After a couple of years of planning and hunting for just the right place, about a year ago my wife and I finally packed up the cats and the chickens and moved to our “forever home” on a little 12-acre plot just outside of Welland and have settled into the rhythms of a more rural lifestyle.

Within two weeks of our arrival, a mink infiltrated the makeshift coop that I’d put together for our tiny flock of chickens and slaughtered nearly half of them. Fortunately for the surviving birds, I arrived on-scene while the mink was still in his blood frenzy, and forthwith sent him to the great beyond. Even so, last winter and spring was a steady struggle against the famished hordes of minks and other hungry varmints that swarm the South Pelham region, resulting in what could best be described as a poultry fortress — a raised coop, hardware cloth fences, electrified perimeters, motion-sensing lights — you name it, I’ve installed it.

The final piece to the puzzle came when we expanded the flock with a box of day-old peepers from Minor Brothers last spring. I’d ordered a little cockerel along with the batch of pullets, and if this little fellow has taught me anything, it’s that calling someone “chicken” actually means the opposite of what you probably intended. If you surf the dark underbelly of the backyard chicken internet, you’ll come across all sorts of stories of roosters who have defended their flocks against predators, quite effectively, and often to the death. There is the story of Diego, a scrappy rooster who held off a raccoon until help could arrive, but later died of his wounds; or the tale of Donald, the legendary warrior who actually took on a coyote and was carried off, presumably to his doom, only to come staggering back later the same day, bloodied, half of his feathers gone, but undefeated.

It was with this sort of thing in mind that I’d ordered our rooster, a handsome Rhodebar that my wife named Gregory Pecker (credits to our friend Andrea for coming up with that one), but whom I prefer to call Chanticleer, after the canny cockerel in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. True to his name, Chanticleer is a “clear singer,” with a unique crow that he’s been honing and perfecting until he’s gotten it just right. Of course, all roosters have a signature crowing sound, common to all but still individually unique, yet this fellow’s is something else — three distinct syllables, with a rolling “R” at the end that would make a Scotsman homesick, and that sounds a lot like he’s declaring “I am h-e-e-r-r-r!” to the world. American author Edward Abbey once commented that there is no more barbaric yawp in all of creation than that of the adult male chicken. I’m inclined to agree.

From the get-go, Chanticleer was his own rooster. He didn’t like to be picked up or handled as a chick, and now that he’s reached his maturity, you take your life in your hands should you presume to touch his lordship. True to the tradition of his internet kindred mentioned above, he fears nothing. At around nine pounds of top-heavy muscle, he’s the undisputed heavyweight champion of the barnyard, feathered fury in motion, and he’s eager to try conclusions with anyone or anything that dares to invade his little kingdom. If you watch him as you pick up a hen, you can actually see his eyes dilate as he shifts from strut-mode to combat-mode, leaning forward menacingly, feathers fluffed out, wingtips out and dragging the ground as he heads directly to the source of the threat to neutralize it with maximum prejudice. And this is where the problems have started.

True to the tradition of his internet kindred mentioned above, he fears nothing

My wife is a kind and animal-loving soul, who enjoys spending time with the chickens, feeding them treats and picking up her favourites for cuddles. As you might guess, none of these birds will ever end up in a stew pot — in fact, they’ve won the chicken lottery, with a full-benefit package during their working life and a retirement pension when they’re too old to lay eggs anymore. She makes a point of getting out to commune with her feathery friends at least once per day, and you can already see where this is going: Gregory (Chanticleer) will have none of it, and on more than one occasion he’s driven her from the barnyard with much fuss and bother on both sides.

To complicate matters, this summer we adopted some orphaned ducks from a friend of ours. Her daughter found a road-killed call duck, with a few surviving forlorn babies milling about, and took them in until they were too big for her bedroom and they ended up moving to our little farm. Of course, the ducks were a hit with my wife, with their wibble-wobbling and tail feathers and all, and they were soon introduced to the chickens. After a bit of initial suspicion on Chanticleer’s part, the ducks were given probationary citizenship as part of the flock because, well, ducks, right? Not even a hyper-masculine rooster can bring himself to hate a duck. The problem with ducks, we soon learned, is that unlike chickens they don’t automatically put themselves to bed in the coop at night. Apparently they can see pretty well in the dark, and enjoy night-time swims in their little duck pond (yes, we built them a pond), so when lights-out comes for the chickens, the party ducks are still rocking hard in the barnyard, and need to be rounded up and forced into the coop against their collective will, especially now that the nights are getting so much colder.

The other night my wife captured a duck and was in the process of putting it into the coop through the little chicken-sized door at the back when Chanticleer attacked her, drawing blood on her forearms in the process. The duck was unharmed, but the wife was furious. I pointed out that it was just a flesh wound. She said it was a slash too far, and that Gregory was getting perilously close to the stew pot, or at least to being advertised in the “free to good home” part of Kijiji. It took a bit of cajoling on my part to get her figurative feathers smoothed.

But it got me thinking about the rooster and his situation from his perspective. In his little chicken mind, he is the only line of defense between his flock and a harsh and dangerous world. He is the first and last resort to threats, great and small, perceived or actual, and he takes his job very seriously. The flock are his wives and family, the ducks his friends and companions, and they are everything that matters to him in his little world. In the spring there might be babies, which will just up the stakes in this life-or-death game that he’s playing. When a pair of pink tentacles come through the chicken door into the coop from the outer darkness, clutching a struggling duck-cum-honorary-chicken, you don’t negotiate. You don’t hesitate. You attack! You rescue the duck, drive back the invader, defend the flock. There is no time to consider the price of your actions. Not that it matters, because it’s a price that he’s clearly willing to pay.

I’ve also noticed when he tends to unleash his barbaric three-syllable warbling yawp: when he senses the unknown, and therefore the dangerous. When a hawk calls from the bush at the back of the yard, he crows. A stranger pulls into the driveway? He crows. My neighbour runs some machinery and the strange growling sound of an engine drifts through the trees? He crows. I am here! he declares. Let the minks come, the raccoons, the foxes and hawks. Let them all come. I am here. Warrior, husband, father, friend. I am here.

So as far as I’m concerned, there will be no stew pot for this one, and no banishment to the “free” section of Kijiji either. When his time comes to fulfill his destiny, and he crosses the rainbow bridge to Valhalla in defense of his flock, this one is getting the full honours, the Viking funeral, and a memorial to his memory for the next rooster to live up to. Until then, we’ll just have to learn to be a bit more polite in his presence, to acknowledge his worldview, and to maybe take a bit of a reminder about what’s important and what’s not in a world that increasingly seems like it’s not as safe as it used to be.

 

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