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Monday, September 3, 2012

A Crow in the Wilderness: From the Archives…

contented bovinesToday Gladys and I were cruising along the lower Loop road just approaching the wooden bridge over Riley Slough when I was startled by a sound so unfamiliar I immediately brought my ride to a screeching halt. Given the rush of slipstream as we blazed along, it was difficult to discern not only the location of the noise but its source. As we squealed to a halt a good forty feet later, I heard the sound again. It was a sound so strange I’m at a loss for words to describe it. The Ripple, however, will dive deeply into its ample word vault and strive to surface with a general description of what we heard. Let me say, first of all, whatever made the sound was determined to be heard, was emphatic about it even, and like an annoying car alarm, persisted to vocalize. First impression was a crow in distress pleading for help (I have no idea what sort of distress cry issues from a crow). I even entertained the thought the sound might have come from some unfortunate in distress, some poor soul being sucked down into Riley’s murkiness or floundering in the thorns of a blackberry covert. Somewhere in the rambling bramble greenbelt on the banks of the slough was some sort of critter crying out for attention. A rooster's wilderness

He certainly got mine, the rooster did, for that’s what it was that broke the silence of the sleepy slough—a rooster braying his cock-a-doodle head off in an ecstasy of fowl exuberance. It’s not unusual in the Valley, especially in spring to hear a Chinese pheasant rooster, some plucky survivor of last year’s hunting season, sound off from the middle of a field somewhere, but to hear a sound associated with the barnyard, coop, and henhouse issuing from the wilds of the slough was a curious surprise. That healthy-sounding domesticated fowl (shall we call him Riley?) in full voice crowing in the wilderness brought back the past and the memory of another rooster that strayed the safety of the chicken yard and went forth to seek his fortune. And thereon hangs a tale.Riley Slough

The story of Fred and Ginger did not end well. If the principals were not poultry, theirs would be one of epic or saga proportions. In fact if chickens had a “fatal flaw” of character their story would make for a classic Greek tragedy. But perhaps Fred did have a personality flaw—if wanderlust can be considered a flaw in chicken nature--a quirk of some sort that made him seek greener pastures.

One day Fred and his soul mate Ginger showed up in our yard. I suspect they ran away from home, home being the corner domestic menagerie belonging to one Mrs. Caroline Peters. I suspect as well that competition for food was fierce in Peters’ chicken yard, since way too many friends of feather flocked together in a space much too small for such a large flock. Fred and his missus decided to strike out on their own, simply flew the coop and took up residence on and around our place. By day they foraged for bugs and grubs under the trees and bushes about the yard, pecking and scratching their way through the landscape. Nightly they roosted in the big Norway spruce in the front yard. We soon became accustomed to their presence although the pair were always wary of us.

Fred was a stately-looking rooster, white and cream-colored with a lovely tail, a medley of black, white and creamy feathers. At night among the dark branches of the spruce, Fred glowed like a dimly lit lantern. Ginger…well, she was dowdy, a drab, swarthy dinginess. But Fred doted on her as if she were of the finest Plymouth Rock stock. Oftentimes he would cackle and cluck over some juicy bug, hold it hostage until Ginger came running to devour it. Both birds were most likely offspring of some banty line, several hybridizations removed. They were inseparable, Fred and Ginger, and thus we named them: Fred after the talented actor and dancer Fred Astaire, Ginger, after his graceful dancing partner Ginger Rogers.

And so they came to stay and a rooster’s crow at dawn (and quite an early dawn, too, I might add) punctuated the morning traffic rush but with much less annoyance. Romance bloomed that summer, just a couple of banty newlyweds; their love affair we enjoyed watching. Midsummer Ginger disappeared for some time and we were afraid she’d been plucked from the place by a coyote, raccoon or some other varmint. One day the little hen mysteriously appeared, but this time she was not alone. Darting to and fro around her were five little fluff ball chicks. Ginger had been in the broody way and now she and her little family joined father Fred in the yard.

At this point in their history Fred and Ginger’s story starts its spiral into misfortune. In the next couple of weeks the little flock dwindled. One chick I found lying dead beneath a hedge. As the days went by, four chicks became three, then two. Predators were picking them off one by one. Our hope the last little chick would somehow survive sank, too. One day only Fred and Ginger remained. The yard seemed a sadder place.

In mid summer Ginger disappeared a second time. “She’s begun a second settin,” I thought, “setting a clutch of eggs somewhere, hidden herself,” and waited hopefully for Ginger and her second family to emerge from the shrubbery. Fred, too, appeared anxious for his mate to return. One day I noticed a faint shadowy ring at the edge of the yard and went to investigate. The blotch was a pool of drab feathers, neatly arranged in a circle, as if by design…all that remained of Ginger was that sad pile of plumage.

Fred didn’t seem to know he was now a widower and continued on as before. I wondered if in his little chicken brain he still believed Ginger would rejoin him any day. Perhaps his chicken heart refused to give up hope. Fred did seem aware that he was now winging it on his own. As if he couldn’t bear the memory of his nightly cuddling place with Ginger, he changed his roost to a low sweeping branch on a neighboring fir tree.

Fall arrived. Fred’s morning wakeup call came later now. He went to roost earlier in the evenings, a splotch of white like a plastic shopping bag caught up in the branch. As the days grew shorter and the summer bounty of insects dwindled, I was concerned about Fred’s food supply and thought he must have to do some serious foraging to sustain himself. On the lawn by our flagpole I set a square of plywood for a feeding platform and purchased a sack of cracked corn. For a day or two the rooster eyed the feeding station warily, but eventually the corn scratch was gone evenings when I went to check it. Whatever grief Fred bore hadn’t affected his appetite in the least. This routine continued a couple weeks before Fred felt comfortable with his new feeding arrangement. I would throw a couple handfuls of corn on the plywood and Fred would appear out of nowhere and hover impatiently until I scattered his meal. He still hung back, however, and waited for me to retreat before he approached the board. After a few days visiting the feeding station, Fred associated me with his evening meal and would come running to the board the moment he heard the kernels hit the wood. Soon his appetite took precedent over my presence; I might as well have been invisible.

Mid-October. Late afternoons were quick to turn into twilight. Fred’s dinner hour conflicted with his roosting urge. One day I returned home later than usual (a boring faculty meeting I suspect). As I slowed for our driveway I noticed a white plastic bag on the right of way and was about to vent my wrath on some thoughtless litterbug when I saw some movement on the bag: a large raptor (I believe a rough-legged hawk) perched victorious on that white heap. I parked the truck and ran to the right of way. There clasped in the talons of that rough-legged murderer was Fred. I shooed the hawk from his carcass and the killer leisurely flapped its way to a maple tree across the road where in indignation it proceeded to curse me in hawk language. Fred lay there in a halo of pale feathers. The hawk had plucked him from the fir bough like a ripe plum, eviscerated him, ripped open his gullet, and picked it clean. I carried Fred’s shredded carcass to the garden and solemnly buried him in the tomato patch.

The next morning was sadly quiet. No wake up clarion crow at dawn from the neighboring fir tree. I just about overslept. With Fred there had been no such thing as a snooze alarm.

A glooming peace this morning with it brings,

The sun for sorrow will not show his head.

                            *          *          *          *

For never was a story of more woe

Than this of Ginger and her Romeo.

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