Poultry in Motion

A chicken in the yard is worth two in the coop.

January 1978By Comments

As an aficionado of country how-to-do-it books, I possess several volumes with titles like The Home Chicken Flock, Starting Right with Poultry, and Chickens for Fun and Profit. As their names indicate, they are earnest, homely treatises aimed at backyarders and small-farm owners, and I have read them all with careful interest that we self-sufficiency devotees, however impure, reserve for such material. I therefore know a certain amount about hen yards and laying houses and dropping pits and the spacing of roost poles, and over a period of time have acquired or constructed a few bits of relevant hardware like waterers, feeders, brood coops, and so on. But somehow, despite good intentions formed while reading beside a winter fire, the use I have made of this information and equipment has been incomplete and fitful and not in general zealous.

The notion has sometimes whispered itself to me that maybe I am just not a Chick Fun and Profit type… Yet we have always had some chickens around, half wild for the most part, and quite aside from enjoying what good rich red-yolked eggs we can find and an occasional free-ranging fryer, we have come to count on them as part of the surroundings. I seldom consciously notice the crowing of the roosters at dawn, for instance, but when I wake up elsewhere I notice its absence, and miss it. And over the years the view from my office window here at the rear of the barn would have been a poorer one without occasional glimpses of alfresco cockfights, or of some old game biddy with her chicks as she chases and spears and dismembers small quarry of various sorts, sharing out bugs and tarantula legs and lizard entrails and clucking with crazy glee to indicate how very nutritious they are.

What I know I’m not is a scientific poultry-management enthusiast. I had a couple of books on that subject too, bought by error and given away soon after I had explored their contents. Polemicists have declaimed in print against the inhumanity of confining birds by the scores of thousands to mesh-floored cages from the moment of their miraculous emergence from the egg to that dark time when they are efficiently killed and plucked and gutted and shunted to market as copses pallid with fat, certified disease-free because of the antibiotics they have gobbled up in their mash. And have declaimed against keeping laying hens in much the same fashion, bumfoozling them into extra egg production with eternal electric light. I have nothing to add on this subject, maybe in part because one of the nicest things about chickens is that it is rather hard to get emotionally involved with them, and inhumanity toward the idiotic breeds of fowl that have practically been manufactured for such industrial use, if it is inhumanity, hardly seems worth getting worked up about. Not that I wouldn’t rather eat the other kind of chickens and the other kind of eggs. But that is for empirical reasons, because they are healthier and taste better.

My objections to participation in such poultry raising are also empirical, based on two or three swatches of clear-eyed observation. One such occurred not long after World War II, when with a friend from college days I took a tour around Texas to look up old companions and to find out how they had weathered the whirlpool years since graduation. By and large, we found that those we could locate had weathered them as we had—i.e., with emotional development arrested as of circa 1942 and with a degree of confusion as to what all the intervening military brouhaha had meant to them, if anything, but with an exceeding willingness to drink beer and strong waters and to swap war stories. The zigzag trip lasted for weeks and stretched from the High Plains to the coast by way of various ranches, honky-tonks, large and dignified homes, Guadalupe River fishing shacks, motel rooms, and other stopping points. And at one stage we conferred the blessing of our presence on two old classmates, married by then and less confused than most of us or so at first it seemed, who had allied themselves against the future by acquiring and modernizing a broiler operation on two or three acres of land not far from the shining towers of Waco.

For that time, I suppose, it was a fair-sized endeavor, with a flow-through population of perhaps nine or ten thousand birds funneling in one end as downy chicks and out the other as meat. Big and sophisticated in comparison to the “chicken farms” that during the Depression and on briefly into postwar years constituted a retirement dream for multitudes of thirty-year military types and other pensioners, it was a diminutive forerunner of the enormous corporate operations which today have driven most individual owners out of the poultry game. It occupied some long tin sheds whose grayed roofs shimmered under the Texas sun and from whose raised flap windows flowed the massed gabble of those thousands of perverted and nervous birds, as well as the massed pungency of their droppings. The weather was hot, without much wind, and if an instrument for measuring the intensity of odor exists—as it well may, for all I know—and had been focused on that operation or on any point within the small, stucco, unairconditioned house that had come with the property and was now sheltering both our friends plus wives plus one small baby, it would have most certainly exploded. Nor, in my scant experience, is it possible to ignore or get used to the scent of chicken manure—as one can ignore and sometimes like, for instance, equivalent emanations from horses and cows or even, according to the biased testimony of some pig-fancying friends of mine, from swine.

They had all their capital in the thing, about ten thousand dollars each, which one had inherited and the other had earned playing murderous poker as a naval officer on a troopship. Newcastle disease or something like it had obliterated three or four months’ hypothetical profit just prior to our arrival. Dislike flowed back and forth between the wives, one a loud-voiced forthright good old girl and the other a ladylike blonde with an Eastern college degree. Automation being not yet even a word, much hard hot day-and-night work was required, and everybody was eating chicken twice a day in the absence of funds for more varied provender. But that was just as well because anything else they might have cooked up would have tasted like chicken poot too, since that was all you could smell.

