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.