August 9, 2011

A tiny cowpoke and them

You be the judge.
Larry crows.
Sadie scowls.
Billie is sweet.
Sweet Red is sweeter.
Simply Red is confused.
Cornbread Red abides.
And none of them shines in the smarts department.
I can confirm that chickens, sad to say, are pretty dumb, although they have a way to go to match domestic turkeys as true lame brains. While visiting my great-aunt’s horse ranch outside of Tucson many years ago, I had a chat with a commercial turkey farmer across the road. Two things he said stuck in my mind. First, domesticated turkeys are so dumb they’ll stare straight up, in wonder, during downpours and drown. Second, on the same note, if one turkey decides for no conceivable reason to jump into a barrel or other tall container, enough will follow to fill it, suffocating those who went first. It’s a bit of a trial to raise turkeys.
Our chickens so far show no signs of being quite that simple – except Simply Red, or Simple for short. She had been temporarily named Confused Red, for the permanent look of bafflement on her face, but it was too clumsy to keep. The name Simply Red gives her a pop culture reference that’s more acceptable to us than Gaga or Dagmar (look it up, kids), and describes her personality.
Simple always seems to lag a bit behind the others, wandering off aimlessly, then panicking when she turns and sees she is alone. She’ll stand at the top of the ramp, looking into our enclosed chicken run, and stay there as though she’s never seen it before. If we hold out a handful of feed, several of the chickens walk right up and start pecking. Simple approaches slowly, looks at the feed, then up at us, tilting her head to one side then the other, perplexed. I guess she’s our special-needs chicken.  
Sweet Red, I have to admit, is my favorite, and the prettiest of the reds. Even as a chick, she’d hop up on the roost to greet me, stretching as tall as she could. Soon after we moved her and the others from our indoor brood box to their new home outdoors, she hopped up on my forearm while I squatted to get closer to them, and eventually gave her wings one or two good pumps and landed on my shoulder. She purrs and coos when I hold her with one hand, and stroke her neck and back with the other.
Sweet Red
Lord Larry
Larry doesn’t like this much. He’s shifted into full protective mode, and seeing one of his girls lying on her side in my hand just doesn’t sit right. Yesterday, he used his sturdy, oversized beak to zang me a good one on the knuckle. When I flicked him with a fingernail, he backed up, lowered his head and spread his cape feathers wide. He’s stubborn, cantankerous, and sometimes mean enough to chomp down on the comb or neck of a hen that snagged a bug he wanted, or made the mistake of hollowing out a dust bath, wouldn’t you know it, in the very spot he’s chosen for himself. But Larry does an ace job of rounding up the hens when he senses trouble and moving them toward home. He works like a tiny cowpoke. It’s what you want in a rooster.
Like Sweet Red, Billie also was affectionate when she was a chick, and usually rose to greet me in the brood box. She was named for Billie Holiday, who always betrayed a bruised heart in her music and dared you not to love her. Lately, though still one of those that will approach me on her own, Billie’s showing a lot of moxie, standing up to any real or imagined harassment, or just starting trouble to flex her newfound power. We’ve watched her inching up  the pecking order.
Cornbread Red
Sadie, among the hens, is already at the top. She had a comic scowl even as a two-week-old, still has it, and backs it up with bulk. She’s the biggest of the chickens and the most beautiful, with sleek, glossy feathers in the same colors as Billie’s – copper on black – but with more copper and touches of blue, gray, and white in her tail. Although Billie now pretty much holds her own in face-offs with Sadie, the only one that can really back her down is Larry. She’s standoffish and doesn’t like to be held. We’re working on that.  
Finally, there’s Cornbread Red. She never draws attention to herself, but manages at the same time to get what she wants while foraging with the others. She was named for a genial pool hustler with a fearsome talent I once met in a Third Street bar down in Detroit’s notorious Cass Corridor. A street source of mine nudged me in the ribs, nodded in the direction of a redheaded stranger, and whispered, “Man, that’s Cornbread Red. Watch him. You’ll learn something.” Like any good hustler, he didn’t flash his skills until it was time to move in for the kill. He did it his entire life after leaving his sharecropping family in Kentucky and hitting the road to hustle. Some say he was the top money-player of all time. Whether he picked his street name or the name picked him, I think it’s a good handle, possibly unisex, and fits the hen we used to call Regular Red just fine.
That’s the bunch we have. They started as three fluffy red chicks, two blacks, and one white, each small enough to fit in a teacup – except for “big feets” that looked then and now like they belong to something out of prehistory.
There’s a theory, up for argument, that birds descended from dinosaurs. If it were up to me, I’d point to chicken feet – 'nuff said.


  1. Who knew they would all have so much personality? I never knew turkeys were so dumb...I think the chickens have to be a bit smarter.