On barnyard sexual politics

Jellybean, Number 2 Rooster (with turkey poult and Ruby in background)

My garden lacks any shade at all.  This is not a bad thing, unless I wish to do a little pleasant sit-down hand task like I wished to do on this sunny, hot, breeze-less evening after work.  So, I made like any sensible animal would do and took my task (cleaning 50 heads of softneck garlic) to the shade found on the back deck.  And being a civilized social animal, I filled a small tumbler full of rosé and sat down.

Number 2 Rooster Jellybean espied me as my butt hit the chair and came sauntering down the walk in his mincing, pigeontoed, not-quite-cock-of-the-walk way.  Eyeballing any and all situations IS the Number 2 Rooster’s job, after all, and he was sizing me up to his advantage.  Because it was after 5:00 and Chicken Happy Hour was in full swing (i.e., all poultry out and about) I watched to see what he would do.  His thoughts were eminently transparent to me.

Some say it is wrong, verging on dangerous, to anthropomorphize one’s pets or farmyard creatures or, hell, the actions of any (other) creature living on earth.  Dangerous to whom, I always wondered:  even as a small child, I knew humans were animals…how we could ever think otherwise was a fight I fought until I won it (in my own head, anyway).  Let’s just say this:  it’s dangerous to NOT think that animals act as humans can.  Whether it’s dissing the animals or not to put the anthro- in front of the word  is the argument we should all have.

And so we have not-so-little Jellybean eying me from the side of the deck.  “Both big humans provide food, but this one provides food 99% of the time if she’s got a bowl in her hands, as she does right now.  Perhaps what she has is food,” is the way his thoughts turned, “and I will check,” thus taking a few pecks at the dessicated garlic leaves hanging over the edge of the deck, “and it is inedible, but the fact remains this human has a bowl in her hands,” and thus he began to do the call that mother hens and roosters do to let their charges know they have found food, please come running NOW.

And the nearby hens did.  Notice the further-away hens did not:  they can differentiate Jellybean’s from Number 1 Rooster Absolute Backyard God Mary Ellen’s calls.  When Mary Ellen calls, the goods are usually there.  When Jellybean calls, well.  Dried husks is the perfect example.  Those hens are not at all stupid.  And sure enough:  Jellybean jumped one of the chickens in range and whose back was turned.  As Number 2 Rooster, the only option he has is crass subterfuge and then blindsiding a hen.

Ah, yes.  Every time I look at the stats of how people find this site, it’s not at all surprising how often “barnyard sex” is a key search term.  And indeed chicken romance isn’t candlelight suppers and (more) glasses of rosé .  Almost all the hens rebuff Jellybean, even take him on in a fight, but if you’re jumped you’re jumped and the smarter hens just endure it with a ruffled resignation as they know it will be over soon.  In this instance though Jellybean has climbed atop Emilie, a not particularly retiring doormat-ty kind of hen.  So she squawks and Mary Ellen flies in to her aid.

So here we are.  What I have just relayed in 500-odd words has taken place within 3 minutes or less.  And in those 500 words and three actual minutes I think we can all see how I smirk at poor Jellybean as the beta male:  in all honesty though he’s doing what he can.  If things get too ugly, indeed, he’ll be dinner, but he’s wily enough not to piss off Mary Ellen too often, and so, he remains in the tribe.  But yes, his stress hormones are almost always sky-high, and you gotta wonder what it does to him, much less for the general temperament of the rest of the flock.

Number 1 Rooster, lord of the flock, Mary Ellen.

And it’s my job as chickenherd to do just that:  gauge the temperament and well-being of the flock.  We have two full-sized roosters for a reason, and that reason is because we want farm babies.  (And no, you don’t need roosters for eggs, just chicks.)  The flock’s too large for Mary Ellen to mate with all the hens on his own, though I suppose he tries.  He’s got a great easy-going temperament with both people and his charges, magnanimous even, and I always wonder if it was because he was alone to develop it, not having to battle someone for everything, during his formative year.  If Jellybean ruled the roost, would he remain the furtive little bastard he is now?

A little social psy in any situation can’t hurt, you know, and it might even teach you something.  It’s fun at least.

14 responses to “On barnyard sexual politics

  1. Hmmm, thought provoking. Can’t help but apply chicken dynamics to humans. Think they’re applicable?

  2. So that’s Mary Ellen! Ha! Snort!.
    I love this post kiddo. And it’s so timely for me wondering if any of the ‘new ones’ will end up being male and what, if anything, will I do about it. I’ve been pretty much in the ‘No Males Allowed’ club having heard too many tales of the ultra agressive fellas attacking their people but this story of Jellybean got me thinking. Hmmmm…love this one El!

  3. This post made me laugh, you captured the subtleties of chicken politics beautifully! I can’t wait to see how our Cochin roo(s) fit in to our current boss man’s world, though the girls seem to have written him off for the most part, so he might be grateful for some back-up. : )

  4. I see our rooster trying the same tactic — the “tuk! tuk! tuk!” food call which brings the (gullible) hens running. It never fails to crack me up!

  5. I’d love to hear the story of how the alpha rooster got the name “Mary Ellen.” Cracked me up.

  6. I read, in the wonderful book “Animals in Translation” by Temple Grandin (a woman not at all averse to anthropomorphizing!) that roosters used to have a courtship ritual and a mating dance, as do so many other birds, but that this has been bred out of most of them, just as broodiness has been bred out of many hens. So where once the barnyard sex would have consisted of a lot of dancing and chickeny foreplay, now there are a whole bunch of serial rapists running around.

