Why did the chicken cross the road? On Kauai, that set-up to a joke often brings scowls instead of smiles.
The island's overabundance of feral hens and roosters is no laughing matter for locals, even though they're a common photo op for tourists.
The wild creatures are impossible to miss. You'll first spot them along the roadside upon leaving Lihue Airport. But the ubiquitous creatures overrun the entire island. They roam popular tourist attractions such as Waimea Canyon and Opaekaa Falls, and seek handouts outside fast food restaurants. (Feeding them, I've learned, is a big no-no.)
While visitors find them cute, they're a nuisance to locals.
They run freely, sometimes in large numbers, through local neighborhoods. The roosters' unwanted crowing awakens people at dawn and they peck their way through gardens in search of food. Farmers use various tactics to keep them from uprooting and destroying cash crops.
Why Kauai and why so many? There's no definitive answer to those questions, but there are two popular theories.
The first suggests the birds are descendants of those that immigrant plantation workers used for cockfighting more than a century ago.
The second, put forth by a team of scientists, claims the proliferation of poultry can be traced to the aftermath of 1992's Hurricane Iniki, which devastated Kauai, destroying many chicken farms, from which the birds literally flew the coop.
Researcher Eben Gering of Michigan State University is studying the feral fowl in hopes that their genetic history might actually help broods fight environmental threats. While that's not an easy task, a report on his work points out that chickens are mankind's leading source of animal protein.
"This can provide important insights into evolution in action within human altered landscapes, and may even someday help build a better chicken," Gering observed. "And that would be something to crow about."