Feral chickens take over a city block: Live reading at Kelly Writer’s House

Credit: Mark Stehle

In October, 2009 I was invited to read my story, “Coup D’Etat,” about a Philadelphia block taken over by feral chickens, for an audience at the Kelly Writers House. Good times! You can listen below (audio courtesy of Kelly Writers House).

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A South Philly street has gone to the birds. by Isaiah Thompson

Published: June 17, 2009

pack of wild chickens has colonized the 600 block of Pierce Street in South Philadelphia.

Everyone on the block knows about them — it’s impossible not to. From the roosters’ first early-morning cock-a-

doodle-doos to the final muffled clucking of the brood as it settles down for the night, the chickens make a din that can be heard on either side of the block and, indeed, from a few blocks away.

They’re everywhere — lurking in the tall grasses of the block’s vacant lots, clambering over the concrete walls that separate neighbors’ yards, seeking out friendly humans with a bite to eat, escorting the chicks, like ducklings, across the road.

No one knows how many there are.

“Once, I counted 40!” shouts a kid who lives on the block, but a nearby group of adults shake their heads: He could never have counted them, they say.

Not that 40 is a crazy number. This spring there are babies everywhere, and residents report finding eggs stashed in their yards. The chickens have already colonized both sides of Pierce, and residents say they’ve seen — or at least heard — chickens on neighboring blocks, as well.

The population, it seems, has become self-sustaining. The chickens mate, they lay eggs, they find their own food, raise their own young. They seem to be relatively safe from predators and other urban fauna. “What’s interesting,” muses Jaime Antonio Jr., “is that we have a lot of cats on the block, and they don’t mess with them. You’d think they’d kill them.”

At night, the chickens ascend the neighborhood trees and brood there, safe among the branches. In the colder months, they somehow manage not to freeze.

“In the winter, they just sit up in the trees with snow on them,” comments resident Sarah Pohlman. “It’s wild.”

Or, rather, they’re wild. The chickens don’t belong to anyone and no one, officially at least,takes care of them (they do have, shall we say, friends). They’re just there, and most of the neighbors have gotten used to it.

Whence came these chickens?

The answer, according to everyone on the block, is fairly straightforward: They came from whoever used to live at 531 Pierce St., now rented as an apartment under new ownership.

“This guy used to live there, and he had chickens,” explains Jaime Antonio Sr. When the man went to jail, Antonio Sr. says, he left behind at least one hen, which Antonio Sr. took upon himself to look after.

“I come in, I give it water and food every day,” he explains, “but then the house went to the bank, so I just open the door and let it out.”

Meanwhile, Antonio Sr. says, there was this other guy, a block down, who had a rooster (neither still lives in the area, he said).

“I guess they got together.”

Public records do list as a previous owner of the house on Pierce one Luis Felipe Jimenez, who was charged in 2005 with the manufacture or possession with intent to manufacture a controlled substance, to which he pled guilty and served some time. The house later became the property of the sheriff.

In any case, residents agree that the heavy chicken presence on the block is only a few years old, but that the chickens have been astonishingly successful in that time.

This was particularly evident, say residents, when animal control arrived last year to collect the fowl. No one seems to know who called the authorities, but nearly everyone on the block remembers that they came — and that they failed.

Sarah Pohlman, who now rents at the very house where the colony supposedly originated, remembers it well: Hearing the chickens in the underbrush of a vacant lot, she says, the authorities began cutting the grass and proceeding forward.”But they forgot that chickens can fly,” says Pohlman. “When they got to the back they were like, oh … where’s the chickens?”

Chris Marshall, who lives a few doors down, remembers it, too. “They had little cages and they were chasing them and kind of laughing the whole time, because they obviously never dealt with that before,” he recalls. “And the chickens were kind of winning.”

“[Animal Control] took like 15,” says Antonio Sr. “But now there are many again.” For some, the growing chicken population on Pierce Street is at best an annoyance.

“I have very mixed feelings about them,” admits Pohlman, who’s lived on the block for about two years. “They’re novel and they make it feel less like a city. But they are smelly and they do crow about every seven seconds in the mornings.”

Marshall, another relative newcomer to the block who has in the past called authorities about the birds, has his own reservations.

The “worst it ever got,” he says, is when a hen refused to leave her eggs, which she had laid in his yard. “I sprayed a hose at her and she wouldn’t move. Maybe I’m a mean person, but I got a stick and said, ‘I’ll kill your babies!’ I destroyed her eggs and she finally got up after that. But that was after trying hard to get her to leave.”

Kim Wolf, public relations specialist for the Pennsylvania SPCA, which currently holds the contract for Philadelphia animal control, says that most of the agency’s poultry-related calls involve animals being kept by individuals, which she says is illegal.”But we do encounter chickens who have escaped from captivity and are living in a neighborhood,” Wolf says. “It doesn’t happen often, but when it does happen we respond and attempt to capture them.”

“It depends on how feral the chickens are,” she adds. “They can be very hard to catch.”

Once the birds are caught, says Wolf, the agency works with local farms to try and “re-home” them. “There are actually a lot of options for re-homing chickens,” she says, but “there are fewer options for re-homing roosters.”

Meanwhile, it’s not at all clear that residents on the block want anything of the sort. Take Keo Lo, a longtime resident originally from Cambodia, who admits the chickens have more or less occupied her backyard. “I can’t go back there, there’s too many of them!” she says. But she likes them — they’re her alarm clock, for one thing (“When it’s a rainy day, you don’t wake up,” she laughs). More importantly, her kids like them.

“I’m used to them,” says Lemwannd Loet, 14. “If they weren’t there, I’d feel weird.”

Indeed, almost everyone I talked to on the diverse block — from whites to African-Americans to Cambodians, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans — expressed a kind of live-and-let-live tolerance for the chickens.

Even some of the old-timers, who have lived in the neighborhood their whole lives, seem remarkably laissez-faireabout the whole thing.

“I don’t mind ’em,” says Freddie Reitano, an Italian-American resident who moved to his house on Watkins in the mid-1950s (hauling his things by horse and carriage, he says).

“As long as nobody complains, it’s OK with me. I got a rabbit downstairs. I’m an animal lover myself.”

© Philadelphia City Paper



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