By Karen Davis, Ph.D., United Poultry Concerns (UPC), November 2011
As I sit at my desk this morning, a large white rooster and two sturdy brown hens are traipsing through the grass outside my window. Watching them I agree with chicken keeper Dorothy English of Illinois who says that "People who just have lawn ornaments are really missing out."
People who know chickens would agree. Some grew up with chickens on farms, others got to know them in suburban settings. New York attorney, Barbara Monroe, had never really seen a chicken till her daughter bought a baby white leghorn rooster from a peddler. To her, "The most amazing thing about Lucie is the way he's adapted to suburban life," sitting in a car like a person or on the sofa watching TV with the family. Merry Caplan of Louisiana got a chicken by surprise one day when a neighbor brought her a fuzzy black baby bird who made a beautiful trilling sound. For a while Merry didn't know if she had a rooster or a hen. She carried "Charlie" in her pocket, tucking her into a shoe box at night where "She continued her beautiful song and chirped herself to sleep."
How did Celeste Albritton of Texas meet Cluck Cluck? "I never dreamed of having a companion chicken till one day a dog drug this chicken home. She was hurt, so Mom and I took care of her till she was well. Now she's part of our family." Celeste and Merry both got roosters for their hens. Cluck Cluck has Chick Chick and Charlie has Chuck, who Merry says, "Sits next to her while she lays her egg and announces the event with a series of cock-a-doodle- doos!"
Like Celeste, Sharon DeHaven of North Carolina and Kay Bushnell of California had mothers who cared about chickens. Sharon says, "I'm a lover of chickens because my mother is. Bringing our chickens Ethel and Merman into the house didn't upset her. They'd jump on our laps because they simply adored human contact." Kay's feeling for chickens grew from her mother's bond with Tilla, a little red hen whose feet had frozen off in the cold Canadian winter of 1918. Kay says, "My mother told me how she'd call 'Tilla! Tilla!' and Tilla would come running on her little stumps."
Ginger and Gary Matthews of Oz Farm in Ohio had a similar experience with their large white rooster and flock leader, Dorothy (named after all of Belina the hen's chicks in The Wizard of Oz). Dorothy's feet, comb, and wattles froze one January day and eventually dropped off. They brought him inside where, Ginger recounted, "On sunny winter days we'd open the door and the sun would beam onto the hall floor and Dorothy would walk on his stumps into the sun spotlight and nestle down for a nap. One early spring morning we heard cock-a-doodle-do! It was Dorothy crowing in our house - what a spirit. He had survived a treacherous winter and he still felt like crowing!"
People with chickens cherish this spirited crow. Barbara Moffit of Oklahoma says her 8 1/2 year old rooster, Ko Ko, crows in his bedroom. "It's no problem for us - what would life be without a rooster's crow to wake up to?"
Roosters also protect the flock. Becky Golden of Maryland remembers how one morning after a heavy rain blew the chicken house door shut, "Perched atop the fence sat Pepper with his two hens, Henny and Penny, on either side of him with his wings spread over each for protection." Recently in Maryland, Pat Lloyd watched a rooster shelter a hen from a cat. She said, "He raised a wing and the hen dashed under it. With his eyes on the cat they moved sideways toward a spruce tree where, his wing still over the hen, he made sound at the cat, who finally walked away."
People with companion chickens say such actions show their mixture of hereditary and spontaneous intelligence at work. Jennifer Raymond of California explains, "Certainly they have a genetic predisposition. but they also have intelligence rarely nurtured by humans." When it is nurtured, the results are often surprising. Marion Cleeton of Massachusetts says, "My rooster, Essex, let me know when he wanted sunflower seeds by crowing right outside whatever room I was in. He knew where I was." Dorothy English believes, "By conducting artificial intelligence tests much is overlooked. One day my bantam cochin hen, Gwen, came clear across the grass fussing and fussing till I asked her if she wanted to go in the house. Together we set out. She hurried ahead of me and hurried in when I opened the door. She needed that door opened for her to get to her cage where she could lay her egg properly, and she knew I could and would do it for her. That is not stupid."
Many people assume chicken are cowards. Are they? Cindy Pollock of Arizona says, "Absolutely not. We've got to remember they are small birds, and survival instincts tell them to run most of the time when faced with danger. Wouldn't you, if you were 18 inches high, with no arms, and surrounded by a bunch of giant predators?" Cindy recalls how the hen she grew up with drove cats and dogs from her chicks, and Marion Cleston says her rooster, Essex, will charge anyone who disturbs or frightens Elizabeth, his mate.
People with companion chickens are struck by their mixture of vulnerability and affection on one hand and their pride and will on the other. Cindy Pollock tells how her bantam hen, Ferguson, would sit for hours in her lap, trilling and clucking, and looking up at her with bright dark shoe-button eyes. "She'd run and scold loudly when she wasn't getting exactly what she wanted," Cindy said.
Veterinarian Holly Cheever of New York says, "When we pat Rosie, our Rhode Island Red, she squats down and clucks to herself and fluffs herself up in a pleased, self-important manner." People are touched by a hen's pride in her eggs and her determination to hatch a brood once she has a mind to. Dianna Barber says each time her prairie chicken, Shnah, lays an egg in their New York apartment, "Shnah offers herself for some stroking as a reward." Davida Douglas of Missouri tells how one of her hens "obviously knew we'd object to her setting in winter, so she hid her eggs and set on them in the rafters. When the chicks hatched, we heard their peeps and discovered the hen's secret."
People with chickens report a wide range of personalities. Cindy Pollock says, "No two of my birds' personalities are alike." Naturally sociable, chickens get along with lots of animals. Shnah, the prairie chicken, sits on a branch next to the iguana who doesn't seem to mind, according to Dianna Barber. Chuck, the rooster, and Nick, the cat, nap side by side, and Charlie, the hen, likes to pull the big dog Lucie's fur. "Lucie will follow Charlie and nudge her to do this," Merry Caplan explains. Robin Grimm's bantam hen, Jubilee, who hitchhikes across country with her inside her jacket, curls up in the belly or ears of Jilleroo, the Australian sheep dog. Robin, an artist in Alaska, says, "Jubilee will part Jilleroo's fur and nestle in. When I call she pokes her head out!"
People relive precious moments remembering their chickens. Davida Douglas says, "Chicken Little and Baby seemed to enjoy human companionship as much as being with the other chickens. They'd sit on our laps, watch TV with us, and sing along with the pump organ or radio. Chicken Little especially loved tea time."
The death of a companion chicken brings grief to family members who bury their chickens lovingly. Robin Grimm buried her bantam road partner, Joy, under a pine tree in a place called Eagle, for, Robin said, "She had the heart of an eagle." Kay Bushnell says that her chickens "died of old age and were given a tearful burial in flower petal-lined graves in the yard where they had lived and enjoyed sunning themselves. We loved our chicken relatives."