Psycho Rooster

Last week Claude went south, thus ending The Great Rooster Experiment. That experiment began in tragedy last April when three of our six hens were killed by an anonymous predator (I suspect a dog). Among the dead was Shiniqua, my favorite. The code of manliness says you’re not allowed to get misty over a bird but I was depressed for weeks after the loss of that sweet little Rhode Island Red. Even more depressed was Shiniqua’s best friend Tammy, who barely survived the attack with a nasty flesh wound.

Our sad little trio of survivors seemed to get through it all by being extra nice to one another. It was kind of amazing. Patty, the undisputed top of the pecking order, who ruled the coop with an iron beak, was suddenly sweet and sensitive to Tammy, dead last in the rankings. (Okay, so she did try to cannibalize her a few times back before the flesh wound had healed but, hey, chickens will be chickens!) Paige, the sullen middle child and the only one to escape without a scratch, was as dislikable as ever but at least she’s consistent.

After two weeks the wounds had healed but the coop was a lonely place. Three chickens just don’t make a flock. I started thinking about replacements. Using the Internet, I found the name of a poultry club in my area and called its president to see if he could recommend a local supplier. Believe it or not, poultry clubs (or “poultry fancier associations,” as this one fancied itself) aren’t exactly bursting with new members. Which is probably why the guy wanted me to attend a meeting of the club the following week. And why, when I said I’d try to make it but, in the meantime, did he know where I could get a hold of some Brahmas (a particularly heavy breed), he got a little cagey. “Brahmas? I might know a guy. Come to the meeting.”

Two months later I was in the poultry shed of the Dutchess Country Fairgrounds filling cages with shavings in preparation for the big Father’s Day Poultry Show the next day. I was now a card-carrying member of The Dutchess County Poultry Fanciers Association (I had to shell out fifteen bucks for that card) and I intended to exploit my insider status to get first crack at the best chickens.

The quiet of the coop was shattered forever when I returned to it later that day with nine new birds. As the newcomers were introduced a small riot broke out. Beaks were brandished, heads were pecked, chests were butted, threats were threatened (at least I assume that’s what those noises were). All within the hour-and-a-half before sundown. (That’s the thing about chickens, they go to bed at sundown without exception, even in case of war). That night, when I closed up the coop that now contained an even dozen, Patty and Tammy and Paige were still squawking irately. And it may have been my imagination but it seemed as if those squawks were directed at me. “This is an outrage!” They seemed to be saying, over and over. “This is an outrage!”

What makes chickens more interesting than, say, a cat or a dog, is you’re not so much adopting an individual as you are a whole society. A society with clear hierarchies and rules of behavior. This is particularly striking in matters of the pecking order, which, once established, is set in stone, with no wiggle room whatsoever. I was already familiar with the concept of the pecking order, but when I introduced the new birds I learned something new: seniority counts. Tammy, previously the bottom of the order, now had nine subordinates she could peck. And she did so with gusto. I’d naively assumed she was some kind of poultry pacifist, Mother Theresa reincarnated as a bird. But now that she had the chance to use it Tammy was ruthless with that beak. To every newcomer that so much as looked at her sideways she seemed to be saying, “It’s payback time!”

But the biggest change to the coop was The Rooster Factor. Up until then we’d been a hens-only establishment. We didn’t need a rooster—we weren’t planning to breed chickens so we certainly didn’t need fertilized eggs (they taste the same and hens lay them either way). But I’d heard enough rooster stories from people who’d smile and shake their heads that, for entertainment value alone, I wanted to add one to the mix. Yes, I’d also heard the less appealing stories: neighbors driven crazy by constant crowing; hens run ragged by constant mounting; even tales of overly aggressive roosters attacking their owners. But I was willing to risk all that in order to add a little drama to the coop. It had grown too quiet, it was time to throw a little cock-a-doodle-do in there.

