Our most memorable two-legged farm pet.
Chickens aren’t known for being smart, but once in a while there happens to be a bird that’s rather exceptional. When our boys were young, we were the lucky owners of a chicken with a great personality. We borrowed a name from a favourite children’s book and called him Curious George.
I think somehow George was destined to be our pet. The hatchery must have juggled an egg and he ended up being mixed in with our spring order of White Rock roosters and Plymouth Barred Rock hens. I mean really, who could tell the difference between George and the other white Rocks at that young age? They were all soft balls of yellow fluff with little stick legs, beady black eyes, and tiny beaks. The Barred Rock chicks were easy to tell since those little balls of fluff were black instead of yellow. Every single one was a delight for our young boys and received lots of attention.
Our plan was simple. Use our little red barn as a chicken house. Raise the fast-growing meaty white roosters until they were about seven or eight pounds then take them to the abattoir. The black and white Barred Rock hens would be hardy egg layers for many years.
As the young chicks grew, feathers appeared first on the edge of their wings, the tip of their tails, then on their backs. Birds grow amazingly fast so they go through an ugly stage because their feathers can’t keep up. They still had a cute peep of a voice, beady eyes, and stick legs but the urge to pick up and cuddle them – well, not so much. Gradually feathers covered the pinky yellow pocked skin and they started to look more like chickens. Even at that stage all the white roosters looked basically the same, some bigger, some smaller.
After another week or two, George started to stand out. He was taller and more slender than the other roosters with a black speckled ruff of feathers around his neck and a few black feathers sprouting in his tail. The older he got, the more beautiful he became. That tail kept getting longer and longer until the luxurious plumes cascaded and the black feathers that were mixed in with the white, took on a green or blue hue at times depending on the angle of the sun. He was becoming spectacular. To crown his regal head, a large bright red comb grew that matched the crimson wattles at his chin. We watched and waited for him to start crowing like a few of the other fellows.
Not only was George a beauty, but he loved people. His curiosity was totally endearing. He loved pecking at our boots and shoes. Cocking his head from one side to the other, he would inspect every inch with his darting beak – taste tasting, I suppose. That’s how he learned to untie our running shoes. After that we were constantly retying shoes – thank goodness for Velcro, although he worked at those too. George would keep up a constant conversation of clucks and long musical croons. He would wait for us at the gate or follow us around the chicken yard until we picked him up. The boys would carry him to the back porch and sit cross-legged on the steps with him nestled on their laps. He loved to be stroked under his chin.
When the time came for the White Rock roosters to leave the premises and come back to roost in our freezer, the vote was unanimous. Curious George would stay and live with the laying hens. George’s status was now raised and he was allowed the free run of our entire yard along with the black and white Barred Rock hens. He loved that because he could sit on the porch steps, waiting for someone to come along and stroke his chin.
Each day as soon as the sun was up, the chickens would take over our yard. They wandered into every corner, under every tree and bush, under the deck, and into the flower beds, searching for seeds and bugs. They loved to scratch the ground with their sharp claws, especially in loose dirt. If they could find a worm they were ecstatic and sometimes fought noisily for the prize. The hens soon discovered a sandy section at the southwest corner of the house in one of the flower beds. This became the dust bath zone. So much for my petunias.
Dust baths are a big deal for chickens – keeps them clean and healthy and they love it. First they’ll scoop a hole big enough to comfortably sit in, then they go to work kicking dirt over every inch of themselves, letting it run through every splayed feather like a sieve. They run the dirt through the shorter plumage on their bottom half then roll first to one side then the other, fluffing dirt through their wings. To reach their back feathers they kick so energetically that dirt flies in the air, all the while crooning away in their soft, hen singsong. You can’t imagine that these birds, with dirt lying on and between every feather, are actually cleaning themselves!
Eventually we started finding tiny little brown eggs here and there around the yard. Some of them were as tiny as robin eggs; some had a rubbery membrane instead of a shell. The young hens were starting to lay! Now it was a treasure hunt. We made sure the nesting boxes in their pen were very inviting and started checking them every day. The older the hens got, the bigger the eggs. The routine began where each hen would wander back to their pen at some point during the day and cackle excitedly as she laid her daily egg.
During all this cackling excitement George maintained his presence near the house, intently studying our movements and following us around the yard. You didn’t dare let George see you plant anything in the flower beds or garden – seeds or bulbs – because as soon as you turned your back, he’d have them dug up.
I swear George was more interested in learning about humans than being a rooster. He was fascinated when I hung laundry on the clothesline. He would walk around me, of course checking out my shoes, while I pinned the clothes in place. He would keep up a continuous clucking croon that always ended on an up note, like he was asking questions …. What are you doing? Why are you doing that? Where are you going? I could imagine his long string of questions as he hovered companionably around me. Once, only once, he fluttered his wings briskly to jump up on the edge of my laundry basket. He must have been intensely curious to see what I was hiding in there. The combination of his substantial weight and the almost empty basket caused a cackling explosion rivaled only by a hen laying an egg. He managed to perch for a split second before it flipped over almost trapping him underneath. Instead it tossed him unceremoniously on his behind amidst much fluttering and feather snapping. I gasped in surprise then couldn’t stop giggling for what seemed like an hour. He was quite indignant but soon regained his composure and strutted off to scratch in the flower beds. I used to think chickens had very short memories but since George never tried that stunt again, I’ve changed my opinion on that.
Our laying hens were becoming quite dependable – large beautiful eggs appeared daily in colours ranging from a rich deep cinnamon to a lovely warm light brown to an occasional delicate tan. I kept listening for George to crow but surprisingly nothing yet. A late bloomer I decided. Then one day while I was working in the shed near the laying nests, I witnessed a surprising event that explained it all. George was in a nest, cackling away, then jumped out to announce his achievement – a beautiful light tan egg. His name had to change.
Our beautiful white hen, with the black ruff around her neck and the glamorous tail, graced us with her presence for nearly a decade. I don’t know how we were lucky enough to be the recipient of the “oops” but we’re glad we were. Of all the chickens we’ve had in our little red barn over the years, the one we reminisce about is our Curious Georgette.