Maui's population of feral chickens has grown very fast in recent years to the point where it's becoming commonplace to see them in neighborhoods, parks and along roadways.
While the birds have not yet spread to conservation areas to compete with endangered native species, they nevertheless can sicken people who eat the awful-tasting wild chickens without thoroughly washing or cooking them; and they can carry pests, such as fleas, ticks and lice, animal control and public health officials said.
Maui Humane Society Chief Executive Officer Jocelyn Bouchard said the proliferate fowls are fast and difficult to capture, and there's not much that can be done to control their population.
A feral chicken and its chicks cross the driveway of a Makawao residence. The population of the proliferate fowl has grown dramatically in recent years. Now, the birds can be found in residential areas, parks and roadsides islandwide, although not yet in conservation areas, officials said. Maui Humane Society officials said the birds are difficult to catch, taste bad and can carry disease and pests such as lice, ticks and fleas.
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
One mother hen can lay at least a dozen eggs daily, she said.
"Maybe if we had a concerted effort with a number of agencies, we could stem the tide for a bit," Bouchard said. "Realistically, though, I don't think there's anything we can really do about it. They just breed faster than we could ever catch them.
"We don't even know how many of them there are," she said. "Thousands, probably. At least."
Maui's chicken population likely will continue to go unchecked, Bouchard said. The birds' numbers are limited only by the amount of food and water they can find.
Feral chickens may be hunted by cats, or rats or mongooses with a taste for eggs. For most people, the taste of feral chickens is just too gamey, Bouchard said. Residents aren't putting them in stew pots because the wild birds not only taste bad, but they have little meat on them, and it's tough and dry.
In addition, the insects they carry can give humans a nasty and large itchy rash, she said. When they first kept the feral chickens at the society's shelter years ago, they changed their policy after staff members started coming down with these ugly rashes, she said.
"At this point, the feral chicken situation is very similar to the problem with feral cats," Bouchard said. "They like to live in the parks or around homes, so they can eat the insects our trash brings out. It just feels like we're spinning our wheels."
The feral birds come from domestic chickens and roosters that have either escaped or been abandoned by their owners. There are no legal limits on the number of chickens people can own in Maui County, and residents can have them in even the densest neighborhoods, Bouchard said.
Mark White, director of the Nature Conservancy of Maui, said that at least so far the birds have not spread into conservation areas to compete for food with native birds, but he added that he is concerned about the rapid growth of the feral chicken population.
"I think it has quickly become a problem," he said. "It's an unmanaged population, and they can be a reservoir for avian diseases.
"Someone should examine the situation and do something about it long term," White said.
Bouchard said she isn't worried about disease, at least not at the moment.
Transmittal requires "very close contact," she said. Cases of avian flu in Asia occurred in situations in which the birds lived with people in their homes.
"I don't think that'll ever be a problem here," Bouchard said.
Dr. Lorrin Pang, the state Department of Health Maui County District health officer, also noted that there have been no reported cases of avian flu or related diseases on Maui. And the state closely monitors for signs of the disease, he said.
However, if someone eats a feral chicken - or a domestic chicken - the birds and eggs must be thoroughly washed and cooked, Pang said. Otherwise, they can pass along intestinal germs that affect humans.
The problem has not come to the forefront of Maui County policymakers.
Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said the Mayor's Office has not received a complaint about feral chickens.
"I am seeing them everywhere now, though," Antone said.
A few Maui County Council members, however, said they have dealt with complaints between neighbors over domestic chickens. But no one said they have any countywide policy plans in mind to deal with their feral cousins.
Maui police respond to noise complaints about domestic chickens, authorities said, and officers sometimes ask owners to keep their bird numbers down and under tight control.
Complaints about feral chickens are handled by animal control officers with the Maui Humane Society, where the birds are quickly euthanized. In a 10-month period last fiscal year, the society eliminated 383 feral chickens, according to Bouchard.
She said no one wants to adopt the chickens and spaying or neutering them is too expensive at up to $45 each.
If kept at the society's shelter in Puunene, one feral chicken could spread its lice, fleas and ticks throughout the facility, she said.
Bouchard said she hopes the problem eventually will be addressed when there's enough attention from government agencies and nonprofits; and volunteers will get involved.
"If we have enough help, we can focus on certain areas and capture all the birds there," Bouchard said. "We could at least stem the tide, otherwise, who knows what will happen?"
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.
* Feral birds growing in numbers. A hen can lay about one egg per day, according to state wildlife biologist Fern Duvall. A story published on Page A1 and continued on Page A4 on Saturday incorrectly reported the amount of eggs a hen can lay.
The Maui News apologizes for the errors.
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