Two Sheriffs In Tiny Town

If  you need a laugh, come out to the ranch during free-range time in the afternoon. Things have changed in the chicken yard, or Tiny Town, as I’ve taken to calling it.

“How are things in Tiny Town?” I like to ask the chickens. Or sometimes I say, when Duda the White Polish rooster has just crowed in my face, “Well, if it isn’t the sheriff of Tiny Town!”

Back in May I suspected that one of the two Polish Crested chicks I picked out on a last-minute impulse at Chick Days might be a rooster. One of the other things I mutter in the chicken yard these days is, “What are the odds?” because both of those Polish chicks turned out to be roosters. And so, as I said, things have changed.

Duda, the self-appointed sheriff of Tiny Town, was the first of the two to begin crowing, which is what earned him his name. Duda is a Polish surname that, according to Polish name expert Professor Kazimierz Rymut, means bagpipes or a bad musician (i.e., one who plays the pipes but isn’t very good at it) or may also be reasonably construed to mean one who goes around making a lot of pointless noise. And there you have it, the perfect name. The final aptness of this choice is affirmed by Jane’s habit of calling anyone or anything whose name she cannot recall, Doo-dah, which assures that even in the event of a memory lapse, she will always call this particular chicken by his rightful name.

Albert “I can’t see a darn thing” Einstein is the default deputy sheriff of Tiny Town. Albert is a stunningly handsome White-Crested Black Polish rooster with an unfortunate chronic orthopedic infirmity that causes his toes to turn up like Aladdin’s slippers, which in turn fosters his tendency to abruptly and frequently sit down whilst in the act of walking (as the preferred and slightly-more-dignified alternative to flat-out tipping over). He’s had the problem since the early days, so I assume it is either a congenital defect or an injury sustained during shipping.

These two boys, who in recent months have revealed themselves as infiltrators in Girls’ Town, are as unalike as black and white, night and day – and yet they exhibit a certain solidarity, bound as they are by breeding, biological imperative, gender and their freaky hair-dos.

The headgear has been a bit of a problem. For one thing, Albert can’t see very well, which contributes to his air of unroosterlike reticence. We trimmed his bangs, but the head feathers responded with an emergency message to his follicles to grow back the finery with even greater density. For another thing, when the girls got bored, the novelty of the boys’ feathery mops made them irresistible for idle plucking. Before long, both fellows had bald spots the size of a half-dollar on the backs of their heads. The good news is, the pine tar that got George Brett into trouble with the Yankees in 1983 got Duda and Allie out of trouble with the Yankers in 2006. Our friend Sherry, a nurse, who pinch-hit as the veterinarian for this procedure, highly recommends the use of rubber gloves. It’s a wonder George was ever able to let loose of the bat before heading round the bases; pine tar is sticky, and – thank heavens – apparently bitter enough to discourage boredom-induced amateur chicken cosmetology.

In August we combined the youngsters of Company B with the older hens in Company A. Suddenly Duda – the bossy, strutting, crowing leader of his small flock – was faced with mature matrons nearly twice his size, all of whom were deeply unimpressed by his antics. Bless his heart, he has one courtly little dance in his limited romantic repertoire, and I find it extraordinarily touching, perhaps all the more so because the girls are so cruelly offhand in response to this overture. He stretches one wing down to the ground and dances in a circle around the hen, for all the world like a Kabuki dancer with a folding fan. At best, the hen just turns and walks away with a disdainful or bored look. At worst, she’ll give him a dismissive peck on the head or simply shoulder him out of the way, or both. He soon learned to hop sideways at the slightest sign of rejection or aggression.

Albert, meanwhile, kept to the margins of the combined groups and sized up the odds. He has, after all, the same basic roosterly instincts as Duda, just not the alpha personality and all the macho posturing that goes with it. Sure, his Aladdin-slipper-toe-syndrome was a challenge, but I could just tell he had the wits and pluck to overcome the obstacle. Sure enough, he began strategically placing himself around corners and behind a screen of foliage, usually on a vantage point of some kind – a rock or concrete block – from which he would hurl himself atop the surprised object of his affection, which is what earned him the nickname, Stealth Lover.

Until recently, all mating rituals taking place in Tiny Town were a sham, just playacting for practice, like little boys using lathered-up bar soap and the back of a comb to emulate their fathers shaving. The roosters were as yet preadolescent. Then, on Labour Day weekend, it became evident that Duda had achieved the fullness of his maturity; the sheriff had earned his spurs, and, Katie, bar the door! Within 48 hours, he was hobbling around the chicken yard like Festus from Gunsmoke or Walter Brennan playing Amos McCoy. Even then, despite the injury he’d sustained during the first two days of the Rooster Olympics, he was not to be deterred. If necessary, he’d hop on one leg to follow a hen to the moon. Almost two weeks later, after an enforced two-day rest in isolation (which distressed him terribly), he still runs across the yard with a pronounced limp, looking not unlike a child cantering on an invisible sick pony. As I mentioned earlier, if you need a laugh, come out to the ranch and watch the roosters.