We stayed two nights on a hideaway sofa bed, listening in the small hours though thin walls to a sweaty baby’s howling and to the blonde girl’s occasional pillow-dulled sobs, and a week later and a hundred and fifty miles away my suitcase still had the stink of that place inside it. Our friends lasted there not a great deal longer. One of the marriages crumpled under the strain—oddly, I believe it was the good old girl who left—and the operation was sold off at a large loss, and the two former college roomies went their separate ways toward less idyllic pursuits.

Whether it’s experiences like that one that have spoiled me for careful chicken husbandry even on a homestead scale, or some atavistic peasant backwash in my psyche, the fact is that so far the only sort of chickens I have had any luck with or have cared much about are those that more or less take care of themselves. I did once try keeping some bantams in an orderly and protected way, maybe out of memories of childhood when my father maintained a gentle, pampered bunch of Golden Sebrights in our back lot. But the bantams’ eggs were tiny and the cockerels when I bothered to fix them for the table were not much bigger than a very lean quail, though coons and ringtails found them delicious and culminated a long war between us by wiping out the whole flock.

And I do have an intermittent vision (by that same fire in the winter) of an ample run and a neat hen house, heavily fenced and electrified against predatory intruders and stocked with fat motherly Buff Orpingtons who will stroll and scratch sedately and chortle with happiness and lay large numbers of huge brown eggs. But for now, what I’ve got is fighting games that hide their few eggs in funny places, soil our porches, chase cats, roost in the barn’s rafters to the detriment of things below, run like chaparral cocks, and fly like pheasants.

We came by the earliest of the games through accident—inheritance, I guess you could call it. When first married we lived in a renovated white prairie gothic farmhouse west of Fort Worth, with a barn nearby that was leased out separately as a boarding stable. The stable declined from grace as it passed out of the hands of the local horsey set, folks with pretty long-legged steeds and jodhpurs and Italian forward-seat jumping saddles and social heft, and became gradually but inexorably a haunt of goat ropers with their tight-pants girls and their hangers-on. One major sign of change was the appearance of a little flock of game hens with one big clipped-comb rooster, released there for toughening by the chicken-fighting goat roper who owned them. When that phase of the stable’s existence ended, as end it did when the debt-ridden lessee bailed out for California with a lady not his wife, this sport came one night with his chromed pickup and some friends and flashlights and recaptured his birds from limbs and rafters where they were roosting and took them away.

But he missed one large red hen who had made a nest in the loft from which she later hatched ten chicks. She was a tremendous mother and could ride hungry cat or a nosy dog for fifty yards, spurring and picking it all the way, but the odds were rough against her in that deserted barn. By the time the Norway rats and the night creatures got through she one offspring left, a skittish black rooster who when nearly grown managed one day to fly his head into a dangling noose of baling wire at the entrance to a stall and hang himself as neatly as an executioner could have. So that Big Mama, as we called her admiringly from afar, was again alone.

When we moved not long afterward to a larger holding father out from town, I went down and grabbed Big Mama off her roost, getting spurred on the thumb in the process, and carried her out to the new place where there were four or five scrub hens, part game themselves, and a chunky Dominicker-looking rooster. Big Mama promptly whipped them all including the cock, but she was willing enough to use him for her main purpose of propagation, and during her prime at that place she hatched one or two broods each year, losing a majority of the chicks except when occasionally, goaded by her conscientiousness, I caught her and forced her to hatch and partly raise them in a coop.

There other hens also reproduced themselves, though with less dedication and success. Sometimes, despite the constant depredation of foxes and coons and skunks and owls and ringtails and possums and rats and snakes and feral cats (themselves constantly subject to attack by our dogs; it was a good steady uproar, really quite interesting), we had as many as twenty hens, lots of daily eggs search out by the children, and a spotty supply of fat cockerels for the skillet. The Home Chicken Flock, unmanaged. With such stark Darwinism at work, Big Mama’s bellicose genes soon came to predominate, though somewhere along the way she herself vanished in the night. We did get infusions of fresh blood from time to time, mainly though gift chickens that had outgrown their attractiveness as pets in town. One such was Whitey Corder, an erstwhile purple Easter chick metamorphosed into a large ill-tempered Leghorn; his main trouble was that like many pets reared out of touch with their own kind he thought he was a person. That was all right until he started trying to mount small visiting girls and ended up in a pot with dumplings, which is about the only way you can eat a full-grown rooster and enjoy it.

This tough and fluctuating and motley flock persisted until the last couple of years our tenancy at that place, when we and our dogs began spending the summers down here on our own cedar-hill acreage fifty miles away, and the chickens were left for three months at a time without even the casual protection of our presence. The last survivor was a lean black hen, a fit daughter to Big Mama, who kept on laying and hopefully incubating unfertilized eggs even after something chewed a big hunk out of her breast one night. She succumbed in the end to a five millimeter pellet fired by an irate gardener living half a mile away, to whom I had given permission for such action after she all his cherry tomatoes.

