The rooster, Colored, had just one thing on his mind: hens. Lead the hens, guard the hens, find food for the hens, mate with the hens. He started his day with several rounds of lusty crowing, announcing to the world he's ready to take his eight wives on an outing. As soon as my mother or I opened the chicken coop door every morning, he hustled them out: his eight females, ranging in color from ebony to lily-white and varying in size from elfin to cherubic. His iridescent green tail feathers glinted in the sun as he escorted them into the woods.
Colored and his harem spent their days roaming a quarter-mile diameter around their coop, staying mostly in the forest but sometimes venturing onto the lawn by the house where my parents and I lived. Colored was always scratching the ground, sifting through dirt and dead leaves for tasty insects and choice vegetation, pointing out the morsels to his hens with an excited series of clucks and squawks. The rest of his time, he engaged in elaborate displays of courtship, dragging his right wing on the ground as he steered himself in semicircles around the hens, displaying strong legs and fine feathers to show his worthiness as a suitor. He was, in fact, the only suitor, since having more than one mature rooster would've caused endless fighting and probable death. Luckily for the long-term fate of the flock, he was not picky in his choice of mates: He freely fertilized all the hens, including the Rhode Island Red who hatched and raised him. Whether she was his biological mother we didn't know, because whenever a hen showed signs of setting, we placed other eggs in her nest in addition to her own.
The mood might strike him at any time, and when it did, the hens had little warning. As soon as he began dragging his wing, listing toward the cluster of hens like a ship running aground, they had only a few seconds to scatter before he pounced on the closest one. Usually the hen would shriek bloody murder and try to run away. If she was unsuccessful, he hopped on top, pinning her down by digging his claws into the small of her back. At a certain point, the hen knew to stop struggling—the sooner he did his business, the sooner he'd release her. Upon finishing, he hopped off her back with a self-satisfied cackle and did the rooster equivalent of a touchdown dance.
Although no hen was immune to Colored's advances, he did have his favorites. He mounted the buxom Golden-Laced Wyandotte so often that the feathers on her back were worn down to the bone. We sequestered her in the chicken yard for a couple weeks to give her a chance to heal. His other favorite was Pepper, the tiniest black bantam. Maybe he liked her because she was one of the cutest—pleasantly plump, with a white undercarriage of pinfeathers poking out beneath the black apron of feathers covering most of her body. Perhaps the bombastic rooster found her irresistibly seductive, watching her bustling around foraging for food, raking through the dirt with elegant feathered feet, shaking her tail feathers free of dander—such a tease—her black-and-white feathered dress ruffled like a French maid costume. More likely, he preferred her because she was an easy target, one-third his size.
When he jumped on her, his body completely covered hers, squashing her into the dirt. When he was done, it was always an anxious moment waiting to see if she'd be okay. She remained crunched motionless for long seconds after the rooster departed; then, like a resuscitated heart beginning to beat again, she picked herself up, shook dust out of her feathers, and resumed normal activities of scratching the earth for nibblets and clucking nervously.
While Colored's voracious sexual appetite was one of the worst aspects of raising chickens, it also yielded the best: babies. He did his job well, with about a ninety percent fertility rate. Of a nestful of eggs under a setting hen, there would only be one or two that didn't hatch. The duds we pitched far into the woods, while the rest hatched to become sleepy eyes and cheeping beaks, topsy-turvy bodies on spindly legs.
Colored was even more protective when the hens had babies. He charged, pecked, and snapped at anyone who came within five feet. Wearing protective rubber boots and blue jeans, my mother and I had to ward him off by yelling and stomping. Meanie! I shouted at him when he treed me atop the chicken pen. Peckerhead, my mother muttered when he buried his beak in her boot.
