by Edward Thomas
Out of the wood of thoughts that grows by night
To be cut down by the sharp axe of light,—
Out of the night, two cocks together crow,
Cleaving the darkness with a silver blow:
And bright before my eyes twin trumpeters stand,
Heralds of splendour, one at either hand,
Each facing each as in a coat of arms:
The milkers lace their boots up at the farms.
Roost - The First Resident©
© Kathleen Knight
About twenty years ago I bought a wonderful 1830 farmhouse with huge old maple trees, a pond just across the dirt road and acres of field melting into forest. After New York City, it was completely cozy and warm in the autumn chill and very lovely in the deep winter as well. When I first saw it on a misty October day with smoke curling from the chimney, it seemed I had gone through the looking glass into a simpler richer time. The old house was well settled into the land, with rocky pastures and huge stone outcroppings in the hill that rose behind it. The house and the land seemed to belong to each other, as if they had been together so long they were now inseparable.
As time went on and I spent more time there, I began to feel part of the place. From the greenhouse sunroom I had installed I could be a close observer and almost a crony of the wild creatures who went by. The bird feeders attracted palliated woodpeckers, cardinals, doves and all sorts of other birds. Deer, wild turkey and possums came by. In all, it was enchanting to be so within the natural world.
There is a big screen porch and the long sunset of the summer evening allowed for a peaceful time as the bird and squirrel sounds of the day settled cheerfully into the evening chorus of frog and coyote from the swampy part of the field across the road.
By that time I had become interested in birds and had created an aviary off the front porch. It was about fifteen feet by ten feet and was attached to a small but sturdy shed I purchased from the Amish vendor nearby. The lovely white doves I had rescued from small cages in pet stores had settled there. They cooed peacefully as evening came.
One day I was coming back to the house from an errand at the hardware store when I noticed a rooster and three hens in the grasses on the side of the road. The rooster had magnificent green black feathers with a collar of long buff feathers cascading over his sides. He was clearly the leader of the small group as he stood proudly with them, head up, tail erect and feathers shimmering in the afternoon light., his hens scratching in the dirt beside him. I was delighted at the chance to watch the little group and to discover that they did not immediately run off. I wondered where they had come from since no one on the road had chickens, nor had I seen any on the neighboring roads. Then after a few minutes musing, I went on my way.
Next day, there the little group was again. They were scattered, but all still there. In truth, I had thought about them quite a bit since I had first seen them and hoped they would find refuge. Chickens have always interested me. I was charmed whenever I saw a flock of them in a yard searching for bugs and other bites of interest. I was excited to watch the group on my road. And so it went for several days: I would go to look and see how they were doing. One by one, the hens disappeared. After all, I said to myself, it is the country; the fox and coyote have to eat too. I wasn’t happy though. Finally there was just the rooster. I was worried he too would be dinner for a predator, worried that he could not find food, and just in general worried.
In the next few days he came quite a way toward my house from the corner where I first saw him; I began to hope I might entice him to my place with food and water .. He would be safe there I decided. However, the rooster appeared on the verge of the old dirt road only during the daytime. By evening he was gone. I got more and more nervous: perhaps one night he would be gone and then just not seen again, like the hens.
The rooster seemed to be spending nights in the large field across the road, which is also home to lots of local creatures, including a group of active and noisy coyotes. The fields nearby are not planted but offer lots of grasses, wild iris, a riot of various wildflowers and at the bottom of the hill, a stream and a grove of little trees. The deer like to lounge about in that grassy treed place – you can see the depressions they have made in the grasses as they roll on their backs. I saw the rooster go off into the field at night and at least so far, reappear in the morning.
Each day I dropped sunflower seeds in the road, with the largest batch, closer and closer to the house. Finally after about three days, there he was in the yard. I was excited: a visiting rooster in my side yard. He was a true symbol of country life. In old stories the farmhouses always have chickens in residence.. Now I put out lots of seeds and fresh water. Success!
