Party of Five

It’s a bright, brisk Sunday morning where the grass and leaves twinkle with a million drops of dew. I’m reclined on my couch with a cup of cool coffee grateful for the weather being such that I can open the windows and let the fresh country air move through my house. The donkeys are enjoying their breakfast and the birds peck and flutter around their feeder. I take the last sip of my coffee when from outside, I hear a crow. Of course, Ron Swanson the rooster crows all day every day, but this is a different crow. A raspier one. A softer one, like an old car’s coughing engine. It’s struggling. 

I dart over to the window and see Ron Swanson, ParmParm, and Gene along with the ducks, Pat and Dorothy, standing in their normal party of five stance. Ron crows, but it sounds like his usual crow. What did I hear a moment ago?

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I watch for a second longer and then shrug it off—maybe Ron had a bug stuck in his throat. As I turn to drop my mug into the kitchen sink, I hear that raspy crow again. I whip my head around and…huh? I take a few, slow steps towards the window and once more, the raspy crow. And it’s coming from ParmParm. ParmParm, the hen that when we got her, was sexed and confirmed female. 

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As I stand at the window dumbfounded, I begin to recall some odd behaviors from ParmParm within the last month or so. Besides the fact she’s grown substantially, she’s also become a little aggressive, especially towards Ron Swanson and Pat. And oddly enough, about a month ago, she molted (which as I understand it, hens are not supposed to molt until they’re over a year old) and her feathers have since been coming in ridgy and sharp—like rooster feathers. I should note that before this molting, she had typical soft, bland, rounded feathers and was the same size as Gene. Her comb and her waddle have transformed quite suddenly and I have found it all a bit interesting.

Plus, so far as I know, ParmParm has not laid any eggs. I have seen her fluff out and settle into a typical hen position in the nesting box within the coop many times—fluffing her feathers out like she’s laying—but I’ve never found any of her eggs. Gene, however, lays in the box right next to ParmParm’s go-to box and leaves an egg every day. It’s all quite peculiar.

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ParmParm crows again and appears to try and do a mating dance in front of Gene. But as quickly as she starts, she stops and chases a nearby fluttering bug. Ron Swanson crows loudly.

So of course, I quickly drop my mug in the sink and grab my laptop to do some research. I google, “can chickens become roosters?” and other similar questions and by golly, there’s quite a host of articles documenting this very phenomenon whereby hens can be genotypically female but become phenotypically male. Here are some references I found:

https://animals.howstuffworks.com/birds/what-cluck-case-gender-changing-hen.htm

http://www.scoopfromthecoop.com/tag/can-my-hen-become-a-rooster/

https://backyardpoultry.iamcountryside.com/feed-health/spontaneous-sex-reversal-is-that-my-hen-crowing/

It’s been a while now since I’ve heard ParmParm’s crow, so I look outside to see the party of five doing what they always do—migrating around the yard in a group, gobbling up and bickering over bugs. 

I decided to write about this for two reasons: 1) it’s incredibly interesting, something I’ve never heard of and wow, nature is amazing and 2) because I’d love some input from some chicken experts or avian vets out there. I’m considering taking ParmParm to the vet just to see if this is the case, but then I wonder, does it matter? She’s healthy and happy as it is. I guess I just worry that her and Ron Swanson might begin to butt heads and I don’t want injury if I can avoid it. I also don’t know for sure if this is what’s happening, but every behavior and physical change seems to check all the boxes. 

At the end of it all, whether this is what ParmParm is experiencing or not, there are surprises every single day. There’s so much that we don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t recognize and it’s a testament to how vast the world is around us. Something rare could be happening right in our own backyards and as Ferris Bueller once famously and accurately said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” 

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The Last Little Rockstar

The mid-afternoon air hung heavily around us as King Ranch and I stood behind the wooden back house with chipping red paint that sits a ways back on our property

The back house is a dilapidated structure that we were told was the original house on the property. One side of it appears to have been a chicken coop at some point with netted fencing and wooden boxes, although, now it was a tangle of vines, weeds, and spider webs. The main part of the house — one small room with a concrete floor and rotting, wooden walls — had become a storage space for scrap wood, miscellaneous ranch tools, and old Christmas decorations that must have belonged to the little, scratchy woman from whom we purchased the property. On the other side of the house was a garage that was, in comparison to the rest of the house, in pretty good shape. The door had clearly been replaced and within it were extra water troughs and wood pallets. Still a lot of spider webs, though.

