Monday, September 16, 2013

The Activist Rooster

Mr. Bernard

Four years ago last Valentine’s Day, my wife and I became backyard chicken wranglers. On a chilly Saturday morning, we acted on faith that spring was actually coming and bought four barely-out-of-the-egg hens at Denver Urban Homesteading’s weekly market. I had grown up helping to tend my family’s small herd of white leghorns, so I knew it didn’t take an advanced degree to succeed—and I had experienced first-hand the payoff we stood to receive in fresh eggs every day.

Never mind that we live in a typical urban neighborhood with ordinances prohibiting backyard “livestock” of any kind. That was not going to stop us. No one will ever know they’re here anyway, we thought, our own silent uprising against Really Dumb Rules. Take that, Monsanto!

There was just one problem (which fellow chicken wranglers have probably caught on to by now, nodding and chuckling): Our little cotton ball herd of baby chicks was only mostly hens. Three out of four isn’t bad, but that last 25 percent was all rooster. So much for stealth mode.

Now, the woman who sold the chicks guaranteed hens, so we could have traded him in. But that just seemed wrong, somehow. Sexist, certainly. Besides, it was a 50-mile round trip to her farm on the prairie—hardly in keeping with our goal of more sustainable, responsible living. And speaking of sustainability, wasn’t a rooster a necessary part of the equation if we wanted continued returns on our investment?

So, our daughter christened him “Mr. Bernard” and we gave him full citizenship. (Let the court records show that he has done his part to contribute several more cotton balls to the community since his reprieve.)

But there is no denying he is a noisy and aggressive little cuss. Once he really found his voice and his machismo, Issa and I expected to be met at the door every morning by S.W.A.T. or a mob of people with pitch forks. We decided to head that off at the pass by taking our most radical action yet: talking to the neighbors and listening to their thoughts. In essence we said, “We’d like to keep this guy around, but if that is intolerable to you then we’ll settle for a potluck BBQ instead. You bring potato salad.”

The vote was unanimous: Thumbs up on Mr. Bernard. Some even said they liked the “ambiance” he provided as it reminded them of their rural childhood. One man threatened to buy a replacement rooster himself if we got rid of the bird. Granted, not all neighbors will be as accommodating as ours, and the experiment might turn out differently on your block.

But I wonder what the outcome might have been here had we erected a stockade of “private property rights” and “you’re-not-the-boss-of-me” defensiveness. It might have cost us a rooster to offer the neighbors a say-so. But what we stood to gain—a small step in the direction of genuine community—was far more valuable. The relatively trivial conversation about roosters planted the seed of an idea in our neck of the woods that will surely come in handy as the current rearrangement of modern life picks up speed: We are in this together.

Here’s the part that’s most important to our collective conversation about the need for a jailbreak and how to go about it: Busting out of the faulty beliefs and habitual thinking that imprison us does not always involve storming the obvious strongholds of power, injustice, inequality and oppression. That’s our goal, sure, and we will get there.

But sometimes the jailbreak is about facing our small fears, escaping the daily ruts that hijack our potential to be free, confronting little pockets of injustice and oppression with courage and grace, building solutions out of whatever is at hand. In fact, true crisis is never “global” even when it gets its own theme music on the nightly news. Real trouble will always present itself right in your time zone and challenge your beliefs—and the structures you’ve built to reinforce them—at point blank range. 

Can we just agree from the beginning that there are no small or trivial freedoms? Every declaration of independence from old choices and worn out ways of being is equally powerful and profitable in making a new world.

We have long since stopped cringing every time Mr. Bernard reads the rooster riot act to the world. (By now, the neighbors have all had a taste of fresh eggs.) And this morning we heard a sound in the distance that brought a big smile to our faces: Somebody else in the neighborhood has a new rooster.

(For readers with a taste for poetry I invite you to visit Words in the Wind, where I post a new original poem every day.)


  1. hooray for you, on the road to a sustainable future, eggs, chickens, all out of your home patch ;-) word of warning, (apologies if you already know this) you will get mites etc. there are all sorts of "mite-control" out there & we have tried them all, the best control we found was using light. a simple light control during the night interrupts the red mite feeding pattern (they do not like light) a simple 3/4 of an hour off followed by a 1/4 of an hour on is very good at controlling, if not completely eliminating the red mite. our hens & roosters (we have 2) have never looked healthier. the actual study is called: "Preliminary study of intermittent lighting regimens for red mite (Dermanyssus gallinae) control in poultry houses. Stafford KA, Lewis PD, Coles GC."

  2. Replies
    1. you are welcome! ;-) btw, quick update on the 2nd rooster, met his make today, (was not able settle into the pecking order) was quick & instead of plucking it I skinned it instead, was much quicker than plucking, the chicken did not have time succumb to rigor mortis & made further butchering easier. when it is de-frosted, we'll be able to cook it right away & not have to leave it to in the fridge overnight (as is the case when it does have rigor mortis. (makes for a tough bird otherwise) hope this helps you...

  3. I loved your point about trusting your neighbors. The idea that we are alone and isolated within our communities is yet another falsehood based in fear keeping us trapped.