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The Were-Chicken

Source: Personal experience

Read this and other stories in the book, Noticing Nature, by Chuck Bonner. Also available in e-book format for Amazon Kindle.

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When the moon is full, the huge white rooster crows in a roaring voice.

Many years ago, I used to go camping and tramping in the woods on a small farm in Dover, Delaware, with a friend from high school. The farm was owned by the Lazy Farmer.

The Lazy Farmer didn't do much farming. Like many small landowners in the area, he leased his land to a large corporate farm, all except for his quarter-acre vegetable garden. They'd come in with their equipment when it was time to plow or plant or harvest, and the Lazy Farmer didn't have to do much of anything.

Evidently, the money from leasing out his farm supported a modest but leisurely lifestyle. We'd meet the Lazy Farmer fishing in one of the ponds on the farm, or talk to him as we passed through the barnyard on our way to the woods. As far as I could tell, the Lazy Farmer only cared about two things: his rabbit beagles and his chickens.

Rabbit beagles are a breed I've never seen outside of the Delmarva Peninsula. They are beagles, to be sure, but not much bigger than rabbits. The Lazy Farmer took great pride in his kennel of fifteen or twenty of the diminutive hounds, hunting with them in season, training the young adult dogs, and playing with the pups.

His chickens were much more mysterious to me. They were small and, to my eye, kind of scrawny. Not much meat on them. The eggs they laid were tiny, reminiscent of quail eggs. The hens were mostly black with a few streaks of brown or gray-blue in their necks and tails. The roosters were similar, but more colorful, often having white or amber necks or tails. The hens and young roosters had large red combs, like the comb of a leghorn, but many of the full-grown roosters, oddly, had no combs at all.

There were about a dozen hens, including the fully-feathered but immature ones. There were always two or three broods of chicks of various ages running around the barnyard, and nearly a dozen males, including several fully mature roosters.

I wondered why the Lazy Farmer kept this flock of about two dozen chickens, and why he kept so many young roosters. They weren't much good for either meat or eggs, and he wasn't using most of the roosters for breeding. Except for the youngest, the roosters were kept in separate pens, each one penned alone, along the outer wall of the barn. Whenever he talked about them, he doted on their colors or their "liveliness."

I guess I was a little slow on the uptake of such things, but eventually, I realized that these were fighting chickens. The Lazy Farmer couldn't speak openly of the birds' fighting potential, but he came close to the truth when he mentioned "liveliness." The mature roosters with real potential had had their combs cut off to reduce injury in the pit, and they were caged separately to reduce injury in the barnyard. Every now and then, I'd notice that one of these roosters was missing, but I didn't know if he had lost a fight or simply been culled for not being "lively" enough.

The king of the barnyard was an enormous rooster who lived in a pen right beside the henhouse. He was about a foot and a half tall, easily twice the size (and probably more than twice the age) of any other rooster in the barnyard. He was almost pure white, with a few streaks of black in his cape and tail. He had a deep, loud bellow of a voice, somewhere between that of an ordinary chicken and that of a lion. (Well, okay, maybe nearer the chicken end of that scale, but it was loud.)

And he used that voice to crow at the full moon!

There were several summer nights when my friend and I were camping out in the back woods when we lay awake listening to the Were-Chicken nearly half a mile away:

URH - urh-URH - urh-ROAR!

His bellow would be followed by a chorus of "cock-a-doodle-DOO" from the lesser roosters. Naturally, these roosters, being the offspring of the Were-Chicken, were equally prone to crow at the full moon, but none of them had anything like his voice.

All through the night of the full moon, we'd be wakened now and then by this most unusual spook and his chorus of were-chicken followers.

It's thirty-five years since I camped out on a farm, but I've heard a few roosters in my time. Never heard anything to rival the Were-Chicken.

All right, I'll stop pulling your leg now. You see, "everyone knows" that roosters crow at sunrise. "Everyone," that is, except those who have actually spent some time around chickens. The fact is, roosters crow at a bright light in the sky. When it has been dark for a while and the light suddenly appears, as at sunrise, they will crow more frequently and with extra enthusiasm, but they'll crow all day long. On a partly-cloudy day, when the sun disappears behind a cloud, they fall quiet, then greet the re-emergence of the sun with the same gusto as at sunrise. And on a moonlit night - whether the moon is full or only bright - they'll crow all night long. On a partly-cloudy night, the moon emerging from the clouds inspires a rousing chorus of crowing. On a moonless night, a C-141 on final approach to Dover Air Force Base with its approach lights glaring will be greeted by the roosters. Yes, the Were-Chicken was unusual, though not extraordinary, in his size and in the volume and timbre of his voice, but there is nothing at all unusual about a rooster crowing at the full moon. They all do.

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