Sharing Mana‘o

A recent overnight visit to Kauai put me in a fowl mood. Actually, the trip was lovely; I just can’t resist a pun.

Of course, I’m referring to the feral chickens that have long been part of the Garden Isle landscape and legend. First-time visitors to the island are often startled to see the birds roaming freely, and they have been the subject of speculation and study for decades. Researchers at Michigan State University have tried to unlock the evolutionary secrets of the hardy birds, convinced that their findings could help modern breeders produce stronger, healthier poultry. Mainland publications, including the New York Times, have investigated and reported on the proliferation of the famous fowl. But I think they got it wrong.

Descended from the moa, the Red Junglefowl brought by the Polynesian settlers over a thousand years ago, today’s feral birds are the product of interbreeding with farm chickens introduced by Europeans and Americans, as well as fighting birds brought from the Philippines. Their abundance on Kauai is often attributed to Hurricanes Iwa and Iniki in 1982 and 1992, when the domestic birds were freed from their coops by the strong winds. If you Google “Kauai chickens,” you’ll find dozens of online articles stating the hurricane theory as factual.

But those of us of a certain age know better. Back in the 1960s, during my first visit to Kauai, the chickens were already a common sight. My parents and I were amazed to see flocks of chickens scrounging for scraps at all the tourist stops, much like the stray cats at Kepaniwai. According to the tour guides, the phenomenon dated back to the 1880s, when mongooses were introduced to the Hawaii. The sugar industry imported the animals from India in an attempt to control the rat population in the sugar cane fields. Mongooses were sent to all the major islands, but the pair that was bound for Kauai either fell or got pushed off the boat. Before another shipment could be arranged, folks on the other islands realized that the mongooses preferred to sustain themselves by eating bird eggs than by fighting rats. So the Garden Isle (and Lanai) remained mongoose-free.

True or not, that explanation made sense to me. But now, a new mystery has emerged, along with more questions. It seems to me that the poultry population on Kauai has dwindled considerably. Driving through Lihue and on to Koloa, where I spent the night, I spotted just one scrawny rooster, a couple of hens, and a mini-flock of four young chicks. In my hotel room, I was surprised to hear no crowing, only crickets.

Meanwhile, here on Maui, feral chickens appear to be multiplying by the minute. No longer confined to backyards and country, the darn birds seem to be in every parking lot on the island. Nearly every time I drive through Wailuku, I have to stop and watch some chicken cross the road. Why?

What happened to the Kauai chickens? Did they migrate to Maui? Or have our Valley Isle specimens evolved into super chickens? Perhaps, with the traits picked up from fighting cock bloodlines, the wild birds have turned the tables on the mongooses. It does seem to me that there are far fewer mongooses around. I rarely see the little weasels running across streets and darting into roadside bushes these days.

Maybe the Maui mongooses and the Kauai chickens have simply gotten better at hiding from human view.

* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is kcmaui913@gmail.com.