Albert’s maturation took about ten days longer, but I realized he’d reached the same milestone when he emerged from the fringes of the group and began harassing Duda at center stage. Albert has invented his own Rooster Olympics event, which bears some similarities to bowling, if you assume Duda and the hen of his current favor are the pins and Albert is the bowling ball. He advances himself across the yard at his best rollicking gait and hurls himself at the pair, knocking Duda unceremoniously off his mount, so to speak, and then attempts to take over the conquest of the hen. Perhaps I was wrong about the bowling; it could be a relay.

I can count on one hand the number of times I have heard Albert crow; he has a low and rusty voice. Duda, on the other hand, has a strident and piercing cry that he first flourishes each morning at about an hour before sunrise and reprises at unpredictable intervals until bedtime. Sometimes he even ululates after dark: the full moon may make him crow, and my coming to say goodnight to the chickens through their window is guaranteed to elicit a lusty final refrain.

I blame cartoons and movies with perpetuating the myth that roosters crow only at dawn. In fact, a cockerel will crow when the light changes dramatically, when a hawk flies overhead, when the dog comes near the flock, when he feels the need to reiterate the boundaries of his territory, when a pretty hen takes his fancy, or pretty much whenever he darn well feels like singing. Duda does not have a five-syllable song, as implied by cock-a-doodle-doo, but then again, he’s Polish, and therefore inclined to sing Kukuryku. Of all the linguistic twists on the rooster’s call, I think Turkish gets the closest with üü-ürü-üüü.

Duda’s repertoire is broader than you might think. He has a number of short phrases for different occasions. When he finds a flavorful tidbit in the yard, say, a grasshopper, he’ll let out a series of melodious burbles and chortles to summon the girls, then he’ll play with the insect until some of the hens arrive at the scene, at which point he’ll step back and let them have the snack. This is what a good rooster is supposed to do, take care of his flock.

He’s also learned another song, which requires a bit of an introduction. When I first looked into Polish names for him, I consulted with my friend Leon Goodhart, who grew up in Poland. He informed me that Duda might not be such a good name for a rooster, since in Polish the “a” ending is feminine. The proper masculine name would be Dudy. I scoffed at Leon’s worries about the effect a feminine name would have on the rooster, and then one evening, the first night I isolated Duda in a separate pen after he injured his leg at the Olympics, he caught me entirely off guard. He refused to go into his solitary accommodations at dark. He perched on the outdoor roost and crowed without ceasing, loud and long. How, oh how, he seemed to be lamenting, am I to watch over my girls from here? Then – abruptly – he changed his tune and launched into a tortured, but clearly-recognizable version of the I-just-laid-an-egg anthem, which I think of as exclusively feminine territory. There are three ways of looking at this : (1) the feminine ending on his name has had a deleterious impact on his gender identification; (2) the traditional anthem of the egg-layer, which originates from pre-domestication days and really translates as I’m here – where are you? fit the situation better than I am rooster, hear me roar; or (3) he’s smart enough to attempt disguising himself as a hen so I might take pity and put him back in the henhouse. What I did was bodily remove him from the roost, put him in his own little house and shut the door. Finally he shut up.

The second day of his recuperative isolation, I felt sorry for Duda, and decided to have Albert bunk with him for company, which would also serve the purpose of giving the girls a complete break from masculine company. Great idea, but Albert was a heck of a lot harder to capture out in the chicken yard than one might expect of a fellow whose vision is almost entirely obscured by feathers. I finally hauled out my fishing net, the one reserved for the lunker I haven’t yet landed, and snagged him like a butterfly. At bedtime, like a good little boy, Albert marched straight into the auxiliary chicken house and went to bed. Stubbornly, Duda perched outdoors once again and commenced to wailing. Finally, perturbed, I stalked up to him in the dark and gave him an impassioned, hands-on-hips, motherly speech along the lines of would you please quit singing the blues or you’ll make yourself sick…and please go in to bed now so you’ll be safe from wild animals. At this, believe it or not, he hopped down from the roost and walked straight indoors.

I’m afraid I have been a wee bit slow to recognize that one of the triggers for Duda’s crowing is me. You’d think my runtiest chick, whose tiny toes I cleaned and whose behind I bathed, would be accustomed to my role, as the hens are, of Big Mama, No Feathers. This is what I expected, and so I was surprised – shocked, really – to finally confront the truth. The realization dawned one evening as I headed for the henhouse to gather eggs and realized that a creature the size and shape of a dust mop was persistently and aggressively dogging my every step, and if I slowed my pace, he ran in front of me as if to provoke a showdown. Lordy me, I thought to myself, this goofy-looking bird with a Phyllis Diller wig and all of two pounds’ body weight is challenging me for the position of alpha rooster!

