About five years ago, my father purchased fifteen fresh hatched chickens for me to raise. The end goal being a freezer full of meat that knew life before it met the knife. He was to take ten of them, and I took five. But somewhere along the line, I changed my mind and decided to keep at least one rooster for the farm. Out of fifteen baby birds that showed up at five thirty in the morning at the local post office, stuffed in a box, this single Rhode Island Red was the only one who made it past a year.
There are many common misconceptions about chickens. And roosters in particular. One is that it is impossible for two roosters to cohabitate, in the same coop, tending the same brood. It isn’t all the way true. In my experience, roosters who have known separate farms, separate flocks, at least a year or two apart, will most likely fight it out a few times, and if one does not give up, which one usually does, they will continue to be a problem. But definitely not a fight to the death all at once. I’ve seen years pass by between warring chickens. As long as one backs down at some point, they’ll go on neighboring. Also, if one bird is raised around a grown rooster, or two dibby roosters grow up together, they won’t even fight. As long as a hierarchy remains solidified, a rooster really doesn’t want to peck anything to death. This was the case with the Rhode Island Red. I had another rooster on the farm, but he was no threat, so they all got along.
Then five years passed by. My older rooster, affectionately called Big Daddy, got to the point his legs couldn’t pick him up anymore. So the young one inherited the whole flock of over twenty, all to himself, for about two years. Never intended to make it past six months. You go into farming thinking it is all about this ebbing balance between life and death. Then you find out they’re both in a three-way with time. And time has a way of making life and death trade masks. It made one out of fourteen, five years out of half of one, and what would have been a single meal into half a decade of crowing, strutting, staring down tree-lines and running off hawks. But time, like all other things, has limits. It can’t make an exhausted heart keep beating, or tired legs go a mile. And just a few weeks ago, home late from rehearsal, we found the Rhode Island rooster had died.
Now, on my street, some of our neighbors are gamehens and roosters. Partially kept. Partially wild. Roosting in this short thick Magnolia tree. They hatch eggs with no human interference. There are a ton of them. Mostly little screechy males who strut slow in the road and head tilt at car bumpers and crow. Randomly, about a week after my rooster passed away at his first hint of old age, I had one of those roadside neighbor to neighbor conversations in passing as I was getting home from work. And wouldn’t you know, she offered me to keep one of these for the most part wild roosters already roaming my yard for weeks. Of course I laughed at the idea of being able to catch one, let alone having one actually get along with my hens, stay in my coop, commit full time to my farm.
I thought it was laughable. I’m not exaggerating when I say there are seven or more of these little guys roaming up our street at any given time. But, to my disbelief, one especially small game rooster, the color of a slice of sunset, just started hanging around my birds. All the time. Stopped crossing the street every night to roost in his squat magnolia tree. Caught him sleeping on a perch in my coop, where he has now been staying every night. Completely committed to the flock. Now this is not a rooster I bought. Not a rooster I went looking for, or asked about. Not one I even want, really. But it helps to have him. He watches the birds, watches the sky, finds worms in the yard and cluck-struts to call them all over. They get along, and most importantly, he knows people are people and birds are birds. Because when that line gets blurred, it makes for a fighty rooster. He is small, much smaller than the others, smaller, even, than most hens. Which I think they prefer.
This story stands out to me in particular because of the effortlessness of this modest exchange of power. How a natural opening formed on my farm, and natural excess from down the road emigrated up and filled it. How no money changed hands. Just the mere utterance of an idea by a roadside one afternoon. But the universe was listening. And without much intention, one of its humble feathered counterparts perked up and answered the call. A new rooster, to replace the one who almost never was. A new voice, to sing to the sunrise. A seed of orange fire lit up in his eyes.
But why, why this one and not another, why this one but not all the others?
Every rooster learns to crow, even after the sun has risen.
But I think, somewhere along the line, this new rooster of mine,
he learned to listen.