THREE DOMESTIC FOWL TRAGEDIES
While I recover from the dreaded Norovirus, gather my thoughts about dictatorships and health care, and contemplate the Wheel of Fortune and revolutions, here’s a little time travel.
THE BALLAD OF LONG JOHN CHICKEN
In the seventies, Graeme Gibson and I lived on a hundred-acre farm in Mulmur Township, Ontario. Why? We didn’t have much money, it was a lot cheaper, and the theory was that we would be free from the distractions of city life and have more time to write. No one mentioned the distractions of country life, which turned out to be many.
Graeme felt that, as a matter of principle, we should not let agricultural land go to waste. Our farm should be a working farm; this despite the fact that, although we were both canoe trippers and experienced fish catchers, neither of us knew anything at all about farming. Graeme bought some antiquated machinery at farm sales – a tractor, a hay baler, a rake, and so forth – and proceeded to grow alfalfa.
“Farming is driving around and around until something breaks, then driving around and around looking for the part to fix it, then fixing it, then driving around and around until something else breaks,” Graeme was known to say.
But why not raise chickens while we were at it? Many were the reasons – hindsight is 20-20 – but we did it anyway. Graeme built a henhouse, which was then populated with a dozen hens and a rooster. (The authorities were agreed: best to have a rooster, though only one. Otherwise, turf wars.) After an unfortunate raid by something – raccoons? A fox? Owls? – an enclosure was erected around the henhouse and a curfew established. The hens were shooed inside at night, then let out in the mornings. This seemed to suit them well enough.
The hens laid eggs – giant ones in the spring, some with double or triple yolks, ordinary-sized ones until it got hot, then fewer and smaller eggs until it got cooler. Collecting the eggs was what preceded email: an exciting item that might or might not be found in an enclosed space. (Something good for me today?) One hen was discovered on the seat of an out-of-use tractor, trying to hatch several dozen eggs that other hens had been depositing underneath her, leaving them free to run around and eat snails. Some hens were evidently more mother-hennish than others. Anyone who tells you that individual animals don’t have personality differences has never been around animals much.
At one point we tried to produce our own chicks, using an incubator, but this was not the slam dunk promised in the instructions. The eggs had to be kept at an exact temperature, the moisture level also had to be exact, and the eggs needed to be turned over at strict intervals. We knew we had failed to be strict enough when the eggs began to hatch. What came out were Frankenchicks, with huge heads or enormous bellies or other malformations too saddening to describe. After that we got our chicks in batches from people who knew what they were doing.
In spring we’d suffer from a surfeit of eggs. We fueled teenagers with the eggs, turned them into pound cakes and ice cream, gave them away, and sometimes even sold them to indulgent friends in the city. The hens were fascinating to watch, and deeply appreciated having a cut-up hot dog thrown in amongst them. Chase scenes resulted – chickens are omnivores, and meat items were prized. There was a definite pecking order: top hen got the most hot dogs, bottom hen was luckless. We should have paid more attention to that.
One particularly cold winter, Graeme discovered a chicken that had frozen toes on one of its feet. We brought it inside and kept it in a cardboard box so it could recuperate. Its frozen toes blackened and fell off, leaving a stump. Graeme made it a little peg leg, on which it got around quite well. It lived in the room that held our television – black and white, in that era – and liked to watch hockey games with us. Whenever there was a goal, it leapt up and down and screamed, just like everyone else. The kids named it Long John Chicken; there was talk of getting it a little pirate hat and an eye patch, and maybe a parrot, though this last would have been stretching it.
Then we made a mistake. We forgot about the pecking order. We put Long John Chicken back into the henhouse to be with its flock, where we thought it might feel more at home. Alas, in the morning we found it was very wide and flat, having been trampled to death.A chicken with a wooden leg was a definite threat to the groupthink of the other chickens.
“It’s a chicken placemat,” said Graeme. We blamed ourselves, but regret was futile: Long John Chicken was no more.
With Bonnie the horse, Graeme, and Korean artist Wook Kyung in 1974.
THE BEREAVED PEACOCK
When we first moved onto the farm, Graeme struck up acquaintances with local informants, having discovered the coffee joint where the neighbourhood’s farmers hung out.
“What kind of animals should we get?” he asked one old-timer.
“None,” was the reply. Then, after a pause, “If you’re gonna have livestock, you’re gonna have deadstock.” And so it was.
Nothing deterred, Graeme tried his hand at animal husbandry. The chickens were the beginning. Shortly we had some ducks – they had a pond to swim in – and a handful of sheep, and a small white horse – a rescue horse – a pack of assorted cats, an Irish wolfhound, a couple of other dogs that had wandered into our life from here and there, four notorious escaping cows that not only jumped over fences but dove under them, and (briefly) a pair of geese. A cow stepped on one of the geese, and I’m sorry to say we ate it.
The pièce de resistance was a pair of peacocks that Graeme gave me for my birthday. He’d been passing a peacock farm, and… (sheepish grin). He couldn’t resist.
