How Elvis The Chicken Won Me Over
In September wildfires tore through the neighboring community of Talent, Oregon and burned the town down to ash. I personally know ten families who lost everything. Two days after the burning beast devoured the place, I received a call from a friend who knew I had an empty chicken coop. A woman under mandatory evacuation needed a place to house her chickens.
My dad was helping me string fence that day and said with a smirk, “she’ll probably show up with seven roosters.” He meant it as a joke. The chicken lady indeed did arrive with exactly seven roosters, even to the surprise of my dad who laughed for three days.
These were unlike any roosters I had ever seen.
Their bodies were covered in black iridescent feathers with a slight green hue in the right light, but instead of the usual red comb on top of their heads they all had a white plume of long cascading feathers. A true headdress, beautiful and hilarious. The feathers bounce with every peck in the dirt and covers their sight above so they have to turn their head sideways to put an eye to the sky.
My house is one of two homes scattered on the land, nestled in the back corner of the property. It was built barn-style with a shop and pantry below the lofted living space, windows all around in every direction. The chicken coop sits in the backyard about 100 feet from my bedroom window, but I had zero desire to ever be tied down to high-maintenance, long-term, egg-laying birds.
The first morning my feathered guests were up by 4:30 a.m.
All of them crowing a chorus of high-pitched young rooster speak…except for one guy. He seemed irritated at the cacophony and sat on the perch looking disgusted at the others who were disturbing him. He was the largest of the seven, but after several days of observation, I also discovered he was the most gentle and tolerant of the gang.
Six days into hosting these fellas, I noticed one of the roosters had disappeared. Just like that. Into thin air. I never let them out of the pen which I knew was totally secure because it was built with metal roofing sunk a foot into the ground on every side of the pen. It kept diggers out and the fencing was secure with no holes. It was a perplexing conundrum. Like the thing shape-shifted one night and ghosted through a wall, freeing itself from the rooster choir.
Two weeks after the strange disappearance, the chicken lady showed up to take her boys home.
I was giddy. Finally, I can sleep in again! But when she tumbled out of the olive green 1992 Ford Explorer, she held in her hands a hen that matched the White Crested Black Polish Roosters making a ruckus in the backyard. She talked fast and walked faster towards the pen, then turned to me and said, “So pick out a guy.” She was gifting me with parents to start my own flock.
A voice in the back of my head was screaming, “No! Don’t do it! You’ll never sleep past dawn again!” The chicken lady sensed my hesitation and lifted the hen towards me in a kind, silent offering…or begging. I wasn’t sure which.
We picked the big rooster.
The one who was mostly disgusted with the other dudes who spent the days pecking on each other and doing mock fights in the pen. He was cool. Too cool to spar. The chicken lady ran around the pen catching roosters with amazing speed and dexterity, tossing each of them into a dog crate. When the big guy was the last man standing in the pen, she released the hen.
“I’m sorry one of your roosters disappeared. It’s so weird, I have no idea how it happened.” I’m not sure she believed me when I said I never let them roam.
She was gracious, “It’s okay, stuff happens.”
We stood outside the fence a while observing the meeting, to make sure the hen accepted the rooster and he didn’t attack her. I knew he was cool. I knew we were good. And sure enough, he chased her around in a circle a couple of times until she stopped, turned on him, and barked hen speak in his face. From that day forward she ruled the roost. And he stole my heart.
My parents dropped by to meet the newest residents of the homestead.
Still laughing, Dad said “You ought to name him Elvis, he’s a showy guy. Definitely an Elvis.” I named the hen Mabel. Her plume is less flashy, shorter feathers and looks like a white bouffant hairdo. The two fell in love. I mean really. He adores that hen and she follows him everywhere.
To my delighted dismay, I discovered that Elvis likes to sleep in, and so does Mabel. “Sleeping in” for them means getting up at the crack of 6:30 every morning, and I get to stumble to the chicken coop in my pajamas and free the lovebirds. It could be worse. It could be earlier.
The biggest problem so far has been tearing myself away. Watching them scratch and peck all over the back yard has become a favorite past-time. I can’t stop giggling watching their bobbing bouffants bounce around the yard. I had no idea they would be so entertaining!
In the back of the pen two pallets sat on the ground with a plywood floor.
I decided to pull the pallets out and clean up the floor of the pen for the new couple. As I yanked the boards towards me, a furry blur with teeth lunged towards my face. I threw the pallet as far as I could and bolted screaming for the gate while rats ran in every direction.
The little suckers were nesting in there and I didn’t even know it. One of the nests fell out of the wood planking and I saw black feathers tangled up with straw and twigs. Totally disgusted, I inspected the mess and discovered the missing rooster had been killed by the rats and drug beneath the floor.
The rats were nesting with the carcass. By far, one of the grossest things I have ever seen. I voraciously cleaned and disinfected the chicken pen and put the coop two feet up on legs to keep it off the ground. And I learned how to trap rats.
Homesteading is not for wimps.
I’m having to toughen up a bit. I played guitar, wrote songs, and performed shows in my previous career — a totally different set of skills. I’m an Artist, not a Farmer. The learning curve living on this land is a steep arc. But I love it.
The sky is pink this morning with all kinds of cheerful hues as the nearly full moon sets in the western lavender sky. Elvis is singing the morning rooster song as I breathe in cold frosty air and walk back to the house to pour a cup of steaming coffee and greet the sun from my chair by the wood stove.
This is the life of my ancestors. Farmers, pioneers, and indigenous people who rose with the sun and ate from the land. It’s a good life. A life I would be missing out on because there is no way I would get up this early every day without that rooster singing that morning song. Elvis, you silver-tongued devil, you won me over.
3 things you should know before you get chickens:
#1 — Build the chicken coop at least a few feet off the ground to keep it dry, and make it harder for varmints to find a way in. Seal any gaps, but create a vent in the coop covered with screen or hardware cloth to allow airflow in while keeping rats and mice out.
#2 — Take the food up and out of the pen every single night and keep bags of feed stored in a metal trash can with a lid, an old freezer, or some other container that is rodent-proof. A plastic bin won’t cut it — rats have razor sharp teeth that can drill through hard plastic in a single night.
Some suggest pulling up the water as well in the summer when it’s hot to keep rats from helping themselves. By not leaving food and water out in the pen overnight, you cut down on the temptation for rats and mice to infest.
By the way…rats dig and tunnel like gophers and are mostly nocturnal. The best defense is to not habituate them to the food. Keep the pen clean, rake up and discard any left-over table scraps the chickens didn’t eat that day.
#3 — Own a Ratinator live trap and use it. I captured 17 rats in the chicken pen in one month.
One female rat has 6 litters per year of 5–10 pups. Each of those female rats in turn have 6 litters per year of 5–10 pups.
Michelle McAfee is an Oregon based writer, photographer, musician, and creator of SONGBONES Podcast & Magazine. She was a staff songwriter for Bluewater Music, Song-Tree Maypop, and Warner Chappell Music, and is currently composing essays, blogs and a Memoir. You can find her on Instagram @michellemcafeemuse.