Rooster in the Hen House

December 6, 2008

In a moment of weakness, animal lovers will adopt some pretty strange pets. Last week, my wife’s colleague posted an unusual plea on the office e-mail network:

“I know this sounds odd, but someone dropped a rooster in my yard the night before Thanksgiving and I need to find him a home. He is friendly, his talons have been removed. I just feel badly he is all alone. My dogs do not care for him or I would keep him. All that he needs is a warm place to cuddle up and a little space to roam during the day. Can you help me? - J.”

On our small farm, we keep a flock of fifteen, two-year-old laying hens that we raised from fuzzy little yellow chicks. By design, we have no rooster.

Last week, fate presented a handsome Foundling to us. His back-story is that he lost his original flock-mates in slow succession to a hungry fox. As the sole survivor, he was then abandoned by his owner at a sympathetic relative’s house “out in the country” on the eve of Thanksgiving. Her dogs were much less sympathetic.

I don’t blame them. Roosters are ornery. Their “talons” are actually more properly called “spurs,” formidable inward-facing leg spikes which roosters wield when hurling themselves repeatedly at a perceived threat – our cats, dogs, sheep, kids, eyeballs. In the past, we’ve gotten rid of every rooster we’ve ever had.

You guessed it: we took him.

We were curious. How would our hens react? Those biddies have lived their entire lives in a matriarchal society. We then rationalized that we do miss that whole rooster crowing at the break of dawn thing. Except on Sunday mornings I now remember.

Among unwritten “Thou Shalt Not…” taboos in the fields of zoology and animal behavior, is the sentimental sin of “anthropomorphism.” It is unacceptable for scientists and naturalists to assign human personality traits and even emotions to wild or domestic animals. Apparently, nobody told Walt Disney or Pixar Studios.

Clinical scientists don’t relate to animals the way pet owners and farmers do. As a naturalist, I bend the rule when animal parallels to human behavior are just too good a story to pass up. Lone rooster moves-in with fifteen hens? Irresistible.

I imaged handsome young bachelor arriving at a swanky, upscale hen house where fifteen plump, attractive, slightly older and inexperienced hens live. With no rooster rivals to defeat, he’d be the bird of paradise! Surely our hens would excitedly welcome him to their coop?

That’d be NO. They attacked him.

With glee, my wife related how from the supreme alpha hen to the lowliest hen in the flock pecking order, it was immediately obvious our girls saw nothing attractive or redeeming about a rooster. Even when he crowed lustily at dawn the next morning, the hens remained unimpressed. They cackled with laughter and clucked their disdain. “What in the heck was all that noise about?

Now even I felt sorry for him. The polygamous rooster’s paradise turned out to be an angry sisterhood of unparalleled barnyard boy-bashing.

The whole affair reminds me of the male minority in Florida, well-tanned retired guys mixed in to countless poolside sororities. “Must be nice…” I offered. “All these single, available women your own age living down here and by now, you’ve outlived all their husbands!”

A wizened old rooster snorted and flashed me a wry grin. “It’s not like you might think,” he sighed. His golf buddy nodded in assent.