What’s with all the chickens running around Key West and Ybor City?

Image via Shutterstock/Kristi Blokhin

By Crystal Harlan

November 16, 2023

Feral chickens have become part of the cultural fabric of Key West and Tampa’s Ybor City. What’s the connection? Just follow the tobacco.

If you’ve ever walked around Ybor City or Key West, you’ve probably seen a random chicken crossing the road and wondered why.

Or maybe you’ve asked yourself who they belong to or where they came from.

In Key West, the locals call them gypsy chickens, perhaps because they’re nomadic and wild, roaming in and out of local businesses and bars, living by their own rules. Early settlers kept chickens in coops and used them for food, but they were later released when Key West was connected to the mainland, and they were no longer needed for food. Other chickens came from Cuba, descendants of jungle fowl found throughout the Caribbean. They were brought over in the late 1800s and early 1900s by Cubans migrating to Key West to work in the tobacco factories.

Unfortunately, many of these birds were used for cockfighting. The bloody sport was popular in Key West for decades until it was outlawed in 1986. Because cockfighters no longer needed their roosters, they set them free, leaving them to fend for themselves. The scrappy birds not only survived but thrived, establishing a breeding population.

It’s not clear how many feral chickens are on the island now; the Key West Wildlife Center took in around 1,800 in 2020, according to the Miami Herald.

The chickens have become a mascot of Key West and are loved by locals and tourists alike. There is even a YouTube Key West Chicken Channel, where you can watch them live.

But not everyone is a fan of the fowl. They can be loud, crowing at all hours of the night, and they leave droppings everywhere they go. Some are becoming aggressive and have attacked people taking out their trash to try to get food.

To get rid of nuisance chickens, Key West residents can borrow a trap from the wildlife center. From there, they will be relocated to free-range farms in central and northern Florida.

And in 2021, after receiving multiple complaints, the Key West City Commission passed an ordinance that prohibits feeding feral chickens within city limits to try to rein in the population.

But these are not the only wild chickens in Florida. There is also a significant population in Ybor City, also known as Tampa’s Cuban quarter. What’s the connection? Just follow the tobacco.

After a fire decimated Vicente Ybor’s tobacco factory in Key West, he rebuilt an even bigger factory in Tampa, and many Cuban immigrants (and their chickens) followed. Over the years their population has grown into the hundreds.

Like in Key West, some complain about the roosters crowing at 3 or 4 in the morning—it’s likely that the area’s nightlife keeps them up at night. Others mess up flower beds, poop all over or procreate in public, which has ruffled the feathers of some residents and businesses.

But an ordinance from the Tampa City Council proclaims Ybor as a bird sanctuary, which prevents trapping and removing the birds.

And for feral Ybor chickens that need help, the Ybor Misfits Microsanctuary rescues severely injured, sick, abandoned, and lost chickens who can no longer fit safely within the historic and protected feral flock. The nonprofit even hosts chicken yoga every month. (That’s right, yoga with chickens).

“The chickens have always been a part of Ybor,” Dylan Breese, who owns and operates the Ybor Misfits Microsanctuary, told the Tampa Bay Times. “They are a part of its culture. We need to keep them safe.”

RELATED: Invasive Burmese Pythons Are Moving Toward Central Florida


  • Crystal Harlan

    Crystal is a bilingual editor and writer with over 20 years of experience in digital and print media. She is currently based in Florida, but has lived in small towns in the Midwest, Caracas, New York City, and Madrid, where she earned her MA in Spanish literature.



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