Enter Claude. Claude was one of the three Marans I bought at the fair. Marans (sounds like “morons” only with the emphasis on the second syllable) are a French breed that look a lot like Barred Plymouth Rocks but lay eggs the color of Toblerone bars (it’s true, you want to pop them into your mouth every time you empty the nestbox). Of course, being a rooster, Claude didn’t lay eggs, which is where the Babettes came in. Claude and the Babettes were a package deal, like Tony Orlando and Dawn. See, the brutal math of the barnyard is such that, while roughly half the critters born there are males, only a handful of these are needed for stud service. Since one rooster can handle up to a dozen hens, the rest of the males have to be disposed of somehow. That’s why people who sell chickens often insist you take a rooster with that hen, and that’s why the chicken fricasse you had last night (or the filet mignon) was more than likely one of the fellas who didn’t make the cut.

But while I was determined to bring home one—and only one—rooster that day, I ended up with two because the woman who sold me a pair of Brahmas also insisted that one of them be a rooster. I agreed to this only after she assured me that, because he was a bantam(bantams are smaller versions of standard chickens, though a “bantam Brahma” is a bit like a “jumbo shrimp”), the smaller rooster would wisely avoid tangling with his larger coopmate. That was the theory anyway. Also, because all the newcomers were still pre-adolescent (which is when all the trouble begins), my hope was that, in this short grace period before the hormones kicked in, Claude and Mr. Van Allen (yes, we named our Brahma pair “The Van Allens”) would learn to get along.

The end of that grace period was loudly announced one morning a few weeks later when Claude crowed for the first time. It wasn’t exactly “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” more like “Cock-a-do-o-o!” but I was happy to hear it. I’d been wondering when the crowing would begin and had even worried that perhaps Marans were a silent breed (after all, Marcel Marceau, the great mime, was French). But, despite being a syllable or two below expectations, once Claude started crowing you couldn’t shut him up. Every morning at sunrise? Try every five minutes. I didn’t mind it—it sounded picturesque—and the coop was far enough from the house that it never woke us up. But it bugged my wife, perhaps in part because she anticipated how much it would bug her father when he arrived later that summer. Pete likes falling asleep in the hammock with the newspaper over his head. Claude was going to ruin all that. Of course Mary didn’t like Claude to begin with, so hearing him crow every few minutes only reminded her of what a strutting little jerk he was.

Actually, he wasn’t all that little anymore. He’d gotten big and rooster-like in just a few weeks, with billowing tail feathers and a bright read comb and waddles (those are those beard-like things). Even Mary had to admit he was a handsome bird. But that didn’t make his personality any more appealing. In fact maturity only made Claude less likable. Chickens, like most birds, are naturally shy and therefore not especially cuddly. Unlike a cat, they don’t enjoy being stroked on your lap while you watch TV. But some are more easygoing than others. The Babettes for example don’t mind being picked up, especially if they think there’s some extra scratch in it for them. Claude, on the other hand, was always the alarmist type who would run off the moment you came near him. Then, from a safe distance, he’d fix you with one of his beady little eyes and say, “Cock-a-do-o-o-o!” Very annoying.

But Claude’s most disturbing qualities came out after he became sexually active. Nothing takes the romance out of love-making quite like watching one chicken hump another. It’s just not pretty. This was especially true since the first object of Claude’s affection was poor Mr. Van Allen. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m fairly liberal and open-minded, so I don’t make any value judgements about what two consenting roosters do in the privacy of their coop. But consent had nothing to do with it so far as Mr. Van Allen was concerned. I’ll skip the details and just say the whole thing only deepened my conviction that prison should be avoided at all costs. My distaste wasn’t lessened any either when Claude broadened his targets to include the females of the flock. Nor was he let off the hook when it turned out Mr. Van Allen was a Mrs (seeing him lay an egg was incontrovertible proof that the woman who sold him to me had made a mistake—of course we still call him—I mean her—Mr. Van Allen).

No two ways about it, Claude was an unsavory creep. But, while my wife had reached that conclusion long ago, I still felt compelled to defend the guy. Perhaps, feeling my gender under attack, I felt obliged to go to bat for Claude, even if he was a slimeball. We were guys—it was a matter of principle.

