The Chickens of Kauai


If there’s a soundtrack to the Hawaiian island of Kauai, it’s not waves or the songs of a native bird or even hula music — it’s the crow of the cock. Everywhere I’ve been on Kauai, from the beach to the town to the mountains, there have been chickens.

The chicken population on the island exploded more than 20 years ago, after Hurricane Iniki, which devastated several Hawaiian islands. On Kauai, one of the lesser effects was that the storm blew apart chicken coops — possibly many housing fighting chickens — and released the birds into the wild. It’s not all that surprising that the birds then thrived because their wild ancestor, the red jungle fowl, lived at similar latitudes in Southeast Asia.

(You might think that all those chickens would be a great source of food for the local people, but I’ve been told that the birds are hard to catch. Chickens can see and keep track of four things at once — up and down and with each eye — so it’s hard to sneak up on one. Plus, the meat is tough. I suggested to one local that he try coq au vin — the traditional French method of cooking an old bird — but he looked at me like I was nuts. I still maintain, though, that even if it’s not a local dish, cooking a chicken in lots of wine, and maybe some garlic, would sure be tasty.)

Chickens are just one of the non-native species that have spread across Kauai, and one of the less destructive ones. I visited with Diane Ragone, head of the Breadfruit Institute, this week, and she noted that while most people look at this island and see nothing but lush green mountainsides, she sees lands bare of native plants. And then there’s all the invasive animals. I found a couple of adorable young feral cats at the end of the road (literally) on the North Shore of the island and winced when a woman started feeding them. I don’t want kitties to die, but they are a huge problem on islands like this one because they kill native birds. And here there are some spectacular birds, such as Laysan albatrosses and red-footed boobies. Feral pigs now roam the island, causing all sorts of damage. There’s even deer that have been purposely released so people can hunt them. There’s a flock of parrots that derive from someone’s lost pets.

One of the things that has struck me since I’ve been here is how most tourists will never realize that the island has changed dramatically in the last couple of hundred years, since the first Europeans arrived and began introducing all these non-native species. Kauai is beautiful now and truly lives up to its nickname as the “Garden Island,” but what must it have looked like before all of this changed?

Photo by the author

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