Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Chicken Karma

Vanessa, bless ’er.
No, I haven’t thrown a limp dishcloth over the white chicken’s head. That’s her comb. She’s attached to it, and any attempt to make her part with it will end in tears.

Compared with the other five hens in my backyard, Vanessa is tall and slim in appearance — even elegant. This is attributable to her breeding, specifically her Italian heritage. She’s a Leghorn, and that name I understand to be the English approximation of Livorno, the Italian port from which these birds first migrated to America in the 1830s.

Sadly, Vanessa’s breeding lets her down when it comes to her unruly comb. Its long floppiness undermines her confidence, because she can only see out of one eye at a time. It cramps her style. Instead of carrying herself proudly she seems to cling to the ground when she moves, as if the fabled Henny Penny’s fear has come to pass: the sky has fallen — on her head. It must be exhausting to lug around. She probably gets headaches.

Leghorns do have large combs but Vanessa’s doesn’t meet “the standard” for her breed. Leghorn fanciers seem to feel the need to speak out against excess in the comb department, which suggests that my chicken is not the only one thus afflicted. Here’s one judge
’s comment: “In Leghorn females, two points I notice immediately are a neatly folded firm comb, not overdone and obstructing an eye or loose and being tossed to either side...”

Henny Penny, part of a childhood
collection of chicken memorabilia.

Oh, Vanessa. It’s enough to make me weep. Or it would be if the aforementioned judge didn’t go on to critique the tail. “So many Leghorn females fail by being too tight and narrow in tail giving the impression of it being snick onto the end of the body,” he writes... And he’s lost me. Breed standards have never been my thing.

I feel like quoting: as you sow, so shall you reap. Unnatural selection means that the narrow-minded among breeders of birds and other creatures get what they deserve — complete unsustainability. But Vanessa, too, is punished.

If it weren’t for people selectively breeding to accentuate this or that eccentricity, she might be a happier hen (or she might not exist). At least, given her accommodation in a secure facility, she won’t be carried off by some predator. Neither will she reproduce. And fortunately she has no desire to be a mother: that instinct has been almost entirely bred out of Leghorns.

Meanwhile, my White Leghorn has been experiencing another kind of chicken karma, not to be mistaken for korma, the lightly spiced curry sauce. Recently she started tormenting poor Amelia, the New Hampshire Red, pecking her after Amelia began to moult, a natural process that happens at summer’s end. Suddenly Vanessa herself is moulting, in a Big Way.

Overnight, she lost all the feathers from her back — and that coincided with the unseasonal bad weather we’re having this week, the wind and driving rain. The rest of the flock took up residence under the palais de poulet. As well as keeping relatively dry there, they can move about, and check the weather forecast. 

The Leghorn, presumably cold as well as mortified, crept into darker, more cramped quarters. She spent most of yesterday alone and in hiding, under the chalet de poulet.

Oh, Vanessa. 

Is her tail “snick onto the end of the
body”? Worse things have happened.

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