A delightful tale of a rooster rediscovering his place in the world By Don Herald
The fresh summer wind sluiced down the east valley, spilling into the open barnyard, tumbling unseen over and around the clustered wooden buildings. It was the perfect situation for the Red Tail to pay another visit. But Roo was ready for him. Always had been, always would be. No creature was going to bring harm to his girls. Not on his watch.
This morning, Roo was in his place at the peak of the drive shed roof, awaiting the hawk’s expected arrival. If Roo took a bit of a run in the narrow lane between the barn and driveshed, he could get just enough good air to make it to the lower edge of the roof. While his landing was not always the most graceful, he made the best of it. Roosters aren’t much at flying. But with lots of practice and wing strength, larger birds like Roo could get enough distance and the necessary elevation to get the job done. Every day, Roo made sure he spent some time working on it.
On the shed roof, Roo strutted quickly to the peak. At the edge overlooking the yard, he took up his usual post. For sentry duty, it was the highest and best place to perch. From here, he could keep surveillance up the valley while still visually securing the barnyard below. This morning, his girls were excitedly scratching for bugs and worms drawn out by the overnight showers.
Roo settled in, keeping watch to the east valley where the Red Tail always appeared – a ruthless hunter silently gliding on a river of wind.
Roo had been introduced to the Leghorn hens about a year ago. Since then, not one of his girls had been lost to the Red Tail. As for predators of the four-legged variety prowling the perimeter of the barnyard, so far, all of them had been denied a tasty meal of warm chicken flesh with a side of fuzzy feathers.
Roo kept a close eye on his girls while they were free ranging in the yard below. The ten hens preferred to scratch for bugs along the fence rows and grassy edges of the animal pens. Each hen had quickly learned that when she heard Roo’s quick, loud cackles, danger was close by.
Instantly, the hens would skitter, flap and frantically race to the coop door. Upon arriving, the girls would bump heavily into each other, pushing and shoving until they all had squeezed through the small opening into the dark safety of their straw nests and elevated perches.
The birds set up high along the perch poles, clucking softly among themselves. After everyone was safely settled, Roo would usually duck in through the coop door, always staying close to it, ready to defend himself and the girls with his razor-sharp leg spurs and pointed beak. If necessary, he would give up his own life just to save the hens.
Above the deep purple line of the horizon in the east valley, a growing dark speck warned Roo that the Red Tail was finally on his way. Checking where his girls were in the yard, Roo decided he had enough time to wait until the threat of the hawk was certain.
The Red Tail dipped and floated in the wind currents moving down the valley toward the distant farm. Slight wing tip flutters and the occasional spreading of his reddish tail feathers which acted as both a brake and rudder were bringing him on a slowly descending flight path directly to the yard.
Roo had waited long enough.
With a shrill cluck-cluck, a short pause and then another cluck-cluck, he alerted his hens. The only time Roo ever used this particular pitch and combination of sounds was when danger had been discovered.
In the yard below, there was an immediate rush of fluttering wings and scurrying bodies, all slung low to the ground. In a barely controlled frenzy, all his hens were making for the coop. Roo continued his rapid clucking until every hen was inside.
The Red Tail was closing in quickly. Roo could see that now the hawk was passing over the near fence line of the east pasture, readying for a rapid and potentially deadly drop into the barnyard. Roo would always glide down to the coop door just before the hawk arrived.
But today, Roo did the unexpected.
He did not leave his perch atop the drive shed roof. Instead, he stretched his body as tall as it could possibly go. He began to noisily flap his wings in defiance of the rapidly descending hawk. For any large rooster, facing down a hunting Red Tail was very risky behavior.
Roo began to crow. Loud, piercing, sharp sounds. Every animal in the barnyard recognized the challenging resonance to his calls. In their coop, Roo’s hens huddled together, knowing that something terrible might happen to their protector.
The Red Tail was distracted by the large, reddish blue-brown creature screeching and wildly flapping at the exact spot he intended to pass over. Instantly, the Red Tail spread his wings further outward, the long flight feathers fully catching the wind. The hawk lifted effortlessly up and away from the yard in order to avoid that screeching creature just ahead.