After a day or so, he began his morning rooster call loudly over the yard. He seemed so magical – free, independent and proud, always striding around as if all the world was his. I began to wait for him and to worry about him each night: where was he going, would he be safe, would I see him again and so on.
Still, he did come every morning about seven and crowed outside. I happily went to meet him with sunflower seeds as he waited outside the back door. Day by day we began to get to know each other; he seemed more and more to belong, digging for bugs in the garden, investigating all around the house, eating under the feeders for the wild birds and in general making the land his. But each night he went back to the big field on the other side of the road and each night I said prayers for his safety. The coyotes were howling vigorously in the swampy end of the field. I feared for Roost, as I had begun calling him.
I could see I was getting attached to Roost and waiting for his call each morning.
I admired his survival skills; everyone else in his group was gone and he was still here. I was honored to be a destination for such a regal individual. All was well, except for the approaching fall when the warm August would inevitably be followed by winter. Winter in my area is a true winter: I could not see how he would survive. Still, every evening he strode off purposefully into the field.
After two weeks of this I hatched a plan: I would lay a tail of seeds into the aviary off the front porch and if he followed, he would be safe there in a new home. Seemed like a great plan to me. Best of all, it had the possibility of a happy ending for everyone. I took up watching him from the comfort of the wicker porch chairs and started talking to him in the afternoons. The ten or so white doves in the aviary seemed interested in him too, as they sat and watched whenever he was around, chattering to each other. In all, it made for a comfy bucolic scene and felt quite the right thing for the old farmhouse.
After a week or so I decided it was time. It was a lovely summer day with clear blue sky, drifting light clouds: perfect, I thought. I nervously laid out the seeds, settling a big seed stash and water inside the aviary and waited for afternoon. As the sun started to settle gently over the big field, he had come around the house scratching for several days and so I knew his day would then finish as he crossed the road for the night, settling on some low limb he had chosen in the field. I had told the doves what I was planning; I hoped and trusted they would not dash out the door I had to leave open for Roost.
Suddenly, there he was at the corner of the porch. I took a deep breath and got on the lush green grass between him and the road. We looked at each other for a moment or two and then I started ambling slowly from side to side interrupting his usual route to the field, helping him discover the seed trail to the aviary. It was a tense half hour; several times he looked up wistfully at his usual path toward the field, but he made no dash for it. He kept inching toward the doves on the perches high in the aviary. Mercifully the doves were quiet, seemingly content to be spectators, not setting up a loud complaint at his approach; they just watched. And then, wonder of wonders, he was inside. I closed the door, welcomed him with a gleeful ‘welcome to your new home, Roost’, and collapsed onto the grass for a good cry. Apparently I was more frightened than I had realized because I was completely relieved and delighted he had chosen comfort over freedom, at least for tonight.
Next morning and for each morning thereafter, he crowed, letting all the rest of us know the day had begun. And that he was present. It seemed so wonderfully cozy – not just any old rooster but one who had chosen this place as a refuge. He seemed at home with the 10 or so white doves.
Doves feed on the ground but mostly live on high perches. Roost was mostly a ground dweller, though he liked to get up on the old tree limbs that I had put in the center of the aviary. All was well. But after a week, I realized he was alone even though he was surrounded by birds. Having had some experience with birds I had knew that they are flock creatures for the most part: they like to be with others who are like them. They then create their own community and seem joyous within it. Magnificent Roost had no community: he had friends in the doves, me and the wild birds, but no hens. No good. I noticed that my idea of comfort was lacking – it meant safety but possibly not contentment, since he had no others of his own kind to commune with directly .
By now it was a radiant October and the county fairs which often have poultry shows were in full swing. I took a picture of Roost and went forth to discover what breed of rooster he was. The chicken world has a very large number of different types, and it seemed better to find hens for him of his type if possible. I was determined to do my best for him. The gods smiled, and there, in the Columbia county fair poultry exhibition, was a rooster who looked exactly like Roost, and who was being shown by a local fancier. After some coming and going ( it is harder to track folks from a fair to their homes than you would think ) four Phoenix hens came to live with us. The hens clucked wildly when they saw Roost and he strutted proudly, tail and head held high. I felt like a proud aunt, watching her relatives enjoy themselves.
