Oviedo, Florida, is famous for its chickens. They roam freely throughout a downtown which used to be a bucolic Mayberry but over the years has been stapled in by busy highways. The chickens endured, nesting in the bushes by the police station and behind Ace Hardware. Locals and tourists keep them well fed, including the patrons of the Popeye's Chicken drive-thru who morbidly enjoy tossing the birds some of their fried cousins to feast on.
The chickens are so respected that they regularly stopped traffic, with lines of cars patiently waiting for them to cross the road.
But progress has apparently finally fallen on Oviedo and the downtown is going to be demolished for good. Have no fear, though, the powers that be are building a "new" downtown a mile down the road. It will be lovely and have updated restrooms and be completely and utterly false, and everyone will love it.
But I'll miss the real downtown Oviedo. For years I drove around with an I BRAKE FOR OVIEDO CHICKENS bumper sticker on my car. I once wrote about the chickens for an old newspaper I used to work for a million years ago. Here's my old story on them, please excuse all the writing mistakes I would now fix. (If you don't want to click on a link — why would you? that newspaper screwed me over — here's the story below).
I'm also posting some cool overhead drone footage someone posted on YouTube, before the bulldozers arrive. That was 3 days ago. I'll post another if he updates. Gotta love those drones.
The chickens will probably survive. Nature finds a way, despite us stompy, marauding humans. Anyway, here's my 10-year-old story about how Oviedo loved its chickens and its downtown, once upon a time. But they had to make more room for cars. There's not enough room for cars in this world. More paving, stat!...
OVIEDO - It's 5:32 a.m. and the sky obviously cannot tell time because it is midnight blue.
Roosters are equally confused, crowing as if they've seen the dawn, still a good hour away.
They crow in a line, like spies passing messages, from the trash bin behind Discount Beverage to the Citgo gas pumps to the tree beside Fairwinds Credit Union.
Cock-a-doodle-doo? No. More like hound dog meets rusty screen door.
Still, what they lack in classic form they make up for in volume. By the time the sky turns periwinkle it's rooster surround-sound, and it can even, at moments, drown out the roar of passing school buses, rumbling Mack trucks and whizzing cars.
What if someone's trying to sleep?
"Then they don't," says Dean Young, manager of the nearby Oviedo Lodge Motel. "Some people use the chickens as an alarm clock. But I think they do it begrudgingly, especially on weekends."
That's just the way the egg hatches here in Oviedo, the east Seminole County community where chickens rule the roost.
An estimated 30 roosters, hens and chicks roam downtown, and have for decades, sleeping under bushes, wandering sidewalks, and lounging on park benches.
If they were people, they'd be bums.
But don't say that too loudly to residents, who in addition to arduously defending and regularly feeding the birds, have made them collectively the town mascot and a bustling revenue source.
"I would call it a brisk chicken business," says Diane Gagliano, owner of Artistic Expressions frame shop, which sells chickens on T-shirts, coffee mugs, coasters, trivets, cards, trinket boxes, tote bags, and salt and pepper shakers.
"It's poultry in motion," she says, "right out the door."
ROCK STARS WITH WINGS
The birds respond to all this adulation by acting like punk rock stars, laying eggs outside the fire station, defecating with wild abandon, and playing chicken with moving vehicles along Broadway Street and Geneva Drive.
In their most audacious attention-grab, a clutch of feathered loafers can often be found around the local Popeye's restaurant, where patrons toss them biscuits and — yes it's true — pieces of fried you-know-what.
Ask residents why they allow all this fowl behavior and they talk of country charm.
That's half the truth.
Settled in 1875 by farmers, Oviedo still clings to its country roots despite seeing its downtown crossed by three highways and its population exploding by more than 137 percent in the past decade to nearly 30,000 residents.
That prized country charm could be felled like an ax by dollar-eyed developers with bulldozers and a few well-placed votes.
Enter the roosters, with eyes like red-rimmed bullets, beaks like scythes and spurs like daggers.
Shopping malls and subdivisions may have overrun the rest of Oviedo, but if growth wants to overtake downtown, it will have to take on the Oviedo chickens.
That wouldn't be pretty.
"You can't run 'em off," says Dean Young. "Especially the roosters. They're cocky. They look you straight in the eye like, `You want some of this? Heh. I didn't think so.' "
WHY DID CHICKENS CROSS ROAD?
Not even the Law can mess with the chickens.
In 1999 a Florida Highway Patrol trooper was cruising past the downtown Oviedo Shopping Center when he saw cars swerving to avoid a clutch of birds crossing the road.
The trooper, who locals laughingly refer to as "Barney Fife," called the chickens in as a traffic hazard. County animal control was dispatched to investigate.
"Within hours, there were more news cameras here than you could count," says Cathy Gay, cashier at the Ace Hardware.
Oviedo officials intervened, and the chickens prevailed.
"That's when the chicken crossing signs appeared," says Gay, pointing to two yellow signs on either side of the plaza.
Gay is part of the inner feathered circle. She scatters wild-bird seed every morning, and is at the moment keeping an eye on a mama hen who is sitting on eight beige eggs.
She can't always protect the birds from predators.
"When the chicks hatch, you see the hawks come down and you hear the mamas squawk. That's horrifying."
Equally gruesome was the death of her favorite rooster.
"That's Popeye," she says, pointing above the cash register to a framed photo of a rooster with a regal bearing. Some feathers have been stuck inside the frame. "He used to sit on our salt bags and greet people. But he died three years ago. We found him in the bushes. We think he was poisoned."
"We have our suspicions," is all she says.
Other deaths through the years made Gay stop naming chickens. There's one exception — a rooster she calls "Grampa."
"There comes Grampa now," Gay says. "With his harem."
Sure enough, a gargantuan rooster struts across the parking lot. He has iridescent blue feathers topped by gold fringe, and a black fluffy tail like the plumes on a showgirl.
Grampa is trailed by an entourage of two smaller roosters and two hens. The hens have missing feathers and they wear the expressions of desperate housewives.
Soon enough, the reason is clear.
Without warning, Grampa will periodically puff out his chest feathers and wantonly pursue the smallest hen.
She puts up a valiant fight but is no match for his brutish tenacity.
Yeah, right. This is survival of the fittest. Hens may protest. More cars and people may crowd into Oviedo.
But, thus far, let the chicks fall where they may.
Sources: Orlando Sentinel for the story, geopoint and youtube for the video and pic.