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The Tender Affections of Pearl and Feather-Legs

I am writing a book to be called A Henhouse Trinity: the chicken, the kitchen and the garden. I believe that a homestead becomes a homestead when these three bases are tightly woven together as a self-sustaining ecosystem. Chickens feed the garden with their manure, crushed eggs shells and slaughter waste. The garden feeds the chickens with substandard produce and insects, and both chickens and garden provide for the kitchen while the kitchen gives back as food scraps for the chickens and wood ash for the garden.

To keep me on task, I’ve decided to share topics from the book in a series of blogs. I’ve long said that the first rule of raising chickens is, “Kill the cockerels!” Hens will brood. Fuzz-ball babies will hatch and bring delight with their joyful peeping. Life is renewed. Then the summer ends and half of the little peeps have grown up to become trouble-making adolescent roosters. If you’ve ever had a dozen cockerels in your yard, you’ll know why killing them is so important.

But I’ve decided it was too early in our blog-sharing friendship to give detailed advice on killing, scalding, plucking and dressing poultry. Maybe people reading this are just beginning to explore the idea of having chickens. I certainly don’t want to kill the idea!

Besides, this year I learned something that I really should have always known. The REAL first rule of raising chickens is this. “No matter what rule you come up, chickens will break it.” To inaugurate my series of blogs on the henhouse trinity, let me tell you the story of Feather-Legs and his émigrée demoiselle, Pearl.

I must be clear. Chickens are politically incorrect in their sex lives. Juvenal delinquent roosters form rape gangs (why it’s politically correct to eat them). But even a properly managed chicken population with one rooster and a harem of hens seems dreadfully patriarchal, at least in form.

The truth be out, hens actually rule the roost and the rooster. Oddly enough, a lone rooster becomes a perfect gentleman. He is attentive to the hens, and always lets them eat first. He is diligent in watching out for hawks and foxes, and will promptly sound the alarm when there’s danger. His connubial attentions, however, aren’t clearly consensual.

An illustration of Silas Marner

We’ve had some very valiant and noble roosters. Silas Marner died defending his hens from a dog. The son of Silas Marner, Tiny Tim (who grew from a much abused runt into an excellent rooster) died while rescuing his hens from a fox.

Our current rooster, Bruce MacRooster, came to us from another farm. I think he spent his youth enclosed in a small indoor space. When he got to range in our outdoor chicken yard he gazed in rapture at the clouds, trees, sun and moon. All summer long I would look over and see him just standing under the open sky looking at the world with the calm, steady contemplation of a philosopher.

I’ve been very happy with Bruce, and so this fall I expected to strictly adhere to my rule to go into winter with only one rooster. Last spring when we got a batch of excellent Barred Rock chicks from Murray MacMurray nursery, we got a complimentary extra chick of some other breed. Our free chick grew up into Feather-Legs, a tame White Cochin. Our son Diarmuid claimed him for a pet.

I was hoping that Feather-Legs would grow up to be a hen, but one day I caught him practicing how to crow. He wasn’t good at it. He was better at standing perfectly still so that you can pick him up.

When cockerel-killing time came, Diarmuid declared strict amnesty for Feather-legs, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I could run a knife along his throat. He was so calm and affectionate. He followed me around the chicken yard with meek manners. He never bothered a hen, and he got along just fine with Bruce MacRooster who had too much intellectual liberality to be unfriendly to gender-questioning chickens.

So Feather-legs stayed in the flock this fall, but the story goes on. Our neighbors also have chickens, and if you ever want to observe laissez-faire chicken management all you have to do is look over the fence. Despite all cockerel rape gangs, and all the hens who have accepted dinner invitations from the local fox, the neighboring flock always repopulates every summer.

This summer, while I was building a new section of fence, I disturbed a clutch of mixed species chicks. Apparently the laissez-faire hens started laying eggs in the tall grass. The guinea hens added to the collection, and some hen or the other started incubating them.

When I flushed the clutch there was no mother hen at all. I am guessing the fox got her. As to the orphaned chickens and guinea fowl, they seemed barely two weeks old. I didn’t think their prospects were very good.

But rule #1 is that chickens will always break any rule. All summer I watched the orphans grow, amazed that they survived to grow flight feathers. One day while I was feeding my chickens I realized that a pearl-gray pullet was under my foot as friendly as a hungry house cat. She was one of the orphaned clutch from next door. Somehow she got into our run.

She was such a nice little chicken I didn’t have the heart to catch her and throw her back into laissez-faire land. Late fall turned into winter, and every morning when I opened the little chicken door to let out the hens and Bruce, I began to notice that Pearl and Feather-legs stayed perched like love-birds side-by-side on their spot on the roost.

They’re a very friendly couple, and what is something I’ve not seen in chickens before, they are a couple, a monogamous couple. They do everything together throughout the day and always roost together at night.

I got my education in the humanities, and I passionately believe that all people should get a humanities foundation before specializing in science, medicine, law, business, engineering. That said I have to admit that nothing in the humanities has taught me as much about what it means to be human as my daily interaction with animals.

You’d think that chickens are simple animals, little egg-making machines with predictable behaviors. This is not at all true. They have as much individuality (and as little) as their hominid farm-partners. They are just as intelligent as us (sometimes I fear they may be more intelligent), but they are intelligent in chicken ways, not monkey ways.

Even so, as humans and chickens continue to evolve together, it impresses me how our personalities begin to interlope. I’ll abstain from bringing politics in to the matter, but I must say that I’ve seen humans who are more chicken than any cockerel I have chased on slaughter day. And now I’ve a pair of monogamous chickens who care for each other with more humanity than I’ve seen in quite a few married couples.

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We used to foster roosters for locals involved in the terrible sport of cockfighting. We had one particularly vicious rooster who attacked my granny and tore her whole arm up. I have to say though, I loved the roosters - so magnificent and colourful. No harm to the rooster, but the sheep were better at getting us out of bed in the mornings! Maybe the rooster was too convivial during the night :)

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Some breeds of roosters are really awful for violent behavior. Once a neighbor gave me a small white rooster. I had to kill him within his first hour of being here. He was not going to stop until he killed all the bigger roosters. He made very good soup. It's true that roosters aren't great alarm clocks. They crow all hours of the night. When I was young I remember that Farmer White's cows would start mooing punctually at 4:00 a.m. about a quarter hour before Farmer White started up his milk pumps.

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