A month went by, and I decided it was time to give Roost and the hens some free range time. I had admired a flock some miles away wandering free and knew from the chicken books that it was a fine thing for them to have freedom, though it does have some risks: what if the hawk grabs a hen, what if something else happens, what if they get lost and so on? After all, freedom carries risk in the mix with joy and adventure. Another bonus: the flock would eat ticks and other bugs. With considerable trepidation, I opened the inner door to the aviary and let the hens and Roost into the approximately two feet between the inner and outer doors . (Bird housing typically has this double door arrangement to keep surprise escapes from happening). And then, out onto the yard. I was a complete wreck: would they take off to the field and never come back, would something befall them, would they get lost: the horrible imaginings were endless. It was a tense day for me, but they loved it. They wandered all around as a group poking at the ground for bugs and scratching up clods of soil, Roost tending his flock.
Then, it was afternoon with the sun waning. Time to get them back in to their home. To my delight they all appeared, led by Roost, on the side yard. I opened the doors, trusting the doves would not race out, and watched as Roost and flock went in. Roost came last as seemed fitting – after all, he was responsible for their safety. What an exciting day for everybody and just as wonderful as I had though . I was not the only one who was gently but powerfully pleased: the farmhouse now had what it had had in its early years – a flock of chickens at home on the farm. I sat on the porch in the twilight and basked in good fortune.
As time went on, more hens came, and some were lost to one cause and another. One or two to illnesses, one or two just disappeared. I found their loss meaningful and poignant, but somehow a natural part of flock life; the remaining flock did not seem at all upset. As if the eternal wheel was turning in its way.
However, I did discover that the old phrase ‘the map is not the territory’ is very accurate. At first I bought a number of ‘how to raise chickens’ books and read them, but soon found that my experiences did not match what the books said and often I was left to my own resources, which were meager as I had no real knowledge. I asked other folks who had chickens and each time each person said something different. Bewildering. But, as time went on I gathered experience and some inner sense of what works and what doesn’t and lost some of my feeling of being a stranger to the chicken kingdom.
There was one large fly in the comfort ointment: each time the flock came out there had to be an easy way for them to return to their place in the aviary. The aviary couldn’t be left open because the doves would then likely go exploring. I had been told by several people who had a lot of bird knowledge that doves are important in the food chain for hawks and if I intended these creatures to live longer than a short time they should not fly free. Also, apparently doves lack the homing instinct that pigeons have, so the doves would probably all disappear quite shortly. Conflict: they were fully flighted and healthy; it seemed they should be out. But out seemed to mean almost immediately dead. I opted for safety for the doves until I could find some solution.
On the chicken front, that produced the impossible requirement of being available each evening at exactly the time Roost and the hens wanted to go in. The going in process lasted about fifteen minutes and was not always easy: chickens always found the most interesting diversions on the way home. But when they are ready they are ready and they mean right now, so if you are not ready they find somewhere else to spend the night.
When I did not show up as needed they simply went to ‘roost’ in bushes and trees nearby. As I did not initially know that, I was up all night worrying about them, only to find them all in the yard in the morning. Clearly the system was not good. The two species were doing fine together, but I wasn’t fine and I thought I should be comfortable too. After mulling a bit, I bought yet another shed from the Amish and created a coop just for the chickens, with a fenced yard which had wire over the top to keep out the raccoons and the hawk. The fence went into the ground several inches to keep out the ‘diggers’ - weasels, fox, dogs and so on. The sturdy shed was lovely with windows and big doors which I covered in strong wire . The roof was 12 feet up so there was room for several poles for perching. Best of all the fence had a gate so that once let out, the chickens could go back in when they were ready .
