Here on Branchcreek Farm we've had a lot of roosters. And they all have their own story. This is a story about Smarty Jones (the chicken). But I can't just start with Smarty Jones, I have to start at the beginning.
We inherited chickens when we moved to the farm. We had never had chickens before and we thought they were rather strange creatures. We didn't know anything about chickens. But there was Elmer. Elmer was a great big beautiful rooster. His body feathers were black and his head and neck feathers white. He had long dark green tail feathers. Elmer was very patient and good to the hens. Elmer was also very patient with us and taught us everything we know about chickens. Jana named this big beautiful rooster Elmer, after the fellow that lived here many years ago. Elmer and Zola Rausch lived on this farm from the '30s to the '70s. I hope Elmer, the human, would think it a tribute to have the best rooster we've ever known named after him.
After Elmer was Rocky. We don't know what really happened to Elmer, he just disappeared one day (I'm blaming Rocky). Rocky was one of the biggest roosters I've ever seen. He was a great big red rooster and he was boss. Nobody messed with Rocky, not the dogs, not the horses, not the humans . . . nobody. Rocky was named after the rooster in 'Chicken Run'.
Before moving on to Rocky's demise, I ought to tell you a bit about Elvis and Horace. Elvis was a pretty little red rooster who was around when Rocky was king. Elvis steered way clear of Rocky and never bothered anybody. Elvis was just appreciative of a place to roost at night. One day I heard from a little old lady in Beavercreek who had a bunch of hens but no rooster. She wondered if I might have an extra. So, off we took Elvis. He didn't have a name at that time, we just called him the pretty little red rooster. The little old lady in Beavercreek had about fifty hens, and not a single rooster. We took the little cage that housed Elvis and put it in the big chicken pen. We opened the cage door and a couple of those fifty hens started paying attention. The pretty little red rooster stepped out of the cage and little hen heads started popping up around the pen. More and more hen heads popped up and the pretty little red rooster stepped out a little further. Some of the closer hens moved in to get a better look at this new arrival, all the while more hen heads popping up to see what's going on. Then one of the hens squawked, "IT'S A MAN!"and hens from all corners of that big chicken pen started gathering around him. The pretty little red rooster didn't know what to think, but he sure was popular. Jana exclaimed, "why you'd a thought Elvis stepped out of that cage." And so, the little old lady from Beavercreek named him Elvis. And, by the way, Elvis lives.
Horace was also around when Rocky was king. Horace was about as big as Rocky and a lighter color red. Horace was a lover not a fighter, and he too steered clear of Rocky. One Spring, two nights in a row, I found a dead chick in the hen house. This was very upsetting, so the next evening I paid close attention to the chicken goings on. Then I saw Rocky trying to kill a chick. I ran off Rocky and the chick survived. I named her Riley because she talked a lot. I told Jana about Rocky killing the chicks and she said not to worry, she would "take care of him." I left to run some errands. I returned and was unloading the car and saw Rocky strutting through the yard. About that time Jana came out of the house. I pointed at Rocky and said, "I thought you took care of him". "Uh oh ", she said, "I shot the wrong rooster . . .twice." And then she said, "but he's not dead."
So, Jana had shot Horace - twice. But she didn't kill him. Horace survived the surprise attack and lived to become "boss" rooster, after Jana really took care of Rocky. I named him Horace because I had just watched 'Hello Dolly'. Horace Vandergelder was the apple of Dolly's eye. And, yes, we do have a hen named Dolly. Horace was a very nice boss rooster, but I lost some hens under his watch. And he was always a little nervous when Jana was around.
