Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Nice Guy

Among farm animals, the male of the species is often problematic. In the days before artificial insemination, dairy farmers were often killed by their herd sires. Male goats stink to high heaven in the fall. Rams ram anything and anybody in sight. Though small in size, roosters have a surfeit of testosterone that tends to breed trouble as well as chicks. Our first rooster was so aggressive that we called him The Ayatollah. My goat-milking pail has a large dent on it from the day I threw it at him in self defense. I'm sorry to say that all I got out of the incident was a dented pail. The Ayatollah was undeterred in his attempts to kill me until we made him into soup.

But he was not our last rooster. A couple of years ago we had an elegant black-and-white striped Barred Rock. He was not aggressive towards us, but he fell in love with one of his wives, forsaking all others. This meant that the Chosen One had to submit to his advances dozens of times every day. As a result, the feathers on her back split, broke and fell off. When she started looking haggard, stressed, and miserable I knew the rooster had to go.

The moment he left, a conventual peace settled over the flock. The girls went about their business hunting bugs, laying eggs, and taking dust baths with nary a scuffle, and very little noise. Life was good, if a little dull, for quite a while.

But then the yellow hen, the matriarch of the flock, got it in her head to hatch some eggs. She fluffed up her feathers and settled on the nest with a determined look on her face. Nothing I did--taking the eggs away every day, getting her off the nest every chance I got--would dissuade her. She didn't care that the eggs, there being no rooster around, weren't fertile. She wanted babies, and she was hoping for a miracle.

Then one spring afternoon, the fox carried off a hen that had gotten out of the fence, even as a pair of hawks whistled in the sky. That's when I decided that I had to get another husband for my flock.

I went to check out a Buff Orpington rooster that was for sale. He was gorgeous, and enormous, ponderous and clumsy as a wrestler, with golden plumage and a huge red comb.

Is he aggressive?” I asked the farmer. “Not towards me,” he answered, “but my wife has to take a stick with her when she goes to get the eggs.” Seeing a doubtful look cross my face, and eager to make a sale, he opened the coop door and said “Here, why don't you go in and see for yourself.”

I walked in and the rooster came rushing at my legs. And here my addiction to “The Dog Whisperer” bore fruit, for I instantly reared up to my full height, stuck out my chest, took a step forward with my arm and forefinger extended, and emitted an explosive “Pshhhhttt!” that Cesar would have been proud of.

It worked. The rooster backed off, and that evening he was with our flock. I named him Charlemagne.

My hens took to him instantly. They followed him around even though, not having had access to pasture in his former life, he wasn't quite sure what to do in our expanse of grass and its teeming insect life. But he soon figured it out, and now whenever he finds a morsel that he thinks the girls will like, he calls them over with motherly clucks, and doesn't eat until they have had their fill.

He is a perfect gentleman. His not overly-loud crow is only heard occasionally. He doesn't play favorites, but distributes his favors equitably among the hens, yet seems more restrained than his predecessors. If a hawk flies over, he hustles everybody into the coop. And when night falls, he leads the way to the roosts.

When I bought Charlemagne, I also bought two hens from his former flock, to keep him company and because I needed more layers. The two new hens got a less enthusiastic reception from our flock that the rooster did, and for several days there were scuffles over food and roosting space and various other matters of etiquette.

I was filling the feeder one evening as the flock was settling in for the night, and I noticed that the two new hens hopped up on the roost on either side of Charlemagne, where they proceeded to burrow under his wings like chicks under their mother. So eagerly did they burrow and push that Charlemagne lost his balance and fell off the roost. No sooner had he waddled over to the other roost and perched upon it than the two hens hopped up beside him and tried to hide under his wings, making him lose his balance again. This went on and on until I left the coop, hoping that when it got dark enough, they would all go to sleep and Charlemagne would get some rest.

Ever since the Cesar Millan confrontation, Charlemagne has been the soul of politeness towards me. The flock seems different somehow with him around, more animated. More like a family instead of a convent. And the hens are laying fertile eggs—I can see when I break them open the tiny light-colored spot with a circle around it that indicates that, if incubated, this egg would produce a chick.

With any luck, come spring we will have a mother hen bustling about with her little ones. The only trouble is, nobody in the flock is giving any signs of going broody. They are too busy running after Charlemagne to even think of sitting on the nest.


10 comments :

  1. That's my problem too. I like running after my guy, but I've always been too busy doing that to think of sitting on a nest.

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  2. I've been trying to figure out who Charlemagne reminded me of, and now I realize it's Tim!

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  3. The above exchange is definitely the most amusing pair of comments ever- you two should take it on the road!

    Lali - Thanks for another gem!

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  4. how did you know to puff yourself up like that and hiss? i guess with animals it's all about bluster--acting like you know you're alpha. i did that with toby once, when he was a puppy. he growled at me, and it made me so angry that i puffed up and hollered and chased him all the way down the basement stairs. he hid behind the furnace.

    there was no lasting ill effect, and he never ever ever growled at me again.

    i love reading your posts. your life is so different from mine, and it sounds so appealing.

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  5. Elizabeth,

    Don't you find that, for a small migratory song-bird, Indigo Bunting is amazingly hilarious?

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  6. Laurie,

    The puffing and hissing I owe to Cesar Millan, whose show I watch religiously. It worked another time when I was walking Wolfie and another German Shepherd ran out of his electronically-fenced yard, barking and snarling at us. I P'd and H'd and said "You get back home right now, you bad dog." And much to my amazement, he turned tail and ran back through the electronic fence to his yard.
    Your reaction to Toby's growling shows you are a true, instinctive Alpha!

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  7. Sometime soon I'm going to have to write about Satan. He's bad. He's evil. He's the proverbial cock-of-the-walk and if he's on the loose, nobody who comes near our yard is safe. He crows, constantly, from sun-up 'til sundown and sometimes he can be heard crowing at midnight. I have to carry around a big stick to whack him with every time I go near the coop and even then, he's gotten me a few times-- rushed my legs or pecked hard enough to draw blood as I've reached in to fill their water jug.

    He's slated for the roasting pan this week, so maybe after I've dispatched him I'll write a nice eulogy.

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  8. Joya,

    Your Satan sounds like a relative of our Ayatollah, RIP. Here is a website where I learned everything I know about rooster behavior:
    http://shilala.homestead.com/roosters.html
    I haven't done all the things she recommends, but I do follow her general guidelines. I also learned recently that roosters of smaller breeds tend to be more aggressive than those of large breeds such as Orpingtons. That has certainly been my experience. Crowing seems to be related to all this in a strange way. I once had an aggressive rooster who crowed all night long. I resorted to putting a sock over his head, but all that did was muffle the noise a bit. What breed is Satan?

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  9. Satan's a Barred Rock which is a fairly big breed, I think. Roosters ae supposed to be around 10 pounds at maturity. In the research I did before embarking on this chicken adventure, everything I read about PBRs noted their pleasant personalities. Apparently, Satan just didn't get the memo.

    Thank you for the link on rooster behavior. This cracked me up: "All this brings us to how we keep our roosters in line. There's two ways. The first way is to develop a deep and sincere love for soup."

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  10. Yes, PBRs are supposed to be gentle, though we had to get rid of our PBR rooster because he fell in love with one of the hens and was, er, loving her to death. He was o.k. with us, though. I think PBR roosters are gorgeous. I've always wanted a black and white narrow-striped sweater to wear with a bright red beret...

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