ORIGINAL ILLUSTRATION BY PATRICK CHING
Thousand Years of Wild Oahu Roosters:
From Polynesian Staple to Critically Endangered Pest
By W. KNOX RICHARDSON
Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the beach.
In Hawaii, the most common questions often yield surprising answers. For
example, which came first, the chicken or the egg? The Hawaiian answer is the
demigod Maui, son of Hina, the mother of the Hawaiian people:
a fowl was born
The child of Hina was delivered in the shape of an
She had not slept with a fowl
But a fowl was born
The child chirped, Hina was puzzled
Not from sleeping with a man did
this child come
It was a strange child for Hina-
— from the Kumulipo,
Hawaiian creation myth
Recorded history suggests the first settlers in Hawaii probably arrived around
500 A.D., according to most archaeologists who also agree they came from the
Marquesas Islands and brought the first chickens to Hawaii with them.
“The chicken is as Hawaiian as the Hawaiians are,” said a shy, local
Five hundred years later the first Tahitians landed in Hawaii beginning a whole
new era of cultural migration and bringing with them much larger chickens and
more colorful roosters.
It is here the Wild Roosters of Oahu began their Thousand Years Free Reign over
the Aina unlike any other animal —
mythological or natural. The rooster became known as Moa Kane and is so immersed in Hawaiian culture that, like the
proverbial forest and trees, the impact this ubiquitous barnyard bird has had on
Hawaii is often difficult to cull from daily life.
Unlike other colorful birds, ownership of roosters wasn’t limited to Alii
with commoners raising chickens for both eggs and meat. Hackle feathers from the
necks of roosters were used in making feathered kahili,
a pole topped with a cylindrical plume of feathers usually a symbol of authority
like the medieval ceremonial mace held by kings and other war powers of Europe.
Chickens were even among the gifts islanders gave Captain Cook.
As other cultures migrated to Hawaii, they brought with them their cultural
appreciation for chickens and roosters, too.
The rooster has long been the symbol of Portugal, as the eagle is for the United
States of America. So when Portuguese sailors first landed on Hawaiian shores,
they brought with them the forerunner of the ukulele as well as a cultural
reverence for the rooster.
Similarly, the Chinese influence on island culture is clearly evident in
downtown Chinatown and elsewhere on Oahu where over the past nine months the
Year of the Rooster has been celebrated. In Chinese culture, not unlike ancient
Hawaiian folklore, the Rooster plays a key role as a harbinger of threats and an
alert sentry who will cry out when danger approaches — though he has few
Legend has it that the only time a rooster ever crowed at midnight was at the
moment of Christ’s birth. The tradition of Christmas Midnight Mass began in
the year 400 A.D., honoring, as legend has it, Christ being born at midnight. In
some Spanish and Latin countries, the midnight Mass is referred to as the Mass
of the Rooster. Rooster Masses are common at Roman Catholic churches throughout
More modernly wild chickens can be found in both urban and rural settings all
over Hawaii. In more agricultural and rural areas wild chicken flocks can be so
thick that their inherent value as ravenous insert eaters can be overshadowed by
their reputation as noisemakers and a health nuisance.
Waimanalo nature artist Patrick Ching (whose work is featured on this month’s
cover) tells of childhood memories of growing up in rural Oahu where roosters
were household pets.
“Some of my most vivid childhood memories were at my grandmother’s house
watching the chickens and feeding the pig and other animals,” Ching said.
“Then one day I came home to find my grandmother cleaning chicken feathers off
a fresh killed bird for dinner.”
Even today, youths from many cultural backgrounds can be seen stalking and
trapping wild chickens — some for pets, but often to raise for more culturally
sensitive purposes — cockfighting.
While some evidence suggests cockfighting in Hawaii predates Capt. Cook, it
wasn’t until one century ago when the first Filipinos began arriving in Hawaii
the practice became widespread, though generally limited to rural areas. While
ostensibly illegal in Hawaii, the laws are relatively lenient and rarely impose
jail time for all but the most egregious offenders. The bloodline of many Hawaii
game birds can trace their lineage directly back to the birds brought by the
Polynesians, at least that is the thinking of a host of local breeders, none of
which wanted to go on the record..