I'm not sure how to describe Burt, or even when he came along. Burt is a medium size black and white rooster and I think he hatched sometime late during Rocky's reign. Burt was one of the Julie Andrews chicks. There was Mary Poppins, Maria, Julie, and Burt. We still have Julie and Burt. He's probably been with us longer than any rooster. He's not big and he's not flashy, and he must have more lives than a cat. I remember walking out on the porch one afternoon and Levi, our German Shepherd, had Burt in his mouth. I don't know what really happened, but there was feather evidence that Burt had quite the scuffle in the tobacco barn. Now was the scuffle with Levi, or did Levi rescue Burt from something - I don't know. Levi dropped Burt when I yelled and Burt ran/shuffled to the chicken shed. Burt didn't come out of the chicken shed for a few days.
Horace kicked Burt's butt a couple times. Burt always made a come-back, he knows how long he has to convalesce before getting involved in another scuffle. Burt has always had a couple of the little brown hens hang out with him. Burt's very good about protecting his hens. In fact, Burt is currently our boss rooster and all the old girls hang with Burt.
This would be a good time to introduce you to Nick the Rooster. Ah Nick, his original name was Annika, but I’ll get to that later. Nick didn't have a good mother hen. She sat on the nest long enough to hatch one egg and figured she'd done enough - she flew the coop. So, here was this little bitty chick with no mother. At the same time two other hens hatched two chicks each. They were fairly good mother hens, but only to their own chicks. Nobody was ever nice to the little motherless chick, but that chick was a tough one and learned to survive. About this time Annika Sorenstam was about to make history and play golf with the boys at ‘The Colonial’. One day I commented that that Annika S was a tough chick just like that little one in the chicken shed, so we named the little chick Annika. When Annika the chick was big enough to get out of the hen house, that's what she did. And she didn't go back. She'd had enough of chickens and decided she'd rather be a horse. Her favorite horse was Taz, and she hung out with him every night. At first we thought we should do something about the chicken that thought it was a horse, and then we decided to just leave well enough alone. Taz didn't mind, and Annika really didn't hurt anything being in the barn with the horses.
One day we were cleaning stalls and Annika was hanging around. I said hey to her and she cock-a-doodle-doo-ed! Hmm, I said, "Jana, I don't think Annika's a girl." And Jana said, "I think Annika's a Nick!" And so, there was Nick. Nick grew to be a beautiful rooster and was way cool looking. He was half Rhode Island Red and half Plymouth Rock. He had the black and white speckled body of the Plymouth Rock, a pretty red head and neck, and beautiful greenish blue tail feathers like the Rhode Island Red. Cindi, Jana’s sister, called him the half-breed. Nick grew to be pretty big. The next Spring, Nick started hanging out with the chickens again, he was mostly interested in the hens.
Nick killed Horace. Remember, Horace was a lover not a fighter. Then Nick was boss rooster. Nick was a very pretty rooster, but I don't think he ever really thought of himself as a chicken. I think he held on to the notion that he was a horse. Nick had no clue about keeping the hens safe. That's part of a rooster's job, you know. Stand guard, look beautiful, keep a close watch, and find worms for the hens. Nick was okay about finding worms and looking beautiful, but he wasn't good about standing guard. I remember one time I was hanging out clothes. I looked out across the pasture to admire the beautiful sky. There were the chickens enjoying the beautiful day and I admired them. There was a hawk directly above the chickens, perched on the telephone line, admiring the chickens too. I guess he was "shopping". Well, I yelled at the hawk until he left, then I yelled at Nick, but he just looked beautiful.
All the while there was Burt and his little brown hens. They just quietly hung out and did their own thing, and took cover when a hawk circled. Nick would pick on Burt now and then, and Burt would never fight back . . . . until one day. I was on the phone in the barn, and heard a strange ruckus coming from one of the stalls. I put the phone down for a minute and went over to see what was going on. There Burt and Nick were in a cockfight. They'd obviously been going at it for quite some time. Both roosters were staggering around and bloody. I attempted to break it up, but they were determined. So, as I was leaving the barn I said my good-byes to Burt - certain that this was his last battle. That evening, when I went out to feed the chickens and gather eggs, there was Nick dead on the floor of the hen house. And there was Burt, in the boss rooster's seat by the window.
