(A story from days gone by.)
The on-island Yoga class was gathering round and about to start. Entering into the chit chat, I had announced that we had bought Roland’s chickens. Roland was a Swiss itinerant carpenter. We had given Roland his very first paying job on the island. He was also a pretty popular guy.
Before taking his leave from the island, Roland had made plans to hold a garage sale before he moved across Canada with his family. I had casually mentioned to him that if he wasn’t able to sell his chickens I would purchase them. Roland said, “Great, my rooster is very manly!”, gesticulating to his own flexed and muscular arm. Well, the chickens didn’t sell. I got the phone call the next day and shelled out for Roland’s chickens. “Could we pick them up promptly?” he asked.
Imagine my surprise when the Yoga teacher chimed in to my announcement and said “You bought Roland’s chickens?” She added, with dramatic incredulity, a gasp of air, “Roland’s rooster attacks my kids every time we go there, nobody at that sale would touch them!”
As I was off-island at the time, my beloved had gone and picked up the chickens. I couldn’t wait to get home to see them. The rooster was a shiny feathered Rhode Island Red, and yes he appeared very manly. After admiring him, I turned to inspect the rest of the flock of six hens, bending over to say hello to the girls. I heard a loud whirring and flapping behind me. The backside of my jeans experienced two jabs of pain followed by a third severe blow. That son of a rooster had lodged his spurs in the back of each of my thighs, latching on at a very high vantage point. Before I could do anything to shake him off, he had delivered a tremendous wallop to the back of my spine with his beak. I learned then and there, never, ever to turn my back on him. I ran up the path to home and announced the rooster’s new name – “Roland”.
Roland and I came to live in a state of semi-détente. Not turning my back on him seemed to prevent most misadventures with only the occasional attempt at flapping and taking a run at me. I’d usually have time enough to do the scoop with a garden boot and him send him airborne in another direction. That seemed to give us each respite for a week or two at a time.
The next casualty was Craig, who helped out part time on the farm. “What an SOB!”, Craig cried out. “I bent over to pick something up in the barn and he must have flown 25 feet! He latched onto my pant legs and gave me a mighty whack on the bum.” Poor Craig had hard time to sit down for the next couple of days.
After that incident a warning was given to all visitors about possible rooster attacks. Interestingly my husband Zbigniew never seemed to have any problems with Roland the rooster. I always suspected that he and the rooster had early on “established” who was boss, you know the old farmer’s way. They had created their man to man understanding. I also suspected this might have involved a big stick and some seeing of stars.
Naturally as farmers we are often on the receiving end of advice. “I can tell you what the problem with your rooster is” announced Alfred. Alfred is an older bachelor that regularly stops by for tea and cookies. “Get him more wives and he’ll slow down!” Alfred grew up on a farm in Bavaria and we valued his expertise so we started looking for extra hens. At that time we couldn’t find any heritage farm hens for sale so we ended up with six point-of-lay hens (just old enough to lay eggs) from a commercial distributor on Vancouver Island. They were sad little things having had their top beak cauterized to prevent pecking. They were produced and destined for the factory egg barns.
A normal day on the farm involves our hens bursting out of the coop door to start their day in search of bugs and worms. But it was not to be so for these new ones. Not only they would stay in all day, inside the coop, but they also dropped their eggs under the roost instead of in the egg boxes. We were puzzled at how to deal with these “not normal” hens. On the third day of this, Zbigniew heard some rather strange noises coming from inside the coop. As he look closer through the window he saw Roland sitting in an egg box with his long tail bent over. Strange hen noises were coming from Roland, almost as if he was talking and instructing the new hens. What followed was really amazing to watch. First Roland left the coop and all the new hens followed him out for the first time. Once on the ground Roland started to scratch the dirt and pointed out worms to the new ladies. The next day all the new hens laid eggs properly in the egg boxes. A few days later we witnessed Roland protecting his flock from an attack by a pack of ravens. Zbigniew knew he had a very special rooster on his farm and a great friendship was to develop between the two of them.
Lassa, our farm dog, was also to become part of Roland’s inner circle. When she had her back turned, she too became a recipient of the first of many great rooster attacks.
It became a game with Roland always being the instigator and Lassa being the ever willing partner. There could be easily twenty fly ups by Roland and feigned lunging responses back by Lassa. Between the two of them it was an amazing and thrilling sight. This was an awesome ritual on the farm that we would get to revisit time and time again. We could actually watch Roland going and looking for Lassa to mix things up when the mood struck him or if he took exception to Lassa herding his hens away from our patio. Lassa’s thick coat would prevent any blows from landing. In reality Roland’s sparring was harmless to her and Lassa could easily have killed Roland. But she knew he was a member of the family. And truth be told they both equally enjoyed ‘the game’.
