Hard Choices

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I know I am behind on my blogging and even farther behind on run updates. And this is not a blog I ever expected to write, ever.

The blog I expected to be writing this weekend was about running and fessing up to the fact that I have been running, but not consistently and in the past few weeks I have taken a full week off, run 3 times the next and then once. I was going to write about my aching legs and staying up too late for weeks on end to watch the Capitals march to their first-ever Stanley Cup Championship.

I was going to write about attending that championship parade and rally. About how I almost didn’t go. About how so, so glad I am that I was part of the sea of red on the National Mall that day. About how watching Ovi hoist that Cup brought tears to my eyes and why being a sports fan matters.

But something happened when I was in DC that day and continued through the week and led me to the blog I am writing now.

It was just past 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday. I was singing along to Kacey Musgraves about to switch over to The Fan talk radio and the Caps frenzy just past the Quantico exit on I-95. Her voice was panicked, just this side of tears. Millie had attacked my pet sitter, more than once, cornered her. She got away, but he and Rayna and her babies and Vera and Juliette all got out of the run. It was her attempts to lure them back in with treats that triggered Millie’s attacks.

I told her not to worry, make sure the gate to the main yard was ajar and they would spend most of the day in there. I also knew Millie would attack her again and I told her not to worry about an evening visit. I wouldn’t be home terribly late. Once in the yard Millie would fiercely guard the deck.

Millie was out by the back gate when I pulled into the driveway. He started trotting across the yard to me.

“Dude, apparently we need to have a chat,” I said as he sauntered towards me. What happened next took my breath away. He lunged head on at me, spurs flying.

“Mildred!” I yelled. “NO!”

I stared at him in disbelief. It was suggested that perhaps he is a Penguins fan and knew where I had spent the day.

He has never, ever attacked me head-on before. I’d learned his moods and knew when not to turn my back on him. Even when he tried to startle me from behind, I would turn and face him and he would stop and look at me like “What? I wasn’t going to do anything.”

But this time he was facing me, his human, his Moma and he came at me. I turned to step up onto the deck and go inside and regroup and he lunged at me again….and again when I went out to the chicken yard to check on things. He was equally feisty in the morning, but I pet him and talked to him like I always do and he finally went about eating his breakfast, but I could tell things were different.

“Did you hit your head? Do you have a brain tumor?” The personality change was that different.

Research did not ease my concerns. And this was all stuff I had read before. It seemed as if maybe I read it all again the answers would somehow become different. They didn’t. An aggressive rooster can not be turned into an un-aggressive rooster and none of it was caused by anything I did or did not do in raising him. The few articles I read that suggested he could be “tamed” suggested I do all of the things I had always done with Millie…hold him, handle him regularly. I’ve handled Millie since he was a week old. I walked around with him on my shoulder in the snow, recently sat with him on the top step of the deck, one of his feet resting on my leg while I rubbed his chest and just a week ago walked around the yard with him under my arm surveying the yard work that needed to be done. He was my bud, my boy, my Mr. Millie. And then there is the fact that he is a Rhode Island Red, they ranked at the top of every list of the most notoriously aggressive roos.

Long story short, I decided I was going to see how the remainder of the week and weekend went and make a very hard choice about Mr. Millie.

He danced threateningly at me way more than usual each night after work when I let him out. I had always gotten that little side-shuffle, but usually only once or twice, and it seemed more of game because as soon I reached down to pet him and rub his back and ask him about his day, he would carry on with his girls. Last week I could not walk comfortably across the yard until he was fully engaged in foraging. This was ridiculous. I cannot live in fear of my own chicken.

And before you scoff at being afraid of a chicken, let me point out Mr. Millie is not small. A determined redhead is nothing to scoff at. When an upset rooster flies at you talons and spurs flying…well, he is darned intimidating. Just ask my pet sitter, ask my mother. Look at the various scratches and bruises on my legs and along my side just from holding him when he wasn’t even trying to hurt me.

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Last week was really an escalation of something I had seen building, it just had not been directed at me before. He attacked the beagles a couple of months ago. Where they had once coexisted without any issues, they were now prevented from being in their own yard if he is free ranging. He attacked my mom head on Mother’s Day weekend and then my pet-sitter. The next question I’m sure you have is why I didn’t keep him out of my yard. Well Millie jumps the fence. The girls don’t, but he does.

He was pacing a lot this morning when I went to let them out. Nothing out of the norm. But when I opened the door he did not hesitate. He was ready for a fight…a fight with me. He came at me full force, head on, I tried to pet him and calm him, dodge his charges, encourage him to go on with his girls. I finally grabbed him and put him back into the run of the coop and shut the door. Both of my hands were covered in blood. Blood I didn’t realize was my own until later. He injured a spur a couple of weeks ago charging at the weed eater while I was trying to put it away, so I thought he had opened up that wound. As I got back into the house the pain in my hand began and I spotted the puncture in the pad of my hand just below my thumb.

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Decision made.

All I can figure is that the youngsters are growing up and Millie became keenly aware of having more and more females to protect and his hormones and instincts shifted into overdrive and suddenly, I was no longer one of his girls, I was a perceived threat. I bring food and water and Grubblies…a horrible threat. But he didn’t see it that way.

