Letter from Birdland: We now have two fewer roosters
Thirteen-year-old Mary wouldn't like this letter one bit. Third-grade Mary, whose literary best friends were Fern and Wilber, would get all "where's Papa going with that ax?" Sixteen-year-old Mary would be in tears over this letter, but 22-year-old Mary might begin to understand what a pretty old Mary is writing today.
This weekend, I harvested two roosters. (Calm down, Marys. Let me explain.) I use the word "harvest" deliberately to remind myself of the nature of my relationship to the land and to my flock of chickens. Yes, I do care about them, name them, mourn when a predator makes off with a pullet or a cockerel takes sick.
But really, I'm in it for the eggs. I provide the feed and a safe shelter to roost at night, I train the dogs to protect them from coyotes, foxes, raccoons and opossums. And the flock provides me with fresh eggs.
They never told me whether they think it's a fair bargain, but they do seem content, scratching up grubs in the yard or picking through the compost pile for a tasty morsel.
Those younger Marys would have been fine with my taking their eggs for my custard or to pickle with beets. But when 12-year-old Mary vowed she would not eat any animals, it was a sentimental wish to keep from hurting them. However, young Mary didn't understand how the world worked, or more specifically, a flock of chickens.
In order to get eggs, we don't really need roosters. A hen will lay whether there's a rooster in the neighborhood or not, which is why city rules often restrict backyard flocks to hens only.
No rooster means no crowing to serenade the neighbors, no bullying, but also, less protection for the hens. Now we, too, by buying only day-old pullets (females), could restrict our flock to hens only and enjoy the eggs without any of the aggressive behavior that some of our roosters have.
But somebody's got to raise roosters or else no more chickens, and I confess I like to hatch eggs almost as much as I like to eat them.
Chicken eggs hatch out at about 50 percent pullets and 50 percent cockerels (males), but that is a terrible ratio for a flock. A good ratio (one that leads to a peaceful flock and happy hens) is about one rooster and 20 hens. We have about 6 too many roos.
When you have too many roosters, they fight, and it isn't pretty. They also spend their days chasing down hens, grabbing them by the scruff of their necks and mounting them, pretty much all day long.
With one or two roosters to a couple dozen hens, it's not a big deal, but when the ratio gets close to 1:1, my poor hens end up with no rest and all the feathers scratched off their shoulders and pulled out of the back of their necks.
Not only that, but the roosters start to challenge each other. It's not what you call a peaceable kingdom. Sometimes they even challenge me. I'll be out in the coop to check the nests for eggs or to bring a scoop of food or a bucket of water, and a rooster will sneak up behind me and thump me hard on the back of my leg.
If he uses his spurs (which are like locust thorns on his heel), he can even put a hole in my calf right through my jeans.
I'm pretty good at protecting myself from a bullying roo, but sometimes he does get me. When it gets really bad, I can't even take visitors out to the coop for fear a rooster will injure someone.
All this is why we decided to fix the ratio. I found an auspicious day when I had a large window of time. I consulted the interweb oracle to find the most respectful ritual. I got all my tools set up in the yard, and then I caught the two most problematic roosters.
I thanked them for their lovely crowing and their colorful feathers. I told them goodbye, that we each owe a debt to our Mother Earth. They would pay theirs today; on down the road, I would follow them, paying my own debt.
Meanwhile, they will nurture us with a good pot of stew, and we can take comfort in knowing that they spent all the days they had ranging free around the yard and not in tiny cages in a factory farm. I hope all the young Marys will forgive me.
Range in beauty; crow in peace; blessed be.
Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in all the cycles of life, especially when they circle around her own backyard. You can read more about Birdland and see photos at http://www.letterfrombirdland.blogspot.com. Mary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via snail mail care of this newspaper.