Distressed at his hunt being suddenly disrupted, the Red Tail began his own screaming calls. As the loud, back and forth calling between their rooster and the hawk filtered into their coop, the hens huddled more tightly together.
Using the upflowing current of air, the Red Tail rose higher and higher, turning his head – left, then right, then back again, always keeping that noisy creature in sight.
In moments, the Red Tail was soaring in lazy circles above the yard, deciding if he could safely dive with open talons into that creature. But the Red Tail knew that an opportunity to catch a plump hen had been missed.
So today he would just circle and watch, learn the ways of this noisy, alarming thing.
On some other day, he would return. And he would hit at full speed and carry that creature off to the top branch of the tall dead pine further down the valley. Once there, he would take his time to savagely rip the creature apart, chunk swallowing every bit of flesh, feathers, and bone.
Down below, Roo watched the soaring Red Tail.
Roo sensed the Red Tail was a creature to be feared. The hawk was a killer who dropped suddenly from above, catching an unfortunate animal or bird in its needle-sharp talons, then rising quickly up and away, the animal squealing helplessly as its life ebbed away.
Roo had once again protected his girls. He knew that the circling Red Tail would not hunt them again today.
Ever since he had taken over responsibility for protecting the hens, Roo had become very interested in how easily the Red Tail could float, hover and glide in widening circles within the swirling currents of wind. But today, by deciding to stay on the roof and not hiding in the coop, Roo had his first opportunity to more closely observe the skill of the hawk’s flying.
The Red Tail circled lazily high above, riding the billowing air beautifully.
Roo was in awe of the hawk’s superior flying skills. The Red Tail’s wings were fully extended, flight feathers at the tips easily trimming the glide. Subtle, short wing beats sought out new currents, adjusting how slow or fast the hawk rose or fell within the invisible waves of air. Long, feathered legs and curled black talons were tucked up tight beneath his belly. Dark red tail feathers spread wide then narrowed, helping steer the hawk from side to side, up and down. The small head turned and dipped constantly, fine-tuning the smallest degrees of movement.
In addition to his responsibilities as protector of the girls and master forager for the tastiest grubs and wild seeds, there were many other tasks that Roo could do exceedingly well. The barnyard and the nearby fields were his exclusive domain. He knew it. His girls knew it. And all the other animals that shared space and food in the barnyard also knew it. Each and every day, Roo could always be expected to look out for everyone’s safety, not just his hens.
But on this particular day, watching the intricacies of the Red Tail’s soaring, Roo came to understand just how poor he actually was at flying. If only he could fly like the hawk, he knew that he could be so much better at his responsibilities. Especially in protecting his girls from the danger of all the hunters who came silently in the air or along the ground.
In that moment, Roo decided that he would teach himself to fly like the Red Tail.
And while he could never be a hawk, Roo certainly believed that with hard practice, he could become the most skilled flying rooster his hens and the other barnyard animals had ever seen.
After all, hadn’t he taught himself to fly to the drive shed roof when most of the barnyard animals thought it would be impossible for a rooster to do that? And he’d taught himself to sort of glide somewhat gracefully back down from the peak without injuring himself.
And so it came to pass that Roo added the more difficult flight training into his daily barnyard routine.
He still went out scratching and foraging for tasty tidbits with the girls. They still expected him to find the best places where the bugs and worms were the most plentiful. He wasn’t about to disappoint them. But Roo always remained alert for any real or potential threats to their well-being. Several times each day he crowed his alert call and the girls immediately scurried, clucking and flapping, into the coop.
Every so often, Roo had to scare off the barn cats that came prowling too close to his hens, hoping to catch a tasty meal for their efforts.
And of course, the farmer’s new puppy always wanted to play with the hens, chasing them around the yard or under the tractor. A little bit of puppy chasing was fine for the girls. It was good exercise. But eventually, Roo would have to step in and fluff up his feathers, flap his wings and chase after the puppy, sometimes giving her a painful peck on the tail. Just to remind the pup who was the boss in this barnyard and that the big rooster was always looking out for the safety of his hens.
