Greenpoint: Naming the flock — and everyone else

Mr. Roosterhead warms himself beside the wood stove. (Margaret Hartley)

Mr. Roosterhead warms himself beside the wood stove. (Margaret Hartley)

When we first started keeping farm animals, we weren’t fool enough to name every single one.

Maybe that’s because we started out with an adopted flock of two dozen Barred Rock hens, and who can tell one from the other? I mean, at first. Soon you recognize specific features — a droopy comb, a darker patch of feathers. But after a while you get to know individuals — their personalities, quirks, charms and habits, good and bad.

The hen called Mother, for instance, got her name from her propensity to adopt cold or injured hens and tuck them under her wing. Henny Penny would follow my husband everywhere he went, from the coop to the barn to the garden.

Once the old flock began to dwindle, we started adopting discarded chickens: classroom egg-hatching projects that yielded chicks no one wanted; or backyard flocks whose owners got tired of the care that goes into raising fowl or the heartache when they get carried off by foxes or hawks. We have some hens who were named by a 6-year-old: Cookie, Chubbie and Brownie. We have a hen named Little Old Lady Baby Hen, but that’s a long story.

Our goat herd started small and I made a rule that we would not name the babies because we intended to sell most of them. That lasted a few years. Now we have too many goats, and each one knows its name.

My husband’s theory is that the longer you have an animal, the smarter it gets and the more personality it develops. Maybe it’s not them — maybe it just takes us that long to recognize their individuality. It used to be that the clever ones got names, or the mean ones — the ones who stood out. Now we name almost everyone.

The young Barred Rock hens and the boy ducks don’t have names because we can’t tell them apart. The roosters, on the other hand, all have names as well as distinct jobs and personalities. Elliot crows in Russian; Tanner takes good care of the older hens; little Fitz likes to hang out with the two little hen sisters, Donna and Alice, who are more his size, having been hatched here at home from a bantam mom.

And then there’s Mr. Roosterhead. He got his name as an older gentleman, after being dragged off by a fox many years ago. He escaped, being too large and heavy, but came back home with what seemed like a broken neck. For several days he walked around with his neck hanging down and his head dragging along the ground, and we thought for sure he was a goner. But he perked up, and soon he could hold his head up, sort of. He would run across the yard with his neck straight out in front of him, as if he was determined to get somewhere fast. When he was tired, he’d sprawl out flat on the ground or perch on top of the duck house with his head dangling off the edge. He looked for all the world like he was dead.

But he survived, for years and years, even after two more run-ins with foxes. His neck was a little twisted and his feathers never grew back in quite right, but he had earned his name and a lifetime home. When a neighbor dropped off an elderly duck named Steve who didn’t get along with other poultry, Mr. Roosterhead adopted him and the two became inseparable until Steve died a few years later.

We don’t know how old Mr. Roosterhead was — 12? 14? — but the older he got the more he was bothered by the cold. His whole head would turn purple when it got below 20 or so, and he would follow one of us into the house and sit down by the wood stove. My Floridian husband empathized and let him stay and warm up for an hour. Or a few hours. Or, eventually, overnight. I couldn’t really object. He had beaten death three times, so how could we let him die from the cold?

Our friends knew him. Our visitors from the city loved him. Sometimes, when I was working from home, he’d crow during Zoom meetings so my co-workers got to know him, too.

When it got cold this year, Mr. Roosterhead moved into the house for the last time. The wood stove became his best friend for the last days of his long life.

And now he’s buried in the garden, near the other clever animals who earned their names.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on Jan. 2. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or on Twitter @Hartley_Maggie. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

Categories: Life and Arts

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