This state's not chicken to celebrate

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

In Missouri, roosters are mostly for wake-up calls, stews and making other roosters.

In Florida, at least some parts, they're creatures to be celebrated, and their deaths are mourned.

You've probably seen articles about Key West's feral chicken problem -- or blessing, as other people view it. The chickens were even featured on Dave Attell's show, "Insomniac."

The fowl -- numbering about 2,000 now -- have had their run of the island for generations. There's even a city ordinance declaring the island a bird sanctuary, meaning nobody can harm the feral chickens ... except the city. Anyway, it's all at www.keywestchickens.com.

Enough with the social studies lesson, but other parts of Florida have grabbed onto this "chickens are cool" philosophy and let wild flocks run free. One of those communities is Ybor City, a Tampa neighborhood that used to be home to Cuban immigrants. It fell into disrepair after the cigar industry dried up, but now it's the picture of urban renewal. A movie theater. A Starbucks. Shotgun shacks worth $200,000. Tiny condos starting at $100,000.

Still, the non-gentrified class, and maybe even some of the new arrivals, are in support of allowing wild chickens to live unmolested. Which brings us to the weirdest party I've ever attended.

Tom Stephens, a skinny guy with a neat white beard and a booming Southern accent, lives in one of those old shacks -- he bought it before the real estate craze -- and used to have a rooster. James E. Rooster, actually. As the story goes, James E. was the cock of the walk in Ybor -- a real neighborhood celebrity until a dog dispatched him to chicken heaven in 1997.

Every year since, Tom has had a wake for James E., an event that's become more and more elaborate.

I scored an invite this year from a friend. Offered no guidance on attire, I wore my standard Midwestern Sunday-afternoon picnic getup -- T-shirt and shorts. I've never felt so out of place.

Men wore tuxedos with plastic chickens mounted to their top hats. Women altered old bridesmaids dresses for the occasion, attaching strings of pearls, rhinestones and iridescent chicken appliques. They carried parasols adorned with bows and pictures of our feathered friends.

We ate. We drank. We marched through the streets of Ybor City, lead by a New Orleans-style jazz band and Tom hoisting James E.'s coffin high above his head. (Nobody would tell me whether it actually held a dead rooster.) Women carried signs: "The cock crowed; the dog burped" and "Cocka-doodle-don't!"

Anyway, it was a blast -- another thing I've found to love about my new community and miss home a little less. On the way back to my car, there they were, the feral chickens of Ybor, scratching for feed in a vacant lot. They looked beautiful.

Tom promised me an invitation next year, so I'm getting started early.

Now where the heck does one find a chicken applique?

Heidi Hall is a former managing editor of the Southeast Missourian who now lives in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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