Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Rooster Named Elvis

Spring reminds me of the farm. This is when the babies are born; I loved that part of it...walking around with a tiny baby bunny or fuzzy yellow chick in my flannel shirt pocket…being followed by a baby Toggenberg goat small enough to stay in a box in the kitchen while she is bottled fed.

I visualize the small red Cochin – aptly named Pretty – strutting around the yard with her three babies following her even though they towered over her. In case you don’t know what a Cochin is, it’s a miniature breed chicken. Pretty had feathery legs and feet and lay eggs the size of a poppy marble.

Pretty was a broody hen, but she did not lay eggs on a regular basis. Her strong maternal desire was obvious as she tended to the other hens and sat on their eggs. I decided that it would be rewarding for Pretty and for our farm if I allowed her to be a surrogate mother. I selected three eggs from a few of my favorite hens and tucked them in her nesting box when she left to eat. She was a very good mother and sat on her eggs for the full incubation period of 21 days. It was exciting to see her with her three babies. She was proud and attentive. Soon her babies grew bigger than her, but they continued to follow; it was a pleasing sight.

Most of our flock consisted of exotic chickens. We had many Arucanas – an ancient Chilean breed – they lay blue, pink, yellow and green eggs, the original Easter eggs. The roosters are magnificently colored with feathers that are shades of deep iridescent red and green and gold, while others are black and white.

We started out with six hens and one rooster – a Bard Rock that we named Elvis. After a while, Elvis became quite mean. He was very protective of his flock and started to attack my twelve-year-old son Miles– who was very good with all animals and carried the hens around. This posed a problem. Elvis started to view Miles as competition and began to attack him. It was my first experience dealing with a mean rooster.

Miles mentioned this to me, but I didn’t quite comprehend the dilemma until one sunny afternoon when he was in the far corner of the field and Elvis was strutting down the ramp from the coop. He stopped, whipped his head around and glared at Miles. I was between the two on the back deck of the house. Miles let out a yelp and then Elvis made a beeline towards him. I was stunned on many levels. I didn't know that chickens could run that fast, I had never seen a rooster in attack mode and I had no idea what to do.

Elvis pulled back and then wailed on Miles’ legs with his spurs. Miles kicked him away and Elvis repeated the assault over and over. I was shocked. Thankfully Elvis’ spurs weren’t very developed, as he was a young rooster, but it was still unnerving. Miles got away, and I did the unthinkable. I started laughing. I knew that my son wasn’t hurt, but it struck me as funny.

Well, the last laugh was on me, as it soon got to the point where I was collecting eggs with a tennis racket. It was a learning experience for us in the beginning part of our journey on the farm. Elvis went to the big chicken coop in the sky and we got more chickens.

I used to go to my girlfriends’ farms, pick out the prettiest chickens and take eggs from them to put in the incubator. Candling and monitoring the unborn chicks was a favorite activity in our home school curriculum. It was exciting to watch the chicks peck their way out of the shells and critical to resist the temptation to help them.

Every single chicken on our farm had a name. We had hundreds of chickens, probably no more than fifty at one time. The naming process was a thoughtful one. Since we were accomplished musicians and potters, painters, writers, etc, many of our chickens had such names as Leonardo, Michelangelo and Pavarotti, the white Arucana rooster who crowed with an appoggiatura.

The danger in naming baby chicks too soon is that you have no idea what the sex is for several weeks, when they start crowing. Therefore, we had a few roosters with names like Bonnie and Ofra (after Ofra Harnoy the cellist).

Most of the chickens were colorful although we had a few basic, standard everyday chickens – good laying hens, like Rhode Island Reds and White Leghorns.

We ordered baby chicks from the Murray McMurray catalogue. When they arrived, the postman called me before the Post Office opened. I could hear the little peep, peep, peeping in the background and he would simply hold the telephone up to the chicks. Then he would say, “you know who has arrived.”

Integrating the farm into our homeschool proved to be brilliant. Of course, my carpentry skills were and still are terrible, but my gift with animals and willingness to work paid off. The children and I acquired valuable skills through responsibility and we realized the significance of honoring and valuing life. We also discovered that we could always depend on each other; we were a team. And the most important lesson? Do not give up.

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