"Once you get a chicken, your whole life changes," says Kekaikaheelani Oliver, who learned this fifteen years ago when she brought home her first hen. She bought it at a farm fair to help her five-year-old son learn to care for animals. As he grew, she bought a few more. Then a few more. She gave them names, called them "her girls" and regarded them as pets that sometimes provide breakfast. "They say a dog is a man's best friend," says Kekai, "but why can't a chicken be man's best friend, too?"
She came to appreciate her chickens' intelligence, their personalities and the contentment they take in their simple lives. She granted them indoor privileges, letting them come and go freely through the screen door of her house on the family homestead at Anahola, Kauai. One of the girls took to roosting in her son's closet, refusing to lay eggs anywhere except on a particular t-shirt from a local surf shop. Having the girls led Kekai to rethink her diet. She went vegan for a while, then vegetarian, then pescatarian. Now she's back to eating meat, even chicken, but never her own. "Too personal," she says.
Kekai's son is now a backyard egg farmer, and when I visit the homestead, Kekai is tending his flock. She opens the door to a neatly kept chicken coop, and out stream forty-six Rhode Island Reds for one of their five daily feedings. The girls are around somewhere, but they make themselves scarce when the farm chickens are in the yard. The coop dwellers are jealous of the house chickens and will beat them up if given the chance.
All of the chickens eat well. "They get breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, dinner and whatever scraps are left over from our table," Kekai says. Most of their eggs are sold at Wainiha Country Market or at a farmstand the family sometimes sets up along their road. Kekai is pleased that her offbeat pastime has spun off into a source of protein for her community. "You know how there are crazy cat people? We are crazy chicken people," she says. "We just evolved into egg farmers."
People have been crazy about chickens since time immemorial. Early humans who spread around the globe carried them practically everywhere. They were the only bird the great ocean voyagers who settled the Pacific brought with them. In the Disney movie Moana, one of the characters on the Polynesian sailing canoe is the cockeyed rooster Heihei. He pecks at rocks and falls overboard a lot, but he isn't there just for laughs: Heihei is historically accurate.
The trade and migration routes of the earliest Pacific navigators are marked by chickens. Researchers have gotten a clearer picture of these routes by analyzing DNA in fossilized chicken bones at archaeological digs throughout the Pacific. One of them, Makauwahi Cave, is an enormous sinkhole and cave complex on the south shore of Kauai that contains perhaps the richest fossil bed in the Pacific. The excavation pits there offer a glimpse into Hawaii's ecological past stretching back ten thousand years. Chicken bones first appear at the same point in the timeline that human artifacts do, about nine hundred years ago. Some of the artifacts themselves, such as picks used to eat shellfish, were fashioned from chicken bones.
Chickens still live and die around there today. They're feral, and one of them nearly killed the paleoecologist David Burney, leader of the excavation at Makauwahi. Burney recounts the incident in his book, Back to the Future in the Caves of Kauai. It happened in 1997 while he was working late in the day at the bottom of the sinkhole. A flock of feral chickens, which at night roosted in trees growing in the sinkhole, had gathered topside, waiting for the people below to leave. "The dominant rooster of this clan was standing on the rim of the sinkhole, roughly sixty-five feet directly above me," Burney writes. "He was scratching his feet, displaying his impatience for the changing of the guard." The bird apparently loosened a small rock, which struck the top of Burney's head. Fortunately, he was wearing a helmet and escaped serious injury. Otherwise his own bones might have been entered briefly into the fossil record at Makauwahi.
(TOP) Backyard egg farmer Kekaikaheelani Oliver's nephews help sell her hens' bounty from her roadside farmstand in Anahola, Kauai. (BOTTOM) Oliver's Rhode Island Reds peck at one of their five daily feasts.
The red jungle fowl from the forests of South and Southeast Asia is the primary progenitor of the multitude of domesticated chicken breeds running around the world today. It is the chicken that the Polynesian voyagers carried with them. In Hawaiian the bird is called moa, which is similar to the word for cooked, moa, hinting at a relationship with the imu, the underground oven. These chickens were smaller, scrawnier and more skittish-like Heihei-than today's big-breasted Chicken McNugget-era birds. But they still went well with poi.