Here on our own ground where we finally moved a few years ago, my intention at the start was to run a fairly taut ship and not to undertake any given homestead activity until I was ready to do it right. Sometimes things have worked out that way, but I fear that more often than not they haven’t. Available time and flagging personal vigor are prickly factors, and long observation of one’s fellow rustics and their time-honored ways nudges one toward a sloppy conviction that rightness and taut ships are relative things. It is better, for instance, to have a garden full of Johnson grass roots and resprouting brush that have to be fought back among the vegetables each year, than to have no garden at all. And even though one may nurse within one’s secret winter-fireside self a vision of fat Orpingtons adeptly tended, does that necessarily mean that one must do without fresh eggs and morning cock-crows till the requisite facilities have been built?

When tempted early on—in fact, before we even moved here to stay—I decided that it didn’t. While visiting a South Texas friend I ventured to admire a resident flock of what he called scrub Mexican games, as tough and self-reliant a crew as old Big Mama’s get, but uniform in type—the cocks of the coloration known as black-breasted red that traces straight back to the Asian jungle fowl ancestral to all chickens, and the hens neatly brown with golden-tan speckles and shadings. He asked if I would like to have a trio—two hens and a rooster, the standard small-scale “start” with poultry. Subverting yet once more the Orpington Dream, I said swiftly that I would, and from that action derives, these ten years or so later, our present teeming flock of chickens, numbering two.

Not that they haven’t thrived at times, to the point that I gave away a good many to other people myself, thus in effect repaying the original gift. One trio went to a local young townsman, whose subsequent experiences indicated that my friend’s description of their lineage may or may not be Mexican, but there is nothing scrub about them. This boy said he just wanted to raise a flock for fun and I believe he really did, but a chicken-fighting crony (our region has more than its share of these) persuaded him to trim the cock’s comb and wattles and to fit him with steel spurs, and the first Sunday that they fought him he murdered his adversary in short order and won them sixty dollars. Unfortunately this was his last fight, for shortly thereafter a red fox invaded the pasture cowshed where they were keeping him with the hens and bore him squawking away to the brush for dinner, all white the distraught owner was running toward the shed and waving a stick and shouting. Thus perish human hopes and dreams.

Around here we have had some fairly impressive cockfights too, mainly in years when I have neglected to harvest the new generation of cockerels soon enough—it takes a .22 and a certain amount of stalking. When the sexual itch begins to gnaw them they get to squabbling among themselves for rank, and some reach the point of wanting to try Papa on for size, nearly always a mistake. Once committed to battle, they only occasionally quit unless blinded or totally outclassed in weight and age, and if you break up the brawl they will resume it later elsewhere. Winners lack entirely that forbearance that characterizes bulls and billy goats and most other animal victors in struggles for dominance, who let the loser shamble away in disgruntlement. A gamecock will keep on pecking and spurring a downed opponent while there’s a twitch still visible, and when the twitches stop he climbs on top of the bloody corpse and crows, staggering with fatigue and weakness from his own wounds.

They are in short not very nice fellows, but then they’re not supposed to be. What you tend to forget if you keep them just as chickens, watching them chase grasshoppers about the yard and strut for the hens and arch their necks to crow picturesquely from time to time, is that for hundreds and maybe thousands of years game fowl have been bred by men for a single main fell purpose, so that their ferocity far exceeds that of their wild progenitors and is in a sense snot so much their own as an extension of human ferocity, which may well be the worst kind of it all.

But when I’m honest with myself I know their ferocity is damned beautiful as well, because in another sense what men have bred into them over centuries is an ideal of total courage.

Total courage in relation to other chickens, however, is not much of a defense against toothed nocturnal varmints, and in the past couple of years some individual canny marauder, probably a fox but maybe a coon, has whittled our flock down from a peak population of around two dozen to one rooster and one hen. He has accomplished this on regular tours of their chosen center, the barn, by finding and carrying off even hen whose instincts have brought her down out of the rafters to set a clutch of eggs in some low nook or corner, except for this last one, who somehow escaped when he destroyed her nest last spring and has not since let instinct betray her again, though sooner or later it will. Of dogs we have at present one large, fat, and playful pup, but even when old Blue the varmint hater was still around, the barn was too far from the house to be included in his nighttime patrolling orbit.

So the games are on their own as they pretty much always have been, but this time the arithmetic is very poor. Before long, I suspect, I will find it needful to set aside my admiration for them as natural creatures and my disinclination to interfere in natural processes, and will engage in a little chicken management with some traps and a shotgun and a flashlight. Otherwise it might turn out to be time to build that neat hen house with its yard and to get those Orpingtons—and strangely, I don’t really seem to want to. This has little to do with the work that would be involved, for construction around here is more or less constant anyhow. What I find with surprise, when I dig down to the bottom of my feelings on the subject, is a very strong doubt that those fat and motherly creatures would be half as much pleasure to own and to watch as the wild and raunchy birds we have grown used to over the years.

Starting Right with Poultry is undoubtedly a great idea. But starting wrong and keeping on that way may suit some of us better. 

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