Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sunday Story: Great Rooster Round-Up by Bruce Mero

The Great Rooster Round-up

By Bruce H. Mero

Our vegetable garden has always been grown organically. Since moving to the farm in the late 70s, we’ve used animal manures and compost to further enrich our already incredible soil, companion plantings to discourage pests and applications of plant-based compounds such as Rotenone and Pyrethrum to keep bugs from damaging our growing vegetables. We’ve poured beer into shallow pans for the slugs to get drunk on and hand-picked Cabbage worms. We’ve encouraged beneficial insects, provided shelters for toads and tolerated spiders and snakes. Anything that ate aphids, cutworms and caterpillars was welcome in the veggie patch. For a time, that included free-ranging our chickens and ducks among the rows to eat the bugs and worms. Poultry is really very efficient keeping pests out of the vegetables if one is tolerant of an occasional missing leaf on the lettuce and the incessant dirt-scratching that chickens love to do. For us the benefits outweighed the negatives. That is, until we went a bit overboard with the chicken population. Then it became a problem. Here’s how the story unfolded:

Gretchen ran across the farmyard, stopping occasionally and changing directions to avoid the half- dozen cockfights underway between the chicken coop and the back porch. 

“Enough”, she proclaimed after reaching the relative safety of the back porch, “We have to do something about all of those roosters”.

Indeed, I had reached a similar conclusion a couple of weeks ago, but I kept my opinion to myself knowing she would soon come to see the futility of keeping so many fighting birds. The Bantam roosters given her by our friend Jaime a couple of months ago had once been considered pets. Reaching the conclusion that they now had to go was a milestone.

Jamie worked for a local veterinarian who was attempting to breed a docile, non-aggressive Bantam rooster. These particular birds are notorious for their fighting ability and often used where cockfighting is a spectator sport and upon which large sums of money are wagered. Jamie’s boss was making progress, or so he claimed, but those roosters that were hatched which did not fill the bill as docile required early removal from the gene pool.  Removal generally meant a call to a local butcher, but Jamie felt sorry for the latest batch of culls and asked if we might add a few new birds to our flock of chickens until she was able to take them off our hands. A “few” turned out to be nearly three dozen birds; all but a couple of them were roosters. They were fantastically beautiful birds; a riot of colors with their long, red neck feathers accented against golden breast feathers and long, arching tails of iridescent blue and brown. The several hens that came with the flock had already hatched clutches of eggs and fuzzy baby chickens scooted around the yard pecking at insects. They were striking birds, but in spite of the good Doctor’s intentions, the cocks were wicked fighters. Each had long spurs on the back of their legs and each had an ugly disposition. Within seconds of their release into our chicken coop, cockfights broke out. Our flock of domesticated Rhode Island Red hens all bellowed complaints and rushed out of the coop. Dust and feathers flew everywhere. Roosters flew at each other, spurs kicking. The water can fell over, then the grain feeder. The birds screamed at one another. We evacuated.  It was hours before things settled down, and only after most of the roosters had discovered the door to the chicken yard, left the coop and flown over the fence. 

The Bantams now free-ranged the farm. Most kept close to the chicken coop where they could pick-up a quick meal when grain was tossed in a few places for them to eat. Some headed for the back forty where they foraged on whatever they could find. Many found the tender shoots in the vegetable garden irresistible and the new garden was quickly in tatters. The roosters paired-off to fight as often as they could and squawked and kicked and disrupted the tranquility of the farm continually. They were funny to watch, actually, though they were deadly serious when they crouched, beak-to-beak with a rival. Neck feathers would flair, muscles would tense and they would leap at each other, flailing spurs ripping feathers from one another. A furious battle would ensue for a few seconds, the birds would part slightly for a couple of seconds and the next round would begin. Sometimes they would be several feet off the ground with wings flapping, spurs kicking and feathers and dust flying; all the time squawking and nearby chicken observers sounding their disapproval. This scenario would repeat a half dozen times or more before one would turn and run off, leaving the other the victor. Of course, the winner would crow about how great he was and then calm would return to the yard until the next confrontation started. Over and over this was repeated. From a distance it was safe. Step into the field of battle, however and one took one’s chances. Our Irish setter and both cats had been victimized by the roosters so many times that they had learned the warning signs and stayed clear of the combatants. Human forays into the yard to collect eggs or scatter feed were an adventure and one usually carried a weapon for self-defense. We hung an old ski pole on the back porch for just such a purpose, but shovels, pitch forks or lawn rakes were sometimes substituted. Inevitably we would step between birds just as they were squaring off, spitting epithets at one another and need defensive maneuvers to get away without harm as they flew at each other. 

One afternoon I stepped into the fenced yard where the domesticated chickens were kept to drop a handful of weeds I’d just pulled from the garden. Six feet into the space, I realized that one of the particularly nasty Bantams was inside looking for a fight. He stared at me and crouched. Recognizing the signs of impending trouble, I stepped back towards the gate. I was without defense and needed to escape. Keeping an eye on the rooster I took one more backward step and reached for the gate. The rooster’s neck feathers flared. I heard a snap and a giggle from behind me. My daughter, Mitra had locked me into the fenced yard. The rooster leaped and hit me in the chest knocking me back into the fence. Mitra laughed. The bird leaped at me again. This time I kicked at him and connected with his chest and sent him tumbling backward. Mitra roared. She was having great fun.

“Let me out of here,” I scolded.

