Lessons in Animal Watching - The Gentle, Hardworking Fowl!
In my childhood days in Thiruvananthapuram, I wonder how animals came to have a great influence over me.
Once when we were just idling in the morning on a Sunday or public holiday just thinking of what to do, a person came with a basket full of chicks. He was willing to sell it for pairs of two for rupees three or five, I don't exactly remember. It was so nice to hear the squeaky 'khiyo' 'khiyo' sounds of the tiny birds. Myself and my brother Hari took a fancy for these tiny 'white lagons' as the breed was known since it was hatched using artificial methods. Normally, a hen sits for 21 days to hatch an egg but in hatcheries light is set at a certain temperature to hatch.
We persuaded our mother to buy two pairs, so four in all. It was so nice to follow the chicks around as it went searching for small insects for food. We had to keep guard of these tiny birds all the time it was out because eagles would hover around a higher in the air ready to land and swoop them away at an instant. If the hen was around it would naturally protect the chicks with its feathers and no eagle or crow dare to come anywhere near it.
Initially these chicks were kept in a bamboo basket with a lid on top but with sufficient air flow and as the chicks grew, a small house had to be built for them outside our house using wood and coconut leaves as roof. On working days, when we went to school, the poor chicks will be inside the basket but as soon as we came back from school, we let them out in the compound but carefully protecting them from eagles. When it was rainy, we used to take the chicks inside and keep them on a table. They would warm themselves close to a wick lamp and take rest occasionally producing its unique sounds.
My father was annoyed its droppings spreading inside the house and often blamed our mother for allowing such things to us. However, on holidays, we got more time to play, observe and let these chicks out in the open as they learnt to scratch the sand to find termites, small insects to eat. We used to give them some feed which is obtained after husking of wheat. It is also available from the groceries as fowl feed (Kozhi theeta). They also eat uncooked rice and cooked rice though not their staple food. When coconut kernel is crushed to make oil, the dry remains are also mixed with water and given as food to fowl.
For us it was delight to spend time with the chicks having seen or heard about it only in story books. There was one Russian story about animals titled "Kuttikathakalum Chitrangalum" (Short Stories and Pictures) which had an interesting story about a chick and a duckling. The chick imitates whatever the duckling does and almost gets drowned in water!
The beauty of these chicks is that you don't know at the time of birth whether it is going to be a hen or a cock! Only in our case out of the four two turned out to be hens and two cocks. They grow very fast and after a few months they were on their own. Their colours also change as they grow up and their feathers become multi-coloured. The cocks are quite graceful, adventurous, walk tall surveying the whole area fiercely guarding the hens all the time. They would occasionally climb over the fence and sometimes go to the neighbourhood houses and return. When it is small it is so easy to catch them but as it grows they would simply run away and it requires some agility to catch hold of them especially the cock.
Cocks show their aggression and have a dislike for children and I had to occasionally suffer on that count. Once or twice it was on top of the wall and suddenly rushed to climb on my shoulders and bite with its sharp beaks on my ears and head. Its claws are also sharp that it can injure our shoulder. When my daughter Diyah was born, there was a set of turkey fowls in our neighbourhood. One of the cocks was so aggressive that I just managed to lift Diyah up to prevent it from biting her!
The hens produce a strange noise when it lays eggs telling the outer world the suffering it is going through. Our hens had the habit of laying it in different places than in one place. And it was a delight to collect them although it wasn't clean as you get from the shops as it may fall on the droppings and has to be washed before use. Once I found in our compound a little brownish egg which was not possibly laid by our hen. Then we came to know that some of the neighbour hens occasionally came and laid their eggs in our compound. But it was not easy to find out whose egg it was and it became an omelete in our kitchen.
It was interesting to follow the behaviour of hens and cocks. Both are by and large quite hardworking. How it scratches the sand with its legs to find termites in the ground. With them around there was no need to spray insecticides to keep termites at bay. They are also fond of grass, ants and leaves of plants. They go hunting for food even if we provide food .After a while they recognise us and become friendly. They would run away when strangers come to the house. After roaming about in the evening, we call them 'Ba, Ba, Ba' and slowly all of them return to the nest. If they don’t we have to chase and catch them. We have to keep some food ready for the night and also a bowl of water in case they feel the thirst. It was nice to see them drink water by taking a gulp and raising their neck to make it flow down. Hens are peaceful lot, silently plodding through the ground and not causing harm to anyone. Cock on the other hand is a strict guardian, quite powerful and creating fear all around.
After a few months, one of the hens suddenly became weak and could hardly walk. At that time there were no vets nearby and soon it stopped laying eggs. On most days, it hardly went out from its nest. Soon the other hen also became sick. Within a few days both of them breathed their last. The cocks were still quite healthy and powerful. But considering its potential to cause harm by climbing on my shoulders and with no hens to watch over, my mother felt it was better to sell them to a nearby toddy shop. For them two cocks would have made a sumptuous lunch for their favourite customers.
Bathing and Resting
In the afternoon, just as workers take a nap, the fowl also takes a nap preferably in a plant or tree shade after clearing the ground. Unlike ducks, they don't go near water and their bathing usually takes place on sand by flapping their wings. Sometimes, they are fond of taking a nap on top of a wall if there is sufficient width for them. With the cock around, you don't need an alarm clock to wake up in the morning. I used to think of how fortunate these birds are - no worries about exams, studies and school! They felt stress only when attacked by a dog or cat or the presence of strangers. They went about doing their duty and leading fulfilling lives.
Until the poultry industry began to gain strength, most houses in Kerala reared fowls to get assured good quality eggs and their droppings are also good as manure. With lack of space, many houses now have fifteen to sixteen of them put in a small cage with little space to move around. For two or three more years, we used to buy chicks and rear them. Most of them had the similar fate either succumbing to disease or given to the nearby toddy shop to make delicious curry or fry for the nearby toddy shop.
The Fowls are gentle, hardworking
and not causing any harm to others. They are fully involved in what they are
doing. Their feathers and wings protect them as well as help them fly small
heights up to wall height. They are not selfish and after a hard day’s work would
like to take a well-deserved rest. As a community they adjust well although you
could see cocks fighting each other to show their strength and not necessarily
due to dislike!
My next blog will be about my adventures with cats. Await!
(Photo Courtesy: Anna Armburst for Pixabay.com)