That principle was put to the test when Claude attacked my wife one morning when she was feeding the flock, and then again a week or so later when he did the same to me. It’s not unheard of or even terribly unusual for a rooster to attack his owner at some point. Their little hormone-addled brains are prone to assume at any moment that their manhood is being questioned, their turf infringed upon. You may be the guy who feeds them everyday but at that moment you’re another rooster. And they attack you the way they would another rooster, by flying up at you and trying to stick you with their spurs. It’s a ridiculous mismatch of course (based on weight alone you probably have at least a twenty-to-one advantage). Still, it is a bit unnerving, especially because even after you’ve kicked them or swatted them or otherwise fended off their attack, the idiots usually come back for more. It was that coming back for more that made me realize Claude meant business. And it wasn’t because I’d read that such behavior needs to be nipped in the bud that I wacked Claude a good one and then, when he seemed to be contemplating another go at me, pinned him to the ground with a rake and impressed upon him in the strongest possible terms that he was not the biggest rooster in the coop,I was the biggest rooster in the coop. No, I did that because I was angry. Funny how a little bird can stir up such strong feelings in you. Lots of righteous indignation along the lines of, How dare you, after all I do for you, all the cleaning, all the feeding—I even defend you to my wife and you repay me WITH THIS?!? Of course that’s an awful lot of human logic to be projecting onto a chicken. In all likelihood Claude was simply reacting to something I was wearing (Shoelaces!!! Must defend coop!!!), some bit of stimuli that tripped an ancient genetic switch. Which is probably why I felt a rush of guilt the moment I took the rake off him. Poor Claude was just doing what nature had hard-wired his little brain to do (and I was probably doing back to him what nature had hard-wired my little brain to do).

Anyway, it worked. Claude was very well behaved after that. It seemed we’d reached an agreement about who was Number One Rooster. Oh, he still fixed me with that beady little eye of his and said, “Cock-a-do-o-o!” But he did it from a respectful distance.

Until last week. That’s when the little bugger jumped me as I was filling his feeder (talk about gratitude). And since I was wearing shorts this time he managed to draw blood—nothing serious, just a couple of scratches on my calf. But clearly war had been declared: the coop was only big enough for one rooster and now it was to be decided once and for all whether that rooster would be Claude or Paul. Can you guess who won?

The truth is Claude came very close to becoming a chicken pot pie right there on the spot. But then I took a breath, decided to be an adult about the whole thing, fetched the net, and put Claude in one of the travel cages. (If you do decide to butcher one of your chickens, don’t do it in front of the others—I’ve heard they will hold it against you.) I’d followed all the advice the books had offered about dealing with aggressive roosters. Now I decided to heed the words of Gail Damerow, author of Barnyard in Your Backyard: “Occasionally a cock remains mean no matter what you do. Such a rooster is big trouble. Get rid of him.”

This story has a happy ending, more or less. Rather than becoming a pot pie Claude is now living at a neighbor’s down the road. I gave that neighbor, who has about fifty birds, the option of either adding Claude to his flock or adding him to his stewpot. Fortunately for Claude he chose the former. But when we tossed Claude into the yard three roosters nearly twice his size gathered ‘round to give him a big welcome. It looked like Claude’s new life was going to be one endless episode of Scared Straight.

The nice thing about Claude’s new home is it allows me to look in on him from time to time. Judging from the way he avoided one particularly large rooster on a recent visit, I would say Claude is learning he isn’t Number One Rooster in this coop either. I took a certain sadistic satisfaction in that and said to him, “You see, Claude, you had a flock all your own with eleven lovely hens and two humans keeping you cleaned and fed, and what did you do? You threw it all away.” His answer was to fix me with that beady little eye and say, “Cock-a-do!!!” If the reply seems unusually brief it’s because at that moment Number One Rooster appeared and Claude had to hightail it across the yard. Revenge is sweet, even if it is against a stupid bird.

Paul Spencer
The Wannabe Farmer

You can contact Paul at

A Chicken Murder Mystery
Bye Bye Birdie
Too Much of a Good Thing
Mr. Fraidy
My Three-Leaved Nemisis
Psycho Rooster
A Pile of Feathers
Plan Bee
Agway Chic
Purple Prose
My Atkins Advisors
This Old Barn
My Old Truck

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