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  • John M Donovan

Goodbye, Nelson

Nelson is the first rooster I ever met in my life.


We thought he was a she at first, only because we had requested all hens in our first order of chicks. He was the first to get a name—Nella—because he grew taller more quickly and was thus easy to pick out from the others. But when it became obvious that a rooster walked among us, he became Nelson.


(His full name, if anyone ever asked, was Nelson Cockefeller. But no one ever asked and there’s an ever-decreasing number of people who would get that joke anyway.)


Nelson strutted around and crowed and only grudgingly joined his brood in taking crackers and tortilla chips out of our hands. When he was sure it was safe, he’d come up and take the cracker in his beak without much regard for whether he was nipping part of my finger as well. If I remonstrated he would look at me like it was my fault for having my fingers too close to the food they were holding.


I don’t remember exactly when he started spurring people, but it would come at random times. At no time was his flock ever in danger from our kids, my octogenarian mother, or the pest control guy (whom he chased up and down the driveway), but Nelson would perceive some threat, ruffle his neck feathers, and come after your legs with his spurs. To do this he had to hop in the air and rapidly swing his legs at you before coming down. This frightened a lot of people, rightly so, but the trick was to turn the tables on him. “Go after him,” my wife advised. “Pick him up. He weighs like three pounds.” He came after me once when I had a bucket in my hand, and I timed it so that every time he jumped at me, his head would go right in the bucket. I told him it was a KFC bucket.


And yes, at times he would protect his flock from the people who were nurturing the flock. Many times when he came after me I would remind him that I had just provided him and his brood with their day’s ration of corn crumbles. “I’m keeping you alive, idiot,” I would tell him. “Plus, I outweigh you by more than 200 pounds.” Sometimes he only feinted an attack. Sometimes he would run up behind me, and when I’d turn to confront him he’d find something interesting to peck at on the ground, thinking he’d fooled me.


Pretty much everyone hated Nelson’s guts. Everyone but me. I acknowledged that yes, he was acting like a complete dick, and no, I don’t particularly like being spurred in the Achilles tendon. But I couldn’t bring myself to hate him. There were times when I defended him, times I apologized for him, times when I’d respond to an attack by chasing him (and, in my best John Lennon voice, saying “Give us a kiss”). There were times—days and weeks—when I could walk right by him and he’d just look at me. But then there were times when he broke the détente and took his chances. He was kind of a nut.


Nelson had two sons, Elvis and Louie, and this past winter when we moved the chickens from a small shed to a much bigger one, something unexpected happened. The sons decided to overthrow their father and start leading the flock, which now included about 16 hens. They wouldn’t let Nelson in the big shed, and if they saw him even approaching one of the hens they’d come after him. Nelson was exiled. He returned to the small shed and lived there by himself.


What’s weird is that he mellowed.


No more attacks. He was humbled. One morning when I was out on the deck, he surprised the hell out of me by flying up and perching on my arm. “How’s it going? I’d like to apologize for my past behavior—hope you didn’t take it personal.”


“No, no problem, Nelson. These things happen. Sorry about Elvis and Louie.”


“Yeah, what can you do, though? Circle of life and all that.”


Nelson had grown quite philosophical in his exile.


We were planning to get some goats and let them live in the small shed, so I built a wire fence around the shed a few weeks before the goats were to arrive. Nelson continued to live in the shed and to strut around the area by himself, unable to avail himself of female companionship but seemingly pretty happy in what I called his white-collar prison.


But then the mellow wore off. He realized he didn’t need a flock. He was the master of a 400-square-foot domain with absolutely nothing in it. And out came the spurs again. He had no flock to protect, but he went right back to acting like a complete a-hole.


My wife said we had to do something about it. I demurred. For some bizarre reason I liked and respected Nelson even if he was a jerk. Cybil also said we needed to do something about Elvis and Louie, who were, uh, sexing the hens to the point of exhaustion and lots and lots of lost feathers. We had to bring a hen named Maxine into the house for a couple of nights to let her recover. She’d been spending her days hiding from the horny sons of Nelson.


Still I dragged my feet. Elvis and Louie, sure, I wouldn’t miss them. I also couldn’t kill them or abandon them. But Nelson—man, he was the first rooster I ever met. He’s crazy but I wouldn’t mind keeping him around. And that was the way we left it till he spurred our three-year-old grandson, leaving a mark on the back of his thigh that lasted a good week or so. Nelson had crossed the line, and soon after this we surrendered him and his randy offspring to the Animal Rescue League.


Things are quieter here these days. There’s no constant cock-a-doodle-doing. Nobody gets spurred anymore. The hens aren’t constantly looking over their shoulders.


The Nelson Era is over.

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