I have a rooster named Henry. He is what’s called a “Barred Rock,” which means he is white with black specks — or maybe black with white specks; it’s hard to tell. In his large and elegantly plumed tail he has one iridescent green feather. The spurs on the back of his legs are two inches long and come to sharp points. He has a brilliant red comb and red wattles and is, all in all, a handsome rooster. Sometimes parents who walk by on the road with their kids stop to admire him.
I also have six hens: three Rhode Island Reds, two Plymouth Rocks, and one Ameraucana. Henry is every inch the master of this flock, keeping them in line with a stern and impatient passion. In the morning, when I first let them out, he shows them who is boss by picking up a twig in his beak and waving it in the air. Then he drops the twig and swipes his beak back and forth on it, as if sharpening a blade. When he wants to mate with a hen, he comes up next to her and stamps sideways, and she crouches so he can mount her and consummate the act in a flurry of wings. I am told he has no penis and performs his male function with a cloaca — a pink, petaled orifice for feces, urine, and sperm. He presses his cloaca to the hen’s cloaca (a cloacal kiss), and in this instant, fertilization can be achieved. The sex does not appear very satisfying to the hens, though they submit readily enough. The biggest problem is that Henry’s large claws and wicked spurs rake the hen’s back and leave a bald spot next to the tail. You can tell which hen is Henry’s favorite, because almost all the feathers are worn off her back. She is so bedraggled-looking it’s hard to know what he sees in her. I wonder if she is cold in winter, and I have seriously considered knitting a sweater for her but am unable to find a suitable pattern.
In the winter the chickens are shut inside their coop and have no access to the outdoors. In the summer I let them out into their pen every day. Though the pen is small, it is pleasant, with a pine tree in the middle and places to rest in the sun. In addition to their feed I always give the chickens our leftovers and the occasional dead mouse or handful of Japanese beetles, so I think they are happy enough. When I will be home all day, I let them out to wander over the yard, and it is there that Henry really shines as he tries to keep the hens together. It seems that he can count, because when he has only five and the sixth is off looking for worms, he becomes nervous and lets out several blasts of noise — definitely not a cock-a-doodle-doo; more like an er-ER-erererer-ER. If the offending hen is not in sight, he storms off to look for her. He will even go into the woods on his hen-hunting expeditions, and I’ll hear him thrashing around in the dead leaves and calling in an irritated way.
I often watch my flock through the window when they are loose, and I have learned a lot about them. For example, I’ve learned they like dust baths: one by one they will go to a bare area behind their shed and lie down in the fine dirt, flopping and twitching as if in their death throes. Finally they will stand up and rearrange all their feathers in an explosion of dust. I’ve learned that they will lie down in the sun and spread their wings for maximum exposure. I’ve learned that when they pause in their meandering through the yard, the hens always do so under a tree or bush, for protection against a possible predator attack from above, whereas Henry stands in the open, defiantly unprotected.
Last year my sister got an Alaskan husky named Rica, a lovely dog whose only fault is that she is close enough to wild to enjoy killing small animals. She has even killed a woodchuck and eaten it. One day Rica attacked my hens, and Henry, with real valor, launched himself at the dog. After getting Rica’s attention and giving the hens time to scatter to safety, Henry tried to flee, but the dog went after him, and by the time my sister and I dragged Rica away, she had chewed off all Henry’s tail feathers.
He was cowed but not beaten, and the feathers soon grew back.
Until about a year ago I was entirely pleased with Henry. I thought it was swell to have a rooster and had high hopes that a hen would become broody and settle down with a clutch of fertilized eggs, and then in a few weeks I’d have — like magic — new chicks. But the hens are now two years old, and though they always announce each egg with a raucous clamor and sit on it for about an hour, looking askance at anyone who appears to want it, none has ever actually settled down and brought a clutch to chickdom. The mothering instinct has probably been bred out of them. I have been told by an old Vermonter that to get chicks, I have to get a chicken from a breed that has been less tampered with by humans.
One day I was in the henhouse feeding them. It was winter, and I was going into the building with a pot of warm water to fill their pan. Taking my time, I turned and got some pellets out of their tub. As I was bending over, I felt a sudden buffeting of wings from behind. I knew right away that Henry had attacked me, as roosters sometimes do.
I had heard from my father that you have to dominate roosters who do this. I remembered him walking by his rooster and shaking his stick, saying, “It’s the pot for you if you misbehave.” Apparently his rooster understood English, but Henry did not. In a panic I turned and walloped Henry with my empty water pan. The blow was so emphatic that he fell to the ground. Then he got back up and came at me with his spurs foremost. I hurried out of the henhouse and heard him whomp against the closing door.
After that, I would keep an eye on Henry whenever I went into the pen. He would stay at bay till I turned to leave. I had to close the door quickly, and one time I even slammed it on his neck. I thought for certain I’d killed him, but he seemed fine when I peeked back in. I began to take a walking stick in with me, and once I knocked him out with a blow to the head. I felt horrible as I saw him lying there and was grateful when he staggered back to his feet to renew the attack. None of my walloping had any effect. Henry seemed even angrier at me.
I felt bad about being so cruel to him. I was following my father’s advice, but mostly it was because I was afraid. My sister still has scars on her face from when she was attacked by a rooster as a child. I dreaded having to enter the henhouse to feed and water the birds. When Henry came at me spurs first, he was a frightening sight. Letting my fears get the better of me, I had escalated the conflict to the point of causing bodily injury, and all it had accomplished was to convince Henry that I was the main threat in his world. It should have been clear to me, after a few bangs with the watering pan hadn’t settled the issue, that I needed a new approach, but I just kept right on doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results: the definition of insanity.
Farmers I talked to said that I should get rid of Henry, and Peter, my partner, offered to kill him. Did I have a right to kill him? I think so. He was my rooster, and he was attacking me. Anyone who practices animal husbandry knows they may have to kill an animal. So I tentatively gave Peter permission to execute him. But each day, when I came home and saw that Peter hadn’t done it, I felt relieved. When I asked him why, he said he felt bad about it too.
We were at an impasse.
I won’t say I prayed about it, because I don’t pray, but I thought about it a lot, and maybe that’s a kind of prayer. I thought about the effect the violence had on Henry, which was to hurt and humiliate him. I thought about the effect the violence had on me, which was to make me feel less than my best self. I came to the conclusion that Henry wouldn’t change as long as I continued to hurt him. It was up to me to change.
I had noticed that Henry didn’t attack when I was facing him, so I made a point never to turn my back on him. I began bringing a leaf rake into the henhouse with me, and I placed the rake between Henry and me. When he attacked, I gently moved him aside with the rake. When Henry was out in the yard with the hens, I kept my distance from him. I discovered the distance he likes is about twenty feet.
It’s working. I now have a better relationship with Henry, who is not such a bad rooster. The other day, when he came at me, I pushed him away gently with the watering pan. I stood for a minute in the henhouse, looking out over the frozen river. Then I saw that Henry was considering another attack. As I backed out the door, I remembered a saying from my childhood that I don’t hear much anymore: “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
I whispered the rest of it into the frozen air: “Two wrongs make three wrongs, and three wrongs make four. Two wrongs make a war.”