The Roving Rototiller

Monday, December 27, 2010


It's been a busy few weeks, with the usual mad holiday crush:  clandestine phone consultations with family regarding other family, brave sallies to the shops, the Taming of the Credit Card, semi-frantic housecleaning and wrapping, wrapping, wrapping followed by the final jaw-jutting, shoulders-back foray to the Post Office.  Really, it all went fairly smoothly this year.  But it was with great relief that we greeted Christmas Day.  After the glad clatter of fixing brunch, carols on the stereo, and unwrapping our goodies, I had a peaceful late afternoon to enjoy.  The weather was gray and chilly, so I decided it was a perfect day for clam chowder.

Fixing chowder takes some time, and it was getting steadily colder out, so the first thing I did was to bring Hoppy inside.  Hoppy is our rooster in a wheelchair.  Well, really it's more of a cart.  Hoppy had a narrow escape from a hawk about eighteen months ago.  After a prolonged recovery from some very nasty wounds, he ended up with both legs crippled.  Some experiments with a stationary sling were entirely unsatisfactory to both of us, so I built him a framework out of light scrap wood and mounted cups for feed and water on the front.  Hoppy rests in a padded sling made out of polyester fleece which holds him high enough that he can get his crazy legs under him.  Four model airplane wheels, with some piano wire for axles, provide him with mobility (although his capacity for turns is severely limited).  When we're home, he spends the day out on the front walk, or the porch if it's rainy.  The mail carrier and the UPS man have gotten used to being greeted by a little gold-and-black rooster on their way to the house.

Hoppy is, however, a creature of habit.  He knows that when it gets cold out, he'll be brought inside.  And once inside, he wants to be taken out of his cart and put to bed, where he can look forward to a handful of scratch grains.  Although we often put him inside when headed out on errands during the day, leaving him to wheel slowly about the kitchen, he views this as a demonstration of failed intelligence on our part, and delivers a thorough scolding when we get home.  In his mind, coming inside equals Bed and Scratch Now.  It's very simple; even humans should get it.

But regardless, it was cold out, and getting dark, and the chowder would keep me busy for a while.  So I brought Hoppy in and set him beside the kitchen table, telling him firmly that it was much too early for bed.  Hoppy angled a bright brown eye up at me, ruffled his feathers contemplatively, and seemed willing to let the matter go.  I washed up and began dicing bacon.

Hoppy sat patiently throughout the frying of the bacon, and the slicing of the veggies, and the sauteeing of same.  But when I was in the middle of scrubbing potatoes, I heard him flap his wings, the rooster equivalent of clearing his throat.


"I know, but it's too early."

Two potatoes later, and a little louder:  "Raawk."

"Too early, dude.  Sorry."

Several minutes elapsed in silence, apart from the whickering sound of the peeler as I divested the potatoes of their skins.  Then, as I began slicing, I heard the scrabble of his toes on the linoleum, and the soft bump as he hit the bookcase.  Hoppy was getting tired of waiting.


"Can I just finish the potatoes first?"  I pleaded.

Hoppy appeared to consider it.  I cubed potatoes as quickly as I could, wincing at the little noises behind me that signalled a rooster approaching boil.  I knew it was coming, it was only a matter of time . . . and still I nearly trimmed my thumbnail with the knife when Hoppy finally blew.


When Hoppy starts crowing in frustration, he can reach a volume comparable to a low fly-by by an F-16, and that high initial note seems like it should shatter glass.  In the closed confines of the kitchen, the sound waves rebound as if homing in directly on the nearest pair of human ears.  And he can keep it up for ages, seemingly unaffected by his own voice even as it pulverizes the nerves of everyone else in the room.  I gave up. 

"All right, all right, all right . . . ."

Hoppy kicked emphatically as I unlaced his harness and lifted him from the cart, and indulged himself in his usual  "I'm flying!  I'm flying!"  flapping while being carried from the kitchen.  Moments later he was ensconced in his tub atop the dryer, happily tucking into the promised handful of scratch.  I went back to my potatoes, and finished the rest of the chowder prep without interruption.  When I went out to fetch in Quercus, Hoppy was dozing contentedly on his towel.

He's not a difficult bird, really.  But he does have his little ways.

Hoppy, in his wheelchair.  I took up the food and water
cups so that he could get at the grass, but he was more
interested in the camera.

Sunday, December 12, 2010


This morning, while letting the gang out of the barn and distributing the feeders, I took a look into the corner pen and sighed.  Baron's beak is in need of trimming again.

