Keeping Sunday Afternoons ESPECIALLY Weird in AustinBy Chris Morris
They sip their $2 Lone Star beers from plastic cups and enjoy food from the free hot dog buffet. Then, at 4 p.m., the chickens come in to roost.
In a city known for keeping it weird, the Little Longhorn is home to what might be the weirdest Austin tradition — Chicken Shit Bingo. Every Sunday, from 4 to 8 p.m., patrons gather around a cage and wager on where a chicken will, well, poop.
“The appeal of it is there are people that love to be here,” says Terry Gaona, who owns the Little Longhorn along with her husband David. “It’s a community bar. It’s the nostalgia of the bar. … It’s one big happy family. [The musicians, patrons and even the chickens] are all tied together at the hip. As weird as it sounds, it takes all of us to be together.”
It works like this: Chickens are placed on a caged, rectangular piece of plywood, which is painted to represent a bingo card and covered with chicken feed. Patrons put down $2 for a ticket with one of the card’s square numbers on it. If the fowl soils your square, you’ll walk away with more than $100 (one ticket per person per round).
The real fun, though, is seeing a room full of adults eyeing a chicken like hawks and erupting with cheers when it decides to defecate.
Games take place hourly and are interspersed with country and western and honky-tonk tunes. Patrons dance away the time between the high-stakes poultry bathroom breaks, often with plastic drink cups in hand.
And believe it or not, it’s a family affair.
While Chicken Shit Bingo brings in all sorts of people, the Little Longhorn gives kids special privileges when it comes to buying tickets for the game.
“In the chicken shit world, children under 13 get to get in line first,” says Gaona. “Anyone who’s 91 or above gets in line second — but they need to show ID and prove it. Then everyone else gets their chance.”
This odd but oh-so-addicting weekly gathering got its start back in 2000. Honky-tonk music legend Dale Watson, who had been a regular presence at the bar since 1993, told then-owner Ginny Kalmback about a similar game he’d seen played with cows. Chickens take up less space, so a tradition was born.
Even after Ginny retired in 2013, Watson was so fond of the tradition that he (and the Gaonas) bought the bar and kept the game alive.
Watson sold his share of the North Austin tavern last year and started a competing Sunday Chicken Shit Bingo game (with Ginny’s help) at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul, about nine miles south of the Little Longhorn in South Congress (and across the Colorado River that flows through Austin).
On some levels the games and attractions are essentially the same (though the hot dogs at C-Boy’s are kosher). Watson plays regularly at C-Boys, but the Little Longhorn has a deep well of country acts that play there frequently. But Watson’s venture doesn’t seem to sit well with Gaona, who happens to be his sister.
People go over there and then come back and say ‘that ain’t nothing like here’,” she says.
Thinking of going? The question you’ll ultimately need to ask when deciding which games to attend is: “How important is atmosphere to me?”
The Little Longhorn is a rustic joint, hidden among newer and larger buildings along Burnet Road (pronounce it “burn-it” or the locals will know you’re an out-of-towner). It’s cramped, often uncomfortably so, but it’s family-friendly and welcoming.
C-Boys is a more modern establishment, though it’s still a low-frills affair. It’s also a bit larger, with a back deck and upstairs lounge. It also has three poultry stars to the Little Longhorn’s two.
Whichever you choose, Chicken Shit Bingo is not only a way to celebrate weird Austin, it’s one of the city’s strongholds of weirdness against homogenization happening in other cities. Bikers, hipsters and suburbanites all gather to enjoy each other’s company and a meal and take part in a cultural tradition.
The chicken poop? That’s just the glue that holds it all together. But once you’ve experienced it, you’ll want to come back.