Sunday, January 18, 2015

On Chickens

During a heavy thundershower last April, my wife was washing dishes, looking out the kitchen window, when she saw a big white bird flutter down from the sky. I came home from work that evening to find a white rooster with a ruby-red comb rushing up to me, an eager expression on his face. Reflecting that my grandmother once took in a similarly storm-brought chicken, I poured a little birdseed on the front walk, which was eagerly pecked up.

Now, we have always had feral chickens in our neighborhood. It was once home to a vice president, and also a state governor, and local lore has it that our feral flock is descended from the fowl of one of these VIPs, though opinion is divided as to where the praise/blame is due. The chickens are singularly beautiful: the cock has feathers of rich red, brown, gold, and dark green, with long, metallic green tail feathers. They spend most of their time in the easement behind our property. Sometimes they nest in the brushy area behind our shed, and they like to sit in trees, which reminds me of this song:

Believe the credentialed rooster, not your lying eyes.

Anyway, our white rooster is very obviously not one of the flock. He is, I believe, a leghorn rooster (as in Foghorn Leghorn). He's much larger than the neighborhood fowl. But despite his size and strength, he lacks street smarts. You see, after generations of fending for themselves and dodging cars, the feral chickens can pretty well take care of themselves. Survival of the fittest. But our rooster, no. I guess he was someone's FFA project. On his own he's pretty pathetic.

In his first days with us, I just gave him birdseed in the front yard, considering him a temporary boarder. He took to standing on our stoop, with his beak to the glass of our storm door, awaiting his next feeding. Fellow townsfolk would drive by and see him there, and everywhere we went we'd get all kinds of remarks. "Is that your chicken? What's that chicken doing on your porch? Is that your chicken?"  It got to be kind of embarrassing. So, birdseed being expensive, we started buying sacks of chicken feed at the Tractor Supply, and feeding him in the privacy of our backyard.

We were, from that day forward, His People. When we go outside, he rushes up to us, whether he's hungry or not, and follows us around the yard, making gentle little clucks and moans, and scratching at the dirt in a negligent way. He's actually pretty smart (for a chicken) and, ever since the first time I mowed the grass/weeds/dirt in his presence, runs up when I get the mower out, anticipating a feast of bugs. His lusty crow awakens us (and, presumably, the rest of the neighborhood) every day before dawn.

We named him Pappagallo, which basically means "Daddy Rooster," after the idealistic-and-well-spoken-but-somewhat-ineffectual compound leader in The Road Warrior. This is pronounced as in Italian, though everyone around here corrects the ele to an elle, which I subtly correct back. (Sometimes we call him Chanticleer, which also seems appropriate.)

As I said, though, he's got moxie, but lacks street smarts. He used to go roving around the neighborhood at night, until he got into several tangles with dogs, which run as freely in my town as dingoes in the Outback. He would return in the morning, quite crestfallen, bloodied, with feathers missing. One time he was gone for a week or two, and we thought he must have died. But he came back, though missing all his tail feathers, and apparently unable to crow. For months he remained silent. Was his throat injured? Or was it his pride? I suspect a combination of the two. For everyone knows the pride of the cock. But eventually he did start crowing again.

Now, he's quite a fine-looking fellow, and it's no surprise that several of the little beauties attached to the feral flock fell for his strut and glory. There's one red-brown hen in particular (Chickie, I call her) that he allows to share his feed. She's warmed up to me considerably, and lets me approach her now, which I take as a compliment. But once the other hens started gorging themselves at my expense, the feral rooster (The Lord Humungus, the Warrior of the Wasteland, the Ayatollah of Rock and Rollah) decided to take over, and claim the rights to the food for himself.

I don't know if there was any physical altercation, but Pappagallo began behaving most obsequiously toward this usurper. He'd give me this kind of pathetic, helpless look as The Humungus began pecking up his breakfast, and I'd have to chase the feral flock out of the yard, energetically flapping the wings of my jacket (which is black leather, naturally). This has been going on for weeks now, and it's been most vexing. There's no galline Max Rockatansky to help us, and, though an excellent human (I hope), I make a poor chicken. I'd sometimes give Pappagallo these little pep talks, but he'd just reply with an enigmatic, sad, knowing look, and rrrrrr in his throat.

Well, all of that changed yesterday. I was sweeping the back porch when I noticed that Pappagallo was in the easement, crowing as though to wake the dead. I went back there, thinking he was just trying to get my attention so I'd let him through the gate. He does that sometimes. Actually, he's always getting himself stuck in peculiar places, much to my wife's annoyance. Anyway, there's a little free-standing metal roof, partly on our property, mostly on the easement, which used to be on four legs, but now dangles on one, with the opposite corner on the ground.* The chickens like to sit under it when it's raining. So when I got back there, I saw that The Humungus lay beneath it, an apparently lifeless heap. As soon as I lured Pappagallo away with some food, I went and looked again, and The Humungus lifted his head and gave me a miserable glance, but didn't get up. He was thoroughly thrashed, possibly dying.

I do hope he's not dead. I never wanted that to happen! I just wanted him to go back to living on cockroaches and crickets in the cemetery, and leave our feed to our rooster. At any rate, if he is alive, I suspect that things will be a bit different around here. And can I be blamed if I admit that I'm proud of Pappagallo? I knew he had it in him.

* The remaining post is actually a hackberry tree growing through the welded pipes, so the thing is impossible to move without cutting the metal or chopping the tree down. This guy on our block who once owned our house used to always bug my wife about it, asking if he could come cut it out for his junk collection. She'd tell him that it was on the easement, so he'd have to contact the owners of that property. This happened I don't know how many times. It started to get to her. Finally I told her I'd take care of it. Next time I saw him, I said, hell yeah, come and haul it off, any time you like. Never heard another word about it.

When I went through the back gate yesterday – something I suppose I'd never done – I realized that there's a big yellow "We Shoot All Trespassers" sign hanging on the outside. I'd never known it was there. No wonder utilities people ask before they come on our property!

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