Baron, the son of Elwood and Charger, is a big bluff fellow with a foghorn crow and a build like a Percheron.  In manner he vaguely resembles Rumpole of the Bailey as he stumps about on his big green legs, glowering and muttering.  His body is a steel blue in color, with a darker hackle, deep rust shoulder and rusty stripes and spangles on his sides and belly.  His comb, an embarrassing collision between single and pea, slouches off the left side of his head like a half-melted ice cream, covering his eye.  And he has a persistent split in the tip of his maxillary beak that is a nuisance to him, and also his unwitting salvation.

J.R. Williams might have graced this bird's situation with a mention in one of his "Born Thirty Years Too Soon" cartoons, although chicken generations being much shorter than human ones, I think it was more like three years too soon.  He has all the makings of an excellent boss rooster:  size, presence, vitality, and voice.  His temperament is good, and he guards the hens well.  The trouble is, his father Elwood shares every one of those qualities and is still going strong.  I have wished many times that Baron had come along just a few years from now . . . or at least stuck with his original vocation.  You see, for the first four months of his life, we thought he was a hen.

Elwood has always thrown sons that matured very quickly, just like he did, and his father Blue before him.  Both Blue and Elwood were crowing at five days old, in a shrill soprano  "Pbbreepareep!"  which is a rather alarming sound to have coming from a brooder box.  They started sparring early, they hackled out early, they grew like weeds, inches taller than their sisters from three weeks of age.  So we fell into the habit of thinking that with these genetics, we'd have no trouble telling the young roosters from the young hens.

Two summers ago, Miga the Belgian Bearded sat her first clutch, mostly donations from our Easter Egger hens.  She hatched out a pile of chicks, and among them were two mixes with the blue gene from Elwood.  These two grew at a modest rate, quiet little things that kept to the background while their brothers paraded about and quarreled with each other.  One feathered out blue and gold, the other blue with some vague red barring.  Great, I thought, two more nice hens.  But when they reached four months old, I looked out the kitchen window to see the redder one stalking across the grass and realized,  Good grief, that kid's got some serious legs!

From there, it became increasingly obvious that Something was Up.  Over the following weeks that chick added height and weight like a weed sprinkled with fertilizer.  Its tiny pea comb expanded lumpily and began drooping heavily over one eye.  The rounded hennish hackle feathers dropped out, to be replaced by long ones.  Then pointed saddle feathers began peeking out of the back feathers.  Finally I gave up trying to deny the inevitable, and commemorated the whole bizarre situation by naming him Baron Ashler.  (Google it, if you like.)

So our "hen" had become a superfluous rooster; a nice enough bird, certainly, but flatly unnecessary.  Elwood was in no wise ready to retire as boss rooster.  As winter proceeded toward spring, the rest of the young roosters from the summer hatch turned obstreperous and got themselves relocated to a variety of interested neighbors.  But I hung onto Baron.  Part of it was his willingness, despite his huge size, to walk small and not challenge his father.  Part of it was his handsome plumage.  And part of it was the knowledge that surplus roosters, once given away, have a tendency to end up on the dinner table.  I hated to see that happen to this big, placid bird with his ridiculous comb.  At some point in late spring he collected a small split on the end of his beak, but it seemed to do him no harm, so we kept an eye on it and waited for it to grow out.

And then, in summer, Baron finally made his power play.  We came home from a trip to find Elwood had been bloodily and firmly ousted from the alpha spot, with Baron now in charge.  Unfortunately for Baron, our sympathies lay with Elwood.  Baron was unceremoniously deposited in the nursery pen, and Elwood shakily came out from behind the barn door and reclaimed his position in the flock.

So now we come back to that split in Baron's beak.  When Baron attacked Elwood, I had every intention of getting rid of the young snot as soon as possible.  But Baron aggravated his old injury in the battle.  The split migrated up into the quick, and even with a dremel I wasn't able to eradicate it.  Since then it's become a constant source of maintenance:  every couple of months, we note that Baron has developed a pair of fangs at the end of his beak, and catch him up and sand things back.  Baron hates being caught and he hates being dremeled, but he's gotten a lot better about it and doesn't yell so much.

And why is that split his salvation?  Because it means he stays here.  With a beak like that, his chances of becoming a nice stew are virtually 100% if I give him to a neighbor.  So Baron waits patiently, in the cosiest, cushiest spot in the barn.  One of these days Elwood's arthritic feet will start to get the better of him, and he'll get retired to a sunny pen in the south pasture like the one his brother has.  And Baron will get his turn as leader.
Baron at six months old.  He's shy about turning
his covered eye towards the camera.