blog reports, are among the disenchanted.)
The wildlife center, however, has an effective Community Trapping Program that helps resolve what Animal Care Director Peggy Coontz calls “human chicken conflict.”
To get rid of nuisance chickens, residents can borrow a trap from the wildlife center and bring the captured fowl there. The chickens are fed and cared for, getting fat and healthy, Coontz said.
Then, the fowl are trucked to organic farms in central and northern Florida, where they are prized for their eggs and for their help with pest control (they eat bugs.)
One sign of how many chickens roam Key West: The wildlife center relocates close to 1,500 a year, Coontz said. And they’re still everywhere.
If you don’t see enough chickens on the streets of Key West, you can visit the Key West Wildlife Center, where dozens are caged awaiting transport, along with a variety of injured wildlife receiving care.
It’s free and you’re likely to see hawks, pelicans, osprey, heron and egrets in and around the cages. (Some of the former patients like to hang around.)
While you’re there, stop by two other free attractions in Key West, which are across the street from it on the Atlantic Ocean.(Both are included in our guide to free things to do in Key West.)
- The botanic gardens created by the Key West Garden Club in the picturesque remains of a Civil War fort, the Martello Tower. Folks on TripAdvisor ranks it highly. It’s a serene, tropical spot with a spectacular view of the Atlantic.
- The White Street Pier at Rest Beach is a long and wide fishing pier, perfect for a stroll and a good place to peer into the clear turquoise water.
Key West Wildlife Center
1801 White Street
Key West Garden Club at West Martello Tower
1100 Atlantic Boulevard
Key West, FL 33040
Resources for planning a Florida Keys vacation:
- Mile marker guide with dozens of stops to help make the most of your drive south.
- Florida Keys wildlife: Places to see animals
- Tiki bars: Soak up the Keys atmosphere
- 12 great kayak outings in the Keys
- Top 10 pit stops on Overseas Highway
- Free beaches in the Florida Keys
More things to do in the Key West and Lower Keys
- Free things to do in Key West
- Key West on budget: Accommodations, restaurants
- Florida Rambler guide to the Lower Keys
- Eight Key West restaurants for authentic local flavor
- Bahia Honda State Park: Good beaches & a great bridge
- No Name Pub worth finding on Big Pine Key
- Key West Butterfly Conservatory: A tranquil stop
- Audubon House, a lovely refuge in Key West
- Historic Key West Seaport
- Historic Key West Cemetery is full of stories
- Fort Zachary Taylor
- Hogfish Grill: Where Key West locals go for fresh fish
- Key West Tropical Forest and Botanic Garden: It will charm plant lovers