Jacob’s Roosters

Published by Spitfire Literary Magazine Dec 15, 2018

Steve, our house guest, announced at dinner that he was setting an alarm and would get up in the middle of the night to catch the rooster I thought of as Chanticleer. I armed him with a flashlight, the pole hook we used to prune high branches, and a gunnysack to hold his prize.

It is a desperate man who will ruin a night’s sleep to avoid having his night’s sleep ruined, and I felt guilty. But I hadn’t succeeded, and I fervently wished him well.

In retrospect, I should have built our Jamaican vacation home with the bedrooms in the west wing, farther from the noises of the fishing village, closer to the gentle murmur of the sea. The east wing listened to sounds from the neighbors’ yards.

That suited me. I made a cup of coffee and sat at my writing desk as dawn brightened through the louvered window and the daily villagesong began. The hee-haw of burros was no longer part of the chorus, but there were other voices of domestic normalcy: A neighbor sang hymns in a strong, clear voice as she started a breakfast fire; another scolded a child. A nanny goat’s kid bleated, hopefully from outside the fence that protected our garden. Roosters greeted the morning, mostly at a tolerable distance.

Paying guests, during the decades when we owned and rented this hideaway, often wanted to sleep late, and were understandably less tolerant. They came to Treasure Beach – a five-mile stretch on the unspoiled South Coast with only a dozen rental places like ours – to get away from the tourist areas and enjoy the charm of a fishing village.

A rooster crowing under a bedroom window took the luster off the charm.

Our neighbor – call him Jacob — raised chickens, buying day-old chicks and feeding them in pens until they were old enough to sell to a small hotel nearby. There was little market among his neighbors; they all had a few hens in their own yards, and a rooster or two to assure a next generation.

A handsome man in his early 40s, Jacob was a hard worker who over the years tried to better his livelihood. One year he bought a just-weaned piglet and raised it to a hog – but sold it at a profit so modest he didn’t try another. Too bad: The hog was quiet. He next tried turkeys, astonishingly fragile creatures that demand painstaking care – and for which there was no reliable market. He gave up turkeys. Just as well: His gobblers at daybreak were as insistent as Gideon’s trumpet.

In this dry, sunny climate none of his livestock ventures stank. His caged and grain-fed chickens weren’t a noise problem, either; they were slaughtered and sold before the cockerels found their voices.

Over the years, though, a few seem to escape to make an independent living. Jacob insisted they weren’t his; no one else claimed ownership. At the time Steve visited us, an oversized rooster of apparent Rhode Island Red heritage was the undisputed sultan of a feral retinue scratching through our rear yard. He suffered from insomnia, and complained occasionally during the night from a lignum vitae tree behind the house, loud enough to waken light sleepers.

The morning after Steve’s hunting effort I awoke as always at first light, padded into the kitchen to switch on the coffee, and slipped quietly out the door to catch the ani act. Night-flying insects, attracted by the bright yard light, fell into stupefaction among the needles of our tall casuarina trees. At dawn, a troop of smooth-billed cuckoos – ani, named for their soft scratchy call, AH-knee — arrived for a vigorous breakfast, bobbing up and down like clowns in a trapeze act as they worked their way along the branches.

There were also enough stunned bugs on the ground to attract The Rooster and his harem. Every morning he led them to join the ani in a morning meal, lustily crowing his pride in being such a good provider.

I saw that Steve’s overnight mission had failed: Chanticleer was there. I heaved a rock in hopes of driving him away before he woke people. He crowed defiantly in retreat.

At breakfast, Steve described his adventure. The tree in which The Rooster spent the night was stouter and taller than a typical American apple tree, with thinner foliage. Steve had easily caught him in the flashlight beam. A bright light fixates most wild creatures; that’s how one jacklights deer. Not, however, Chanticleer; he had taken advantage of the illumination to hop to a higher branch, well out of reach of Steve’s pruning-hook.

“Whose are they?” I asked our gardener after breakfast.

“Nobody’s, Mist’ Don.”

“They must belong to someone. Who eventually eats them?”

“We don’t eat that kind of fowl,” he said, wrinkling his nose in distaste. “They . . . you know, they eat anything they find. We people don’t care for that. Nobody here eats them.”

Jacob confirmed that. People in Treasure Beach were fussier than elsewhere, he said. They kept hens mostly for eggs. They ate chicken bought frozen in the supermarket, or occasionally bought his caged, grain-fed chickens. But they wouldn’t eat these “wild” chickens, and neither would he.

I once lived on a farm, and knew this was nonsense: Not many decades ago, subsistence farmers in the United States raised a horse or cow, a pig and chickens, feeding grain to only the largest animal and letting the others root or scratch out what the horse or cow hadn’t fully digested. I tried explaining that to Jacob; he refused to credence so outlandish a tale.

“Can you catch this rooster and the hens?”  I asked the morning after Steve’s fiasco.

“Yes, mon.”  Jacob would make a trap, and his young son Cody would lure them into it with grain.

And what would he do then, drown them in the sea? Oh, no! He made a twice-a-week motorcycle trip selling fish. Inland folk weren’t so discriminating; he would take them to his customers, who would be happy to eat them, not realizing they were wild.

“Tell you what,” I said. “You catch up this noisy bunch, and any others that wander into my yard. I’ll give you $1.50 per rooster, and you can make some more by selling them inland.”

Oh, no, not sell!  As a favor to me he would set Cody to catching stray roosters, but his conscience wouldn’t let him charge for wild chickens. He’d give them away as a bonus to his best customers.

All right, I said, so long as they were deported. I started home a few days later thinking I had solved the rooster problem.

Not so: I’d created a monster. In the next few weeks our housekeeper paid Cody and a young pal for some twenty chickens and roosters. Guests’ complaints dwindled, she reported. Nonetheless, the bounties continued: one or two roosters a week.

Then she wrote that neighbors were complaining: Their roosters were disappearing. It didn’t seem hard to figure out. Cody and his pal must be cocknapping to claim my payments. I wrote Jacob to keep his bounty-hunter closer to home.

They weren’t stealing neighbors’ roosters, he wrote back indignantly. They understood the rules: catch only in our yard or his.

Still, Cody kept showing up once a week or so to claim a prize.

On our next visit, I realized that the bounties would never stop. Guests were generally sleeping well,, but from time to time an intruder would waken them, and Cody would spring into action.

Jacob patiently explained the facts of life to me one morning when I’d been wakened before dawn by a rooster that was unmistakably in his yard.

“I have she-fowl in the cages, Mist’ Don. As soon as we catch up a rooster so there’s no he-fowl around, other roosters gonna come by. We can’t stop that.”

It was so obvious that I was embarrassed. My wife and I, veteran birders, knew that the male bird sings in the morning to stake out his territory. One way to get a close look at a shy bird is to play his song on a tape-recorder; he’ll call and come nearer to see if another male is intruding, defending his dominion to keep his mate to himself.

Roosters are, after all, male birds. They crow in the morning to stake out territory, and their neighbors respond to demarcate their own turf. It’s a primal ritual. And if no male bird calls one morning from previously-occupied territory, as Jacob explained, “some young he-bird goin’ to come ‘round to see if there be some unclaimed she-birds.”

Sex and the single rooster.




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