Roosters are to crow about

As Candlemas Day (Feb. 2) nears, daylight increases, and winter approaches its halfway mark, I reach for my poultry catalogs to research exotic breeds. My mixed flock has practically stopped laying, so discouraged are they by the dark and snow, but eggs are a byproduct, around here. We keep chickens primarily for their entertainment value and we always get our money's worth. My "lamplighter routine" was just one example.

A couple of years back, our children, aged 9 and 10, purchased a pair of Black Rosecomb bantams at a local county fair. The fact that they wanted to spend their precious allowances on poultry instead of on honey sticks or blueberry pie spoke volumes about both the children and chickens.

Our son called his tiny cockerel Tony, because he thought it looked like a Tony. Our daughter called the hen Camilla, after a Hardy Boys' girlfriend. But my husband and I nicknamed the pair after HBO stars Tony and Carmela Soprano, the TV gangster and his wife.

Tony, the Black Rosecomb, was a stunning specimen. His shiny black feathers rose into a magnificent plume and his snowy white cheeks were spotless against the bright red of his comb and wattles. In his mating ritual, he looked like a flamenco dancer, side-stepping his way to the beautiful Carmela. Think Antonio Banderas. Think Zorro!

Everything about Tony was impressive except his crow, which sounded like the changing voice of an adolescent. Carmela didn't seem to mind. The unusual crowing did attract the attention of Pepper, however, our much larger speckled Plymouth Rock, who was "cock of the walk." He was not amused.

If you want to hatch eggs into chicks, you need a rooster or two. Otherwise, roosters are ornamental, sometimes feisty, and generally a lot of fun and trouble. You need one rooster for every eight or 12 hens. We've often had a surplus, which can be a problem.

Our solution to having multiple roosters in a coop is to use an overhead apartment for nighttime roosting. The penthouse was built for gerbils, but that's another story. Tony and Carmela took over the penthouse, leaving the Plymouth Rock rooster and other hens below.

In the daytime, one rooster remained cooped, while the other birds enjoyed free-range privileges. In the summer I constructed a movable wire pen outside so that both roosters could enjoy the sun, one contained while the other roamed. At night, both Rosecombs were relegated to the smallish penthouse.

The main disadvantage of the penthouse system came at dusk. If the Rosecomb rooster had spent the day in the main coop, it was simple to capture him within the confined space, transfer him to the "apartment," then open the main coop door for the rest of the flock. If both flighty Rosecombs were outside, however, I had to wait until Tony and Carmela had roosted in the rafters of the woodshed. That's because when they were "on the lam," the Sopranos resisted capture.

And so I performed my "lamplighter routine," accomplished by means of a gravel rake and the fact that a near-hypnotic state descends on chickens after dark. Holding the rake by its handle, I'd maneuver it into the rafters so that the tines pointed away from the Rosecombs but the solid metal back (imagine the top of a comb) pressed gently against their midsections. A slight nudge induced both Sopranos to step onto it.

With both Rosecombs now sleepily perched on the metal end of the rake, I would walk toward the coop with the poultry pair raised before me like a lamplighter's torch. The Rosecombs were then nudged onto their penthouse perch. It was a majestic procession.

Although my lamplighter routine is uncharacteristic among poultry keepers, there are other good reasons for owning roosters. The funny, sidestepping flamenco dance performed when a rooster struts his stuff is one. The gender-specific plumage that some roosters possess, is another. And the pre-crowing antics of a rooster about to perform his jauntiest display of machismo, is a third. A rooster can make you laugh, even in the dark days of winter. And that's definitely worth crowing about.

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