Monday, February 8, 2010

How Do You Know It’s a Rooster?

When it starts crowing! Well, that was our last logical line of defense against our better instincts.

We live far enough in the country that we hear several neighborhood roosters. They aren’t really annoying until it’s warm enough to sleep with the windows open. Cityslicker Myth #1 is that they only crow at sunrise. If so, then these roosters are living on Greenwich Mean Time. They crow all night. But then if I had my pick of the hen house whenever I wanted, I’d crow all night too.

St. Pauli Girl always wanted chickens. She loves them. So about ten years ago, when our house was outside the city limits, we decided to give it a go. We managed to cobble together a chicken house (actually old kitchen cabinets) inside a fenced-in area. The first problem was that I did the fencing. Actually, I was somewhat proud of the fence. It stood up fairly straight and although it wouldn’t stop a human from running through it, I believed it would stop animals from running through it. You know, like baby rabbits and kittens. But the gate was another matter. Even I must admit that it more resembled three or four sticks tied together, and anyone using it risked getting an eye poked out. It was more like a tent flap except not as sturdy.

The second problem was that the fence was anchored by trees. My previous exposure to wildlife consisted of running screaming from a garter snake many years ago. When engineering the fence, I never really considered predators’ abilities to climb trees.

So we got five chickens that we raised from chicks, and miraculously they all survived into chicken adolescence which meant it was time for them to move from the garage into the new chicken coop. Everything was fine the first two days. On the third morning, heading out to feed the not-quite-grown chickens, we were met with a scene of carnage straight out of a Friday the 13th movie (except the hockey mask must have hidden a coyote or raccoon or other vicious predator). Feathers and blood were splattered about, one poor victim lay twisted in the chicken wire, but two very traumatized chickens had survived. We quickly gave them away to someone who could actually coop them up securely. Thankfully we moved a few months later, because I always expected those two chickens to come back and take revenge on us. And we probably deserved it.

I think one of the reasons St. Pauli Girl wanted our current house was because it already had a good solid chicken coop and fenced-in area. Raising chickens would be much easier here. I agreed to give it another shot on one condition: No Roosters. (I cherish my sleeping-in on weekends.) So in September, we went out to the chicken farm to pick out five chickens. The proprietor--we’ll call him Mr. Haney in honor of Green Acres--took us to a large fenced garden area where hundreds of chickens were running amok.

“These are all hens?” we asked.

“Of course. Absolutely.” The straw he was chewing barely moved.

I should have suspected something was up when Mr. Haney stretched “absolutely” out into sixteen syllables. But we got our chickens home and St. Pauli Girl took good care of them. They grew up very fast. By December, they were huge and looked like the chickens you remember from childhood, you know-- the ones on those See-n-Say games. But one chicken really stood out. She had beautiful long feathers of shimmering green, black and red. She was glossy while the other chickens were more like a flat paint.

One day around this time St. Pauli Girl sat me down, held my hand, and told me that this chicken might be . . . a rooster. She’d done the necessary googling and that chicken exhibited rooster characteristics: shiny feathers, a long neck, and spending a lot of time in front of the mirror. It turns out that it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between a hen and a rooster until they’re older. Like three months after you bought them.

But it wasn’t crowing. Maybe it was just an exotic hen, we told ourselves. St. Pauli Girl thought about taking it back and exchanging it, but the thought of trying to catch it and stuff it in a tiny cat porter changed her mind. Plus, it wasn’t crowing. So no problem. Right?

One morning in January, I went out to get the newspaper. On the way back in, I heard a strange noise. I looked towards the chicken coop and saw our exotic hen flapping its wings while balancing on the fence. It made a sound not quite like a crowing rooster, but maybe a rooster with laryngitis. The “Cock-a-doodle-do” was more like a hoarse “doo—oo-o-o-ewww!” It hadn’t mastered the crow yet, but it sure was trying.

I walked into the house and called out to St. Pauli Girl. “Our exotic hen ran away. And the rooster wants his breakfast.”

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