Ybor chickens are ruling the Seventh Avenue roost

TAMPA, Florida (AP) – Cephas Gilbert says he is visited daily by old friends.

For years, the same flock of red chickens and roosters was outside the Cephas Hot Shop restaurant at 1701 Fourth Avenue in Ybor City.

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Then, in February, he said goodbye to his feathered friends when he opened a juice bar with the same name, a few blocks from 1613 Seventh Ave.

But he says that some of these birds have been circulating in his business lately.

"They miss me," said Gilbert with a laugh.

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Well, not really.

Chickens find all kinds of reasons to cross the street, but most Ybor Birds have historically stayed away from Seventh Avenue due to its high volume of cars and people.

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Then came the shutdown of the majority Ybor companies to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Seventh Avenue suddenly became favorable to the chickens and they headed for the main road.

"You see more here now than ever before," said Gilbert, who was in Ybor since 1981. "It's cool".

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Photos of animals claiming spaces around the world during the pandemic have spread through social media – monkeys in New Delhi, mountain goats in Wales.

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But the Ybor chickens initially did not follow suit.

Birds are animals of habit, said Dylan Breese, founder of Ybor Chicken society that cares for wild birds. Flocks adhere to their specific areas.

Some live in Centennial Park, for example, and others in the vacant lots that dot Fifth Avenue between 19th and 20th streets.

"They don't venture out because that's where they feel safe," said Breese. "If they venture into the territory of another hen, that is where the fights take place."

But then people ventured back to Seventh Avenue in search of take-out food they ate on hikes.

"My wife and I would see those people actively feeding the chickens or discarding food," said Chris Wojtowicz, president of Ybor City Development Corporation and a community resident. "Then we started to see big flocks meeting in the seventh."

Parts of Seventh Avenue were closed to car traffic on May 4 for use in open-air restaurants, helping them reopen while practicing social detachment.

Breese now fears that outdoor customers think it's cute to feed chickens.

"They lose their independence and start to depend on people for food or they may think this is a place to get food and jump on a table," he said. "In addition, many foods that you think would be good for them, as certain vegetables are really toxic."

Their volunteer society took to the streets and social media to get their message across.

"Don't feed the chickens," he said.

O Ybor Lately, birds have caused the same problem for those few cars on Seventh Avenue, as they usually do on the surrounding streets. They don't speed up their journey down the road, no matter how loudly a car can honk.

Still, it has not been a concern because the Latin District is very empty, said Wojtowicz.

In addition, he added, chickens stick mostly to sidewalks, where they can find discarded food.

"I notice a lot of things in front of 7-11" on Seventh Avenue 1535, said Wojtowicz. He then added with a laugh, "Maybe they want Slurpees."

As the chickens did Ybor the home is its own debate.

Some believe that they are descendants of chickens owned by YborIt is founding immigrants. Others say the chickens did not reappear in the district until the 1970s.

Gilbert takes some credit. He says a storm in the 1980s destroyed his Ybor chicken coup, allowing 40 birds to roam freely and spawn future generations.

Dropouts remain a problem, Wojtowicz said. People buy chickens for chicken coops, they realize that they work to maintain and leave the birds Ybor, which is illegal and dangerous.

"These poor domesticated birds don't stand a chance against the wild," said Wojtowicz.

Wojtowicz expects chickens to avoid Seventh Avenue again as pedestrian and vehicle traffic increases.

Gilbert will miss them.

"I'm going to have to visit them," he said. "We are old friends."

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