Moa were part of daily life in early Hawaiian society. They roamed the villages. They served as offerings to the gods and as currency to pay taxes. Their plumage contributed to fashion, adding reds, browns, golds, grays, greens, blues, whites and blacks to the palette of the haku hulu, the feather workers. Ahu ula, the exquisite feathered capes and cloaks worn by chiefs, were sometimes made with moa feathers. New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, has an ancient Hawaiian ahu ula made from the black tail feathers of roosters. It's more than five feet long and eight feet wide, and its iridescent feathers glint with green and blue.
A replica of this elegant garment hangs in a display case at the Embassy Suites hotel in Waikiki. It's the work of Rick San Nicolas, a modern haku hulu. A cape like this, he says, would have been worn in battle, the sturdy layers of eight- or nine-inch-long black feathers and their netted backing offering a measure of protection from flying rocks and swinging shark-tooth clubs. It would have also made a clear fashion statement on the battlefield. "It told everyone you were a badass," San Nicolas says.
Chickens sometimes appear in Hawaiian myths and legends. "Lepe-a-moa, the Chicken-Girl of Palama" appears in Legends of Old Honolulu, WD Westervelt's 1915 collection of folklore translated from Hawaiian-language newspapers. In one scene the benevolent Oahu chief Kakuhihewa loses a series of cockfights to Maui-nui, an underhanded Maui chief who isn't playing fair. Maui-nui has a supernatural rooster, which tears Kakuhihewa's ordinary roosters to shreds.
In the final match Kakuhihewa is forced to wager his life. Luckily for him, a beautiful girl named Lepeamoa, who can transform herself into a gorgeous chicken with super powers, arrives to help. Lepeamoa clashes with the rooster in "a cloud of flying feathers." An epic battle full of surprise twists worthy of a Hollywood action movie climaxes with Lepeamoa on the verge of delivering the coup de grace-but pausing to disrespect the cheating king, dashing into his hair and tearing at it with her claws. "This polluted and disgraced Maui-nui," Westervelt writes.
(LEFT) “You know how there are crazy cat people? We are crazy chicken people,” says Oliver, seen here with one of her “girls.” (RIGHT) Visitors on Kauai commune with feral fowl at Wailua River lookout. The flock here is hundreds strong due to residents relocating pesky birds to the area.
Insults and gambling went hand-in-hand with cockfighting, as the "Chicken-Girl of Palama" demonstrates. Native historian David Malo, in his 1838 book, Hawaiian Antiquities, dedicates a short chapter to the sport of hoohaka moa, chicken fighting. "The day having been set for the match, a multitude of people assembled to witness it, and bet on the result," Malo writes. "The winners always reviled those who lost with insulting and offensive language, saying 'You'll have to eat chicken-dung after this,' repeating it over and over."
Christian missionaries in Hawaii tried to stamp out chicken fighting. It looked just as inhumane to them as it does to mainstream society today. It was outlawed in Hawaii long before it was entirely abolished on the Mainland (the last holdout, Louisiana, didn't ban it until 2008). Nevertheless, it thrived in the Islands during the plantation era. Despite the threat of police raids, chicken fighting served as a major form of entertainment for the workers who toiled in Hawaii's cane fields and sugar mills. "The risk-taking and the excitement of the fights broke the monotony of the tedious hours in the hot sun," writes University of Hawaii social scientist Robert Anderson in his 1984 study, Filipinos in Rural Hawaii. Gambling and talking trash were all part of the fun, or in Anderson's words, "In an important match, the winners occasionally deride the losers unmercifully in an attempt to take further glory from their win."
Hawaii's golden age of backyard chicken farming came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was a time when every egg came from a nearby coop and frozen chicken wasn't even a thing. It was also a time when chicken theft was a leading property crime. Chickens were as tempting to thieves then as catalytic converters are today. Honolulu newspapers regularly reported on purloined poultry. "Chicken thieves are rampant again," warned a typical item from the Hawaiian Gazette in 1894. "Within the last few days several henroosts in Nuuanu Valley have been visited with disastrous results."
In a stupendous heist from the University of Hawaii in 1927, one hundred chickens vanished overnight from the campus poultry farm. Neighbors who ordinarily heard the slightest disturbance among the college chickens hadn't heard a peep. "Fowls Disappear Thursday Night Without a Single Cackle," the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported. Authorities concluded this must have been the work of a well-organized gang of experienced chicken thieves.
