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Calif. mission town residents stewed over chickens

San Juan Capistrano has its reliably returning swallows, but a lesser known California mission town about 400 miles to the north has its own feathered icon: the constantly squawking chicken.
/ Source: The Associated Press

San Juan Capistrano has its reliably returning swallows, but a lesser known California mission town about 400 miles to the north has its own feathered icon: the constantly squawking chicken.

Hundreds of chickens run wild in San Juan Bautista, feral fryers that are perhaps descended from ones brought by the first Franciscan friars in 1769. Too many, some now argue, and town officials plan to cull the flock in the coming days.

"When the street lights turn on they think the sun is coming up and they start crowing," says chicken foe Richard Ponce, 72. "We are overwhelmed with them."

They roam this historic town of 1,600, lending to its Wild West charm. Cocks strut the Franciscan Sisters of Atonement Residence at Mission San Juan Bautista and the wooden sidewalk along the 1850s Plaza Hotel, while hens scratch around succulents and sage in the expansive garden at Jardines restaurant.

"People come to see the mission, and the chickens are part of the attraction," says chicken lover and local watercolorist Gayle Sleznick.

The fowl adorn T-shirts and hats, and the city's numerous antique stores and tourist shops hawk as many chicken-inspired gifts as they do replicas of the mission bells marking the route along which the 21 Spanish outposts were built.

Until last year, the city even held a festival and parade for the common chicken.

But things aren't as bucolic as they appear in Chicken City. Some say the population has gotten out of control. Even worse, unwanted chickens with questionable pedigrees are being dumped here — from the looks of things, mostly big roosters.

So they crow. And they crow. Staking their territory and attracting mates all day, every day.

"We're just lucky people aren't dropping off elephants," Ponce says.

The issue came to a contentious head in June, when the city council voted to hire a local trapper to winnow the flock.

"We don't want to get rid of all the chickens," says Mayor Andy Moore, who wears one of the city's souvenir ball caps with a rooster stitched on the front. "Just the ones that people don't want on their private property."

Residents just want a little peace.

"Today is the first day they didn't wake me up at 4:30," chicken foe Ruben Lopez told Moore when they met on his street last week.

He added: "They know their day is coming, that's why."

For $500 the trapper will dispose of up to 100 chickens trapped in cages that a two-man public works crew will set up on private property at the owner's request. The contract that started Friday doesn't specify how the chickens will be disposed of, but city officials say they hope the trapper will find homes for most of the birds.

So far, more people are claiming egg-laying hens than the more numerous roosters. Chicken supporters fear the roosters could end up in some illegal cockfighting ring, or equally distasteful, a stew pot.

News of the pending chicken coup also has alarmed some tourists.

"What!?" said Sheryl Fearnside of Monterey. "They give the town charm."

"Like Kauai in miniature," added Maggie Reynolds of Morgan Hill, Calif., referring to the Hawaiian island with a feral chicken population. "I hope they don't take them away."

The hours-long city council chicken debate, the highlight of which was Lopez playing a recording of roosters crowing, wasn't the first time the birds have occupied the council's agenda. In 2006, the council banned the feeding of chickens, hoping to reduce their numbers.

The local sheriff scoffed at the idea of enforcing the law, and some residents don't even pretend to hide home feeders.

After all, the mission-system's founder, Junipero Serra, was a follower of St. Francis — the patron saint of animals.

"It would be a very ordinary town without these chickens," Sleznick says.