Peacocks are a cold-weather species, and ours did fine in the winters. They palled around with the sheep and cows, brightened up the landscape, uttered unearthly cries that terrorized our overnight guests from the city, and roosted on the roof beams of the old barn where we stored our bales of hay. They must have felt safe up there, but they were not. One night the peahen was killed by a weasel, which had slit her throat and drunk her blood. Farms are not for the squeamish.
We should have supplied the peacock widower with another peahen, but we didn’t anticipate the scenario that would result from our failure to do so. The bereaved peacock came into season. He took to displaying, fanning and rattling his beautiful tail and strutting about. Normally he would have displayed to a peahen, then continued through the phases of courtship, with mating the end result. But there wasn’t a peahen, so he displayed to the chickens. When they were unimpressed, he murdered them. (Now girls, do as I advise: always laugh at your date’s jokes.)
We caught him at it and locked up the hens. His next target was the ducks, but they took one look at the garishly-dressed lust-crazed flasher heading their way and escaped into the pond.
Then the peacock made a momentous discovery: there was another peacock! It was living just behind a glass panel in the sunroom door, as he could clearly see, every time he looked.
The sight enraged him. Uttering loud shrieks of defiance, he would poop on the porch floor – surprisingly large poops -- and fly full-force at his hated rival, only to end with a whump as he hit the glass. Never mind! Next time he would be successful! More shrieks, more poops, more whumps.
To keep him from braining himself, we propped a door against the glass so he couldn’t see his reflection. This did not deter him. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the evil second peacock was somewhere inside the house. He stalked the perimeter, peering in through any windows he could reach. It was unnerving for us to be sitting at the dinner table, peacefully munching, only to see a long neck with a tiny head on top of it rise up like a periscope and swivel to display a lunatic eye glaring balefully in, bent on rampage and destruction. But what could be done? Was he by this time so far gone that any peahen we produced would be torn apart by him?
Then, one morning, he wasn’t there. Nor was there any corpse. What had become of him? Was he wandering the moors, like the mad scene in King Lear? Or had he just got fed up with us and flown back to the peacock farm where he was born? Or had he been murdered, with the murderer dragging the carcass off into the shrubbery and eating it? There were no tell-tale feathers, however.
Yet another unsolved farming mystery.
THE ROOSTER THAT DIED OF RAGE
Roosters have individual temperaments. Some are mild, others moderately aggressive. Then there are the Alpha Crazies.
One of our roosters was the third kind. He could tell the difference between a person with a stick and a person without a stick. If you came anywhere near him wearing shorts and without a stick, he would flap his wings, leap on you, and dig his talons and spurs into your bare legs. He was faster than a speeding bullet, and sneaky. Attacks could come from behind.
It was his duty to protect the hens, and he took this duty very seriously. They were a feckless bunch, always wandering off in search of worms and such, and he was always trying to round them up, like a sheepdog, and keep them together in a clump. Once in a while we would run the chickens through the kitchen garden to clean out the slugs and bugs, and this was a nightmare for the poor rooster. If he were human he would have been yelling: “GET BACK HERE, YOU STUPID GIRLS! DON’T YOU KNOW ABOUT FOXES? WHY DOES NO ONE EVER LISTEN TO ME? I’M DOING THIS FOR YOUR OWN GOOD!” Cluck cluck cluck, they would say to one another, paying no attention to their overlord. The supermall of the garden was too alluring for them, the slugs were too enticing.
The hens liked to hang out with the sheep, especially in winter when the sheep were in the barn eating special grain-packed sheep food. The hens dithered about under their feet, gleaning the leftovers and eating seeds out of the sheep poop. This drove the alpha rooster nuts, as he saw the sheep as threats – as he saw every other living being – and the sheep’s legs made it almost impossible for him to keep the hens together in a flock.
One day he was trying to corral them – they’d separated into two clusters, and the rooster was running back and forth between these factions like some rebellion-challenged political whip, pecking and squawking – when Graeme appeared with a pail of water and walked between the two groups. The appearance of this colossus was too much for the rooster. With an anguished scream, he leapt straight up in the air, gasped, and fell over. He was dead.
Fearing a disease, we took him to the vet. Looking at the rooster’s red, congested face, the vet said, “This rooster died of rage.” Heart attack, was the diagnosis.
“In that case, can we eat him?” Graeme asked.
“No reason why not,” said the vet.
Out came the recipes for coq au vin. We were callous in those days; we ate everything edible, since we didn’t have many sous, and waste not want not, and better us than some grifting raccoon. We knew from experience that a buried chicken would soon be dug up again.
These chicken episodes came in handy much later, when I was writing a novel called Alias Grace. It was set on a nineteenth century Ontario farm. Naturally, they had chickens. And the whole farm came in handy for Graeme, when he was writing Perpetual Motion and also The Bedside Book of Birds. But we didn’t forsee such future incarnations at the time. Who ever does?