Old Man Henry is our geriatric rooster. He is mangy and decrepit. The feathers on his head are just quill stubble. He’s half blind, bow-legged, and he pauses strangely after every step. On certain misty mornings, when the light is right, he looks as though he’s stepped out of some twisted chicken fancier’s version of Dawn of the Dead.
Yet this unlikely old man is a Nobel Peace Prize winner among poultry. And it is by peacekeeping that he earns his keep.
When I brought home our first two young chickens nine months ago – the sisters Henrietta and Ethel – I had no plans to get a rooster. I didn’t want to deal with baby chicks hatching left and right, and I had nightmarish visions of cracking open an egg for breakfast to find a half-formed fetus inside.
Henrietta and Ethel are sizable chickens, both Light Sussex. They’re white with a black ring around their necks. They eat voraciously, and very quickly after arriving they grew thick and plump. CJ began calling them ‘the fat English ladies.’
They lived together in peace for all of two days. Then they turned their backs on sisterly love and started doing what chickens do. They began the Battle for Ultimate Chicken Supremacy.
It was bizarre. In the middle of pecking peacefully, suddenly one would lift her head and run full speed straight at the other. Then they’d both start squawking, stretching out their necks to full height, and flapping their wings wildly. Imagine two sumo wrestlers in chicken suits, trying to push each other over, and you get the picture.
CJ and I watched all this with great curiosity, wondering which of the fat English ladies would win the contest and become Queen of the Whole Wide Coop.
Who needs reality TV when you’ve got chickens?
Aracaunas in the ring
Shortly after the infighting started, we got our two Lavendar Aracauna – Natasha and Francoise. They have an upright, noble posture and tufted feathers on their heads. They’re a grey-colored South American breed, much smaller than the Light Sussex. Yet what they lack in size they seem to make up for with a kind of haughty demeanor.
The fat English ladies did not like the aristocratic South Americans at all.
Suddenly Henrietta and Ethel were brought back together by their common foe. You could almost hear them whispering to each other over by the water dispenser in the corner, “Truce, sister. United we stand. Divided we fall. Now let’s kick their puny South American asses.”
The gloves were on, and the beaks were out. The Great Chook House Race War had begun.
The fat English ladies used their size to their advantage. They bullied and harassed. They chased. They pecked. Then, in a clever tactical move, they refused to let the invading South Americans eat.
Every time the Araucanas tried to get at the chicken feed, the Light Sussex would chase them away. It happened over and over, even when the Light Sussex themselves were not actually eating. Eventually those poor South Americans resigned themselves to taking food only by stealth, when the enemy’s back was turned.
The fat English ladies were winning the war. You could see them practically high-fiving each other back in their corner, where they had hatched all those wicked plans.
A visit from a neighbor
Around this time our neighbor Suzanne from down the road stopped by. We took her out to see the new chicken run and meet the chooks, and we began talking about how the birds were fighting so much.
“You need a rooster,” she said. Her golden earrings sparkled in the sun and her gumboots glistened with dew.
By then several people had told me we needed a rooster. I wasn’t listening. I was still haunted by visions of half-formed fetuses in my scrambled eggs.
People say that roosters calm hens, make them fight less because the rooster is unquestionably the top bird.
“I don’t know,” I said to Suzanne. “It strikes me as somehow sexist to think that hens need a rooster to keep them in line.”
Suzanne looked at me strangely. “Jared, they’re not human.”
Oh, yeah. Right. Clearly I was forgetting that.
“I have got just the rooster for you,” she said, and she told us about Henry.
Henry’s sad tale
Henry was originally Suzanne’s daughter’s rooster, and he’d been in the family for years. She couldn’t remember his age exactly, but he was old. He’d had hens to keep him company in his younger days, but recently the last hen had died. Of the entire family flock, only Henry remained.
Now he spent all his days alone. Lately he’d begun sleeping right up by the house, just outside the back door. Suzanne would come out and see him there in the morning. She’d been trying to find a home for him for some time, where he could be surrounded by his own kind.
“Nobody wants him,” she said. “Everyone tells me I should turn him into soup, but I just can’t do it. Besides, he’d be tough as old boots.”
I was touched by Henry’s geriatric solitude, but I remained firm. “I’m sorry. We can’t take him. We really don’t want baby chicks.”
Suzanne smiled. “Oh, Henry is far too old to cause you that problem. No worries there.”
That clinched the deal.
We agreed to take him on a trial basis. If he became hen-pecked, or if we decided we didn’t want him for any reason whatsoever, including miraculous impregnation of our hens, she’d take him back.
In hindsight I think Suzanne must have been incredibly happy to get rid of the rooster that wouldn’t die. She went right home that minute and came back with him, along with a bag of his favourite poultry wheat.
Entering the battleground
When she set Henry down in our chicken run, the old man looked around and blinked. All the hens, suddenly struck shy, stood back and watched. Henry took a couple unsteady steps. He saw the young ladies eyeing him. And then a miraculous thing happened.
Henry started to dance.
He held his mangy tail feathers up high, stuck out his wimpy chest, spread out his wings, and did his best ‘I’m a sexy rooster’ strut.
He’s half bantam, which means he’s small – almost half the size of the fat English ladies – and of course he’s incredibly feeble, but that didn’t matter. He was thrilled to suddenly find himself in the middle of a young harem of his very own.
Henry, it turns out, is the poultry equivalent of a dirty old man.
The young ladies continued to watch and Henry, perhaps feeling a little too confident, continued his dance with a somewhat difficult turn. He fell flat on his face. It broke my heart.
The old man was so humiliated, he hasn’t attempted that sexy rooster dance since.
Within a couple days CJ and I noticed that the hens had stopped fighting. Sure, they had their odd pecks at each other here and there, but for the most part they seemed to peacefully co-exist.
A week passed, and then another, and the battles never happened again. The South Americans no longer had to resort to guerrilla tactics to get food. The Great Chook House Race War was over.
To this day Henry has never once been hen-pecked. He’s too crotchety and aggressive for that. While he may be slow, at close range he can still pack a serious peck. From time to time he uses that peck to remind the hens that ‘he still da man’ – even if he is impotent and too old to dance.
He does struggle, and some days are clearly more difficult than others.
Every so often Henrietta and Ethel push him out of the way to get at the special treats I bring. Sometimes his tail feathers drag in the dirt behind him, as though they’re just too heavy to hold up anymore. Once I saw him with a clump of mud stuck on the side of his head.
One day last month he suddenly looked so haggard and so much more decrepit than usual that I was sure he wouldn’t make it to the end of the week.
But he’s still here.
The average lifespan of a chicken is about 8 years, but in extreme cases they’ve been known to live 12 to 15 years. I reckon Henry must be at least 106.
He gets special care. He’s too frail to make it up to the high perches in the chook house to sleep, so I built an especially low senior citizen’s perch just for him out of olive wood.
I’m sure that some day I’ll come out to find him dead. But until then, CJ and I are happy to have him be our peacemaker.
When he does go we’ll bury him under the oak tree near the chicken run, and we’ll remember him fondly, knowing that at least in his final days the old bird was not alone.
This blog post, in an edited form, has become Chapter 16 in my book ‘Moon over Martinborough: How an American city boy became a Kiwi farmer‘, published by Random House New Zealand in June 2013.