The peak of the drive shed roof was the best place to launch his new flying lessons. From that perch, Roo could also check the east valley for any sign of the Red Tail. Or scan the nearby fields for a fox, skunk or coyote hoping to catch a careless hen who had wandered too far into the long grass in search of fresh spiders and juicy grasshoppers.
At the peak’s edge, Roo stretched his wings as wide as he possibly could. He checked that each feather was fully extended and positioned just right in order to catch the maximum amount of air or a passing puff of wind. He reminded himself not to flap his wings fast up and down like all roosters do. He must do it like the Red Tail – moving his wings slowly down then up, then down again – hesitating at the bottom of each flap for just a few beats longer than he normally would. This small adjustment should give him a better glide angle.
Roo must also not forget to use his tail feathers as a rudder. Spreading then narrowing the width of his tail feathers would help him to shift slightly sideways during the glide. For the past few days, while foraging with the girls, he had been quietly practising fanning his tail feathers in and out. So far he had been unable to make his long, blue-purple, naturally droopy tail feathers cooperate. But Roo remained certain that with lots more practice, he could learn to fan and narrow those tail feathers just like the Red Tail.
Once in the air, Roo must remember to tuck up his long legs. A few days ago, during a couple of secret trial flights from a tall fence post down near the creek, his legs hung like stiff sticks. In spite of his best efforts, those uncooperative legs always dragged him down faster than he wanted. So now he practised hopping one-legged around the barnyard while tucking one leg up tight to his body. Though he was getting much better at leg tucking, he still had a very long way to go.
The girls began to wonder if Roo was feeling alright, but no one volunteered to ask him.
On the drive shed peak, Roo waited for a steady breeze. Then he launched into what he hoped was a much better glide than his usual one. With wings spread wide, his few flight feathers were fully extended, the wing beats less flappy. But his legs still dangled and his tail feathers twisted and turned uncooperatively in the rushing air, refusing to fan out like the Red Tail’s did.
Roo crashed heavily into the ground directly in front of the coop. His hanging stick legs helped cushion the impact but it was still a bruising landing. He stood up, fluffed his feathers and stretched out his wings, fluttering them several times just to make sure everything still worked.
Roo crowed loudly, declaring to the watching hens and curious barnyard animals that in spite of how it looked, his flying was improving.
From beneath the tractor, his girls had watched Roo step off the peak and drop far too quickly to earth. Right after the spectacle of the crash, they began soft clucking and head dipping with worry. They agreed that Roo had been acting very strangely for some time. But not one hen had any idea as to what was going on with him. So they held onto their concern, hoping that whatever it was with their leader and protector, it would all soon pass.
That afternoon, Roo made three more attempts at a hawk-like glide from the drive shed to the coop door.
Unfortunately, each flight was worse than the one before. Wisely, he decided to wait for a better time when the wind was stronger.
But in spite of repeated launches from the roof over the next few days, Roo’s flight training continued to go poorly. He was convinced that more practice of the Red Tail’s best skills would result in stunning improvements. And when he could fly better, he’d be better at his surveillance duties and maybe he’d actually begin to enjoy the experience of flying once more.
The hens watched his unsuccessful attempts with increasing worry. After the last several crashes into the barnyard, they noticed that Roo was no longer strutting around with his usual big attitude. He seemed to be favouring one of his legs. His once strong, shrill alert calls were less loud, almost feeble.
They depended on him for their safety and protection. They depended on him to find the best bugs, worms, and grubs. But with his damaged leg, he couldn’t scratch and dig with the same strength and necessary depth. The hens all agreed that because of Roo’s leg problems, they were missing out on the tastiest and most nutritious tidbits. As a result, everyone’s health was beginning to suffer.
