Knight of the Realm

Buff Orpington“Chickens bond with each other, just as people do.”


While feeding the chickens, I enter a separate pen to check on the baby cockerels. They’re big boys, now—not babies. Each day I study them closely, mentally measuring their bulk against the openings in the chain-link of the main chicken coop.

I grab the closest guy. “Are you too big to slip through the mesh? I’d hate to lose you.”

We exit the small pen together, and the gate closes behind me. Then I put him on the ground inside the main coop.

The cockerel immediately tries to get back into the enclosure with his brothers, pacing back and forth testing the wire fence. His siblings do the same dance on the other side, trying to get to him. They want to be together.

Chickens bond with each other, just as people do. When birds are raised together, like these fellows, they become ‘buddies’—maybe ‘family’ is a better word. Even after they grow up, the adults favor each other’s company.

I notice this behavior more with hens than cocks because, once adolescent hormones kick in, the gentlemen often become rivals and develop some level of aggression toward each other…sometimes toward humans, as well.

Different breeds are more
aggressive than others.

Some roosters are mild mannered while others are bad tempered or even dangerous. My personal experience has been that small breeds of chickens often have a more aggressive nature than do regular-sized breeds.

Bantams, for example, are miniature poultry, often no larger than a pigeon. Mamaw called them ‘banties.’

The hens make faithful mothers and are often used to set and hatch eggs of other chicken breeds that have lost the broody attribute. A banty hen is so dedicated that she might set a clutch of rocks until she died.

Some banty cocks, however, can be aggressive to humans. Mamaw wore scars on the calf of her leg to prove it. When my grandmother was young, an angry rooster attacked her using sharp claws near his feet called ‘spurs.’

My husband talks about some small men being overaggressive to compensate for their size.

Is the small-man complex a
factor in banty nature?

I’ve tangled with surly roosters myself on a few occasions. Several years ago, for example, my aunt and uncle asked me to tend their flock while they were on vacation. These family members owned a number of free-range chickens, including a bantam cock that considered himself on top of the pecking order.

The first day I went alone.

The little guy rushed me right away. Surprised, I grabbed a nearby rake to protect myself, using it as a shield. The soft tines weren’t going to hurt him, and it helped me keep him at a distance while feeding and watering the flock.

The feathered guardsman was defending his hens against an intruder. This was his job, but the hostile advances made it difficult for me to do mine. He followed me around, waiting for an opportunity to jump, fly, and attack.

When I became distracted with a task, the angry animal seized the chance to rush me. I heard a muffled flurry of feathers in flight. Then I looked up to see a blur of wings, sharp claws, and flying dust.

This fellow was a tiny thing, but when he stretched his wings out to their full breadth, he took up a lot more space than people might imagine. Muscle and bad attitude compensated for the bird’s lack of bulk.

The rake defended me well on all instances. I was a Knight of the Realm, armed with a soft-tined shield. When the rooster jumped in a flying attack, I sidestepped the maneuver, turning my shield upward as a precaution to protect my face. He missed me entirely, landing in the dirt. The antagonist fluffed dust off his feathers, and we faced each other in silence while he considered battle strategy.

Even during combat, I was stunned
by the beauty of my opponent.

Puffed-up plumage created the illusion of a larger foe. Long slender quills around his neck, rich brown and tipped in gold, bounced as the bird moved, revealing mousy-brown fluff beneath. The color contrast reminded me of ladies with dyed hair and untouched roots.

An elegant tail swept upwards and then curved gently down at the delicate tips, where soft dangly endpoints danced. Long stiff wings were both lovely and dangerous. Fanned-out quills formed a shield of armor. In a jump-and-attack maneuver, the strong structures could also be used as battering implements.

The weapon that frightened me the most hid amid the angry blur of charging plumage. This feather pillow owned a set of dangerous spurs.

I was impressed not only with the physical magnificence of this animal but also with his character. This tiny bird effectively defended his flock against what he saw as a threat, even though I was many times his size!

I managed, under the constant threat of attack, to feed and water the flock. Before leaving, the Knight of the Realm leaned her rake-shield against the wall near the entrance of the yard. I had to return tomorrow to repeat this performance.

Later that day, I related the incident to my father, who did not understand the severity of the situation.

“But he’s just a cute little thing. How can you be afraid of him?”

“Dad, clearly you have not seen this animal in attack mode.”

“But he’s so tiny!”

Then my father began to tease me—not in an unkind way, but in a playful manner as family members often do, smiling and chuckling.

My dad needed a lesson
about this particular rooster.

“Can you please join me tomorrow as a guard while I feed the chickens?” I asked.

“You’re joking! You need protection from the ‘sparrow?’”

“Very funny, Dad. Yes, please come protect me from the little bird.”

My father came with me the next day.

We walked into the yard together, but the Knight of the Realm forgot to arm herself with the rake-shield leaning against the wall.

When it happened, Dad was holding a large glass of iced tea and saying something about the ‘cute little chicken.’ I leaned over the spigot, turning on the water. Then I heard the flurry of feathers, knew what it meant, and turned to look.

I’ll never forget that picture frozen still-framed in my memory. Dad used his beverage to defend himself, throwing the contents into the air at the flying assailant. Tea and ice were suspended in time. The rooster’s sharp claws spread open in front of him like a hawk ready to attack its prey. With extended wings, he floated in slow motion toward the cold wet blob and beyond that, my father.

My next memory was using the garden hose to spray the bird, who ran away to shake wet feathers and regroup tactics.

Even years later, I still laugh out loud about that ‘cute little rooster.’

Buff Orpington 2Today, as I watch the cockerel struggling to rejoin his brothers in the pen, I wonder if these young fellows will grow up to have a good temperament. I’ve never raised the Buff Orpington breed before; hopefully, they’ll not be as surly as the banty rooster from the past.

I’ll check on the loose cockerel tomorrow. If he hasn’t slipped through the fence of the main coop, then I’ll let his brothers out to join him.

Excerpted from Baskets for Butterflies by Donna Hamill.

Find out more about Baskets for Butterflies.

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