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Free-range chickens charm a Bostonian

SEMINOLE HEIGHTS — My first morning in Tampa, a rooster sang outside my window.

It was, well, a wake-up call.

A rooster? In the city?

Where, I wondered, am I?

From the streets of Boston, I had just moved to Tampa, ready to begin an internship with the St. Petersburg Times. I settled in Southeast Seminole Heights, a gritty but cozy neighborhood southeast of Nebraska and Hillsborough avenues.

I envisioned Tampa as a bustling Southern metropolis. Instead, I was greeted by chickens in my front yard.

Since day one, they've wandered over from my neighbor's cages to pluck at the grass and cluck in the air. I don't know what they like about my yard, but I like them.

Soon my overgrown lawn became a mother and chicks' retreat — the answer to why the chicken crossed the road. Each morning I'd find three hens, each with a trail of chirping chicks. It was delightful.

Over the next few months, I watched the chicks grow. Then one day I noticed that some had disappeared. I crossed the road to ask my neighbor what was up.

"The bobcat," said Humberto Hurtado, a jolly Mexican grandfather. "I heard the noise in the night. I came out and he run between my legs." (He pegged the predator by its stubby tail.)

He found 13 chicks missing and a hen dead. "I'm mad with that cat," he said. The chicks now sleep in the laundry room.

After that, the rooster's song seemed more solitary. But soon I realized his shouts were being answered. There was another cock nearby, and I was on the hunt.

It didn't take long. A block away, I spotted a brilliant red cockscomb far off in a fenced yard. As I got closer, I realized my find.

Six roosters, 13 hens and 36 chicks — a poultry kingdom, three doors down.

The queen, Clara Toro, took me to her fowl. Most were caged, but a few wandered. The oldest, a black hen named Victoria, sat in a bush. Another was nesting in a blanket atop the parakeet cage. Only one rooster was free to roam at a time — otherwise they fight, she said.

Indeed, lately too many of her chicks were sprouting red plumes. Last week, she chopped five roosters' heads off and hung them upside down to bleed out.

"Delicious," she said.

Interesting, I thought.

She sent me off with four eggs from beneath her house. They were half the size of store-bought eggs, but packed double the richness.

Man, what a story. I was about to wow my editors with this one: roosters in Seminole Heights.

Back in the newsroom, I logged into the Times archives only to realize my "find" wasn't peculiar at all. Dozens of my colleagues, past and present, had already covered it: Neighbors of a clucking kind; Which came first: The chickens or the condos?; The Punky Chicken; Meet the flockers.

Neighborhood chickens are apparently one tired topic.

Still, before I leave the Sunshine State for another job in Chicago, I couldn't help myself.

I've learned the art of urban chickens, and the charm of this city. As I depart, I only hope my neighbors crow "cock-a-toodle-loo."

Jack Nicas is a reporting intern for the Times. His last day is today.

Free-range chickens charm a Bostonian 05/12/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 12, 2011 5:30am]

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