Dinosaurs: ancestor of the komodo dragon, or of the barnyard chicken? Perhaps both, but if I had to wager, I’d put my money on the chicken. True, chickens are petite, be-feathered, and more likely to be prey than predators, but were they ten times their size, I doubt we’d keep them as domestic animals. Chickens are omnivores and will hunt insects or table scraps with equally ferocious zeal: when Andrew tossed a hunk of beef fat into their pen this morning, it disappeared under a small hillock of chickens as soon as it hit the ground. Chickens love meat scraps just as much as carrots tops, and it seems to me that they are always hungry.
Furthermore, chickens can be brutal in their enforcement of the pecking order (not just a figure of speech in a hen house). The beaks of confinement chickens are kept trimmed for a reason: to prevent the dominant chickens from pecking the weakest chickens to death. Andrew and I have strong feelings about beak trimming–not only does it interfere with a pastured chicken’s ability to forage and graze, but it serves to mask a management problem that should otherwise be addressed through diet, space, and exercise. The beaks of our chickens are intact, and they are therefore quite capable of doing damage to one another.
Case in point: several months ago, we tried to introduce a rooster to our flock, as we thought that the girls needed a male friend (they were forever crouching in the chicken equivalent of “come hither” whenever Andrew or I did chores). Our neighbor Terry volunteered a young rooster he had on hand, and we tossed him in. By the next day it was clear he was no match for our Amazons–they had bruised and battered the poor little rooster until he had taken to hiding in one of the nesting boxes. Really, the outcome of our experiment was not entirely surprising–poultry are notoriously unfriendly to chickens from outside their own flock. Over time, they may accept the new bird into the existing hierarchy, but they are just as likely to drive the new bird out of the coop, or into hiding. We returned our little rooster friend to Terry and put our rooster project on hold for the winter.
Then, on Sunday, our other neighbor Cyrus called. At 15, Cyrus already has a successful business breeding show chickens (yes, show chickens, and they make our laying flock look like ugly ducklings). An FFA mentor of Cyrus’ had recently bequeathed to him a large Marans rooster, which Cyrus was eager to breed. Marans lay beautiful golden-brown eggs, and Cyrus hoped to cross his rooster with our hens, incubate the eggs, and raise the resultant chicks up for laying hens. “Sure!” I said, when Cyrus asked if he could bring the rooster over. (I had by this time forgotten about the incident with rooster number one).
Cyrus arrived holding a beautiful, remarkably docile rooster in his arms. Chanticleer (as I’ve since nicknamed him) had a majestic bearing and long, lush tail feathers–clearly, a kingly bird. Still forgetful of our previous attempt at chicken socialization, I led Cyrus back to the hen house, and opened the door for him to introduce Chanticleer to his new harem. As soon as Chanticleer’s spurs hit the woodchips, all pairs of beady little dinosaur eyes turned toward him. It was definitely not love at first sight.
“Intruder!” The hens’ body language screamed. They massed to attack. Chanticleer raised his hackles and stretched out his neck. In groups of ones and twos, the hens rushed Chanticleer. I (who have perhaps been watching too much Lord of the Rings as of late) was reminded of the battle of Helm’s Deep, when Aragorn and Gimli defend the gate against a horde of murderous orcs. A hen would circle Chanticleer, look for an opening, then lunge at his comb or tail. He, apparently unperturbed by the chilly welcome, greeted each attacking hen with deft side steps, hops, and a few well-aimed pecks of his own. With a squawk, the aggressor quickly retreated, allowing Chanticleer to turn his attention to the next hen, which by now was coming in for the kill. I watched for several minutes as defeated hens ran out the coop, and Chanticleer calmly dispatched the remaining discontents.
When I checked in on the coop later that day, Chanticleer had moved out to the yard, where he stood guard over his flock of ladies as they foraged in the grass. The other chickens gave him a wide birth, and it seemed to me that he strutted, just a bit.
Now all of this hen house excitement has left me feeling ever-so-slightly disconcerted, as I found myself rooting against my own sex, for Chanticleer. Ought I not to support a colony of independent females who resent the infringement of a paternalistic male? Ought I not to rally behind the unified might of full coop of hens in their attempt to best one lousy rooster? Was I so easily swayed by a set of nice tailfeathers?
I take comfort in Andrew’s advice, not to anthropomorphize farm animals. He assures me that I am not a bad feminist, just a bit too caught up in the chickens. And truthfully whatever your chicken gender politics, Chanticleer seems to be a valuable member of the flock now–he takes it upon himself to forage at the front of the flock, stands guard against hawks and other predators, and herds the hens back into the safety of their coop each night. And let’s be honest, laying hens can use all of the benevolent paternalism they can get. I just hope that Patou can deter any sweet talking foxes.