The tale of Chickenzilla

Barnyard Bullies

by Kate Tvelia Athearn

Barnyard Bullies

Lucy Engelman

As fond as I am of the sweet simple-mindedness of domestic poultry, the smell of fresh pine shavings, and the hush that falls over a coop full of just-fed birds, it hasn’t always been like that. I spent my early farming days dreading farm chores. My aversion wasn’t about hauling sacks of grain, or even the smell of a chicken yard in August. It was due to the wrath of Chickenzilla, a pearl white Leghorn rooster of prehistoric proportions.

Back then, when we were brand new farmers, we were reading and asking more experienced agriculturists about everything from when to plant peas to how to deliver a lamb. Harder to learn were the subtleties of livestock keeping, like how not to run away screaming when a blur of beak and feathers came charging. Luckily, my kids were not only young enough to still do what I asked of them, but also firmly entrenched in the superhero phase of boyhood. They would gladly suit themselves up in baseball helmets and shin guards to confront the fearsome villain for their mom, proudly returning with the basket full of eggs I was too cowardly to collect myself.

Not that Chickenzilla was evil—he was just doing his job. We keep most of our animals for the food or fiber they produce. Roosters, on the other hand, earn their keep by protecting hens from predators. To defend their charges, they must possess a specific type of courage, setting them apart from more docile livestock. Chickenzilla walked that fine line between protector and aggressor. He had strong enough instincts to detect a hawk hovering overhead, and was tough enough to eject a hungry raccoon from the coop. But it was his size and strength that scared us. He wasn’t prone to unprovoked displays of barnyard bravado, and eventually, we learned to treat each other with cautious respect.

It wasn’t until his untimely demise (he was taken by what we imagine to have been the world’s largest raccoon, but we were comforted knowing he died serving his life’s purpose) that we realized what a special bird he had been. Through the years that followed, we met a series of sadistic brutes with freakishly long sharp spurs, who preyed on small children and unsuspecting
farmhands. Though we found the advice of countless self-proclaimed rooster whisperers online, claiming any rooster problem can be solved with proper training, I must confess that a few of those tough old birds met their end in the stew pot.

Eventually, the kids and I overcame our cowardice, thanks, in part, to a newly adopted family pet. The mere sight of our wimpy puppy dog will send even the fiercest rooster running with his gorgeous tail plumage tucked between his legs.

The dog helped some, but we are the ones who mastered essential farming skills on our daily egg-collecting quests. We learned to use our mindset and body posture—and whatever sports equipment we had lying around—to make ourselves appear bigger and braver than we felt. We learned that running away from problems usually makes them much worse, since roosters, like weeds, are emboldened to attack more viciously as soon as you turn your back. We learned that by opening our hearts, and giving a “bad guy” a chance, he turned into a fine, feathered sentry. Most importantly, we learned that we can face even the most daunting of farm chores, from corralling escaped pigs to plucking fantastically creepy bugs off the tomato plants. All we need is teamwork, a little nerve, and a belly full of well-guarded farm fresh eggs.