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Saturday, August 22, 2009

My Dearest Dear

Photo by Daughter

Last year, when the Barred Rocks and the Araucanas were at the peak of their form, with not a boyfriend in sight, the Rocks used to run up to us at mash time, whirl around and squat. We were green enough in chicken matters to say, "oh, cute, they want to be petted," and pat them on the head, and then they would run off, puzzled by our reticence -- or their own behavior, for which they had little reference.

Or maybe they did.

Sylvester, the gander, was lord of all the poultry yard, king, duke, earl, count, and squire, and made constant hay with his harem, which consisted of one goose, Susannah, his Number One, and nine Khaki Campbell ducks (!!), all of whom were willing enough to be seized by the neck, jammed into the bottom of the pool, and "sat" upon on a regular basis. The chickens were witnesses of, but not party to, all these public goings-on, and went about their own much tamer daily routine, depositing eggs, eating, drinking, snapping at flies, borrowing cups of sugar, playing bridge, and offering themselves regularly to the humans, neither of whom was any kind of a rooster but were at least alpha hens of some sort. We were big, we brought mash, might as well stay on our good side, no?

From time to time, they would have a go at one another -- that is to say, the alpha hens would have a go at those lower in the pecking order -- and while it did not appear to us that they found this a very satisfactory solution, at least there was some sense among them that some activities are appropriate to adults, whatever those might be.

A neighbor, meanwhile, received the gift of a spare rooster, and, not being willing to go through the labor of getting him onto the dinner table, she brought him over to the fence for our inspection.

"Y'wanna rooster?"

"Well ... "

"S'free. Y'wannim,'ll throw 'm over."

He did look rather docile, so we agreed, and without ceremony Chanticleer was launched on the longest flight of his career.

An extraordinarily handsome Buckeye of very large proportions, Chanticleer towered over his flock, who one and all fled in terror at his advent among them. He, not having been an alpha rooster in his previous incarnation, also fled in abject terror from them. Everyone cowered in their respective corners for a day or two, while the geese and ducks marched contentedly up and down, gabbling of slug dinner vs. snail dinner, with dandelion tea.

Come mash time on the third day, Chanticleer and several Barred Rocks approached the treat from opposite directions and arrived all together. The ladies looked up at Mr. C. appraisingly, and one of them whipped around right in front of him and squatted.

"Ahh," we said to ourselves. "So that's what that was all about."

Several seconds of stunned silence followed.

Chanticleer seemed to be thinking things over deep in the lizard layer of his brain: "Hen directly ahead. No alpha rooster in sight. Haven't seen one in days, in fact. Might not get the dee-whattly beat out of me if I take a closer look." He stepped forward, tentatively, but couldn't quite make out, or make, his next move.

She squatted a little deeper in the straw and waggled a bit.

The lightbulb, a small one admittedly, but a lightbulb all the same, came on over Mr. C.'s head. You could read his expression exactly, and he seemed to be saying:

"Oh ... ... ... YEAH!"

The deed was over in about six seconds, which seemed to us a pity, given the sea of hormones the barnyard was awash in, but the Rock, after the first startled squawk, appeared to be, on the whole, pleased with herself, and all the other young hens sidled up to ask: "so, uh, what was it like?"

Over time, Chanticleer proved himself the best kind of rooster, from any self-respecting hen's point of view: a gentleman. He would lead his flock, as if following Sylvester's example, all across the pasture, keeping a weather eye out for hawks and foxes, while also finding the choicest bugs to scratch up, step back and offer, almost with a courtly bow, to his ladies, one by one.

You could practically hear his spiel: "My Dearest Dear: As I'm Sure You Know, I, The Lord Of All I Survey (that gigantic fool of a gander excepted), Have The Sole Right To This, And Any Other Beetle I Uncover. However" -- nodding conspiratorially toward her -- "This One I Offer To You, My One True Love Now And Forever." And she would step forward and accept the dainty.

And then Mr. C. would sashay along to the next biddy, scratch again, and smoothly take it from the top: "My Dearest Dear ..."

This spring there began to be trouble in paradise.

Despite our best efforts in providing plenty of clean pasture, a variety of vegetables and greens, ground oyster shell, shady and private nesting boxes and clean, plentiful bedding straw, eggs began to be eaten, first by ones, then by twos, and ultimately almost every egg in sight, duck and chicken alike. Goose eggs being a bit tough mostly got a bye, but our dozen-egg-selling days were over until we could come up with a solution.

We suspected the Araucanas, who had taken over Mr. C. (though he was not at all faithful to them), and begun to swagger about and chase the Barred Rocks from feed trough, laundromat, and mash alike. The early egg-smashing consisted almost entirely of Barred Rock brown eggs, which seemed suspicious to say the least, and though we were on the watch, we couldn't catch anyone in the act. Internet research did not turn up any strategies that seemed to work at all for us.

We tried isolating the sub-flocks, but this appeared to make everyone miserable, and by this time the green eggs were fair game as well -- all and sundry had developed a hankering for albumin, apparently. Brown, green, duck -- whatever. It's all right there on the menu, and free, free, free.

Sadly, we concluded to start over, and bought in a clutch of tiny Rhode Island Red chicks. We would move all the Araucaunas and Barred Rocks to the freezer, one by one, and then introduce the Reds to the Lord of the Barnyard.

Our timing was not perfect. Chanticleer ran out of harem before the Reds were quite ready for him. A rowdy and self-sufficient gang of street pre-teens one and all, they hit the ground running, passing cigarettes and purloined credit cards among themselves and admiring one another's tats.

They gave Mr. C. a wide berth, and for about three weeks (three eternities in any rooster's limited calendar) he couldn't get anywhere near them. The poor dude was stranded in a sea of sassy, lightning-fast henlets. What's with all the predator-watch, old-timer? We can outrun 'em, and we can outrun you, too! They laughed. His magnificent tail feathers drooped, and the kingly pride faded from his eye.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Mister, a few pullet eggs were showing up in the henhouse. Uneaten! And the Reds were filling out and slowing down a little, talking shyly among themselves of perambulators and pink and blue pajamas.

Feeling quite sorry for him one day, as I was nibbling a sandwich in my own corner of the barnyard, I twisted off a crust of my best homemade bread and offered it to him. Gently, even daintily, he accepted the gift, then stood, craning his neck left and right, rolling each eye forward, as if trying to examine the morsel without setting it down.

The tiny light bulb came on.

Chanticleer trotted with the bread crumb over to the nearest Red (who was already putting on her running shoes and grabbing her cell phone, just in case he might try any funny stuff) and laid out the prize before her unbelieving eyes.

Stretching himself to his manliest height, and brandishing his gorgeous tail, he swept off his Musketeer's hat with the ostrich plume and bowed his deepest bow, the bright afternoon sun glinting from his epaulets, and from the basket-hilt of his gilded sword.

"My Dearest Dear," he began.

And she stopped to listen.



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