When I was a new high-schooler, a boy called Rooster had an unrequited crush on me. I did not understand him. Now a middle-aged backyard chicken farmer, I’m still trying to understand roosters.
I’m studying my own, and speaking to others who have more experience, like Rob DuToit of Truro. Rob loves his automatic chicken door so much he says, “It changed my life.”
Any of us poultry people of a certain age can tell stories about how, through busyness or distraction or plain old forgetting, we neglected to button up our coops against the many predators who make their rounds in the evenings, then remembered in a panic, as Rob did one night while speaking to his then-100-year-old mom on the phone.
He recalls it was around 8 p.m., fall, and pitch black out when he remembered he’d left the coop door wide open. He abruptly ended the call and dashed to the coop. Too late. As he stepped over the threshold, he nearly tripped over a dark mass — the body of his favorite rooster, then in his prime, “with hens quietly gathered around him having a sort of a vigil.”
Finding no wounds or feathers out of place, Rob imagined the rooster had courageously fended off a fox or another toothy threat at the door and perhaps had a heart attack, which apparently isn’t uncommon. Of course, this doesn’t exactly explain why the hens remained safe. At any rate, Rob believes 100 percent that the rooster somehow gave his life saving the hens, and I believe him.
Rob says he and his wife, Janice Redmond, both artists, still refer to that rooster as “the good one.” As a fuzzy mail-order chick, he had something about his beak that had tipped Janice off about his gender identity. And as he matured, this handsome addition to the brood seemed to calm and order the flock. “He was dark brown with a sort of brocade tapestry thing on his back,” says Janice. “Like the classic Kellogg’s rooster.”
And here we must digress about that classic character, which an internet search reveals was based on a Welsummer rooster. It seems that in the 1920s a Welsh harpist named Nansi Richards who was visiting the Kelloggs, the cereal people, in Battle Creek, Mich., pointed out that the name Kellogg was similar to ceiliog, Welsh for cockerel. Hence, the cockerel that still appears on the Corn Flakes box.
Trigger warning: this all sounds very Americana-cozy until Rob tells “the rooster from hell” story of a subsequent cock whose aggression was decidedly misplaced. It seems he was troublingly brutal to the hens, particularly Janice’s favorite, the stunning black Australorp, Sybil, queen of the flock.
“One day he ripped her neck open, right down to the spinal column,” says Rob. Janice was so mad she wasted no time ringing up her friend Andrea Tasha, who sent her son, Raven, a hunter, to dispatch the killer rooster with a twist of the neck and remove him from the premises.
I’m not sure I believe this part, but reportedly a few weeks later Janice was served, and savored, a delectable rooster and pheasant pot pie.
As for poor Sybil, Janice followed the advice of Katherine Winkler of Truro, vet tech and horsewoman, and slathered honey and a clean dressing on the hen’s raw mess of a neck. She kept Sybil safe in a crate until the wounds closed up, and Rob says she “went on to live two or three more good years and, unlike that rooster, is buried up the hill in the chicken graveyard.”
Curious rooster questions remain unanswered for me. I still don’t know what explains that incessant crowing, which sometimes begins hours ahead of perceptible light and by 5 a.m. is at full force, with the volume turned up to 10. Is it a warning? (“A badass rooster lives here.”) Hunger? (“Bring that scratch now, lady!”) Or joie de vivre?
And what of the rooster’s intense hormonal drive paired with the briefest, almost perfunctory sexual act? This incredible randiness has resulted in unsightly bare patches on many of my hens’ backs, the sight of which caused my friend Josephine to spout, in her British accent, “Can’t we make him wear pants?”
Here may I suggest a visit to the Canadian chicken blog Bitchin’ Chickens for naughty bits, explained. You’ll learn about the papilla, a rooster’s unexpectedly tiny sexual organ. (Might want to rethink the beloved boasting about that “cock,” guys.)
Fortunately, my first-ever rooster, Aurelius, takes after his namesake, the beneficent Roman ruler Marcus Aurelius. He is chivalrous and kind, often “tidbitting” for the ladies, a behavior in which a rooster gesticulates and clucks, drawing the hens’ attention to the sometimes-imperceptible delicious bits he finds on the ground. He also dashes gallantly about keeping track of my girls and signaling when airborne predators approach during their free-range foraging. I daresay he has what it takes to be my favorite.
I wish this quote, apocryphally attributed to the emperor and deep thinker, were something he’d really said, for maybe it would be the message of a true-hearted rooster’s crowing: “When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive — to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”