Jeth Parbo, along with daughter Tihirah and granddaughter, tend their flock, which Jeth has turned into a business. “I want to work for myself and have fun doing it,” says Jeth. “I’ve found that in chickens.”
The public's interest in chickens was so great at the time that the Star-Bulletin employed a poultry columnist. For more than a decade in the 1920s and 1930s, University of Hawaii agronomist HL Chung wrote the spirited weekly "chicken gossip, pigeon news" column. He offered tips: "When growing chicks ... need a little laxative, use one-half pound of Epsom salts to one gallon of water for every hundred birds." He answered readers' questions, such as: "Enclosed in tissue paper you will find parts of a small worm. Is this a tapeworm?" Answer: "The dried specimen is a tapeworm." He shared genuine chicken gossip: "Information has just reached the writer that the wonderful collection of Tancred White Leghorns at the Kewalo farm will be dispersed." These were award-winning egg layers, Chung noted, and anyone aspiring to the egg business "would do well to think about getting a start from the Kewalo flock."
The federal census counted nearly three thousand chicken farms in the Islands in the early 1930s. While the number of farms dwindled with time, the output of the remaining operations grew. Twenty farms in the 1980s produced more than 80 percent of the eggs sold in the Islands. But rising shipping costs for feed eventually drove most local chicken farmers out of business. By 2011 the industry was so diminished that the National Agricultural Statistics Service simply stopped publishing poultry data from Hawaii. Most of the chicken and eggs sold in the Islands today come from the Mainland.
A turning point for Hawaii's egg industry came quietly in 2021, when grocers put out the first cartons of Waialua Fresh eggs. This new brand is the product of an off-the-grid, cage-free, state-of-the-art egg farm near the North Shore named Villa Rose, a collaboration between two Mainland agribusinesses. Its chickens roam and roost as they please inside vast aviary barns. Open on two sides like giant screened-in carports, each barn can hold fifty thousand chickens. The farm generates its own electricity, pumps its own groundwater and feeds miles of manure into a biochar reactor to make fertilizer. "We have some of the most modern and sophisticated equipment known to the egg industry," says Mike Sencer, executive vice president of Hidden Villa, one of the businesses collaborating on Villa Rose.
The farm currently has the capacity for two hundred thousand laying hens. Long-range plans call for potentially growing the flock to a million birds. That would be enough to replace half of Mainland egg imports, Sencer says. But first Villa Rose hopes to jump-start a local feed industry, encouraging farmers to plant former cane fields planted in corn and soy. "Then we will really come full circle, producing the eggs and giving the manure to the farmers to produce the feed," Sencer says.
Anni Caporuscio, program manager for Mālama Kauai’s Poultry Egg Education Project, a.k.a. PEEP, hand-feeds her Silkie mix. “She has a lot more personality than the production layer hens,” she says.
Meanwhile, backyard poultry has caught on with a new generation of chicken farmers in Hawaii, like Anni Caporuscio, who has a way with chickens that she lacks with vegetables. "I always feel like plants are trying to die when I'm taking care of them, whereas chickens have a vested interest in their own survival," she says. Caporuscio refers to the hundred egg layers in the backyard of her Kealia home as her "side hustle." Her regular job is with Malama Kauai, a nonprofit that runs farming programs and a food hub. She manages the Poultry Egg Education Project (PEEP), which aims to increase the number of chicken farmers on Kauai through training, a guaranteed market (the food hub) and a starter flock of fifty chickens. "The backyard Hawaii farmer will never get rich on the backs of chickens and will never be competitive price-wise with large-scale Mainland poultry and egg producers," Caporuscio says. "But the backyard Hawaii farmer can fill the farm-fresh niche."
Jeth Parbo, a hard-working grandmother from Waimea, Kauai, is one of those farmers filling the farm-fresh niche. Parbo had already learned a lot about chickens through homesteading websites before doing the PEEP training. She started raising chickens as a way to unwind when not working as a housekeeper at a nearby resort, and she's turned that hobby into a small business. "I want to work for myself and have fun doing it," she says. "I've found that in chickens."