This certainly is a long story about Smarty Jones (the chicken), especially since I haven't even talked about him yet.
During Horace and Nick's "bossdom", and through the course of nature, I lost quite a few hens. So, this past Spring I set out to get more chickens. I had a couple hens that laid green eggs and I wanted to know more about them. I did my research and found that Ameraucana chickens lay blue and green eggs. Ameraucanas come from the South American breed; Araucana. In the history of domesticated chickens, Europeans used selective breeding to develop poultry breeds for functionality and climate. Being isolated in south central Chile, the Aracaunas remained quite free of European influence until the end of the nineteenth century. The original Aracaunas have no tail feathers. Araucanas didn't come to North America until the 1920s.
I ordered 25 Ameraucana chicks, all girls, from Meyer Hatchery in northern Ohio. I must say, the mailman who delivered my small box of cute, fuzzy, healthy little chicks was much friendlier than the mailman that delivered my two three-pound boxes of Italian honeybees. The chick delivery mailman had started raising chickens himself, so we had a pleasant conversation about chicks and such. The next week, the bee delivery mailman flew down the lane, cracked his window open one-inch, poked his keys through the opening and said, "they're in the back - get them yourself." So, we took the keys and retrieved my bees from the back of the funny looking little mail truck. Upon returning the keys to the mailman, through the now half inch opening, he informed us that he had actually "won the bet." The fellow that lost the bet had to put the bees into the mail truck.
Levi, the German Shepherd, and I had the most wonderful time peeking in on our new chicks. The chicks had arrived in a box not much larger than a shoebox. Levi and I took one chick at a time, looked it over to see if it was healthy, smelled it (actually, Levi smelled the chick, I don't think I've ever intentionally smelled a chicken), dipped its beak in the water bowl, and placed it gently in the chick cage. You dip their beak in the water to introduce them to it. Just like any baby, when a chick first hatches the only thing it knows how to do is “peep, peep, peep”. They learn everything after that through trial and error. We left the chicks in their chick cage out in the sun most of that afternoon. When it started to cool off, I brought them into the house and put a light over them for heat.
Now, when Jana first heard that I had ordered 25 chicks, she was not exactly thrilled about it. She thought that was too many and asked if I could give some to my sister, Natalie, and her family. When Jana got home from work on the day the chicks arrived, I found her hovering over the chick cage. She would pick one up, kiss it on the head, gently put it back down, and then pick up another one. I told her that I would call my sister about taking some and Jana said, "nobody gets any of these. Noah and Riley can incubate some or they can buy from Tractor Supply, but nobody gets any of these chicks." About three months later, after those growing chicks had became pullets (young hens) and started getting into Jana's flowerbeds, she gladly helped catch four of those pullets to give to my sister's family.
As we watched those chicks grow, we paid close attention to one particular chick. We called her Liz, after Elizabeth Taylor, because it looked like she wore eyeliner. Liz was always one of the more colorful chicks, and Liz had bad feet. I guess she just developed wrong in the shell. It looks like her feet grew too big for the shell and now they're crooked. Liz has never had many, if any, tail feathers, and she never had many, if any, friends. As the chicks grew into pullets, we noticed Liz acting stranger and pecking at the other pullets or pulling their tail feathers out. I told her she would never make friends that way.
One day as I was walking across the yard, I saw Liz hanging out alone and being her strange Liz self. I looked away and just then I heard an awkward cock-a-doodle-doo. It seemed as though that awkward cock-a-doodle-doo had come from Liz' vicinity. Nah, I said, "I ordered all hens from that hatchery," and I went about my business. I made a mental note to tell Jana what had just happened, so that she too could keep an eye and ear out for and awkward cock-a-doodle-doo from Liz. And sure enough later that day Jana saw and heard Liz cock-a-doodle-doo-ing just like the sun was coming up.
