Those Clucking Neighbors

By ML McCarthy

In the mid-1800's, chickens were big business in Cuba. Breeders had purchased several varieties of Filipino fowl in Spain and brought them to the island, where they introduced them to chickens of European origin. The resulting variety, selectively bred for size and aggressiveness--- yup, we're saying they were bred to fight-, was named the Cubalaya. The handsome gentleman above is the black breasted red.

By the 1860's, when Cubans disheartened with the situation in their own country following the Ten Year's War began to move to Key West, they brought their love for cockfighting (and their chickens) with them. Lots of Cubans followed, drawn by the cigar industry, and consequently lots of chickens moved to Key West as well. By 1890, well over half of Key West's population was of Cuban origin.

A back-alley, bloodthirsty sport, cockfights were nonetheless quite popular. This photo from the 1940's of a cockfight in Key West shows some fancy-dressed people closely invested in a match. Luckily for Cubalaya chickens in this southernmost city, cockfighting was outlawed in the 1970's.  Not so luckily, it put the chickens out of business and out on the streets of Key West.

Around the same time, a lot of domestic chickens on the island were losing their homes. Long ensconced in their coops in backyards throughout the island, they were now left to roam free when their original owners moved away. Senor Cubalaya, may I introduce you to Miss Domestic Hen? And nature took its course...

Today, over thirty years later, gypsy chickens roam Key West. You can see them in the trees at twilight--occasionally a little gift might drop right in front of you. You can hear the roosters' crow more than you might like. And there are always babies tagging along with their mothers. They are protected by law, although occasionally "The Key West Chicken Catcher" has to be employed by the city to round up a few fowl families and move them to a nice rural retirement home on the mainland.

Chickens are welcomed as almost-pets throughout town, like the late, lamented Bobby the Rooster (above) at the Key West Lighthouse Museum & Keeper's Quarters. After a year of mourning, life at the Lighthouse is fine now-- a nice family of five ten-week old chicks seems to have taken up residence. (Yes, we knew their mother, and there were once, sad to say, eight chicks...)

Of course, there are Key West residents who wish they would all just go away. And others who literally take the chickens to their bosom and rescue any fowl in need. But where else in the world could a chicken live such a good life-- in its own little Poultry Paradise, as it were? This gent looks to have it made in the proverbial Key West shade although, in my opinion, he should cool it with the vices.

Photos courtesy of Katha Sheehan &

© 2007 Key West History Magazine. All Rights Reserved





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Issue #32
Tales of Crime & Punishment