We stood behind the house where colorful weeds lined the base of the structure — thick, tangled weeds with flicking bugs and spiked leaves — because our last, little Rockstar rooster had finally been found.

He had been missing for three days. Of all the chickens and roosters at the ranch, the last Rockstar was the most social. He was a bouncy bird with a blueish, green tail that looked like slick oil on concrete. The rest of his body was jet black. He had made our back patio his home — specifically, he would sleep atop the firewood pile all on his own — and every morning between 4 and 5, he’d let us know if was time to wake up.

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King Ranch placed his hand on my lower back and said, “I’m sorry.”

Tears stung the corners of my eyes. In front of us, our once shiny, hip-hoppity Rockstar was now a graying pile of loose, lifeless feathers. His head was buried in a hole near the base of the back house and his body hung limply down into the jagged weeds. He had gotten himself stuck.

I leaned into King Ranch and cried.

I wondered how many birds at this point had died at our ranch and recalled them all:

There was Black chicken who had gotten out of the yard and was hit by a car early last summer when the Unicorn visited. There was another Rockstar rooster who’d been attacked by something while we were out of town whom we found dead in the corner of the coop. There was the Rockstar who was stomped out by the donkeys late last summer when Nikki came to visit. There were the three chicks who tried to hatch who didn’t make it and then the most recent tragic death of Prince, our other chick, who drowned in his water dish after being alive for only one week.

Now, the last of the Rockstars dangled out of the back house after what I knew was a struggle until his end.

I felt awful.

Behind us, Bunny snorted. She nosed her way in between King Ranch and I and King Ranch let out a sound that, I think, was somewhere between a laugh and a frustrated exhale, although I couldn’t tell which.

He said, “Well excuse me,” to Bunny. She raised and lowered her head a few times and pushed against me harder.

I laughed behind my tears and squatted down in front of her.

King Ranch scooped up Little Foot who was nearby flailing a stick and walked back towards our house. As he did this, a low rumble of thunder rolled by in the distance.

I’d have to pull the Rockstar out of there and give him a proper burial. I wasn’t sure how best to go about this because I wanted to preserve his body as best I could and I didn’t know how strongly wedged his body was in there. I imagined, pretty tightly to have been his end.

For now, I cried for him. Bunny stood with me, her head on top of mine, and I cried for him.

I cried because I felt awful that he was gone. I cried because I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye. I cried because life is so freaking fragile. I cried because how stupid must this bird have been to get stuck in a hole and how stupid was I to allow myself to get so attached?

But he wasn’t stupid. No. He was probably chasing a delicious bug that outsmarted him by scrambling into a hole in the house just large enough for the Rockstar’s head.

Damn you, bug. Freaking bug. It was that bug’s fault.

I wanted to hunt that bug. It was probably a big, fat cockroach with long, spiked, antennae because roaches never bring anything but terror and trickery. Why is it that when you turn on a light in the garage and spot one, they scramble right towards your feet? Bastards. In Texas, cockroaches even fly. Yes. They FLY. In FLOCKS. You’re a dead man, roach.

Bunny exhaled heavily. So did I as I stood up. She pulled her top lip back and pressed her upper gum into my shoulder. I think it was a donkey kiss.

Warm drops sprinkled down from the sky as another barrel of thunder tumbled by towards the west. The red, chipping paint on the house started turning a deep, brownish tint in the growing wetness.

Rest in peace, sweet Rockstar. I hope you’ve found your friends in the afterlife and that you’re alerting everyone to the sunrises. You really did do a good job with that.

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