Chickens are homebodies and they want to go home at night. The doves did not especially miss the chickens as Roost led his flock near the aviary every day searching for morsels and exploring the nearby garden for worms.
We spent several years in this fine fashion; more hens came and finally a chick hatched who turned out to be a carbon copy of Roost: beautiful with long feathers of mottled gold down his neck and over his back and a large arching tail of shimmering green black. All seemed to go well, with the senior Roost as the alpha male and Riley, as we called the son, a part of the flock. They went out each day all summer greatly reducing the bug and tick count by gobbling up whatever they saw. It was a bit hard on my gardening efforts as their favorite sites were around whatever I had just planted, digging and clucking excitedly to each other. There were nice eggs for breakfast, though the free ranging meant that many eggs were laid here and there under bushes and just never found.
The hens loved to scratch under the bird feeders by the greenhouse room and then peer in intently as if whatever was inside the room was a kind of television. Must have been interesting for them as they came every day to look and discuss among themselves. It was completely satisfying to watch them and to join in their easy ways. In all, a very fulfilling and comfortable time of everything feeling as if what should happen had come to pass..
Then one warm afternoon in a early November I came home from doing errands to find Roost crumpled on the lawn by the driveway and only one hen, his favorite, still outside the coop. He was not moving. The rooster had never ever been still in the time I had known him and certainly had never sat down in the open. A large red tail hawk sat in the birch tree twenty or so feet away. At first I thought Roost was dead, I walked quietly toward him; he rustled his wings and staggered a few feet under the nearby lilacs and then collapsed on the ground. I watched for several minutes trying to decide what to do. The hawk had not moved and was watching; I did not want to scare Roost into the open, making him even more vulnerable, but I wanted desperately to see if he was injured.
After what seemed like a very long time and was really only a few minutes, someone else came by. Together we managed to capture Roost with a big bird net I have for emergencies. Roost was very frightened, breathing in shallow rapid rasps; I was so relieved to find he was not bleeding and not dead that at least I started breathing again. I wrapped him in a towel and took him home to the coop, where the others in the flock had already gone. Once there, he began to drink and climbed on a perch. Better, I thought. Perhaps in a bit of shock rather than completely done in. I closed the doors, thanked providence that I had come home when needed and went in for the evening myself.
Roost spent the next few days resting in the coop. He was eating and drinking, always a good sign with creatures, but did not seem vibrant. Richie (who helps me take care of the birds and who has lots of experience ) said he thought Roost had a respiratory problem and we should give him a suitable antibiotic. I had learned that country people don’t race to the vet with each animal, but rather develop a sense of what will help and do it. Richie has several hundred pigeons and part of his caretaking is a store of medicine he keep; he seemed to have a lot of knowledge about illness. We gave Roost antibiotic, and he seemed to progress.
By this time, perhaps two years, Riley had arrived to his prime, and was strutting quite proudly for the hens (eleven of them); he seemed especially evident now as he dashed through the hens, rounding them up as I had seen Roost do so often. Roost was quiet and seemed weakened. He just didn’t look like the proud leader he had been; instead he sat on the perch with his favorite hen and didn’t move about much. I had started letting them all out again, as they loved it so. I thought it might cheer Roost. It has been my experience that birds who become sad or badly disturbed often do not recover and fail quite quickly. It is better if the old routine can reassert itself. I loved Roost deeply and so admired his way of just being the leader of his flock, carefully tending the hens and his son, making sure he alerted everyone if he found a particularly tasty batch of bugs. The robust cries would summon the rest of the flock and so everyone got to eat. He had been a rich example of a creature living his nature completely. I was anxious for him to return to his old self, if possible, and so I was letting them all out again. I hadn’t seen the hawk for several days and it seemed safe.