One night in the dark quiet of their coop, it was decided that regardless of what was going on with Roo, it was time to go to him with their worries and fears. Somehow they must convince him to stop this crazy behaviour and return to his normal self. They needed to remind him that not only did their lives depend on his many excellent skills, but one of his hard crashes would most likely injure him quite badly. And an injured Roo would be no good to anyone in the barnyard.
Elder Hen volunteered to have a confidential conversation with Roo. She was the only hen to have survived under the so-called protection of the three previous, totally incompetent roosters. All of the hens agreed she had enough credibility and experience with roosters to hopefully talk some sense into Roo before it was too late. Elder Hen reminded the girls that until all this recent odd behaviour began, Roo often sought her advice about many of the health and relationship issues that he needed to address among the barnyard animals.
A few mornings later, Elder Hen came across Roo in the milking parlor. He was painfully preening some damaged feathers on a wing she knew had been slightly injured in another bad crash the day before.
After exchanging the usual pleasantries about the sunny weather and the summer’s bountiful crop of tasty insects, Elder Hen told Roo of the girls’ extreme worry over his health and, in more recent times, his increasingly very odd behaviour.
Roo listened without interruption while occasionally using his beak to re-align a flight feather that refused to slip back into place.
Elder Hen reminded Roo that every animal in the barnyard so admired his abilities as a guardian and forager. She recalled how skilled he had been in settling a recent bitter dispute between the two youngest hens over who should have the better nest location in the coop.
And just for good measure, Elder Hen remarked how all the girls so admired his bright red head cone and the rich, multicoloured feathers that made him look so handsome.
Roo remained silent for a very long time. He looked out the parlour door up toward the east valley. Elder Hen sensed that he was waiting for something or someone. Finally, Roo seemed to come to a decision.
He turned to Elder Hen and confessed his secret dream of flying as beautifully as the Red Tail.
But this dream, he observed with a hint of reluctance, had not worked out the way he had hoped.
In spite of all the practising and his many training flights from the drive shed roof, nothing he tried with his wings, tail feathers or even his stick-like legs – nothing worked well enough so that he could fly like the Red Tail.
As he finished sharing his frustrated wish to soar and drift in circles like the hawk, Elder Hen was certain that Roo’s wing and tail feathers drooped lower. Perhaps it was because her eyesight was not the best, but all those beautiful, shiny colours in his feathers now seemed to be less bright, perhaps even turning to darker shades of drab.
Sensing an opportunity she could turn to her advantage, Elder Hen reminded Roo of his other more crucial strengths and skills. He was such a good sentry and guardian that not one hen had been lost to the Red Tail or other predators because of his vigilance and his uncanny ability to sense danger coming.
She told him how the hens so appreciated how he always found the most delicious grubs, worms and fly larvae in hidden places around the barnyard. And she added quickly, even out among the long field grasses where everyone thought no delicious creatures could possibly live.
Elder Hen reminded him how all the farm animals had such respect for his genuine interest in the health and general well-being of each and every creature on the farm.
Finally, Elder Hen bluntly told him, “You must give up your dream of flying like the hawk.”
“Not only are you not built for that style of flying, more importantly, you just don’t have the natural instinct for it.”
“The Red Tail is a natural killer,” she said. “It’s what he’s made to do. But you my friend, you are the very best at doing what a rooster is made to do.”
“The girls and me”, she confessed, “Well, we’re all so proud and thankful to have you as our special rooster, each and every day, doing what you do so well.”
Roo listened quietly to Elder Hen’s words.
It’s true, he thought. A rooster will always be a rooster. A barnyard rooster will never be a Red Tail.
Next morning, just as the sun rose up over the east valley, Roo was back in his usual place atop the drive shed roof.
Stretching to his full height, flapping his wings with a steady rhythm, Roo crowed and crowed until he couldn’t possibly do it anymore.
And Elder Hen, listening from the highest roost in the coop, knew that their special Roo was back in the barnyard, determined more than ever to keep all the girls safe and happy.
I have had short fiction published in the US, Canada and the UK. My published stories can be found at www.donherald.blogspot.com.
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