A Story of love, sex, death, and nocturnal, beastly raids.
The Black Frizzle Cochin is a bantam, smaller than most chickens, and with the unique distinction of having feathers which curve outwards giving the impression, as our hatchery brochure put it, that it had “walked backwards through a windstorm.”
We bought two of these birds one year, and as they were added to a mixed run, we did not know the sex. In the brooder, they were much smaller than the Aracanas and Wyandottes that we bought to be our egg-laying vanguard. They were smaller, too, than the pompom-headed Silver Polish we bought for kicks. But their feathers were normal, and apparently not destined to exhibit their frizzle until they were adult.
Which happened quickly enough. They both blossomed into full-fledged Frizzles, one male, and one female. Both behaved completely to type, the rooster taking control of the mini flock, which consisted of “Mrs.” Frizzle and the two Silver Polish (the egg-layers were too big for them to hang out with, although from time to time the rooster would “stray” into their territory and there would be a flurry of feathers and squawking as Mr. Frizzle tried his luck with one of the bigger hens.)
But as is the case with most roosters, his behavior left a lot to be desired. Mrs Frizzle was the only chickeny thing around that was small enough for him to have his way with. Consequently he was on her a lot. Her feathers could not withstand this constant assault and after a few months there were not many of them left. This made Mr. Frizzle out to be a kind of abusive lover, reducing his partner to a bedraggled sex-slave. In addition to his behavior towards his missus, he also had the roosterly habit of attacking people—jumping up at your leg and scratching with his talons. Luckily his size and weight made this comic—unless you were a small child in which case it was diabolical and terrifying. I often caught him running at me from behind, but when I turned and took a step towards him he would stop in his tracks and do a little dance, as if trying to get a grip on his instinct to let fly at me.
But notwithstanding these distinct deficits, the children were enchanted by him because he exhibited so much personality. When we threw corn for them, Mr. Frizzle would pick a piece up in his beak and cluck, so that before eating anything himself, Mrs. Frizzle and the Silver Polishes would come running and begin to feast. This was an extraordinary display of instincts which was very easy to humanize—a kind of “ladies first” approach that was hard-wired. And it made us feel that even though he was rough on Mrs. Frizzle, there was, indeed, some community among these chickens, that they had a very well defined and understood social code, and it is the possession of such a code that raises animals—in our human perception—above the level of insensate beasts.
As in so many chicken stories, this one involves death, so be warned. The first of these was that of one of the Polish. We had just moved their coop to the orchard in spring, from the barn where they had overwintered.
That first night I got to them just after dark, having put the kids to bed, and I was already too late. I found Polish on the driveway, half eaten. A skunk was prowling in the bushes. I can only think that because of her pompom, she would not have seen the skunk coming, that is why such a slow moving creature could have caught her.
This left Mr. and Mrs. Frizzle, and the one remaining Polish, known as both of them were, as Polly. It was several weeks later, well into summer that real disaster struck. The little coop in which we kept the four of them had a back door with faulty hinges. Early one morning I heard Frizzle crowing, which was normal, but it was coming from outside the front door, not in the orchard where their coop was. This meant that he was out, and the coop must have been open all night. He was obviously alive, but how about Mrs. Frizzle and Polly?
In the orchard I discovered a grisly scene: the wooden board which carried the bottom hinge had split in two, and the door had fallen open. There was no sign of Mrs. Frizzle, and a trail of black and white feathers led to Polly in the bushes, eaten beyond recognition. I stood staring at her for a while, appalled by the gruesomeness of the spectacle (it was like a crime scene, where a brutal murder had taken place), and tried to imagine what her last minutes had been like and how much she must had suffered while the creature ate at her innards.
You look, at times like these, for signs that animals are “grieving,” or suffering in some way that you might relate to as humans. Frizzle didn’t do anything that really brought this to mind, despite the fact that he must have had an unimaginably traumatic night. He looked at me with an inscrutable expression that made me wonder whether humans were ever so unfeeling, perhaps back when life was always nasty, brutish and short, back when we were always a hair’s breadth away from death, and life was cheap.
But when we threw corn for Mr. Frizzle, pathetically, and as if to highlight his loss, he held some in his beak and clucked, as if his ladies were coming, showing I suppose, that this act to which we had attributed so much meaning and which had to some extent redeemed him as a husband was, after all, a dumb instinctual prompt, activated whether or not there was anyone for whom to provide.
For a while Frizzle was alone in his small coop. His plight—robbed of his lover and companions, and alone—possessed a certain existential horror, and we couldn’t stand it for long, listening to his pointless clucking, his vain calling of womenfolk, and we found a mate for him. She was a white Frizzle, and complimented him well. For a few weeks life was good for the Frizzles. Then inexplicably, she was gone, taken, one can only presume, in the daylight, which was unusual in our experience. Mr. Frizzle was destined, for the time being, to live out his days loveless. For some time he stalked the yard, which was shared by a bunch of much larger Wyandottes, hardly the same species, really. Nonetheless we often saw them racing across the yard, followed closely by a sprinting Frizzle, who, no matter how hard he ran, could never quite make contact with them.
Then early in the fall we went away for a couple of nights, asking a neighbor to let the chickens in and out. When we came back Frizzle was gone. One can only imagine his final moments. Perhaps he had been staking out the big ladies, from the shade of one of the fur trees, when a fisher cat came out of the gully and grabbed him. Or he might have been racing across the lawn to throw himself at a hen when a chicken hawk descended from the skies. Either way, he had vanished without a trace, and with him, the last of our cochin friends had died.
This may indeed seem like a kind of holocaust of a chicken story. And it makes me think that we were too laissez-faire in our protection of the Frizzles and Polishes. After that we were considerably more careful with our egg laying Wyandottes and seemed for the time being to fend off any more bloodshed. Without us, their gaolers and protectors, they seem as a species to have lost all natural ability to protect themselves from all predators.