She laughed. The rooster leaped at me again and again my sneaker-clad foot connected with his chest and sent him tumbling back. Again he charged and I kicked him back, all the time fumbling with the latch on the gate to escape from the yard. He flew at me and I parried. Again and again the bird leaped in my direction. With each encounter, Mitra laughed out loud. Finally I succeeded opening the gate and I made my retreat. The Bantam charged the gate, spurs flailing, but I was now beyond his reach. He charged the fence a couple more times, then settled back and gave his victory crow. The domestic birds, who had been cowering in the margins, emerged and congratulated the Bantam on his accomplishments. Mitra was doubled over with laughter. Tears were running down her cheeks. I started laughing, also. It was a comical situation. I outweighed that bird by 170 pounds, but he had me against the ropes. He had no fear. I had retreated as the vanquished.

Playfully I grabbed Mitra and picked her off the ground. She screeched with delight as I carried her, upside-down, toward the house. The Bantam rooster crowed as we departed. Mitra wiggled out of my grasp and ran to the house to tell her mother of the fun we’d just had.

So, after two months of living with the continual cacophony in the farm yard, Gretchen made a phone call to Jamie and set a date for her to pick-up her birds. Later that morning, Jamie called back and she and Gretchen talked a while. When she got off the phone she said that Jamie’s husband had vetoed the idea of taking the chickens, but he was agreeable to butcher the whole lot and split the bounty with us. A date was set. After that our attitudes towards the birds changed. Sometimes we felt sorry for them, knowing their fate; sometimes no sorrow, just relief that the madness was soon going to end and tranquility might return to the farm.

Judgment day arrived. The Benson van pulled into the yard at mid-morning, excited daughters Donna and Rachel spilling from the rear door. They’d been told we were going to catch chickens and they were ready for the chase. We adults shared a cup of coffee and discussed the plan for the day. Dan and I would dispatch the birds; Jamie and Gretchen would do the feather plucking and then back to the men for eviscerating. We had a fire started and a huge pot of water boiling to dip the birds in to loosen the feathers. Dan and I chose a stump in the back yard as the execution block. The kids were turned loose to bring us our first victims.  Donna and Rachel each caught a bird and raced them over to us. Dan and I each took a bird.

“Now what happens,” asked Rachel? She was smiling ear to ear with pride for having captured the first chicken.

I looked at Dan. He confessed to me that he told each of the girls about catching chickens, but had stopped the discussion at that point. He’d not told them any more. What happened next, of course, was not something either of the girls was expecting and it ended their chicken catching activities immediately. Both were flabbergasted. One of them screamed, both cried and ran to their mother. Jamie walked them away. Both were sobbing as they went into the house. She returned in a half-hour without the girls. They’d had quite enough.

Mitra, on the other hand was busy grabbing the roosters and bringing them to the chopping block, sometimes two at a time. She had been under no allusions about the day’s activity. She’d been harassed enough over the last couple of months by the fighting of the birds and was looking forward to a return to tranquility in the yard as much as we were. During the past few days, she’d been busy finding possible rooster hiding places around the yard and kept us moving along with her catches.

The process took us a couple of hours. We’d dispatched, plucked and cleaned 22 birds by noon. All were cooling down in a tub of ice in the shade near the house. There was, still, a half-dozen or so live roosters remaining, but they were now wary enough to keep their distance from Mitra. She was unable to catch any more of them. It was time for a break. Dan and I cleaned-up the yard while the girls made sandwiches for lunch. Donna and Rachel had calmed down by then, but refused lunch. They both wandered past the tub of ice, talking to each other in quiet tones. The rest of us ate our sandwiches in the shade of the Maple tree in the front yard. Both Mitra and her mother remarked on how quiet things were in the back yard. Dan and I drank beers, several of them. A conversation ensued and more beers were consumed, the ladies joining the men to toast two-freezers full of chickens. The toast was punctuated by a defiant rooster call from the roof of the chicken coop and our party was brought back to the realization that the day’s task was not complete. There were more birds to process. We’d need another method, however, to catch the remaining roosters.

I brought my ancient .22 rifle and a box of shells outside to the back porch and for the next hour Dan and I sat in lawn chairs with our feet on the rail, drank beer and picked-off the remaining birds one by one as they appeared. I was the better shooter, by far. Dan claimed he wasn’t used to the rifle and missed the birds continually. I think he drank far too many beers. In any case, by the end of the afternoon we’d managed to get six more roosters into the tub of ice and two in a pot on the stove in the kitchen. We’d dine on fresh chicken for dinner...or so we’d thought.

It didn’t happen. We called out for pizza.

After boiling for over two hours on the stove the chickens were not cooked. They were still too tough to stick a fork into after another hour. We ate pizza and drank beer until 10:00. After six hours of boiling we were able to taste the chicken for the first time. It was like chewing on hot inner tubes. It smelled and tasted like chicken, but it would take a lot more boiling to make it edible. Our Irish Setter ate those two chickens that night.

It took Gretchen, Mitra and I nearly two years to finish the 14 chickens we’d put into the freezer from that endeavor. Stewing them for eight hours seemed to be enough cooking to make them into food, though it took cooking two of them at a time to make a meal for the three of us. The roosters were very small; very small and very tough.

Thus is the tale of the great rooster round-up. We ended-up with two surviving Bantam roosters after that day. Both died of old age years later. Until then they roamed the farm at will, including the vegetable garden where they were content to scratch for bugs unless the other appeared. They would fight like the dickens when they encountered each other. We put up with them. Getting rid of them just wasn’t worth the effort.


  1. Oh that is hilarious!! I really dont like bantams!! and i would have had the pizza too!!

  2. You obviously had a wicked streak as a child Mitra!
    Alison xx

  3. My goodness those roosters sound worse than having dogs! (NOT a dog person myself!!)


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