On the old brick streets of Ybor City, the battle between man and chicken is nothing new.
Over the years, the chicken evolved from food source to protected resident. Parades have been thrown in its honor even as adversaries plotted to deplete its ranks. Ybor chickens have been a hot topic at city council meetings, called both a treasure and a nuisance.
Today, chickens roam Tampa’s Latin Quarter with impunity, strutting past brick storefronts, roosting in parks and crowing lustily in the wee hours — as Ybor as crowded bars and Cuban bread.
Now, in the latest salvo, a resident wants to know where his property rights begin and the chickens’ end.
“I get a little ticked off when it turns out a chicken has more rights than I have,” said Steve Calkins.
“They are not bald eagles,” he said.
Calkins, 69, has lived for four years in one of two condos he owns at the Quarter at Ybor, a 450-unit complex on Palm Avenue.
Walk the property with him and he will point out chicken poop that must be regularly cleaned off the sidewalks and pool deck and fresh chicken scratches in dirt that once held grass. “Chicken scorched earth,” he calls it. Also, they crow when people are trying to sleep, he said.
The chickens of Ybor are protected by a decades-old Tampa ordinance declaring the entire city a bird sanctuary in which it is unlawful to “hunt, kill, maim or trap ... or otherwise molest” birds. (The law does not apply to “birds or fowl raised in captivity for human consumption.”)
Calkins has contacted the city to opine that the law applies only to public property. “That’s been my argument: How can you tell me that I have to bow down to this animal, to this food source, on private property?” he said.
What’s more, he doesn’t believe chickens meet the definition of “wildfowl” in the ordinance because they are not wild. And while some say the chickens trace back to flocks that fed families in Ybor a century ago, he has his doubts that the current crop is particularly historic.
Bottom line: Calkins wants to be able to have chickens regularly trapped and relocated by a professional as is necessary, he said.
Chicken-related calls to the city often involve claims that someone tried to kick or otherwise harass one, said Mike Schmid, the assistant city attorney who is legal advisor to the Tampa Police. Officials are now considering Calkins’ chickens vs. property rights question.
You can almost hear the pro-chicken lobby — and they are legion — sigh in exasperation.
Chickens are part of what makes Ybor uniquely Ybor, said Dylan Breese, founder of the Ybor Chickens Society, which promotes harmony between chickens and Ybor establishments.
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Couldn’t someone argue against Ybor’s historic brick streets because they could prematurely damage a car’s tires and suspension? Or that Ybor’s cigar smoking tradition is a health concern for people walking past?
“I think if you choose to live in a national historic landmark district, you choose to live with the history within it,” Breese said. “How do you move to an area with this identity and try to fight it? It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anybody.”
On this much Calkins and Breese agree: The conflict at the Quarter was exacerbated by a resident who regularly put out chicken feed. That resident moved out in December. Breese said problems like this often resolve when the feeding stops.
Around Ybor City, tourists tend to be charmed at the sight of the bright roosters, busy hens and small chicks going about their business. The chickens have been compared to Ernest Hemingway’s storied six-toed cats in Key West.
But historically, not everyone has loved the Ybor chickens.
In 2008, a licensed trapper showed up after a complaint that chickens were coming into a business and scaring customers. This spurred a rally of chicken support. Pam Iorio, Tampa’s mayor at the time, pointed out chickens were here first and came down “firmly on the side of the rooster.”
Three years ago, a vocal throng of chicken supporters attended a city council meeting to push back against attempts to curb the population. The chickens won that one, too.
“A glamorous thing to have,” one City Council member called them. As Ybor as “the smell of roasting coffee,” said another.
Calkins says he is not anti-animal, that he has even intervened when he’s seen someone chasing a chicken at the park.
“The property rights issue is what’s near and dear to my heart,” he said. “I want someone to explain to me what rights they have.”