a love letter to roosters!


roosters.  do you love them or do you hate them?  i personally love roosters, but i realize i am probably in the minority.  well, i love a rooster.  one at a time is all i (and my neighbors) can take.  at this rare, and probably short-lived moment in time, we are lucky enough to have just one glorious, well-behaved rooster who crows so beautifully at the break of dawn.  one rooster, that is our ideal, but not our norm.

in 10+ years of raising chickens, i have accidentally had more than one rooster on far too many occasions.  four was our max.  okay, well, actually 16 was our max.  16 roosters.  how did this happen?  and a better question yet, what would i do about it?

up until recently, it has been quite a quandary for me to deal with my extra roosters.  (if you read my last blog below, you will realize why it is not such a quandary for me any longer).  since they arrived early morning at my post office in an overnight box from iowa, i have been their stand-in mommy in this world, the person here to care for them, to nurture them, to help them grown and thrive.  so, i do feel responsible to help ensure that they have a fair opportunity for a happy little chicken life.  but since i really only want one rooster, the others will have to go lead their happy little chicken lives elsewhere.  but where?  how about your house?

at first i tried to sell my extra roosters to nice people offering good homes.  it is not an easy endeavor to sell a rooster, probably because there are so many people out there who are trying to give them away, and fewer people out there who are looking for a good, healthy rooster, except for the cock fighters, they always call.   hens, people want hens.  hens are fairly quite, they don't require much work, and they give fresh eggs.  they are a better gig than dogs in many ways, and certainly a better gig than roosters.  why would anyone want a rooster?  well, let me tell you some of the reasons why i love my rooster(s).

roosters are actually interesting and useful creatures.  in the useful column, 1. they do a great job of protecting their flock from all types of predators.  2. a hen doesn't need a rooster to lay an egg, but a hen does need a rooster to help fertilize a little clutch of eggs into a bunch of fluffy chicks.  3.  although chicken lovin' does look more like rape to me than not, i know it isn't and the hens are actually happier when they have a rooster around.  4. roosters crow.  this one goes in the pros list for some, and in the cons list for others.  i love to ease out of sleep and into my morning with the sound of a rooster in the background, even if that sound does start at 3am some mornings, or any hour of the day or night for that matter.  if you are not use to having a rooster crowing as part of your early morning element, it can be quite shocking at first.  because i am familiar with hearing our rooster crow in the morning, i really only hear it on some far away level that seeps in slowly.  house guests and new neighbors often report a different experience though.

on to the interesting column...1. roosters dance.  when they find food for their hens, they dance around it to call the hens over.  sometimes this is just a guise to get lovin', but the hens always fall for it.  2. when a "teenage" rooster first starts to discover his crow, it counts for at least a couple of weeks of entertainment for me.  we sit in our kitchen and giggle while listening to our roosters, out back in the coop, trying on their new manly voices.  it takes practice to perfect a sturdy crow.

are you feeling the love for roosters yet?  i do have an underlying motive in pointing out to you how wonderful having a rooster can be.  i know at some point in the not-so-distant future, i will place my order for a bunch of hens, and one day not long after, while sitting in my kitchen, i will hear one of those teenage "hens" start to try on their crow, and i will realize that someone, somewhere in iowa has made a mistake on my order, and once again i will find myself with more than my one, ideal rooster.  he said he wants to come and live at your house.  my neighbors think that sounds like an excellent plan.  call me, he's free to a good home.

appreciating having made it to the vernal equinox


today, happily, is the vernal equinox.  it seemed like it was a really long and difficult winter.  not as bad as the kind i use to struggle through growing up in the great lakes region of pennsylvania, but still difficult by our new mexican, high desert, winter standards. 

it has been in the 70's and sunny this past week in march, the week my kids enjoyed their spring break from school.  it is early morning, and i just came in from sitting in the chicken coop with my cup of coffee watching the chickens peck and scratch and sunbathe and drink water.  it is one of my favorite ways to spend as much of the morning as i can steal away from the rest of my responsibilities.  i was sitting on the edge of the range feeder enjoying my coffee and feeling thankful that all of us, here on my little urban farm, on this beautiful day which began with the setting of the march supermooon, had made it through the winter.  it always amazes me and makes me feel a little shaken.

but actually, not all of us had made it through the winter, and that is part of the natural cycle.  i took some time on this beautiful morning to remember the ones who had not made it through this crazy-cold winter.  

it started in november when i answered my phone early, early one morning to hear the woman at the post office letting me know that my most recent batch of baby chicks had arrived, and they were peeping loudly in her office.  i threw on a jacket and drove down to pick them up, happy to discover they had all arrived alive and perky.  each year i raise a batch of baby chicks in my sunny, warm greenhouse over the winter.  when spring comes i open the door and a lovely, fresh batch of young, healthy hens who are just starting to lay eggs emerges.  i sell these hens to people who are interested in beginning to raising chickens. 

baby chicks, they are fragile creatures.  as the fall and winter weeks went on, i would occasionally find one who couldn't muster enough strength to live to it's chicken adulthood.  those poor little souls get placed at the bottom of my lilac bush to give themselves back to the earth to bloom again as sweet smelling purple flowers come mid april.