Around that time, we would have “WWOOFers” – “Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms” helpers. They are mostly young adults who stay on farms in exchange for room and board, giving help with farm work for several hours a day. Most of these volunteer guests were international and we truly enjoyed their stays.
One of our favorite WWOOFers was Sandra, a legal assistant from Berlin. Every morning Sandra would be up early with a cup of coffee writing a diary. She had grown up on a farm in northern Germany and she told us that staying on our farm was like a trip back to her childhood. “I have never seen animals so happy as yours anywhere before,” said Sandra. “It must be the freedom and loving care you provide them,” adding emphasis with her cute German accent.
One day at the dinner table Sandra made a profound statement. She said “I know that Zbigniew likes to brag about Roland but I think that his rooster is a cheater!” There was total silence as we waited for the other shoe to drop. “Today”, continued Sandra, “as I was weeding in the garden, Roland was hanging around. But he didn’t bother me, I had my stick with me just in case.” She added, “After a while I could see he was totally bored and he started to scratch at the dirt and he made a large hole in no time. And then he made this noise that chickens make when they find a worm. But when I looked from above I could see there was nothing in there!” She continued, “Soon a hen ran up from nearby and as she put her head down in the hole to look, Roland jumped her. And that’s cheating alright!” “It only proves how intelligent he is,” said Zbigniew.
It soon became a summer tradition that both my parents would visit our farm. My parents had both grown up during the depression years and on farms on the Prairies. Like many of their peers they couldn’t wait to leave farm life behind – forever. Their best man at their fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration told us, “I’ve seen enough of horses’ asses!” So when we had announced to them our plans to move from Calgary to a remote island on the west coast and start a farm, the response had been far less than enthusiastic. But, in time, they grew to enjoy the farm and their visits.
After my dad had passed away, my mom would come alone. Although she would never admit it, one could see her enjoying farm visits and the animals more and more.
Extra precautions were taken in advance of her next visit because of Roland. The mobile chicken coop was moved to a fenced area away from the farmhouse and a proper gate was installed. She was warned about Roland and told to admire the chickens from outside the fence only. On the second day of mom’s visit, as I was busy with work and Zbigniew was himself repairing equipment in the machine garage, mom decided to go on a farm tour by herself. As she got to the chicken area she took a look around making sure nobody was watching her and then she opened the forbidden gate. After all, she grew up on a farm and some silly rooster was not going stop her from a proper inspection. Zbigniew knew there was trouble when he heard a high pitched whoop coming from his mother-in-law, “You coward, you attacked from behind!” As he ran to investigate he saw his mother-in-law with her back to the chicken coop holding a cane in both hands and fighting off Roland. Roland was not giving up so Zbigniew intervened and walked her home to the safety of the farmhouse. Visibly shaken, mom admitted she should have listened to the warnings about that “blankety-blank” rooster.
Lying in bed that night, I heard a quiet voice. “Darling,” said Zbigniew, “I decided to pardon Roland for life; no matter what he does we are not going to eat him.”
But a long life would not, and could not, be in the cards for Roland. In addition to the daily duels with Lassa he would constantly have real fights with other animals, including the younger rooster. Things started to wear out on him and he was injuring his feet with all his fighting. Zbigniew would feed him separate from the flock, underneath the chicken coop, and the injuries would heal. In time however recovery would take longer. And then one summer day Zbigniew heard Roland’s desperate cry for help coming from under the chicken coop. As Zbigniew rushed in to help he saw Roland being viciously beaten by the younger rooster. After pulling Roland out and inspecting his dislocated foot and injuries he knew there was nothing he could do to save him this time. He put Roland out of his misery and took Roland’s body to the spot where we had buried our old dog Taiga. He dug a hole and carefully laid the old warrior down and before covering him with dirt, he stood to contemplate. There stood, by now, the seasoned farmer with teary eyes saying good bye to his beloved friend.
But life on the farm goes on and the rooster that mortally wounded Roland became the new leader of the flock. I must confess that he was my favorite. He was strikingly different in his looks from the other boys. He had beautiful golden bronze feathers and that is why I named him Zeus. I hadn’t anticipated at that time that he would follow in Zeus’ character and be the defeat of his own father.
We’re now on our sixth rooster since the days of Roland and Zeus and we bring in a new rooster to replenish the farm flock every other year. We kept one of the boys from this year’s crop of chicks. He seems to be getting along fine. The week that he managed that first attempt at an awkward first crow, I thought I heard a ghost from a rooster past. The next morning while he followed me with the bucket of hen scratch, I heard a familiar flutter and flapping of wings. Whoosh, whack and there I got it, right on the back of the thigh. A chip off the old ancestral block! And I laughed all the way home.