We birders are very particular about the birds that we count. We can, of course, count wild, native, species. We can count vagrant species that made it to the area we are in under their own power. We can count introduced species that have met the criteria of the “Bird Police” for the area to which they are introduced.

There are lots of birds we can’t count. We can’t count birds we see on television or in a movie. We can’t count caged birds. We can’t count individual birds that were caged birds but were released. We can’t count birds that have been introduced or released but have not yet established a viable population according to the “Bird Police” for that particular geographic area.

Of course, there are a lot more rules that apply to both birds that can and can’t be counted, and one of the most entertaining ways to get a bunch of birders to make a Facebook discussion thread go on forever is to innocently ask a question about some esoteric aspect of listing rules. This post will get a bit into that for which I apologize, but it seems someone needs to do this. You see, the chickens are being shortchanged.

Americans love chicken. In 2008, over nine billion chickens were slaughtered for Americans to eat. Chicken soup and chicken wings are about as American as apple pie. When we eat eggs we eat chicken eggs almost exclusively. But as of right now there is nowhere in the United States ABA area* where a birder can see a chicken and count it on his or her list despite the fact that there is a well established and long lasting Feral Chicken population in the Florida Keys. It is time for the Florida Ornithological Society to allow for the counting of Feral Chickens.

What? I can hear hundreds, if not thousands, of birders yelling “Apostate!” But I am not some crazy chicken-lover just trying to get respect for my pet rooster from birders. First of all, I don’t have a pet rooster. Second, and more more importantly, it looks to me like the Feral Chickens in the keys clearly meet the “Criteria for Establishment” laid out by the Florida Ornithological Society Records Committee.

Criteria for Establishment.  An exotic species (see Glossary) may appear in Florida because of deliberate transport and release by humans, or because of inadvertent escape from captivity.  Some of these species may establish feral populations in one part of Florida and then spread to other parts of the state, or may persist locally as a small population indefinitely.  Other such local groups may disappear quickly, or only after a prolonged period of persistence.  Different exotic species will respond differently to release into Florida environments because of variation among them in their physiological, ecological, and behavioral characteristics and requirements, which will ordinarily be largely unknown or speculative. An exotic species will be deemed “established” in Florida if a stable or increasing population of that species has persisted continuously in one or more areas for at least 15 years (Persistence Criterion) and meets one or both of the following additional criteria:

a.  An exotic species that has exhibited rapid population growth by widely evident natural reproduction, accompanied by evidence of extensive range expansion within (and perhaps beyond) Florida, may be deemed “established.”  The example of the Eurasian Collared-Dove in Florida during the late 20th century provides a model application of this rule (Population Growth and Range Expansion criteria), even though the origin of this species in the state may be in doubt.  See 3b for publication requirement

b.  An exotic species for which there is acceptable evidence that successful nesting (fledged young) is a characteristic of one or more local populations of several hundred individuals, that this nesting activity is recruiting young adults into the population(s), that (if applicable) the population(s) have exhibited resilience in the face of major perturbations such as hurricanes or habitat disruptions, and that there is little or no evidence that ongoing releases play a significant role in population maintenance, may be deemed “established,” but only after such evidence as is available has been published in at least one scientific source (e.g., peer-reviewed journal, technical book), or after this evidence has been amassed by a Committee member or some other interested individual and reviewed by the Committee.  In the last instance, a detailed analysis of the issue must be published in a suitable scientific source if a judgment of Establishment is rendered by the Committee.  Furthermore, by extension, the requirement for publication applies to species considered “established” under section 3a as well.

c. Species that occur or have occurred in Florida as a result of unassisted vagrancy or dispersal from an Exotic population outside Florida, which clearly meets all tests of Establishment within their range, shall be evaluated as if they were Naturally Appearing even though they are Exotic.  Thus, the placement of the House Finch on the State List, for example, does not require that it be evaluated for Establishment within Florida.

Let’s look at these criteria in order, shall we? To get listed a species needs to have “a stable or increasing population of that species [that] has persisted continuously in one or more areas for at least 15 years.” Well, Feral Chickens certainly meet that criterion. They have been strutting around Key West since at least the 1950s and likely much earlier. Their population apparently received a big boost in the 1970s when cock-fighting was declared illegal and many fighting cocks were released.  For the last fifteen years there have been “Chicken Wars” between those who want the chickens removed and those who love their presence. Feral Chickens number in the thousands in Key West alone and that population has not been dented even as hundreds of birds are trapped and removed – in fact, in 2011 over 1,500 were captured and trucked to an organic farm in central Florida. Clearly, they have persisted continuously as a stable or increasing population for at least fifteen years.

With that out of the way, the chickens must now either meet criterion “a” or “b.” It looks to me like it would be hard to prove that chickens “exhibited rapid population growth by widely evident natural reproduction.” Yes, they do reproduce naturally in large numbers but proving rapid population growth beyond the initial numbers that were released would be difficult considering  that no one knows exactly how many chickens were released over the decades. And though the range of Feral Chickens in Florida has expanded up to Marathon, I am not sure if this would be considered “extensive range expansion,” even though Marathon is fifty miles from Key West.


That leaves the Feral Chickens with option “b.” There are several different benchmarks a species must meet to qualify for inclusion on the Florida checklist through option “b.”

  • acceptable evidence that successful nesting (fledged young) is a characteristic of one or more local populations of several hundred individuals
  • this nesting activity is recruiting young adults into the population(s)
  •  that (if applicable) the population(s) have exhibited resilience in the face of major perturbations such as hurricanes or habitat disruptions
  • there is little or no evidence that ongoing releases play a significant role in population maintenance

All four of those benchmarks have been met by the Feral Chickens of Key West. Fledged young are easily found with a cursory Google search. That these young are being recruited into the population is pretty easy to see as well by the sheer numbers of Feral Chickens present in Key West and further up the keys. As for exhibiting “resilience in the face of major perturbations,” well, they survived Hurricane Georges in 1998. As for whether or not continued releases are playing a significant role in population maintenance it seems much more likely that they are not, especially considering the effort going into trapping and removing the chickens.

The problem, then, is that so far as I can tell no one has published anything about the Feral Chickens of the Florida Keys in a scientific journal. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but I doubt that a member of the Florida Ornithological Society’s Records Committee is going to amass the necessary data to prove that the Feral Chickens meet the established criteria for establishment. Fortunately, “some other interested individual” can amass the data and send it to the committee for review.

Who will be that interested individual? And will all listers laud her? Or will she be ceaselessly mocked as a chicken-counter?

Lest people read this and think that I have gone completely off of the deep end please recall that Muscovy Duck, which in Florida is entirely an escaped domestic, is on the checklist there.

*It turns out that there is a countable population in Kaua’i.

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.