The cockfighting infrastructure is legal and a well-respected hobby known as
game bird breeding. It’s no secret that game breeders — while claiming their
birds are just for show — routinely ship specimens around the world to
participate in both legal and illegal forms of cockfighting. In Hawaii, the
Hawaii Game Bird Association is public-spirited group of enthusiasts who help
rid the countryside of wild birds that become pests or noise nuisances, in
addition to raising thousand of birds whose sole breeding and linage comes
directly from the best fighters. While cockfighting is a felony in 38 states, no
single state has outlawed the raising and selling of game birds, or exporting to
countries or states where such fighting is legal.
Additionally, when it comes to breeding and housing game birds, no one state
agency claims jurisdiction in regulating or controlling such operations. The
state Dept. of Agriculture, which regulates commercial poultry as well as the
importation of live birds into Hawaii — including game cocks — claims the
law only permits it to regulate business operations that breed or raise
commercially sold birds for meat and eggs, and not those for show.
However, the biggest challenge to the longevity of Hawaii’s wild roosters
isn’t a new law or anti-cockfighting protest — it’s the flu, the bird flu,
the strain of avian influenza known as H5N1. There are some 16 varieties of
avian flu, numbering 1 though 16. Variety five, strain one, is a particularly
pathogenic virus that is almost always fatal to birds and when transmitted to
humans by bird feces or aerosol spray (literally a bird sneeze), it has a 50/50
record of fatalities. No known human-to-human infection has occurred, but,
according to many contagious diseases experts, we are already in the first stage
of a global pandemic.
The state has prepared a comprehensive plan for battling the bird flu but even a
superficial look reveals gaps in the program, especially dealing with wild and
game birds. According to spokespeople from the state Department of Health, the
interception of foreign visitors to Honolulu at the airport is the primary and
best defense against the importation of bird flu, but that agency only deals
with the human population. For the plan to be effective, infections must have
already jumped from birds to people, perhaps fostering a mutation of the virus
allowing it to be spread at that point easily from human to human.
Legally, all birds from any international point of origin must be quarantined
and inspected on the mainland before arriving in Hawaii. Migratory wild birds,
especially waterfowl, represent some degree of risk to Hawaii, but since the flu
has a relatively short incubation and is almost always fatal for any bird, the
chances of a wild bird from the north actually arriving here alive is remote.
According to a report from the University of Minnesota, College of Veterinary
Medicine, the major risk for the importation of this virus is probably smuggled
live birds for either the pet bird trade or for cockfighting. One year ago, a
Thai man landed at the Brussels airport where customs agents found two rare
eagles in plastic tubes in his suitcase. The birds looked relatively healthy,
but tests showed both had H5N1 avian flu.
As of this writing, the state plan to battle N5H1 fails to recognize the threat
to the human population from smuggled birds, and the lack of supervision over
the game bird industry may be a potent combination should bird flu appear here
in unregulated flocks.
Dr. Jim Foppoli, state veterinarian with the Dept. of Agricultural, acknowledged
bio-security as top priority for the agency. He also said his agency can only
take action after receiving a report of a suspicious bird death, sometimes from
the public but generally from the breeder. Should a gamecock owner suspect avian
flu, he must contact the Dept. of Agricultural who would send a team out to
investigate and if necessary isolate and quarantine the infected birds. At the
same time, quarantine areas of up to two-and-one-half miles would be set up
surrounding the infected farm. Since this strain of flu is so pathogenic, it is
not likely birds would survive to infect others, however, even stray or wild
chickens would be rounded up or trapped in the area should bird flu be found. At
this point a joint state/federal task force would be created to manage the
The Hawaii Humane Society made its position public in a published editorial in
June in the "Honolulu Advertiser."
“Cockfighting is the most likely way to have this disease introduced into our
state,” wrote Pamela Burns, president of the society. She noted that in 2003,
a deadly bird virus was introduced at an illegal cockfight and transported to
three other states. “It is important that we eliminate cockfighting if we
truly want to protect our state, our residents and our birds from these deadly
Others, including state health officials, don’t necessarily agree.
The Wild Roosters of Oahu have survived volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, famine
and even war. But will they survive the bird flu pandemic of 2006? Should the
bird flu hit Oahu and find itself among game birds or wild chickens, it will
take more than a few dollars and a lot of manpower to eradicate wild flocks.
Knowing he and
his family have been here a lot longer than most of us, we may all want to look
a little differently at that proud, strutting rooster crossing the road on his
way to beach. Because maybe, just maybe, he did come first.