On warm summer afternoons, Colored brought the flock near the house and allowed his non-brooding ladies to take dust baths in the dry dirt under the shade of the balcony. For the hens it was like a day at the spa. Positioning themselves in the piles of dirt, they made nests and fanned the dust around them, riffling it into their feathers, until it stuck to their oils and coated them like an avocado cleansing mask. For hours they sat in these hollows in the earth—dust bowls, I called them—the hollows conforming to each hen's shape and size as perfectly as a pair of Spanx. While the hens lounged, Colored exempted them from sex, relaxed his guard, and did other macho things like dig for worms and practice his strutting, his prowess made all the greater by the baby chickens scampering through the clover at his feet.
Colored first rose to power at age one, when my mother and I selected him as the young, robust replacement for Old Mr. Rooster. As a chick, Colored was awkward and unattractive, his feathers tinted a muddy red-brown—every imaginable shade of the color red. He was in competition for the position of top rooster with two other males his age: Godzilla (a feisty Barred Rock who attacked everything that moved) and Top Hat (a docile bearded Polish with a long, spiky crest of hair draping completely over his eyes). As Colored grew into a cockerel, his ruddy plumage inexplicably blossomed into a fine spread of navy, brown, green, and white. Our handsome rooster's multicolored vest was unparalleled, and with maturity came the confidence and cockiness required of any top rooster. Being mean but not too mean, Colored was the natural choice among the three candidates.
Our flock only needed one dominant rooster. We quickly earmarked Godzilla for culling because, although he protected the hens well, he did not let us get close enough to feed and care for the flock. As for Top Hat, his gentle disposition made him an excellent pet. However, he could not even protect himself, let alone the hens—his crest obscured his sight so much that he often became separated from the flock and wandered ovals around the periphery of the chicken yard, a disoriented outcast. He died before his first birthday when a bucket fell on his head. Most likely he never knew what hit him.
Colored did not care about the fate of the other roosters. All he cared was that his free-range lifestyle allowed him uninhibited access to hens. Like a lord in his manor, he was king of the coop.
One thing alone could interrupt Colored's reign, and that was annual butchering day. For about half the flock, the free-range life cycle came to an abrupt end. Every year until I was eleven years old, I begged my parents to spare the chickens; every year they explained it was necessary to cull the young roosters and any mean hens. Besides, they reminded me, chicken dinner with mashed potatoes and gravy is your favorite. Even as my mouth watered, I protested that I liked to eat chicken from the store, not pets. Where do you think chicken from the store comes from? they reasoned.
When the time came, when the chickens selected for butchering were quivering with apprehension in a separate enclosure from the chickens selected as pets, I was determined to remain with them until the end. Thinking I could comfort them and somehow quell their fears at having their legs rubber-banded together and their wings held fast, I handed over the chickens at the last minute. The conundrum was that I didn't want to be present for the actual butchering because I didn't like the sights and sounds. However, in order to put the chickens out of their misery as quickly as possible, my parents only gave me a five-second head-start to run back to the house.
The first swing of the hatchet found me bolting down the trail, fingers plugging ears so I couldn't hear the shrieks. Of course, with both hands in my ears, I couldn't pump my arms to run. The result: I moved like a weed-whacker, off balance and clipping the underbrush, tripping over tree roots and twigs, my arms two useless triangles at my sides, same shape as chicken wings, and I thought, this is how the chickens feel when they can't fly away fast enough, so I tried to run all the faster, in a haphazard manner my mother would later describe, to my horror, as a chicken with its head cut off.
That evening, as de-feathered chicken bodies soaked in cold water, I visited the remainder of the flock. They went into hysterics when I opened the door, flying into nests and screeching as though they could feel the hatchet at their throats. Even the rooster was cowed—after uttering a few warning cackles, he retreated underneath the nesting cubicles, silent, inconsolable. His entire world was shaken; he had failed his all-important, ever-present duty of protecting the hens. Taking advantage of his dejection, I stroked the silky heads of the hens, trying to calm them. I promised my favorites that I'd never eat them, that they'd live to a ripe old age and die a natural death. I pressed my cheek against Pepper's wing, taking in the sweet smell of hay, earth, feathers—and, of course, the smell of chicken—soft and soothing as the goose-down comforter on my bed, if you didn't stop to think where the down and feathers came from.
Title image provided courtesy of Ashley Adler.