Feral chickens have proliferated in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina
Published: Monday, April 11, 2011, 8:00 AM Updated: Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 9:02 AM
Since Hurricane Katrina, Ruby Melton's 9th Ward enclave has welcomed a new species of neighbor: clucking, crowing, prancing chickens that dart across streets and nest in the trees.
"We don't have stray dogs any more," said Melton, 68. "But everyone I talk to has stray chickens."
Most people figure that the wild birds descended from domesticated fowl that escaped backyard coops after the storm. Since then, the population has boomed, with the local SPCA chapter now dispatching officers weekly to catch feral chickens, spokeswoman Katherine LeBlanc said.
Most calls hinge on neighbors' irritation with ear-piercing squawks, she said, rather than complaints about chicken droppings or attacks on pets or children. The birds don't appear to be fugitives from the growing number of New Orleans homesteaders who raise chickens for eggs and meat.
Animal control officers place the stray chickens with a farmer they call the Chicken Man, LeBlanc said, noting that capturing the creatures is "extremely hard" and often requires the effort of several officers.
The job hasn't proved as vexing for a band of swift, persevering kids who have invested countless hours stalking and nabbing the feathered bandits, said Ed Buckner, director of the Porch, a cultural organization in the 7th Ward. When Buckner a few years ago started a Mardi Gras Indian tribe for youth at the Porch, he wanted to call it "Akanka," after the Choctaw word for chicken.
"Until they started sewing, these boys were running around chasing chickens all day," Buckner said.
The boys opted to call their tribe the Red Flame Hunters, which they thought sounded cooler. But they admitted to a knack for capturing chickens that roost in nearby trees. They sneak up and grab the birds over their wings, and they try to avoid the roosters' spurs, which can tear deeply into flesh, said Nas Jackson, 12.
Several 7th Ward chickens commute between two empty lots on opposite sides of Touro Street. Cynthia Stampley, who has lived on the block for 30 years, said that until Katrina, she'd never seen such a proliferation of wild chickens.
Other cities have waged high-profile battles with chickens. After neighbors complained last year, animal-control workers in the Bronx removed 35 chickens that were "believed to be the city's largest brood of wild chickens," according to a newspaper report.
Philadelphia, Miami and Phoenix also have also had dustups over the birds. A few years ago, Key West, Fla., hired a municipal chicken wrangler to keep its bird populations under control.
In New Orleans, neighbors in the 7th, 8th or 9th wards seem fond of the chickens, despite a few gripes.
Hens protective of their chicks recently lunged at Brenda Stewart's Shih Tzu puppy, which is now terrified of them, she said. After moving into a new apartment after Katrina, Ruby Melton's son, Doyle, discovered a crowing rooster living in a tree on the lot.
"At 5:30 in the morning, that's an annoying sound," he said. "But other than that, they don't bother me."
"I love 'em, me," said Mattie Smith, who sees the chickens every morning as she putters in her garden on Gallier Street in the Upper 9th Ward.
Residents keep tally of the flocks. There are three hens, one rooster, plus chicks on Touro Street. Three roosters and five hens live near Bunny Friend Playground, which also had been home to about seven little chicks until most were nabbed by a large chicken hawk, Doyle Melton said.
Postman Everett Young said he sees chickens every day on his route. Before Katrina, Young only encountered the animals across the Industrial Canal in the Lower 9th Ward, he said.
In that sparsely populated neighborhood, Barbara Young and Michael Sartin have fed the birds for decades. Recently, they counted about four dozen, many of which sprint madly down Andry Street whenever Sartin stands in the road with a bag of Bunny Bread, she said. Neighbors call Sartin the Chicken Man, though he's not the same person who works with the SPCA.
Young and Sartin think the latest flock originated from a pair of wild birds that survived the catastrophic flooding. Young visited the block for the first time in late 2005 and remembered flood-tossed houses, strange gray earth and eerie quiet. Then she saw a hen and a rooster.
"That let me know there's hope," she said. "I thought, 'We're going to see green again. We're going to have life. We're going to be able to go back home.'"
The couple tries to scare away chicken hawks and owls that fly in from nearby Bayou Bienvenue. They've seen raptors pick off little chicks and even grab grown birds, they said.
"We just watch the chickens live free," said Young, recalling a man who once asked if she owns the chickens. "I said, 'I don't own them. They're just ours. We feed them.'"