Two years after coming to live with us, Jules developed a respiratory infection that with treatment seemed to go away, but left him weak and vulnerable. He returned to the chickenyard only to find himself supplanted by Glippie, with whom he had used to be cordial, but was now dueling, and he didn’t have the heart or strength for it. His exuberance ebbed out of him and he became sad; there is no other word for the total condition of mournfulness he showed. His voice, which had always been cheerful, changed to moaning tones of woe. He banished himself to the outer edges of the chickenyard where he paced up and down, bawling so loudly I could hear him crying from inside the house. I brought him in with me and sought to comfort my beloved bird, who showed by his whole demeanor that knew he was dying and was hurt through and through by what he had become. Jules developed an abdominal tumor. One morning our veterinarian placed him gently on the floor of his office after a final and futile overnight stay. Jules looked up at me from the floor and let out a low groan of “ooooohh” so broken that it pierced me through. I am pierced by it now, remembering the sorrow expressed by this dear sweet creature, “Gentleman Jules,” who had loved his life and his hens and was leaving it all behind.
Last year I placed newcomer Benjamin in a yard already occupied by two other roosters, Rhubarb and Oliver and their twenty or so hens, and he fit in right away. Ruby won immediate acceptance when I put him outside in the chickenyard after living in the house with me for almost six months. In dealing with Ruby I found an unexpected ally in our large red rooster Pola, who was so attentive to me, all I had to do was call him, and he bolted over from his hens and let me pick him up and hold him. I have a greeting card photograph of Pola and me “crowing” together, my one hand clasped over his swelled-out chest, my other hand holding his claw, in a duet I captioned “With Heart and Voice.”
Intentionality in chickens is shown in many ways. An example is a hen’s desire not only to lay an egg, but to lay her egg in a particular place with a particular group of hens, or in a secluded spot she has chosen - and she has definitely chosen it. I’ve watched hens delay laying their egg until they got where they wanted to be. Conscious or not at the outset, once the intention has been formed, the hen is consciously and emotionally committed to accomplishing it. No other interpretation of her behavior makes sense by comparison. Sarah, for example, a white leghorn hen from a battery-cage egg-laying operation who came to our sanctuary with osteoporosis and a broken leg, was determined, as she grew stronger, to climb the front stairs of our house, one laborious step at a time, just so that she could lay her egg behind the toilet in the bathroom next to the second floor landing. This was a hen, remember, who had never known anything before in her life but a crowded metal cage among thousands of cages in a windowless building. I was Sarah’s friendly facilitator. I cheered her on, and the interest I showed in her and her wishes and successes was a critical part of her recovery, both physical and mental.
What I saw taking place in Ruby was a conflict he couldn’t control, and from which he suffered emotionally, between an autonomous genetic impulse on the one hand, and his personal desire on the other to be friendly with me. He got to where when he saw me coming with the birdcage, he would walk right up and let me place it over him as if grateful for my protection against a behavior he didn’t want to carry out. Even more tellingly, he developed a syndrome of coughs and sneezes whenever I approached, symptomatic, I believed, of his inner turmoil. He didn’t have a respiratory infection, and despite his antagonism toward me, I never felt that he hated me but rather that he suffered from his dilemma, including his inability to manage it.
My personal experience with our sanctuary roosters confirms the literature I’ve read about wild and feral chickens documenting that the majority of roosters do not physically and compulsively attack one another. Chickens maintain a social order in which every member of the flock has a place and finds a place. During the day our roosters and hens break up into small, fluctuating groups that are somewhat, but by no means, rigidly territorial. Antagonisms between roosters are resolved with bloodless showdowns and face-offs. The most notable exception is when a new rooster is introduced into an existing flock, which may provoke a temporary flare up, but even then, there is no predicting.
It is experiences such as this and others I have described in this essay that have made me a passionate advocate for chickens. I do not seek to sentimentalize chickens but to characterize them as best I can within the purview of my own observations and relationships with them. In the 1980s I wrote an who, more than any other single cause, led me to found United Poultry Concerns in 1990. It is hard for me to evoke in words how expressive she was in spite of her handicap and despite the miserable life she had had before I lifted her out of her misery and brought her home with me.
In my first years of keeping chickens there were no predators, until a fox found us, and we built our fences - but only after eleven chickens disappeared rapidly under our nose. The fox would sneak up in broad daylight, raising a clamor among the birds. Running out of the house I’d see no stalker, just sometimes a soul-stabbing bunch of feathers on the ground in the midst of panic. When our bantam rooster Josie was taken, his companion Alexandra ran shrieking through the kitchen, jumped up on a table and could not stop shrieking and was never the same afterward. The fox killed Pola, our big red rooster who had so gallantly responded to my calls begging him to “save” me from Ruby. I am sure he was attacked while trying to protect his hens the day he disappeared, while I sat obliviously at the computer. It was too much. I sat on the kitchen floor crying and screaming. At the time, I was caring for Sonja, a big white warm-natured, bouncy hen I was treating for wounds she’d received before I rescued her. As I sat on the floor exploding with grief and guilt, Sonja walked over to where I sat weeping. She nestled her face next to mine and began purring with the ineffable soft purr that is also a trill in chickens. She comforted me even as her gesture deepened the heartache I was feeling in that moment about the painful mystery of Pola and the mystery of all chickens. Did Sonja know why I was crying? I doubt it, but maybe she did. Did she know that I was terribly sad and distressed? There is no question in my mind about that. She responded to my grief with an expression of empathy that I have carried emotionally in my life ever since.
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