My pet rooster Fortinbras, named after the Prince of Norway in Hamlet, was hatched in a plastic incubator in my living room and grew up without ever having seen another chicken.
I don’t fully understand how this impaired his judgment, but it soon became clear that Fortinbras either presumed he was human or that all the people around him were chickens. He enjoyed being coddled and handled, perching affably on my arm while I walked him around the neighborhood; in the garden, he would follow my building’s other residents down the walkway, running after them to chatter, insisting they share in his enthusiasm for a beetle he had unearthed, or a bougainvillea blossom that had landed in his path. While perched in his outdoor pen at night, he insisted passers-by visit, chat and rub his head through the holes in the chicken wire, which they did, dutifully. Fortinbras was about as popular as a chicken can be.
He metamorphosed into a quite glorious rooster, with a bright-redface, an imposing crest, an iridescent, blood-red torso and a crescent black tail that shimmered with bolts of green.
When he started to crow — sporadically at first, then consistently — his popularity started to wane. The prevailing theory among the neighbors was that he was lonely. They thought he looked sad and suggested that I buy him a mate. With almost nothing to lose, I drove to a butcher’sshop I’d seen with a Pollo Viveria sign. I was escorted to a backroom where, amid stacks of empty cages, one cage held eight birds awaiting slaughter.
A worker in plastic boots, apron and gloves reached inside the cage and brutally grabbed a fat, mottled white hen by the wings. She shrieked until landing inside a cardboard box on the floor. It cost me $9 to save her life. I named her Bella, for no particular reason.
On meeting Bella inside his pen, Fortinbras went slightly berserk. She was the first chicken he had ever seen, and he was horrified. He threw himself into the pen’s netting to avoid her, tearing his comb. Meanwhile, Bella strutted slowly up and down the length of the pen, as though running on batteries, digging and pecking for wild-bird food that I’d buried in the cedar-chip floor. At the end of the first day they met, Fortinbras cowered in one corner while Bella dug little holes and surveyed for grubs. Occasionally she looked at him as though he was insane.
The next day, Fortinbras gathered all the strength he possessed to greet her. They stared at each other, frozen for a while, at a distance of about a foot, until Fortinbras pecked her sharply on the head. She promptly retaliated, one peck for one peck. Astounded, Fortinbras fled to his corner, and that was the extent of their romance for day two.
It is impossible to avoid the fowl reality of the nature-vs.-nurture debate: Bella — raised on a factory farm under conditions of inordinate stress and brutality — displayed a placid calm and more stoic wisdom than most people I know. On the other hand, Fortinbras, whom I personally airlifted from his shell and smothered with affection and daily doses of assurance, was a neurotic freak.
On day three of Bella’s arrival, Fortinbras watched her intensely as she scraped and scoured the world of their pen. Then he started to do the same. Before they met, he would stand in one place conjuring strategies to get out of the pen, and crow. Because of Bella, he learned how to explore his own backyard. She taught him how to be a chicken — or, at least, a happier chicken, or, at least, a busier chicken.And quieter. For a while.
On day four, I observed them perched side by side on a wooden crossbeam.
Then, on day five, Fortinbras started crowing at 11 a.m., at intervals of about 30 seconds. By 2 p.m., he was still going strong, and one neighbor next door asked me to fry him. I spoke by phone with a veterinarian, who said that surgical alteration on any bird’s vocal chords is very dangerous.
Fortinbras is a rooster. And roosters are loud. There’s no arguing with destiny. With Bella’s help, he finally learned how to be a chicken, but now he had to go. The other residents of my building looked on sadly as I placed Fortinbras in a cat carrier for the long trip to the farm.
My farmer friend, Ken, said Fortinbras was so amiable, he wouldn’t throw him into a pen with other roosters, where he risked being attacked. Rather, he would have the run of the farm, to wander in grasses and mud outside the confines of pens and sheds. When I set him on the ground, Fortinbras flapped his wings and started poking eagerly at weeds. Then he heard crowing all around him, echoing in the wind, the sounds of the inmates. Fortinbras flapped once more and answered, and answered, and answered the call.