NOTHING TO CROW ABOUT: It was a weekday morning, at a quarter past dawn, that our little grey hen turned into a rooster.
I was the last one in the family to learn the sorry truth. A little thing like a cock-a-doodle-doo doesn't have much chance of waking me up at daybreak. A sobbing child splayed over my legs does.
"What's the matter?" I asked, struggling up out of sleep. First I directed a half-opened eye at my weeping daughter, who had thrown herself onto my bed. Then I saw her father and brother standing above us anxiously. Something was up.
"Ginger's a ROOSTER," Linda wailed.
I woke up a little bit more. This was news. It also appeared to be the truth. Coming through the window, having traveled all the way from the chicken coop behind the garage, was the unmistakable sound of a rooster crowing. It was a proud adolescent cry, shrill and piercing.
How could this be? Ginger had been certified as a hen by Linda's fourth-grade classmates. The students had raised a flock of chickens, Ginger among them, from the age of four days. Their mathematical measures of Ginger's growth curve over the first 10 weeks of her life had proven beyond all doubt that she was a female. Now, at age three months, she was crowing, and loudly, in the backyard.
We should have seen disaster coming, I guess. Like all good parents worth their salt we had said no to chickens at first, when Linda announced that the whole flock would need homes at the end of the math project. Then like all good kids worth their salt, Linda began her begging. Her arguments, besides including a promise to take care of the chickens herself, basically consisted of "Please, please, please." Naturally, we gave in and finally said yes to the chickens, but with an emphatic reservation: hens only, no roosters. We didn't want to bother the neighbors and besides, it's the Law. No roosters within the city limits.
So Ginger and Egyptian, two companionable hens, arrived home in a cat carrier. My husband ran over to Grant Road Lumber to pick up a little chicken wire and 2-by-4s and, in his newfound agricultural enthusiasm, racked up a bill of $150. The coop he built was a luxury model, with a hinged doorway, covered roof, upper-level roosting plank, and even a box for the eggs we were hoping for. Linda doted on her new pets, reported on their progress to classmates over the phone and sometimes even cleaned their cage.
I guess the signs of impending roosterhood were there, if we had cared to look. Egyptian was a fine big classic red, and Ginger a tiny little grey thing, but Ginger was at the top of the pecking order. She ruled Egyptian effortlessly. How curious, we said. And when a schoolmate's chickens came to visit for a week, Ginger pecked the newcomers ferociously. How feisty she is, we said. Then came the first fateful crowing.
Clearly, little Ginger was a late bloomer, a rooster just coming into his own. Still, for several weeks we maintained the polite fiction that Ginger was a hen, and we scrupulously called her "she." Linda, heartbroken, went into deep denial. She got a new chicken book that revealed that hens sometimes cackle quite loudly.
"Do you think Ginger is just cackling quite loudly?" she asked again and again.
The book also said that one rare breed of hen typically grows an extra toe. Perhaps, Linda puzzled again and again, that accounted for the rooster spur growing on Ginger's foot. Over the large red crown now sprouted on Ginger's head, she remained silent.
Our next-door neighbor, a congenial ex-farmer from the Midwest, was definitely not into denial.
"I've sure been enjoying your rooster crowing every morning," he said gaily.
Soon it wasn't just the morning. It was dawn, mid-morning, noon, late afternoon. The cockle-doodle-doing was all about celebrating the day, the whole day, and everything about the day. And as each noisy day dawned, it became clearer and clearer: Ginger had to go.
So we bought up a two-month old chicken, Nefertiti, a speckled black-and-white, a quiet clucker, absolutely guaranteed to be a hen. From the fourth-grade teacher, we got the name of a farmer who operates a small place in the shadow of the Tucson Mountains. His wife said to bring the rooster on out.
We drove Ginger to the farm last Saturday. Linda wept quietly in the back seat; Ginger, for once, held her tongue. We handed Ginger over to the farmer, a kindly man who held her gently, and took a last picture of a tear-stained girl and her pet. There's not much a parent can do for a child, when life turns capricious and metamorphoses her beloved hen into a rooster, except to stand aside and let her do her grieving.
Now Linda and her father are planning an addition to the chicken coop, an L-shaped wing that they say will accommodate up to four more chickens, definitely hens. Egyptian and Nefertiti are getting along just fine. We're expecting turquoise eggs any day now. But our neighbor, the ex-farmer, misses the crowing. And he's right: lately the dawns have been awfully quiet around our house.
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