we had recently harvested our garden and put the beds to sleep when i signed up for a winter gardening workshop.  our jam was put up, the birdhouse gourds we grew all summer were now cut and set in the shed to dry over winter, the tomatoes and morning glories were a memory.  i hate saying goodbye to my garden in the fall, so i decided to try my hand at growing greens in my gardens beds over the winter.  my husband is an electricain and he bent some pipe for me to use as strong supports for my garden cover.  in went the seeds in late fall, boc choy, mustard greens, red and green oak lettuce.  i didn't hold out much hope for them to make it, it just felt strange to be planting seeds as winter was looming. 

this past winter, for the first time ever, i  ordered some extra chickens to raise as meat birds.  having been vegetarian for over 18 years (up until about 4 years ago), i didn't know if i could harvest them when the time came, my husband bet not.  one of the meat chicken i received was a baby speckled sussex rooster who had not been lucky enough to come into this word with a pair of working feet.  he threw me for a loop.  my nurturing tendencies kicked in and i fell in love with him while hand raising him.  he was my karma for even thinking about slaughtering my chickens.  i knew most farmers would have immediately "culled" him from their flock.  instead, i made little paddles for his feet to help him walk.  i would put him out in the greenhouse if the day was warm enough, and then bring him into the laundry room at night.  he couldn't huddle up and keep warm with the other chickens because they would peck him, so he needed to be separated from the rest of the flock. 

february came, my least favorite, darkest, coldest month of the winter season.  february 2nd, my husbands birthday, began a snap of record-breaking freezing temps.  new mexico ran out of natural gas.  yes, you read that correctly, our state ran out of natural gas.  many people in taos, santa fe and other small new mexican towns and villages were without natural gas to heat their homes for days.  fortunately, many of those folks are resourceful enough to heat their homes through other, more traditional  methods, but not all of them were set up to go without gas for heat.  i drained what little winter energy i had left worrying about all the people and also the animals, wild or domesticated, who might not make it through those cold nights.  my neighbor left their small dog out in temps that would have killed most unprotected creatures.  i woke up to the small dog's last-gasp efforts to yelp for it's owner. she finally brought it in once she saw me trying to get her attention across the gate in the 6.30am dark of the morning.  somehow the little dog survived.  all the while through the extreme cold, my greens were growing bigger each time i peaked under the cover of my winter garden, and my birdhouse gourds were tucked in the dark shed, drying.

my little rooster with the cardboard paddle feet made it through that cold snap, although he was stuck in the laundry room for days until it warmed up enough for him to go back out into his bigger pen in the greenhouse.  i had visions of him napping in the sun come spring and summer.  amazingly, all of my chickens, young and old, made it through the cold snap, although i am sure not comfortably.  they were huddled up together in the greenhouse with the heat lamps blazing.  my dogs made it through, tucked warmly into bed with my kids, unaware of any other type of dog life.  

the cold snap broke, the weather turned warmer, but it was still winter in new mexico.  my little rooster with the paddle feet had good days when he could actually get up and walk, and bad days when he would lay on his breastbone and could not really figure out how to get his feet under him.  i really wasn't sure i was doing the right thing by him.  his worst was a day when he got wet in the water and then he got stuck in a draft.  it was a rare day when i was not here to check on him every few hours.  he didn't make it through that day and he is burried out under the cottonwood tree in my front yard.

my other chickens grew up and started to reveal their gender.  i had way more roosters than i had ordered.  roosters are not like puppies, it's not so easy to just give them away.  i once gave away one of my extra roosters to a nice-seeming couple, but later saw him on the news in a story of a busted cock fighting ring.  i would rather harvest them humanely, than have them go through that torture.  my friend, wendy, had offered to teach me how to harvest them.  i decided this was the year to learn. 

wendy and i, and our husbands, and even our kids (except the vegetarian ones), spent a sunny, warm late spring day harvesting my extra roosters.  i woke up early that morning before everyone arrived, sat in the coop drinking my coffee, and watched them enjoy their last beautiful morning on this earth.

even though wendy is skilled in the most humane ways of ending a chickens life (i wouldn't expect any less of her), it was still intense and exhausting for all involved, including the humans.  i wasn't sure i would be able to do it when it was my turn, but i did.  i took the life of four roosters that day.  at the end of the day, i realized i felt better about harvesting my hand-raised chickens than i would about buying a cheap rotisserie chicken who had lived a miserable factory-farmed life.  i really hate factory farms more than just about anything.  even though i normally buy meat from a humane, local farm/butcher, this experience made me feel like i should only eat the meat i grow, and no more.

so, on this beautiful first official morning of spring, when my winter garden has mostly been consumed (what's left is already starting to bolt), my gourds are dry and ready to paint, and my freezer is full of fresh, home grown meat, i am looking around at all of us who are left here on my little urban farm, and i feel a lot of love for them.  but even more so, i feel a lot of love and i pay my respects for the ones we lost over the winter, even, and maybe especially, the ones we lost to our own hands.

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