    My sister actually owns a rooster who performs the dance, and she says it is quite something to see. The hens watch him and then apparently go into paryoxms of lust, flopping around at his feet and assuming the position.

    We, on the other hand, have a rooster who is so savage with the hens that some of them have bare spots on their necks where he bites them. The poor things – I feel so sorry for them, squawking pathetically as he has his evil way with them. I may just show him who’s boss one of these days.

    • OMG, Aimee, Mary Ellen does the dance!! No wonder we (people and hens alike) all like him so much. Good looking and fancy moves too. He’s my first rooster so of course what I thought he did was “normal.” But then I remember my friend Catharine’s first rooster Khan (as in Genghis) and she had a tennis racket next to the egg box so she could fend him off.

    • Interesting. I had never heard this, but of all the roosters the ones who have been allowed to stay here have all done the dance. The dance has varied, from rooster to rooster, but they all have had their version. Cornelius, the current alpha roo, has quite a dance that occurs almost entirely on one foot. Impeccable balance, that bird has!

  7. Mary Ellen is one splendid rooster. I do believe that seven-league boots would look appropriate on him.

    But how on earth did he get his name?

  8. You know, I am inclined to believe that good roosters are born good roosters, and second-rate ones are born second-rate, whether they’re left alone to develop their traits or grow up around other roosters. I base this on only the few flocks we’ve owned, but there always turns out to be one who rises above the rest. Sometimes he’s grown up alone and been introduced to other roosters later, and sometimes he’s grown up with a brother like Jeb Bush or Roger Clinton.

  9. I couldn’t agree more re: anthropomorphising animals. I think a lot of our problems – personal and societal – come from forgetting that we are animals. And denying that we will behave in certain predictable ways, no matter how complex our thought patterns, especially over things like food, sex, shelter, pack status… The world gets more complex but we stay pretty much the same. Evolution ain’t that quick!

    I always wonder when people talk about ‘inhuman’ and ‘animalistic’ acts. I am not so sure they have those the right way around. I mean, the animal kingdom is not all fuzzy bunnies and ducks in waistcoats, but the human population is not really inspiring confidence in me these days.

  10. Very funny!

    ‘barnyard sex’ you say was the search term? wow!

    Most time I get things like ” can you eat raw tofu?” and I wrote about tofu a handful of times only.

  11. Hello all,
    Mary Ellen’s name isn’t much of a mystery. All the older chickens (hatched elsewhere) are named after the female ancestors of both our families. We brought Helen, Mary Ellen and Sarah home from the store one day…and about 4 weeks later we realized Mary Ellen was a he! By then the name had stuck, so…

    Sharon, indeed. When you see how our hens argue or how hen-pecked old Jellybean is then you do realize how there’s a large amount of behavioral sharing going on.

    Randi, we were in the Girls Only club too and then Mary Ellen came along. (Actually that’s not quite true: I had planned on breeding separate egg and meat lines but both roosters destined for those plans got sick, so…here we are with our gorgeous mutt of a roo, and his obnoxious son too.) Either way, I hope the odds are in your favor.

    Cheryl, I love cochins. I should get some; all those birds, especially the roosters, of my acquaintance have been SO FRIENDLY and tame. Plus, I love how the boys look like bow-legged cowboys.

    Hiya David. Hope this nice weather is helping your hay predictions. I do think “chicken therapy” should be prescribed for nervous or Type A types of people: just going out there and watching, even for 5 minutes, lowers my heart rate considerably. And laughs are part of it.

    Sheila, now you know! And I do have a “Sheila” in my lineage, so your name (at least in its Irish spelling) will show up soon in the flock.

    Aimee, I hope your next roo isn’t such an ass: it’s hard to watch, I know. I have made chicken saddles in the past to prevent some of the damage to the hens’ backs, but that doesn’t help when the rooster pulls the neck feathers out. And thanks for the insight. I have admired Temple Grandin for a long time.

    Paula, hah! Those boots would need to accommodate his spurs. Can’t really clearly see in the photo but his spurs are a good 3-3 1/2″ long, don’t mess with the boy.

    Or Billy Carter, Transplant folks. I think you’re on to something. There is definitely a bit of both nature and nurture going on in the formation of A Good Rooster. And it is nice being able to take the pick of the litter…somehow Jellybean missed the butchering window, whereas his very sweet brother Spotty did not (and our daughter reminds me of this mistake all the time). Spotty had a crossed beak though so which helped keep him out of the breeding pool. Ah well. Long live Mary Ellen, long may he reign.

    Craftastrophes, indeed. I often use terms like “beastly” when describing some bad act and it’s such a misappropriation of a term. “Stupid macho human” just takes longer to say!!

    WF, raw tofu! My goodness. Isn’t it funny the way the algorithms work. Not logical, surely.

  12. Funny isn’t it how everyone gets along (or not). We just had 11 hatchlings pop out from under the coop. I was sure we would get 6 roos but so far I only count 4. However they still flitting and taking cover under mama, I could have missed a few. We have two ducks in with all of the chickens. The one named Mya turned out to be a Drake. Since he has a lack of duck ladies he attacks the hens only the brown ones!

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