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Guestwords: Hail the Rooster

Thu, 09/30/2021 - 09:21

People are increasingly raising backyard chickens. They enjoy the animals and like their eggs. During the pandemic, caring for chickens has provided a gratifying home-based activity.

But municipal governments don’t welcome all chickens. Many allow hens but not roosters. Roosters provoke complaints about crowing.

Only hens are permitted, for example, in the Villages of Sag Harbor, Sagaponack, and East Hampton. This is also the case in New York City. The Town of East Hampton, however, allows both hens and roosters — at least for now.

Bans on roosters have created a huge problem. Every week, our farm sanctuary receives several phone calls asking for help. Many callers explain that they ordered only female chicks, but one or two grew into roosters. (This outcome is common because hatcheries have difficulty distinguishing between the males and females when they are young.) The callers say they would be happy to keep the roosters, but their local government insists they get rid of them. They don’t want to simply dump the birds in a park or along a roadside, and they fear that if they return them to the seller, they will be killed. They hope we will adopt them.

But our farm sanctuary, like the others we know, has taken in all the roosters we can care for. We are building new spaces for them, but the problem is far too vast for sanctuaries to handle.

The local bans have added to the grim fate of roosters in general. Those born into the U.S. meat industry typically spend their lives crowded together in huge windowless sheds, just like the hens. Baby roosters in the egg industry aren’t permitted to live at all. Because they don’t lay eggs, they are killed within a day after hatching.

I believe that the more that people learn about the animals, the more they will appreciate them and want them to have full and happy lives. They will even develop positive attitudes toward roosters and their crowing.

My knowledge of roosters has primarily come from working at our sanctuary, which my wife, Ellen, and I founded in 2008. Since then, our rescued farm animals have included over 30 roosters. We have typically cared for about 10 at a time.

Roosters are tough fellows. A few of ours have fought each other so fiercely that they have drawn blood. We had to build separate aviaries for them, placing each with a separate group of hens. Over the years, three of our roosters even tried to attack us and our staff members.

Although the bird’s fighting temperament causes problems, it also serves to protect the flock. I recently witnessed a stirring example of this.

While driving, I saw a large pen with chickens inside. To my surprise, there was a raccoon inside as well. The hens were all huddled against the back fence. Then the rooster stepped up to the raccoon and the two stood face to face. It was as if the rooster were saying, “If you think you’re going to get those hens, you have to go through me.” A rooster is no match for a raccoon, but this one’s bravery was something to behold.

This face-off continued long enough for me to get out of my car and throw a pebble toward the raccoon, which scared him away. I then informed the owner so he could buttress the pen against predators.

Neighboring farmers have told me of similar incidents. As a fox, raccoon, or other predator approached the hens, the rooster intervened. He lost the battle and died, but while the fight took place, the hens had time to escape.

Like brave medieval knights, roosters are chivalrous. When they spot something good to eat, they call the hens to it, and they don’t partake until the hens are finished. When their group ventures into an outdoor pasture, they stand guard while the hens eagerly forage. Then, when he feels it is time, he directs the hens back to the safety of the aviary.

The rooster’s crow, which is the biggest problem for many people, is part of the animal’s bold nature. It is never halfhearted. The animal rises up, flaps his wings, and calls out with all his might. Children who visit our farm are thrilled by it. Many try to imitate it. 

Our roosters crow at dawn and throughout the day. When Ellen and I opened our farm, we expected to be disturbed by it. And our roosters did wake us up earlier than we wished. But this happened only the first two mornings.

Moreover, we soon began to feel that the crowing was somehow uplifting — a feeling shared by all those who have worked with us. The rooster seems to be proclaiming his toughness, but he also conveys something more fundamental. Henry David Thoreau said the bird’s high-spirited strain expresses the “effervescence of life.”

I suspect that people who favor town bans on roosters have endured many noxious mechanical sounds, like lawn mowers and leaf blowers, and they don’t want to be disturbed by roosters as well. But the rooster’s crow isn’t part of the mechanical world. It comes from nature. The rooster is nature’s trumpeter, sounding out nature’s force and vitality. He calls attention to the miraculous world of living things.

William Crain is a co-founder of Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary in Poughquag, N.Y. He lives part time in Montauk.

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