It was now early December and getting chilly. Soon winter would be fully present, with its clouds and darkness and short days. The day of the next event I came out about four, it was getting dark and all the hens and Riley were in. Roost was in the driveway behind the house, wandering aimlessly. He would head toward the coop for a few feet then turn aside and just stand. All his old certainty and presence seemed to have dissipated; he felt old and frail to me. I laid bits of corn toward the coop and after an hour, got him in. I was cold, exhausted and heartsick. Finally I just sat on a rock and cried. My friend seemed to be leaving and the world would never be as it had been.
I have been involved with animals for a long time and so I have been through a great deal of death. I have repeatedly seen the animals become more and more peaceful as they weaken, not clinging as I clearly was to a reality that was ending. I saw that their deaths were indeed the next step in an ongoing wheel of life for them; however, in all this I have found no way out of the experience of loss felt when a friend who has mattered is gone.. At first I thought I was making some mistake because I felt the loss so keenly, but finally I concluded that the loss is real and a big presence leaves a big hole and that is just how it is. Better to honor the relationship by feeling the grief than by papering it over with some manufactured “ah well, it's inevitable, isn’t it?”, which, however true it may be is not a comfort. I have decided to just let myself mourn when someone I have loved leaves. And that is what seemed imminent with Roost.
A few days passed and he seemed a bit better, scratching for bugs in his yard with the flock and in general a bit restored. Then one day I didn’t see him; when I went to look I found him in the coop wedged behind nest boxes and covered in blood. He had been attacked quite vigorously, apparently by his son. Birds will attack whoever is weakest in the flock – the pigeons do it and now I had discovered what other chicken people knew: chickens do it. Hens will do it as well as roosters, though the younger rooster is usually the first attacker. This safeguards the flock and does not attract predators, the story goes. Makes a kind of sense, actually – the old order is pushed out and the life of the flock continues.
I might have left Roost to the course of nature I suppose, but I could not. I was heartsick. I got him out from the place he had chosen to hide, wrapped him up in an old towel, called the vet who treats farm creatures and said I had an emergency. There was blood everywhere: dripping from Roost’s wounds, on the floor, on my hands and clothes. I didn’t care. I gave him a squirt or two of water to drink as I thought it would stabilize him a bit, which it did. I thought he couldn’t have been stuck in the coop too long because he was still bleeding freely: the wounds had not clotted. I had heard no disturbance but then I had been otherwise occupied with planting some new trees. He at least was alive, the vet’s office was open and help was available.
I dashed off to the car, quickly telling the tree guy to go ahead planting, that I was taking the animal to the vet. A lovely kind man, he was startled but said he would do his best. Off Roost and I went. He was very quiet: I just hoped he wasn’t dying.
This vet is about 20 minutes over country roads. It seemed a long way that day. When we got there the senior vet who has and reveres chickens was very kind to Roost and to me. He said people sometimes do not or cannot treat wounded farm animals like chickens, and tentatively explored what my idea was. “ Let’s help the rooster”, I said,” and whatever we need to do for him we will and then what happens happens.”
That meant that Roost should be hospitalized, kept warm and given various restorative drugs. ” Fine,” I said, grateful to have come upon this level of willing help. A very bedraggled Roost spent five or six days there, with me visiting him so that he would know he had a link to home. He seemed glad to see me each time, and perked up after I held him for ten minutes or so. I had not before had the experience of hugging a rooster, but it certainly is a profound communion: the rooster has big spurs and could do damage if he chose, or could tear a hole with his beak. Instead, each time he settled quietly into my arms and we just were together in the peace of the moment.
After five days, the vet suggested Roost was not progressing very well and perhaps we should end this. I sat a moment and then said, “well, I think I will bring him home and let him choose when to die. I don’t think we are done, and unless he is suffering terribly, I think the choice is his.” The vet said that seemed a good option. He gave me a supply of antibiotics with instructions and sent us off for whatever happened next.