I guess you've figured out by now that Jana and I are very bad at chicken gender telling. We don't know if it's a boy or a girl until it cock-a-doodle-doos or lays an egg.
Here we had another rooster, and we couldn't call it Liz anymore. I offhandedly mentioned to Jana that we needn't worry about naming it. I didn't figure he'd be around long; since he had bad feet I figured he'd be in last place within a group of chickens running from a predator - if you know what I mean. Jana took offense to this remark and said, "I'd really like to keep that rooster, he's a thoroughbred!" Now, I must take a moment here to explain the difference between a thoroughbred and a purebred. Purebred applies to all domesticated species. There are purebred dogs, cattle, pigs, chickens, and cats even. A thoroughbred is a type of purebred horse - a racehorse to be exact. Thoroughbreds also tend to have bad feet. "Ha", I said, "a thoroughbred chicken with bad feet to boot! Let's call him Smarty Jones!" after the racehorse a couple years back that very nearly won the Triple Crown.
Finally, we have met Smarty Jones (the chicken).
As I said earlier, Smarty has bad feet. He’s very pigeon toed and his toes are bent like upside down ‘J’s. Watching a thoroughbred horse run is a true thing of beauty. Watching Smarty run is not a pretty thing. Smarty does a lot of side to side movement when he’s going full out. And there’s not a single chicken on this farm, regardless of age, that can’t outrun Smarty. And he has no tailfeathers. I haven’t decided yet if he’s cute or ugly.
One day I was heading out to the hay barn for something and I looked over and noticed Smarty lying in the pasture near the gate. I walked over to see what the problem was, and Smarty slowly lifted his head and I saw a lot of blood around his eye. “Well”, I said to Smarty, “did you lose a fight with one of those other roosters?” I went out to the tobacco barn and found Jana up on a ladder hanging her Ohio bicentennial sign. I yelled up that when she was done she “might want to put Smarty out of his misery, he lost a fight with somebody.” I told her where he was and went on my way. When she was finished with the sign she came down off the ladder and headed off to check on Smarty. Then she hollered that she couldn’t find him. So I walked back over there and sure enough, Smarty wasn’t by the pasture gate anymore. We looked up and there he was, sort of on his feet, with his head bent all over horizontal-like, his good eye was about five inches from the ground. His bad, bloody, eye was skyward. He was having a bit of trouble with his balance and kept going in a circle and then sitting down. He kept doing this over and over. Our pasture slopes down towards the creek and in about an hour he was just about in the creek, still going in circles with his head horizontal and his good eye about five inches from the ground.
At some point, Smarty must have figured out how to circle the other way because he did make it into the chicken shed before nightfall. We did our detective work to determine what exactly happened to Smarty. We found a gate bolt with blood on it. This gate bolt has a pointy end and is screwed through a wood post. The other end of the gate bolt holds the gate up. We have deduced that Smarty Jones (the chicken) was chasing a hen, she outsmarted and outran him and he ran right into the pointy end of that gate bolt, and as Jana said, “knocked himself silly!” My biggest concern was that his eye would not heal and we’d have a thoroughbred rooster with two bad feet, one good eye, and no tailfeathers.
After a couple days, Smarty came out of the chicken shed. And a couple days after that, he seemed to be pretty much back to his normal Smarty self. From what we can tell, both of his eyes are working. Jana cut the pointy end of the gate bolt off so he wouldn’t run into it again.
Throughout all this, there is Burt. Burt and his old girls calmly, stoically, go through their routine paces of the day. And all around them are these young, silly chickens bringing a touch of chaos and amusement to the Branchcreek Farm chicken world.
The bad news is that this is the end of the story of Smarty Jones (the chicken). The good news is that this is not the end of Smarty Jones. Being the thoroughbred that he is, I’m sure there will be another Smarty story. As long as there are roosters on this farm there will be stories.
- Dedicated to my sister, Tina. She's a tough chick.