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TAMPA — It turns out that saying Ybor City’s chicken population traces its roots to the district’s inaugural inhabitants may be as true as Chicken Little’s screams that the sky is falling.
Ask Ybor’s pro-chicken denizens about the origins of the fowl clucking freely and they are likely to share the popular romantic tale of how their feathery friends are descendants of birds brought there in the late-1800s and early-1900s by the district’s immigrant founders from Cuba, Spain and Italy.
It is this claim that the chickens are historic animals that some use to defend the wild poultry’s right to roam the streets while other residents now complain the population has become too large, unruly and even destructive.
But it is an assertion that Tommy Stephens, the individual most-associated with the history lesson, now says is based on his own fabrication.
And, if any of the chickens are connected to an Ybor immigrant, it is more likely that link is to a Jamaican.
Stephens is the original Ybor chicken mega-fan, the district resident who started the James E. Rooster Parade, a New Orleans-style tongue-in-cheek funeral procession down Seventh Avenue honoring his rooster of that name, killed by a dog.
It’s been a stop-and-go yearly event since the inaugural one in 1997, returning last year after a brief hiatus and held again Tuesday night.
But a few years before Stephens, 73, first made Ybor chickens chic through the parade, neighbors complained about the noise created by 30 that frequented his backyard, and code enforcement hounded him for feeding the birds.
The city’s claim was that providing chickens with regular meals on his property made the fowl Stephens’ pets. He had to control them or be fined.
So, he dialed his friend Rafael Ybor, the grandson of the district’s founder, Stephens recalled, and asked, “Do you reckon some of your granddaddy’s chickens survived, multiplied and the ones in my yard are historic chickens?”
“He said, ‘I’ll go along with that,” Stephens said with a laugh. “So, if they were always there, they can’t be mine, I told code enforcement. That started it.”
Still, chickens have always been a part of Ybor.
Ybor’s original immigrants kept chickens in backyards for food. But historian Joe Howden, a 27-year resident, doesn’t buy that they were simply set free when immigrants left in the 1950s and 60s. “That today’s are somehow descendants of original heritage chickens — ridiculous,” he said.
According to David Audet, artist and longtime staple of Ybor, in the 1970s when the district was populated with low income housing, a few of those newer residents also kept chickens, but again in coops for food. None roamed free.
So from where did those wild chickens first come?
Stephens’ neighbor in the early 1980s had five that walked the neighborhood. Later, friends gifted Stephens two hens, and the rooster James E. lived freely in his backyard. Multiplication occurred naturally, Stephens said.
And, there may indeed be ancestors of an immigrant’s chickens squawking about, but that immigrant is from Kingston, Jamaica.
“It was 1983 and I brought 40 chickens I got in Brandon to Ybor,” said Cephas Gilbert, 65 and owner the Jamaican eatery Cephas’ Hot Shop at 1701 E. Fourth Ave. “I am the first one who brought a lot of chickens back to Ybor.”
When the Jamaican arrived in Ybor in 1981 after relocating to Miami from Kingston for one year, the sleepy yet colorful community of that era reminded Gilbert of Kingston, minus lots of chickens and certain vegetation.
So, on an unused plot of land across the street from his restaurant, he planted sugar cane and put 40 chickens in a coop he built in a vacant building.
To keep the population under control, eggs were given to friends and neighbors, Gilbert said. And whenever a bird would get out, he’d let it remain free, meet other escapees and create a first generation of wild fowl.
Then in 1993 a storm blew through Ybor and took his coop’s roof with it.
Chickens scattered, Gilbert said, and he let them all roam for good.
Gilbert believes his chickens’ lineage lives on. He says his were classified as game chickens, colored red and could grow no larger than four pounds.
Any others, Gilbert said, are domesticated ones abandoned in Ybor in recent years and causing the population to double to over 200.
Still, while those tired of the wild fowl pooping on porches and eating landscaping want the city to lift an ordinance banning the trapping of the birds, Stephens predicts the chickens and roosters will remain an Ybor fixture.
“Unless the city puts out an all-out bounty, they cannot catch them all,” Stephens said. “A few will escape and multiply. They are here to stay.”
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.