Last year when it was determined I had too many roosters, I culled them from the flock and turned them into meat birds and the entire process was completely satisfying knowing I had raised these birds, knew everything they had eaten, given them a great, albeit short, life. I did not take any of it lightly and when I cooked them it was with great care and love.

I did not take what I had to do to Millie lightly either, but I could not bring myself to process him. I dug a hole. I sharpened the knife.

I put on jeans, a long sleeve shirt, boots and gloves. Honestly my biggest concern at this point was getting a hold of him again without getting hurt.

I walked him across the yard on my hip. I apologized to him. I told him I loved him.

I managed to get through it without crying.

I laid him down in the hole I dug by the garden and apologized again.

I sat on the edge of one of the raised garden beds and the tears started to fall. I cried most of the afternoon.

He taught me so much about the dynamics between a rooster and his flock, constantly amazing me with the way they communicate and his unwavering need to protect them.

His life was way shorter than I intended it to be. But I know he had a great one for 16 months. I loved him. He was my favorite. I loved him more than I love any of the hens – shhhh, don’t tell. But I know I had no choice. He had taken a turn I couldn’t live with. None of us could live with.

All of my girls and Millie’s two babies foraged around quietly for the rest of the day. The beagles wandered around the yard and laid on the deck without concern that Millie was going to come attack them. And I sat by his grave and thanked him again for being a good roo.

RIP big boy.

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3 thoughts on “Hard Choices

  1. I’m very sorry it came to that. It’s always sad when a beloved flock member is threatening the wellbeing of the whole property.

    In the future, as a heads up, it’s best to raise roosters hands-off. If your rooster views you as a flock-mate, his “moma”, a provider, one of his “ladies”, you’ve already lost him. As soon as he decides he’s all grown up (and he was just the right age to conquer and rule his own flock) he will see you as a bigger chicken than him, one he can’t breed and who provides food and pets his hens. That means only one thing – another rooster.
    It’s better to let them think you are what you are – a big scary monkey who will eat them if they misbehave. Who can do all sort of horrible things to them like carry them upside down and apply medication and clip wings. You don’t have to be mean of course, but you do have to be not-nice. As long as they view you as alien and beyond their abilities to comprehend they may not be friendly, but they won’t attack you either. The best roosters will stay around 5 feet away from you at all times.

    I hope in the future you can have a rooster in your flock that will both allow you to feel safe and help keep your flock secure!

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    1. Wow, what a great perspective, I certainly had not thought of him viewing me as another roo. Thank you for sharing that. One thing I will say, Millie was from my very first batch of chicks purchased as a straight run at Tractor Supply – huge rookie mistake I know. I had no idea he was a rooster until he was already my best pal. He was the sweetest chick from day one, always wanted me to hold him, fell asleep in my hands as soon as I picked him up, always the one who came to me to see what I had for them. Once I realized he was a roo, he was my buddy and he was feisty, but he loved me so when I made the decision to process the other roosters at 12 weeks old, I kept him. Of course, I also noticed he calmed down a lot without the other roosters around….until this spring.

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      1. Totally normal rookie mistake. 🙂 Very common. A lot of folks dive in without educating themselves beforehand about roosters.

        Yup. It’s something I picked up from a lot of old-timers mostly. Roosters can be real hard to raise because as chicks they are extra-affectionate. But it’s all a ruse. Since male animals are normally ejected from male-dominant animal groups in the wild (including chickens, there’s only one rooster in a flock of wild chickens, generally), many males will do just about anything to endear themselves to the ruling male long enough to grow up and maybe even make an attempted coup.
        So they play nice to the “adults” (IE, you), and then you don’t respond by chasing them off. Ever. There’s no floggings and pecking that an adult rooster would give. Next thing you know they’re breeding your hens and still not being driven away. You’re just the wussiest rooster ever, and they’re not scared of you at all. They have no reason to be, so they act.

        Unfortunately, that’s just the danger of loving and the inevitable anthropomorphism of animals. Their brains just don’t work like ours and they work together for their own benefit. Once their perceived benefit has worn off, they just want you gone. That’s why a rooster may even drive off an injured or sick hen, and the flock will harass her.
        You can train a rooster that thinks you’re a chicken only by teaching it you’re the boss rooster (so, aggressively, usually involving a stick) but it has uncertain and never-permanent results. You would have to reinforce the training constantly.

        But if a rooster sees you as a potential predator, or another species entirely alien to them, their reactions are totally different. Like how a squirrel reacts to a horse, they’re just objects in each-others life, but if the squirrel gets in the way of the horse it could get hurt so it exhibits caution. And roosters don’t get that way unless you are hands-off and raise them a little wild and wary. You’ll never have them sit on your lap, and you will have to chase them down to treat injuries or parasites or clip wings… But you’ll also never run the risk of them thinking you’re anything but a crazy hairless monkey, either, and they will never flog you or try to spur you because who KNOWS what a crazy hairless monkey might do if he does.
        It’s not perfect, every once in a while a lap rooster will grow up nice and a hands-off rooster can still be crazy. But you’ve got a much better chance of having an animal you can co-exist with.

        I hope you can get another rooster someday – as you know they’re awesome to have in a flock. And next time it goes a little better. :O

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