When my sister- in-law goes out of town, I take care of her chickens. I don’t mind, in fact, I rather enjoy it. I have always had an affinity for chickens.
Apparently, I am not alone. During COVID 19, backyard chicken coops became a popular hobby. The government doesn’t maintain statistics on backyard chickens, but hatcheries and chicken coop builders were unable to keep up with the surge of orders, with backlogs sometimes extending months.
My appreciation for chickens began in my youth. I was an avid animal lover with a menagerie of large animals and chickens. Before the sun crawled over the woodlands and after school, I would don my dungarees (which is what jeans were called back then) and collect eggs. Even though we had leghorns (which are boring white birds), I enjoyed their company. At the time, I didn’t even mind the snakes who slithered in to steal eggs. I have since developed an unhealthy fear of them.
The window to own chickens closed when I moved to New Jersey suburbia, so I satisfied my animal connection with dogs and cats.
But I never lost my affection for chickens, which is one of the reasons that we decided to retire in Key West. It offers great weather, scores of restaurants, theater, entertainment, arts, and outdoor activities, and chickens that roam freely around the island.
Key West chickens are escapees from cockfights from Key West’s disreputable past. Tourists and animal lovers, alike, enjoy watching the colorful birds that strut around the island.
Before the sun rises over the ocean, the island echoes with the “cock-a-doodle-doos” of Key West roosters claiming their territories. For “city folk,” who are used to sleeping in, it is not a welcome sound. But to me, it is a siren call. In the hush of the pre-dawn landscape, I leash my dogs and stroll into the park watching roosters on tree branches boisterously proclaiming their kingdoms.
Through a series of homegrown experiments, I discovered that chickens are also somewhat intelligent.
My first experiment was to see if the chickens could recognize me. In the pre-dawn darkness, I would walk my dogs and scatter chickenfeed. Within days, roosters were racing at breakneck speed toward my silhouette to gobble up the scattered food. They were friendly and respectful and followed me throughout the park. But they never learned temporal boundaries. Even though I only fed them at dawn, they followed me whenever they spotted me.
They only recognized me if I was walking both dogs, if I walked alone or with one dog, they ignored me.
Roosters and hens have a short lifespan in the Keys. Predatory birds, raccoons, cars, and even irate citizens keep the flock in check. It is unusual to see the same bird the next year. So, I was pleased when I returned from my summer in Maryland to discover that a favorite rooster recognized me. After a week or two, my experiment over, he realized that I no longer provided food and lost interest in me. For him, it was merely a transactional attachment.
The hens were more cautious, and it took weeks for them to approach me when I had food. If I didn’t see a hen for a while, I knew that she would soon appear with a scattered, peeping brood of up to a dozen newly-hatched chicks. Most hens chose a polygamous relationship based on the desirability of the rooster’s territory. It was unusual to see a single hen and rooster pairing. The hens assisted each other by taking turns nesting and caring for their combined brood.
But tragedy lay ahead. On the first day, hens would proudly stroll with a trail of scatterbrained, peeping chicks, who had little use for hanging with their siblings. Mom’s full time job was keeping these fluffy little “peepsters” in the group. But the little chicks were a tasty appetizer for eagles, hawks, raccoons, and even iguanas and each day one or two would disappear. A lucky hen would raise a single chick to adulthood. Survivors stayed with their moms even past adulthood, peacefully foraging while trying to avoid horny roosters.
The squawking and wailing of a hen who lost a chick was unmistakable. And if she lost the whole brood, she would not eat for several days, searching the scrub bushes and beach refuse for a lone survivor.
But within six weeks, she would reappear with another large brood that she would patiently protect and teach how to forage for food; hoping that this time the outcome would be better.
On the Eastern Shore, the predators are a significant presence at night. My chicken-owning friends have constructed chicken wire fortresses that are carefully monitored to protect their hens from foxes, raccoons, owls, and other raptors. Some allow chickens to roam freely during the day; and an hour before dusk the hens slowly strut back to their pen. But many owners keep their chickens in a large fully enclosed run with raccoon proof locks.
My sister in law purchased female “sexed” chicks (only experts can determine a chick’s gender). One slipped through, however, a defective, tailless rooster. His original name has been changed to “Crockpot.” Unlike my friendly Key West roosters, he has a “chip” on his wing and attacks anyone who tries to get in or around the pen.
It turns out that the hens don’t like grouchy, controlling guys either and they had large bald spots on their backs where Crockpot tried to mount them. In addition to being ornery, he is also inept, and has yet to fertilize an egg. My sister in law has been trying to find a home for him, but there is not a large demand for a nasty, tailless rooster…so he stays, out of the kindness of her heart.
I have discovered that temperamental roosters are not uncommon. During the pandemic, I was entertained by a series of popular You Tube videos called “F Off Kyle.” A frustrated farmer posted videos of his obstreperous, nasty rooster named Kyle who attacked anyone roaming the barnyard.
When I am caring for my sister’s brood, I usually arrive at dusk to feed and check on them, they immediately spot me and come running toward the door of their chicken wire citadel, eagerly awaiting the feed, kale, and mealworms that I will gingerly scatter while trying to keep Crockpot from attacking me.
Yesterday, the hens and Crockpot behaved differently, they were milling about quietly and even Crockpot ignored me. I sadly discovered why. A Plymouth Rock hen had died in the coop. When I went in the coop to retrieve her, Crockpot didn’t challenge me and remained out in the pen.
John Barth, in his book, Tidewater Tales, used chickens in a cage as an analogy for how we handle death. When someone dies, we squawk loudly, but then we settle back to our businesses.
And the next day, things were back to normal, the chickens raced to the door, pecked at their food, and, of course, Crockpot tried to attack me. I lingered to watch them eat, listening to their mumbled clucks and tuneless murmurs. Just going about the business of being a chicken. Until the next tragedy.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.