Dumber Than a Chicken

Chicken looking at camera against white background

BY: BILL MCFADYEN

The loss of my favorite bird dog last winter was sad, but no shock. Thirteen years is blessing aplenty. I don’t know how many times people have asked if I have gotten back into the puppy business. The answer is “no.” I just have not had the desire for a new dog, given the wounding that comes when that companioning ends.

Instead, we opted for chickens. This is not our first soiree into the world of raising poultry. The most famous episode in our chickenrearing history was when we held a fundraiser at church – the Great Chicken Race.

We set up a circular racetrack into which we introduced several young pullet sprinters.

We named them things like Cacciatori, Cordon Bleu, and Tetrazzini. The confines of  the track and one human bringing up the rear kept them moving in the desired direction. It is the only way to successfully herd chickens.

This time, Hudson brought home a dozen peeps from Family Farms store. There are not many things sweeter than a newly hatched chicken. We would set up a little enclosure of (predictably) chicken wire in the backyard and encircle it with beach and lawn chairs.

We spent many a COVID-quarantined afternoon as a family sipping something cold and laughing at the antics of the peeps picking
grass and jockeying for position around the feed trough.

Always there is a weakling. Nature’s way. Ours was identified in very short order and expired naturally in a day or two.
Another inevitability to buying peeps is that there will always be a rooster that slips through the sexing process. In our very first time raising chickens, we just accepted the fact and allowed the rooster to grow right on up with his sisters.

Roosters are three things – visually impressive, territorially aggressive and obnoxiously loud. That first generation of peeps produced a beautiful, angry, vociferous rooster that ruled the backyard.

One day our Little Maggie and Sweet Emma were playing in the backyard when mama Kelley McCauley came to fetch her daughter. Her son, Shep, came with her, opened his car door and sauntered over to the girls at the sandbox, thereafter finding himself in a stare down with Big Red.

Shep stomped at the bird just to remind him who the human was. Unimpressed and duly challenged, that rooster sailed into Shep
like a schooner in a gale, inspiring a screaming retreat on the part of the human.

I think Red got three or four pecks into Shep’s calves before the car door slammed back again. Shep peered out the car window as
a now-slightly-taller Red resumed his role as head bully of the hen harem.

Red also refused to abide by the rule of crowing at dawn’s early light. Oh, he did that every day. It is just that he never stopped. All
day long, every time he saw a hen – which was all the time – he bellowed.

The other thing about Red (and roosters in general I suppose) is that his breeding habit was very predictable. It was cyclical
and the cycle was about every 10 minutes. Our backyard became a feathered brothel of perpetual copulation.

The combined affronts of the incessant sexual activity, the noisemaking, and the attacking of children only 12 times his size meant Red had to go.

As a result of my multiple purchases from Cumberland Tractor, I was aware that their old location was constantly at risk of thievery, especially on weekends. So, one Sunday afternoon, I gifted Charlie and Ronald McCullough with their very own guard rooster by chunking him over and into their fence. As I looked back in the rearview mirror, I could see Red whooping the hell out of a zero-turn lawn mower.

When the latest round of peeps turned into juveniles, it was obvious that there was indeed one among their ranks that would eventually usurp my authority over the backyard.

With Cumberland Tractor having relocated and, during the move, upgrading their outside security, there was no demand for a guard rooster. Instead, this future feathered terrorist assumed a spot in the food chain directly below that place held by me before he could peck any human calves.

With only a few weeks remaining before this new round of 10 hens begins producing eggs for our consumption, the only real problem we have is their penchant to wander.

Apparently, our multiple acres are not sufficient. They have coveted and molested the next-door neighbors’ shrubbery, or at least the
pine straw underneath it.

Having severely constricted their amount of time outside the coop as a result, our hope
was that they would use the time wisely and concentrate on scratching under our loropetalums and blackberry bushes and bird
feeders.
It was like trusting Eve at the apple tree.

So, this morning, having found them crossing the property line and heading to the Forbidden Fruits, Susanna and I re-enacted an old adage in our effort to herd chickens. We approached them from two sides and pinched them back onto our spread. Then it became a matter of trying to narrow the escape routes.

Under the theorem of more flies caught with honey, I threw a handful of sunflower seeds into the fenced area. That was enough to
convince five.

After a couple of times around the fig tree and grape vine, four more had enough of being
chased by two aging, sweaty and frustrated humans running them around the property, and they joined the other five at the trough.

But there is that one daggone Dominique that thinks she controls her own destiny. We chased her three times around the pen without
her choosing its refuge. Three more through the loropetalums that are not good enough for lounging but apparently perfect for escaping,
and four trips into the asparagus bed.

Finally, she felt like she could catch her breath under a small boxwood. With sweat soaking my T-shirt and dripping into my eyes, I crept up behind her, bent over, and snatched a leg out from under the shrub. That leg had attached to it a squawking and deservedly frightened fugitive hen.

We peered into each other’s eyes, her wondering how to get turned right side up again and me wondering if she should take her same place on the food chain as did her brother a few weeks back. Granting her clemency, I released her in the coop beside her nine bewildered sisters.

Walking back to the house, I thought about how a drone operator would have laughed, cackled even, at the overhead video of Susanna and me herding chickens on a Saturday morning. How a zoom-in on the aftermath would have seen Dominique calmly eating sunflower seeds inside the fence while the two sweaty and outwitted humans retreated to the house for cool water and dry clothing.

It occurred to me that I was dumber than the chicken. And it occurred to me that if the time comes to replace my dear departed dog, perhaps I should consider a border collie or an Australian shepherd such that my inferior level of intelligence would be hidden by that of the dog’s herding instinct.

Bill McFadyen can be reached at
propertybill@nc.rr.com.