Roost was very glad to be out of the hospital. A nice hospital to be sure, but he had had a dog below him and a cat on each side. Definitely not as nice as his coop with his hens and everything he knew as home. He came into the house because it was now deep winter and 15 degrees outside. He went into a canvas dog crate with screen sides and front so that he was contained but could see his surroundings and people he knew were nearby. He settled into his nursing home but seemed listless: he just sat at the back of his container. He was given antibiotics with a dropper three times a day and dishes of his favorite foods were there for him: lettuce, dove seed and chicken mix.
Miraculously, after two days he was better: his head was erect, he gave something of a strangled crow, but a crow none the less. I had begun trying to accept his coming death; I was going about nursing but without much hope. When I saw vitality begin to return I was completely joyous – my friend might stay. Soon he was strutting around the kitchen much as he had strutted around the yard: head held high, tail flourished and beautiful golden collar feathers quivering with movement. His intestinal troubles had cleared, he was eating a lot and so I hoped. We went on like this for about two weeks. The vet was amazed at Roost’s lack of death, and gave me an additional batch of antibiotics for him.
He was so much better he began to seem confined by the kitchen. Somehow I concluded he needed to be outside on some surface he knew better than a stone floor. We covered an outside coop with a dirt floor with thick plastic to cut of f the wind, set up food and water and took him out for a day. The sun was shining and he was delighted to be on the earth: he scratched and dug and pecked as in days of old. Since it was very cold and snowy outside, he came in that evening and was exhausted. He ate well and then fell deeply but comfortably asleep.
While he was living in the kitchen hospital I had been giving him hugs each day and in general providing company. At one point he eyed the white couch and just stood in front of it staring. Finally I realized he wanted to perch on it for the night . Out came the old sheets and up went Roost, who went right to sleep with a contented gurgle. It felt wonderful to be able to give him what he obviously wanted. I don’t know what place in me it healed, but I could feel some very old sorrow melting as I looked at the nestled bird.
Over my many years with animals I have been part of a lot of death and each time I feel honored to be able to be allowed to participate in such a momentous event as the departure of a soul from his earthly lifetime. The books I have read on human death and dying comment that the approach and moment of death are among the most sacred we know. That is my experience with the animals. As the bodies become weaker the creatures seem more and more peaceful; I have always felt the spirit was more present though the body was used up. What a privilege to share such a time with someone you care about; certainly I cared about this rooster. He had chosen my place as his sanctuary and we had shared such good times. I was so grateful for the experiences and for the front row seat at the chicken pageant. Way better than what currently inhabits my television.
After several days of the morning journey to the outside coop with its dirt floor and an evening return to warmth, Roost seemed very quiet. In a person I would call the state indrawn; I called it such in him. He seemed still and uninterested in his surroundings, what usually captured his attention went unnoticed. After two quiet days, he stopped eating. That is what animals do when they are ready to leave. So, we sat together a bit each evening, then I put him in his place on the couch and left, expecting not to see him again. The great gift of this shared time had been that I realized in some deep way that his life and so his death belonged to him; I could support him, make him comfortable and hope he would stay, but the choice was not mine to make. As I had known that the vet’s wish to end his life some three weeks earlier had been invasive, so I knew now his timing was his own and heroic treks to the best medicine around would now be honoring wishes of mine, not Roost’s.
One clear cold night in January, Roost and I watched a movie for a couple of hours, he sat in my lap with what felt contented peacefulness to me. Finally I wished him goodnight, gave him an extra hug, thanked him for choosing my place and said I would be glad to see him in the morning but whatever he chose was fine. I went up to bed. He was gone in the morning.
In reflection, I notice his great peacefulness through the last part of his life. The time he was with me he was a model of vibrant life; then how to die in a way that is natural and somehow comfortable. He always seemed to be himself, never in doubt and obviously clear about what rightful roosters do: they guard and lead the flock and find food and safety. He had done that in an impeccable way: the flock had peacefully followed his guidance, flourishing in the process.. He was very sad in the hospital period and of course I cannot know how it is to be attacked by your kin, but after all that when he came home, he was himself again. And then he was done. I realize that my ideal is to approach my world in that way: to be fully in life and then to go peacefully when I am done.