Friday 19 January 2018

Feathered friends from another era

Cockerel: A fowl fellow
Cockerel: A fowl fellow

Joe Kennedy

I remember as a child getting one particular birthday gift which was special. It arrived in a cardboard box on my father's bicycle and there were noises within of scratching and clucking.

All was revealed in the yard behind the house when a small, black domestic hen and a brood of fluffy chicks popped out for a meal. My mother had hard-boiled an egg and mashed it with oatmeal for them.

I was five years old. There were five chickens. The hen's name was Blackberry.

The so-called Phoney War in Europe was occupying attention. This was beyond my comprehension, though my parents seemed to be listening to the wireless a lot. The people of Eire were preparing for what was to be The Emergency with a Local Defence Force and Red Cross being mobilised. My father went off to meetings wearing a Red Cross armband.

Two of Blackberry's offspring were cockerels and I began to notice changes in their appearance. Tail feathers were sprouting and they had sparring encounters, arching their little necks and aiming beaks for a thrust. They grew quickly although they were skinny compared to their pullet sisters.

After a time the little family moved from an outhouse to a new home made of timber washed up on a strand from some wrecked ship.

Blackberry began to lay eggs and join the regular flock though the chicks tried every night to get under her wings.

My mother had plans and some time before Christmas confined the cockerels to a pen to fatten up as if they were turkeys.

I did not shed any tears when their time was up, my mother bending their necks over her knee and then plunging them into a bucket of scalding water to loosen their feathers. That's when I came in. My job was to pluck the downy fluff which came away easily on to an outspread newspaper on the scullery floor. The dried feathers joined a store of stuffing for pillows and cushions. The birds were duly roasted in the range oven and served up on Christmas Day.

My mother always kept fowl for eggs and the pot. As an adult I re-engaged with the world of Light Sussex, White Leghorn and Rhode Island Reds as well as pheasants and some exotics such as guinea fowl which used to roost in trees at my house and were alert guardians crying out "go-back, go-back" at any unexpected intrusion!

Later, my children became interested - from hatching hens and chicks to ushering birds through vegetable patches to scoff slugs (though ducks were more useful at this).

My youngest offspring carried about a pet junglefowl cock, which he named Phantom, until it became too aggressive and ended up a Sunday dinner. His older brother, in New Zealand's agricultural world, also kept some "chookies".

For some years now I have not been able to continue an interest in feathered friends because of life changes. I feel concern at the 'imprisonment' of birds in current poultry rearing. A Dutch man told me they are much better off inside those vast houses. And are better to eat also. They are removed from dioxins in the air, he says.

I remain unconvinced.

Sunday Independent

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