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Roosters find haven in midst of the city

A flock of wild chickens have taken up residence in North Bon Air, much to the delight of the urban neighborhood.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 23, 2002


NORTH BON AIR -- As the sun rises over Cypress Street, concrete and asphalt begin to heat up. Trucks rattle along Interstate 275 near Dale Mabry Highway. Workers zip to West Shore cubicles.

Each day, the urban jungle awakens.

Some days, it gets a little extra help.

"Urh-uh-urh-uh-urrrh!"

Brandon has its foxes; Carrollwood, peacocks.

North Bon Air? Roosters.

"They're part of the family," says Deborah Greene, who lives on State Street.

Some neighborhoods get gentrified. North Bon Air got countrified.

The change came a year ago, after a small flock of chickens took up residence. A neighbor abandoned them, or so the story goes.

They share a zip code with posh Beach Park, and they crow like they own South Tampa.

"They go all up and down the street," Greene says. "You get kind of used to them."

She lives a block south of Cypress. Chain-link fences frame cinder-block homes. Yards are neat, but not fussed over. The people who tend them are laid back enough to welcome new neighbors, even those of a different feather.

Chickens rule the roost. There are seven or eight of them, semi-wild but not averse to handouts. Roosters outnumber hens. They scratch for grubs and grasshoppers in vacant lots and take their time crossing the road. People drive around them, slowly, sticking heads out of windows.

Crowing begins as early as 4:15 a.m.

"It's good for us," says Louise Sallins with a laugh.

Sallins starts work at 5:30 a.m., preparing meals for airplane flights. She lives behind Hee Ya's restaurant, where one rooster keeps to himself amid thin oaks and low-lying cactus.

The rooster might be stag, but he cock-a-doodle-doos as if 100 hens need impressing. And he dresses sharp: all black, with a green sheen. When he goes AWOL, women notice, particularly Greene and her mother, next-door neighbors.

According to local lore, the woman who first owned the chickens didn't want to leave them. She simply couldn't contain them. Before she left, they ventured from the yard, but never far.

A taste of freedom kept them on the run.

Now they're everywhere. Strutting near the interstate. Crowing atop patio tables. Here a cluck. There a cluck.

"We basically feed them whenever they land in our yard," says Abel Gonzalez, 27, a taxi driver who lives on State Street with his wife and three sons.

But they're not pets, he says.

When Gonzalez pulls up in his taxi, "they haul tail," he says. "I really don't know where they go. Probably hunting for worms or something."

Almost every day, a half-dozen swagger through the parking lot of the two-story office building next door. There's little food but plenty of shade and a ditch to the south.

A hoity-toity neighborhood might cluck.

Around here, people cackle.

"It gives our place character," says Chad Jacquays of TrafficStrategies.com, an Internet company in the building.

Jacquays uses the chickens as landmarks when giving directions to clients.

"It's better than telling them to turn between Priscilla's and Pony Tails," he says, referring to adult businesses a quarter-mile away.

Compared to country cousins, these chickens have it easy.

No foxes. No hormones. No chicken parts mixed in the feed.

The Colonel won't come calling. Nor will Chick-fil-A, with those selfish cows.

All but one or two find shelter in a vacant lot near the interstate. Signs say, "Keep Out." The chickens roost 15 feet in the air, in a tree with papery seed pods and silky yellow flowers.

There, they greet the dawn, and puzzle motorists who hurtle past.

"They don't fool with the street," says Eddie Xiques, a homeless man who finds shelter under the overpass.

Xiques, Mr. Meal Ticket if you're a chicken, refers to Cypress Street, where one of the chickens met an untimely death. Survivors haven't gone near it since, he says.

No one has seen chicks.

Xiques says he finds eggs, some near the stack of palm fronds he uses to hide his bicycle. He says he doesn't eat them, but other homeless people might. Plenty of snakes around too, he says.

Neighbors wouldn't mind if chicks came along.

The birds are "a breath of life," says Marie Hagood, a bookkeeper with Sherrick Construction, which has its headquarters on State Street.

Greene thinks so, too.

She wishes they'd come around more often.

The chickens seem to avoid Greene's yard, maybe because she's dog-sitting for a male chow-mix named Daisy. Once Daisy is gone, Greene hopes they'll take dips in her front-yard pond, home to goldfish and a turtle.

They'll fit right in with the three caged parakeets she keeps on the front porch.

In the urban jungle, the more the merrier.

-- Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com.

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