Funny as it may seem at first blush, this behavior can stealthily become a serious matter in the relatively short time it will take Duda to grow his spurs to fighting length. Roosters possess the capacity to create impressive scar tissue or make your mother’s most dire prediction come true : you’ll poke your eye out with that thing. There are two ways to keep your rooster in line, advises one backyard chicken fancier :

The first way is to develop a deep and sincere love for soup. I love soup. Chicken Noodle, Chicken Vegetable, Chicken and Dumplings, Chicken and Rice, doesn’t matter. I love it all. The second way is to be the Alpha male of your flock.

There is a treasure trove of comical and serious guidance on this topic. Just hop on the Internet and use search terms like managing roosters, taming roosters, aggressive roosters, etc.

I go in the pen with a fly-swatter so at least I could fend him off.

This afternoon, I stood my ground with a spray bottle of water. At first, he just kept coming at me, but then stood down. He then ran about 50 feet and just started crowing non-stop!

You could run up to them real fast and flap your arms at them and act like a rooster yourself, ha-ha. I actually did this to ours and it worked.

I spent a lot of years working in the criminal justice system and a considerable part of that was in jails. We had a saying that “If you’re sweating and the prisoners aren’t, you’re doing something wrong.” You can apply that to a lot of situations, including roosters.

After sorting through voluminous advice, I’ve come up with my own short list of two commandments :

  1. Thou shalt honor thy rooster’s roosterishness. Protecting his hens is Duda’s built-in prime directive. I try to avoid giving him cause to fret or feel threatened; I don’t initiate confrontations or back him into a coroner. I try to cultivate and communicate genuine respect.
  2. Thou shalt not sweat. The criminal justice advice caught my attention, since the awful truth is, I sometimes feel vaguely intimidated by my fierce little rag-mop. Now, if he challenges me, I don’t back down. I stomp my foot and shout, “HEY!” Yes, I even flap my wings and crow.

Perhaps some of you are wondering how the boys have affected the Happiest Chickens in Kansas. So far the older hens, who’ve grown up without a frame of reference for the concept of rooster, manage to be tolerant without compromising their long-standing matriarchal power structure. The overall Boss Chicken at the top of the pecking order is still, I think, one of the older hens. The newest chicks on the block, who just became mature enough to begin laying eggs in late August, have grown up with the boys in their social milieu and consequently adopted decidedly more patriarchal social conventions, chief among which is wives, submit to your husbands. All in all, it’s an intriguing culture to study.

We never, of course, needed those boys for the eggs; in fact, if they were hens instead of cockerels, I’d be getting two more eggs a day. What they offer us instead is another dimension – sort of like what the serpent and the Tree of Knowledge offered Eve. The promise of perfection in the Garden of Eden may have gone straight south with Eve’s first bite of fruit, but boy, howdy! after that there was another side to the story. I guess that’s what I’d say the boys bring us: the rest of the Chicken Story – the full-color, big screen, live-action Chicken Reality Show. Don’t read too much into the theme of good and evil in the metaphor, because that’s not all what I had in mind when evoking the Garden of Eden. I do, however, mean you to understand that the results of this spring’s game of Rooster Roulette signalled the end of a near-idyllic age of innocence.

In the wake of this change, I am undergoing a bit of an identity crisis. The more I educated myself on how to be the alpha rooster, the stronger my sneaking suspicion that I had been suffering under a two-year-long delusion, not of grandeur, but of gender. I don’t know how to sanitize, euphemize or disguise this revelation, so I’ll serve it sunny side up. As it turns out, my chickens have always – even before the arrival of Duda and Albert – perceived me as Big Rooster, No Spurs, rather than Big Mama, No Feathers. This is why, as I walk through the flock on my way to collect eggs, many of the hens drop into a submissive squat and allow me to pet them, after which they ruffle up their feathers and give a little sigh of delight. This, I’m afraid, is exactly how the cooperative hens respond to the roosters. So there you have it, the unfeathered truth. If anyone knows a therapist who would not laugh me right out of the consulting room, I think a few sessions would be a boon.

But speaking of laughs, as I’ve already mentioned a time or two, if you need a good belly-wrenching hoot, come on out to the ranch some afternoon and watch the chickens for a couple of hours. Or stay right where you are and picture me flapping my arms and crowing at Duda. That ought to be good for a chuckle or two.

2018-02-26T14:46:29+00:00

2 Comments

  1. Barbara O'Malley March 2, 2018 at 11:06 am

    Thank you for sharing Duda and Albert with us, you had me belly laughing! Makes me want to take a road trip to Kansas. I’ve had chickens for a couple of years, hens only, but I’m bringing on 10 chicks next week, I keep debating on adding a roo to the group. Your story shed light on why I should.

  2. Christina Mann March 5, 2018 at 4:59 pm

    Longest article ever in Keeping Chickens Newsletter

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