Last year, my next-door neighbor Natasha rescued a young brown chicken stranded in traffic on Wilshire Boulevard. It was this bird that brought us together. She and I rarely spoke before the chicken arrived, though Natasha and her boyfriend, Joe, had lived next door for months. Joe is an actor from New York, Natasha a statuesque beauty from Uzbekistan. If she isn’t a fashion model, she should be. Every morning and evening Natasha rigs hoses for an irrigation system to sustain their lawn. After sundown, jet streams of water spit out circles, saturating the back, then the side yard — spit, spit, spit, spit, hisssssss.
Their rented home, an anomaly on our block of cagelike apartment buildings and condos, is a large one-story, single-family dwelling that stands in the middle of a bucolic green lot with fruit trees and wild yucca. A precious garden in the city.
Natasha throws peanuts to the wildlife, handfuls sprayed onto the grass, so that the paradisal refuge has become a menagerie of squirrels, pigeons, sparrows, scrub jays and crows. The creatures arrive in waves via telephone wires or through the leafy foliage along the back fence. The night shift contains a different crew — skunks, possums, raccoons and coyotes. Natasha leaves bowls of dog food and water out on the back porch. If they’re well fed, Natasha reasons, the nocturnal predators will be less inclined to attack neighborhood pets, including their own three cats and a shiny black Labrador named Jack. Even so, Natasha doesn’t risk leaving her domesticates out at night. After sundown, you can hear Natasha calling out, “Tiger . . . Tiiiiiger” — summoning her striped gray cat to safety.
In my high-density condo building of concrete walkways and potted plants, one neighbor wanted to file a formal complaint against Natasha for feeding the wild animals. There are some things, and some people, I will never understand.
Then came the chicken. Natasha knew of my predilection for raising barnyard poultry from experiments of chicken coopery on a patch of common ground next to the trash cans of my condo building. She asked me if her bird might eventually lay eggs. I broke the news that from all appearances, she had rescued a rooster.
“But he doesn’t crow,” she said, with a slight Slavic lilt.
“Just wait,” I replied.
Within weeks, the chicken she’d named Jerry Seinfeld doubled to the size of a small turkey and developed an impressive authority and posture capped by a blazing red comb.
One afternoon, I was with Joe and Natasha in their living room when Jerry Seinfeld wandered in across the hardwood floors from the back garden and clucked at Natasha, who bent down and said something firmly, nose to beak. He clucked in reply and strutted out the front door. There are no curtains on their laundry-room windows, and late at night, anybody from our building could see Jerry Seinfeld perched contentedly on a high shelf of towels — a sight I found inexplicably beautiful.
But Jerry Seinfeld’s life wasn’t entirely blissful, Natasha pointed out.
“He’s horny all the time. He humps the floor. We need to get him a female,” she explained.
“I’ll hatch some,” I offered. And I did, in a little plastic incubator — a quartet of baby chicks. But by the time they were large enough to fend off the cats in the garden, Jerry’s crowing and a predictable complaint from someone in my building led to a stream of written explanations and then warnings to Natasha and Joe from the Department of Animal Regulation. When city trucks started showing up, Natasha and Joe’s blithe deflections of the threats and hostility turned to fear. They soon found Jerry Seinfeld a home on some farm in Wyoming. The owner even paid for the bird’s air ticket.
My four chickens now occupy the garden. Free range, I guess. They run from one end to the other. They’re quite small at this point, so there’s no neighbor issue, and three appear to be hens. I routinely hop the garden wall to throw them slices of bread, and gather them up at night into a dog carrier so that they’re protected from nocturnal predators. Joe and Natasha find this all sort of amusing. It isn’t easy to wrangle four well-fed L.A. chickens.
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At first, I tried applying a measure of fear — that is, I chased them into a corner and grabbed them, then tossed them shrieking into the carrier. When the hysterics wore off, they’d settle down, happy to be in their nighttime abode. This process took from half an hour to 45 minutes, because chickens are not as stupid as they’re reputed to be. They know exactly when I can grab them and when I can’t, and they have an uncanny skill at scooting millimeters out of grabbing range, while remaining close enough to taunt me. Forty-five minutes of this is exhausting for any human, and it annoys the chickens.
One day I stumbled upon a less-tiring wrangling method: I set the carrier in the middle of the garden with the door open and filled it with straw and pieces of bread, which I also placed all around the carrier. Then I sat in a lawn chair and waited.
As the sunlight faded, the chickens explored in and around the carrier. One went in and came out. Two went in. A third from the garden wall summoned them out. They obeyed. In and out. Up and down. Free will. The jays observed. A squirrel stole a peanut. And this is how I came to fully appreciate the ecology of this rare place. The chickens then all came to me, jumped on the lawn chair, hopped onto my arm, over to my shoulder and back down again, completely befuddled by my passivity. By the time the light was almost faded, they had all sidled into the carrier of their free will, wolfing down crusts of bread and chattering. All I had to do was close the door.
There’s probably an allegory in this for how the rat race, or the chicken chase, may be as overrated and as unnecessary as the fear that accompanies it. Inducements can bring the same result without the stress. I learned this in the Garden of Eden.