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The annual Rooster Parade is as 'Ybor-centric as Ybor gets'

The James E. Rooster Funeral and Procession will honor the chickens — past and present — that roam the streets of Ybor City.
The mock funeral procession in the 2018  James E. Rooster Parade  that celebrates the Latin District’s chicken heritage. The 2019 event will be held Tuesday, March 5.
The mock funeral procession in the 2018 James E. Rooster Parade that celebrates the Latin District’s chicken heritage. The 2019 event will be held Tuesday, March 5.
Published Feb. 26, 2019

Known as the queen mother of Ybor City chickens for the number she birthed and raised, Maisie Mae was killed by a hawk in December while protecting her babies.

The rooster named the Ybor Colonel protected chickens from other roosters that became too aggressive. He was killed in July by a human, rather than a winged or four-legged predator. The assailant was never caught.

On March 5, Ybor will host its James E. Rooster Funeral and Procession, now an annual New Orleans-styled Fat Tuesday celebration that began in 1997 as a tongue-in-cheek last rite for a rooster of that name who was killed by a dog.

The event remains lighthearted with participants dressing in wild Mardi Gras attire, typically with a chicken theme.

But the celebration of the district's birds is no longer done solely in jest.

Nor does it honor just one chicken. All the deceased fowl will be commemorated.

"I'm sure the parade is tongue in cheek for some people, but there are certainly others who will have a drink or two for any favorites they may have lost," said Dylan Breese, founder of the Ybor Chickens Society. The group seeks to establish harmonious relations among the poultry, residents and businesses, in part by cleaning the birds' droppings from porches.

Meet the fixer for Ybor City's prized chickens

Lynn Rattray, an artist specializing in paintings of the Ybor chickens, agrees. "I didn't know the first rooster, but I knew Maisie Mae and Colonel. So, I will be there to pay tribute to them."

Over 40 of Rattray's chicken paintings have been exhibited at Ybor's Tre Amici at the Bunker since Feb. 1. They will remain on display through March 3, two days prior to the parade.

The stars of the show are Maisie Mae and Colonel.

Maisie Mae stood less than six inches tall but was considered among the fiercest of all the Ybor chickens when defending her young, Rattray said. What's more, as they grew older, her chicks typically stayed together as a family rather than going their separate ways.

No one can remember why she was named Maisie Mae, but Rattray said all the Ybor chicken lovers were "so distraught when she died."

Rattray called Colonel "a very gentle spirit" who, besides protecting grown chickens, rounded up all the chicks in Centennial Park — not just those he fathered — at the first clap of thunder to usher them to cover from the coming rain.

He was named Colonel, Breese of the Chickens Society said, because his feather design looked like a white tuxedo.

Still, rooster parade participants can honor the living chickens, too.

"They are not just any chickens," Rattray said. "They are Ybor chickens."

Rattray refers to rooster Frankenstein — who earned the moniker because his feathers turn green in the sunlight — as the "drunk uncle" of the Ybor chickens. He can often be found hanging out with nephews, she said. And if a person laughs, Frankenstein will cackle, too.

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And then there is rooster King Arthur, named for the gold chain mail pattern on his chest that Rattray says he shows off by strutting like royalty.

"The chickens are as Ybor-centric as Ybor gets," said Kurt Schleicher, president of the Ybor Merchants Association that will host the rooster parade. The event will feature a hearse, followed by a Mardi Gras band and then a procession made up of those in attendance.

"Cigars, brick buildings and chickens are the three things people recognize Ybor by."

The origin of Ybor's chickens remains in dispute.

Some have undoubtedly been deposited there by Tampa residents who had second thoughts about keeping backyard chickens.

Chicken dumpers throw off balance of Ybor City's roaming fowl

But Cephas Gilbert, who runs Ybor's Cephas Hot Shop Restaurant, claims many are descendants of his coop that were freed when the structure was destroyed by a storm in 1983.

Ybor City's free-roaming chickens may have a Jamaican grandpa

Others believe modern chickens are the progeny of those brought to Ybor by its original immigrant residents.

Longtime Ybor resident Tommy Stephens, who originated the rooster parade, remains steadfast that the event's namesake is a genetic link between many.

"What was James Rooster's unique personality?" Stephens said with a chuckle. "He was a lady's man" who sired offspring with as many as five hens.

With such a large family, Stephens quipped, a large funeral was necessary, so he planned the parade down 7th Avenue.

Stephens originally christened the rooster James after the friend who gifted the bird to him. Prior to the first parade, he then added the E for "Eternal" to the rooster's name.

The inaugural event drew 100. Attendance totaled over 500 in 2001, according to Tampa Bay Times archives. By 2008, it became too large for Stephens to handle, so he stepped away. It was brought back for one year in 2012, then revived as an annual event three years ago by the Ybor Merchant's Association.

Last year, the Tampa City Council discussed options to thin Ybor's burgeoning chicken population, then estimated at around 100 birds. But when, due to natural predation, the bird count plummeted to only a few dozen, council voted against any such actions.

Chickens remain free to range in Ybor

When asked what population number is today, the Chicken Society's Breese said, "Just the right amount" and that during the parade he is "going to take a sip for each of the ones that I looked after who aren't around anymore."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.