Each week, Parbo sells about forty dozen eggs to restaurants and farmers market shoppers. She also sells about thirty broilers (meat chickens) a week to a sports restaurant in Koloa called Friendly Waves. The chef would gladly take more if Parbo could supply them, but she's already pushing her limits. When I visit she's got 160 chickens scratching up the red dust in her small, coop-filled backyard, and she's expecting a shipment of 250 more. Parbo dreams of leasing enough acreage to keep three thousand layers at a time and twenty thousand broilers per year. She's written a business plan and met with landowners, and she has a clear vision for her pasture-raised chicken farm, which she would call Mama Jeth's Farmstead. "It would be a whole new ballgame if Hawaii could have more of this kind of poultry farming," she says.
(LEFT) Kekai Oliver with a couple of the three to four dozen eggs her fifty hens lay daily. (RIGHT) Caporuscio with her Silkie and her dog Wilson, who protects the flock from wild boar that roam the property.
As for wild chickens, they've become a nuisance all over Hawaii, but nowhere more so than on Kauai. You find them everywhere, from the airport rental car office to the lookout four thousand feet above Kalalau Valley. You see them at every beach park, waterfall, golf course, shopping mall, outdoor dining area and resort hotel. They strut around the grounds of the Kauai Humane Society and run through the office of the Kauai Invasive Species Committee, neither of which deals in chickens. They even peck around in the parking lot of KFC in Lihue. Chickens are known for occasionally turning cannibal-apparently even chickens like chicken-but in this case they probably just don't realize where they are.
Some Kauai residents regard them as pests, vermin, rats with wings. One rancher fed up with chickens damaging his orchard brings in hunters with night-vision goggles to shoot them out of trees at night as they roost. But it seems most residents accept them, and some regard them fondly, like rascally children. Visitors get a kick out of them, and gift shops are filled with chicken souvenirs. As the Kauai Travel Blog puts it, "The chickens steal our fries, but they also stole our hearts."
It's a different story in densely populated Honolulu, where a single rooster crowing at 3 a.m. can drive hundreds of high-rise dwellers mad all at once. Some exasperated McCully residents formed a vigilante band to capture and relocate roosters disturbing the peace in their neighborhood. Government has struggled with a response. Last year Honolulu County spent $7,000 to trap just sixty-seven chickens-a whopping $104 per feathered head. The state Legislature's boldest response to the wild chicken problem-a controversial 2022 bill that would have deployed a feed-based contraceptive-went nowhere.
(LEFT) Jeth feeds her flock of 185 egg-layers, 125 chicks and 200 meat chickens. One of Hawaii's many backyard farmers who caught chicken fever, Jeth went through PEEP training and plans to grow the Islands' local poultry industry by leasing enough acreage for thousands of birds. "It would be a whole new ballgame if Hawaii could have more of this kind of poultry farming," she says. (RIGHT) For poultry farmers like Jeth, the intelligent and personable chicken is part produce, part pet. "I like to help my mom take care of the chickens by feeding them, letting them out on the grass to graze," says Tihirah, seen here with one of Jeth's hens. "Sometimes I like to run around with them or sit with them."
Kauai's staggering wild chicken population is widely attributed to a combination of bad luck with hurricanes and the absence of mongooses. Unlike their neighbor-island counterparts, Kauai's sugar planters did not attempt to control rats by importing mongooses to the island, and birds fare better without those egg-devouring predators on the loose. Kauai did take direct hits from hurricanes, in 1982 and 1992, which broke open coops and freed thousands of chickens. They mated with the remnant Hawaiian jungle fowl living wild in the mongoose-free forests. Now the average chicken on the street in Lihue has the proud blood of the jungle fowl coursing through its veins.
But what explains the wild chicken booms on other islands, which have mongooses and didn't get slammed by hurricanes? I ask Sheila Conant, professor emerita at the University of Hawaii and an authority on Hawaiian birds. "It's a mystery," she says. "Possibly, there's more to eat, and either they've gotten better at avoiding predators or there aren't as many predators as there used to be in places where they're abundant," she says. Nobody really knows. But the one thing that's for sure is that it's our fault. "People are a really big factor in ecological change of any kind," Conant says. "If you don't like chickens, there's nobody to blame but us."