TAMPA — Cephas Gilbert says he is visited daily by old buddies.
For years, the same flock of red chickens and roosters hung outside his Cephas Hot Shop restaurant at 1701 Fourth Avenue in Ybor City.
Then, in February, he said goodbye to his feathery friends when he opened a juice bar under the same name a few blocks over at 1613 Seventh Ave.
But he says some of those birds have been hanging around his business lately.
“They miss me,” Gilbert said with a laugh.
Well, not really.
Chickens famously find all sorts of reasons to cross the road, but most of the Ybor fowl have historically stayed away from Seventh Avenue due to its high volume of cars and people.
Then came the shutdown of most Ybor businesses to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Seventh Avenue was suddenly chicken friendly and they made their way to the main thoroughfare.
“You see more here now than ever,” said Gilbert, who has been in Ybor since 1981. “It’s nice.”
Photos of animals claiming spaces throughout the world during the pandemic have spread via social media — monkeys in New Delhi, mountain goats in Wales.
But the Ybor chickens did not initially follow suit.
The birds are animals of habit, said Dylan Breese, founder of the Ybor Chickens Society that cares for the wild fowl. Flocks stick to their certain areas.
Some live in Centennial Park, for instance, and others in the vacant lots that dot Fifth Avenue between 19th and 20th streets.
“They don’t venture out because that is where they feel safe,” Breese said. “If they venture into another chicken’s territory, that is when fights happen.”
But then people ventured back onto Seventh Avenue for takeout food that they would eat on walks.
“My wife and I would see those folks actively feeding the chickens or discarding food,” said Chris Wojtowicz, chairman of the Ybor City Development Corporation and a resident of the community. “Then we began to see large flocks gather on Seventh."
Parts of Seventh Avenue were closed to car traffic May 4 to be used for outdoor seating by the surrounding restaurants, helping them reopen while practicing social distancing.
Breese now fears outdoor diners will think it is cute to feed chickens.
“They lose their independence and they start to depend on people to eat or could think this is a place to get food and jump on a table,” he said. “Also, a lot of food you think would be good for them like certain vegetables are actually toxic."
His society of volunteers has taken to the streets and social media to get their message across.
“Don’t feed the chickens,” he said.
The Ybor birds have caused the same issue for those few cars on Seventh Avenue lately as they normally do on the surrounding streets. They don’t speed up their journey across the road, no matter how loud a car might honk.
Still, it hasn’t been a concern because the Latin District has been so vacant, Wojtowicz said.
Plus, he added, the chickens mostly stick to the sidewalks where they can find discarded food.
“I notice a lot hanging in front of 7-11” at 1535 Seventh Ave., Wojtowicz said. He then added with a laugh, “Maybe they want Slurpees.”
How the chickens made Ybor home is its own debate.
Some believe they are the descendants of the chickens owned by Ybor’s founding immigrants. Others say chickens didn’t reappear in the district until the 1970s.
Gilbert takes some credit. He says a storm in the 1980s destroyed his Ybor chicken coup, allowing 40 birds to roam free and birth future generations.
Drop offs remain an issue, Wojtowicz said. People purchase chickens for home coops, realize they take work to maintain, and leave the birds in Ybor, which is illegal and dangerous.
“Those poor domesticated birds don’t stand a chance against the feral,” Wojtowicz said.
Wojtowicz expects the chickens to again shun Seventh Avenue as pedestrian and vehicular traffic picks up.
Gilbert will miss them.
“I’ll have to visit them,” he said. “We’re old friends.”