Who ya gonna call?

The Chicken Busters scale fences and hop hedges to chase down homeless poultry in Miami neighborhoods.

Published April 3, 2006

MIAMI - They tried corn soaked in Bacardi. They tried a trap. They tried catching them with their bare hands.

But to capture thousands of free-roaming chickens in Miami, they needed SWAT team tactics and fishing nets.

They are the Chicken Busters, a trio of firefighters and a code enforcement officer who spend two days a month rounding up the city's homeless poultry. The team started the sweep three years ago because officials received so many complaints about predawn cock-a-doodle-doo-ing.

So far, they've netted 7,000 birds, from Little Havana to Little Haiti. They've stumbled across cockfighting rings and crack addicts, mad dogs and cross-dressing voodoo priests. Once, they even nabbed an elusive white rooster with a big red crest in the heart of the city's financial district.

"The homeless roosters are the worst ones," said Chicken Buster Guillermo "Bill" Borges with a sigh. "Once they recognize the truck and they see the net, they just take off."

Lately, the patrols have taken on a new urgency: What would happen if those chickens roaming through crowded urban neighborhoods somehow contracted avian flu?

To be sure, there have been no cases of avian flu - in birds or people - in Miami or in the United States. But in South Florida, especially Miami and Key West, where hens and roosters are beloved by the area's Caribbean immigrants, some officials are worried it's only a matter of time.

"We need to get them under control," said Bill Verge, a Key West city commissioner. "We are totally dependent on tourism. One case of bird flu and we're dead."

Verge, who will propose this week a roundup of many of the the city's 3,000 chickens, notes that South Florida is a stopover for migratory birds.

Officials from the state Department of Agriculture say that they have tested birds for avian flu in Key West and Miami for years, including the deadly H5N1 strain. Nearly 15,000 birds are tested annually around the state for potentially deadly viruses.

It is possible, state officials say, that migratory birds infected with the avian flu could come in contact with feral chickens, just like the ones the Chicken Busters catch every month.

The Chicken Busters are an all-volunteer operation. Borges is a code enforcement officer. Osvaldo "Ozzy" Iglesias and Nelson "Nelly" Rivera are firefighters. They take their job seriously - they do not harm or kill chickens - but there is an air of an improv comedy as they drive their white pickup truck.

All three men have prior knowledge of birds; Iglesias used to breed guinea hens, and Borges remembers roosters in his Havana neighborhood as a child. Rivera, from Puerto Rico, sums up his poultry experience this way: "When I was dieting, I would eat at the Chicken Kitchen restaurant."

All of the captured birds are sold to a farm in south Miami-Dade County; the farm then auctions the birds to other farms. Though most captured chickens live the rest of their lives peacefully on farms, the Chicken Busters have occasionally spotted a repeat offender.

All proceeds go to local charities and the Busters' Cuban coffee and guava pastry habit. So far, they have donated nearly $20,000 to charity.

They hit the road early, usually around 7 a.m. They wear shorts and comfortable pants, running shoes and blue T-shirts that say "City of Miami Chicken Buster." (The T-shirts are not for sale.)

First they go to neighborhoods with complaints. They stop the truck and climb out silently.

Scanning the yards and parking lots, they reach into the pickup bed and grab fishing nets mounted on poles.

Soft "bwak bwak bwak" sounds fill the air. There, behind a fence, in a patch of brown grass and dirt, are about a dozen chickens. And one rooster. The Busters lock eyes with the birds.

Everyone starts running. The chickens are surprisingly fast.

Iglesias scales a chain-link fence as the others hop hedges.

"Nelly, you're in the front," Iglesias yells, then in Spanish, ""Mira, mira, mira." Look, look, look.

Rivera and Borges corner a group of hens and chicks behind an apartment building. People watch from the balconies.

Iglesias comes at the birds full speed. One hen flies upward; with a graceful backhand, Iglesias scoops the bird in midair. The rest scatter under a run-down bungalow.

Within 15 minutes, the men are out of breath and reaching for water. They have caught four roosters, two hens and three fluffy, yellow chicks. All are securely housed inside plastic cages in the back of the truck. The baby chicks have been separated from their mother. The hen flies atop the truck and looks down at her babies in the cage.

But when Borges takes a swipe at her with the net, he misses and she flies away.

In Little Havana, they stop at the house of an old man who had complained about chickens eating his garden. Ten hens are rooting around in his bushes.

The man is ecstatic to see the Busters and talks to them loudly in Spanish as they scoop up the birds. The man's big, brown dog also joins the frenzy.

"Hey, the dog has one!" Rivera says, grabbing the chicken out of the dog's mouth. It is the only casualty of the day.

They capture 100 birds on an average day. The most they have ever caught was 227, back in August.

Usually after a big haul, they stand around the back of the truck - loud from chicken noises - and reminisce.

"Remember the time Nelly was bit by the blind, toothless crippled dog?"

"Remember that rooster in Coconut Grove, the one we can never catch?"

"Remember that day we ran by the guys smoking crack and they said, "Hey, man, the chickens are over there,' and they pointed us in the right direction?"

Many, like the old man and the crack addicts, are happy to see the Busters. They are sick of the constant cackling and the feces.

Others aren't too pleased. Although it is illegal to keep roosters and chickens in Miami, many folks get them and let them loose. Some want the fresh eggs, some are fighting the roosters and others are using them for religious sacrifices.

Regardless, everyone says the same thing.

"Chickens? What chickens? Those aren't my chickens."

Tamara Lush can be reached at 727 893-8612 or at lush@sptimes.com