Ybor chickens are more than local color, they're subjects of scientific research

Published August 4 2017
Updated August 4 2017

TAMPA — Why did the chicken cross the road?

Perhaps to get from Key West to Ybor City.

For five years, Eben Gering, an evolutionary biologist and professor at Michigan State University, has been conducting DNA tests on populations of feral chickens to understand how they evolve in ever-changing environments.

The chickens of Kauai, Hawaii, have been his primary focus.

But now Gering is turning his attention to Key West and Ybor City, in hopes of learning whether any of the chickens that roam wild in these two Florida communities 425 miles apart share a genetic link.

"People say Ybor chickens are probably closely related to Key West chickens," Gering said. "In a year, we will know."

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Gering's local point man is Dylan Breese, founder of a nonprofit organization — the Ybor Chickens Society — that seeks to keep the roaming birds from plunging the district's business owners into a foul mood.

One way the group advocates for the district's estimated 200 chickens: Cleaning up all the poop they leave on Ybor City business porches.

Some of those droppings will be used for the DNA tests.

During the next few weeks, as Breese sees chickens defecating, he'll scoop it into a kit and send it off to Gering. The researcher also is gathering DNA in Key West.

Gering's research is paid for through federal sources, by the Beacon Center for the Study of Evolution in Action at Michigan State in Lansing. A National Science Foundation center, it's mission is "illuminating and harnessing the power of evolution in action to advance science and technology and benefit society."

Breese didn't create the Ybor Chickens Society with science in mind, but he readily agreed to help with this research.

"It's is a great way for us to trace the connection of the population to the original settlers who brought chickens with them," Breese said. "We can tout the historical link."

In the late-1800s, Vicente Martinez-Ybor moved his cigar factory from Key West to the area of Tampa that today bears his name.

Other cigar factory owners and workers soon followed.

In those early days, many families kept their chickens rather than buy eggs or meat at a market.

Breese is one who believes Ybor City's chickens accompanied these tobacco pioneers and later wandered off and became feral.

If that is the case, they probably came with poultry farmers who saw Ybor City as an emerging market rather than with individual families, said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator at the Tampa Bay History Center.

Or, perhaps they were brought directly to one or both regions by early European explorers and settlers and spread across the state on their own, Kite-Powell said. Chickens are not native to Florida.

For Gering, the chickens' ancestry is part of a larger research project.

As an evolutionary biologist, he is trying to learn how animals adapt.

Knowing how feral chickens evolve to survive challenges in their environment — without antibiotics, vaccines, climate control or protection from predators — can help maintain domestic populations "in the face of a changing planet and evolving pathogens," Gering said.

The Ybor City chickens are the perfect subjects.

DNA is typically collected by trapping a chicken and drawing blood, but Breese rejected that approach as too painful for his charges. He jokes that they're like his children and brings them to a veterinarian when they're injured and to share cute photos of them via social media.

The chickens trust Breese. Some even walk up to him like a pet cat.

That relationship, Gering said, will allow Breese to observe the chickens up close and collect data difficult to obtain elsewhere.

The questions he hopes Breese can answer include what the chickens eat, what eats them, how frequently they fight and when they reproduce.

"Dylan has directly observed the Ybor chickens eating introduced reptiles — and being eaten by local, native raptors," Gering said. "To a scientist, a lot of the anecdotal evidence he can collect is valuable."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.