The Roving Rototiller

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hello, Quercus

Chickens have a tendency to multiply.  As I've commented before, it's awfully easy to end up with a rooster, especially if you are soft-hearted (in extreme cases like mine, perhaps that would be soft-headed).  But there's something funny about a flock of chickens that makes it behave like a very particular black hole.  It exerts a mysterious pull that sucks in new chickens from the doggondest places.

There's a little town near my old workplace that has chosen a rather unusual distinguishing characteristic:  its feral chicken population.  (As with feral cats, the term is strangely apt.  Officially, "feral chickens" refers to birds foraging and living successfully within the town, without human intervention.  It does not mean bands of poultry hoodlums roving the streets and terrorizing the populace . . . but that depends on who you talk to.)  The town points to its proud farming history, and traces its current feral flock of about 200 back three decades to a founding stock of one rooster and three hens that were allowed to roam.  Since then the “bloodline” has been augmented by wandering birds and some outright escapees from backyard flocks, bringing in some startling and intriguing colors and shapes.  (Crele gene on a White Leghorn base with red and black patches and some Japanese Bantam thrown in?)  The birds wander all around the center of town, stopping traffic and even soliciting scraps from restaurant-goers sitting at outdoor tables.  Everybody loves those chickens, or if they don’t, they keep very quiet about it.

So back in early December of 2009, during a vicious cold snap that brought snow to much of the area, I was practicing in a small-animal/exotics hospital that also takes in wildlife.  Late in the morning, the phone rang.  The receptionist covered the mouthpiece with her hand and waved at me. 

"Can you take another chicken?"

“Sure.”  (Never mind that at that point we had over sixty birds.)  “Injured?”

“No, the hospital down the street says somebody has an orphaned chick.”

I glanced at the black sky outside, treetops whipping in the icy wind.  “Weird.  Okay, send it over.”

Over the next fifteen minutes or so I steadily upped the age of the bird in my mind’s eye, and messed with its species.  No hen in its right mind would brood at this time of year, and the feed stores don't carry chicks during winter, so what could this thing be?  Chickens are pretty unmistakable, but perhaps somebody had found a young duck?  Maybe a gosling?  Or no, this would be somebody’s end-of-summer feed-barn-clearance-sale chick, some poor leftover Rhode Island rooster on gangly legs and with no down left even on top of its head, only peeping because its voice hadn’t settled yet.  Probably they lived in an area not zoned for chickens, and someone had complained.  Yup.  Undoubtedly.

I happened to be up front when the lady carrying the very small box arrived.  "I found a chick,"  she said hesitantly.

Good grief, did she have a sparrow in there?

“Well, you’ve come to the right place!”  the receptionist said encouragingly.  I leaned over the box as the lady raised the lid.

Poing.  The tiny ball of brown fluff popped its head up, squinting in the light.  “Peep,”  it said miserably.  The egg tooth on the end of its beak sparkled briefly.

“I work in the Old Town,”  the woman explained,  “and I was walking out to my car when I heard peeping, and there he was standing in the driveway crying his eyes out.  I looked everywhere for the mother but I couldn’t find her.  I can’t raise him, he’ll never make it . . . .”

She needn’t have worried.  I already had the bird in my hands.  The chick was uninjured but quite cold; I would have taken him in even if he’d been missing a leg.  The fact that he was alive at all was something of a between-holidays miracle.  At two days old, as witnessed by that egg tooth, no chick could be expected to survive longer than half an hour in the frigid, rainy weather outside.  For that matter, his siblings would be in some trouble even with their mother’s care, but there was nothing I could do about them.

Fortunately, I still had some stale chick feed sitting on the shelf over my desk.  We set the little squirt up in a tank with a heating pad, a rice bag, a heat lamp, and the requisite feather duster.  Within half an hour the bird had recovered enough to start shouting his abandonment to the entire building.  But to our surprise, once he got a good look at the people moving around the room, he settled down and began to eat.  Humans, apparently, were his new flock.

Throughout the next few months, the chick grew and thrived at our house, living in a homemade brooder on top of the washing machine.  I was annoyed but unsurprised when he broke with a rather snippish strain of coccidia at his third week.  It was resistant to the coccidiostat in his feed and the lab never did get it properly typed, but the chick bulled his way through it without so much as a dip in appetite.  One of the more unusual things about him was the fact that after that first day, he never cried.  Generally a solitary chick is an extremely unhappy bird, and will peep and call incessantly.  This kid chirruped and talked to himself, but not once did we hear the "peep-peep-peep-PEEP-PEEP!" of a lonely chick.  In the evenings he watched as we brought in Uncle Hoppy and Auntie Sonar, who also sleep in the laundry room, and in the mornings he would watch unperturbed as they were carried outside.  He was a remarkably self-possessed little fellow.  We named him Quercus, Quirk for short.

Quercus sitting on his feather duster

Since then, Quercus has grown into a remarkably handsome rooster, smallish and compact with a single comb and bright orange eyes.  He has orange and yellow hackles and saddle feathers, red shoulders, orange chest and belly, green legs, a black tail, and a little black striping and spangling.  He crows the first three bars of "Pennsylvania 6-5000," for some reason.  Having been hand-raised his entire life, he is extremely tame towards my husband and myself; matter of fact, I had had some anxiety about that, because he is so used to humans that he isn't afraid.  He did indeed go through the typical young-rooster-being-a-jerk phase, but it didn't last:  after a little trial and error, he learned what  "Stop that!"  means and, rather amazingly, he listens.  He spends his days in a chicken tractor on the lawn, yelling back and forth at Uncle Hoppy and the pair of Icelandics in the side yard, and every evening comes out of his hut to be taken indoors and put to bed in the laundry room.

So, another rooster has found his way into our home, and this one a real character.  I think we were both lucky.

Grumpily defending his pen from the camera

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