The young go to school to learn. Sometimes it’s the elders that get a lesson. And it need not be in a school setting. Jeremy is just ten but not long ago — on a visit to his place in the picturesque southern highlands — I was the one received an education.
What did I know about chickens before our meeting? Not much, apart from a chicken adage (about not enumerating the little fluffy things until they’re safely out of their eggshells); and a silly joke, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road and cross back again?’
The answer not worth divulging; or the philosophical pondering about which came first — chicken or egg — that for years encouraged me to keep philosophy at a respectable arm’s distance if this is how it was going to set about putting my mind in a perpetual state of confusion.
And, of course, a ‘chicken’ term that in an ironic way described my relationship with philosophy — chickening out. That pretty much was the sum and substance of my knowledge of chickens until the aforementioned visit.
Nate and Shelly, Jeremy’s parents, have set up a chicken run in their spacious backyard — a common Australian feature from whence backyard cricket developed and blossomed into a general appreciation for big time cricket in stadiums.
“We’ve got three hens now but we’ll be getting some more,” says Jeremy, conducting me on a tour of the chicken premises.
“Yes, red, white and black,” I say, making conversation, for the hens are indeed of those colours.
“The white one is a leghorn, that one is a Rhode Island red and this one near your leg is a Black Minorca.”
Ah, little mister know-it-all, I think! But the young man isn’t trying to parade his knowledge for he asks first before showing off, “Would you like me to tell you about the Rhode Island?”
And so I learn that this russet-feathered hen traces its lineage from the Rhode Island strain in Massachusetts.
“Their eyes are kind of orange but their feet are yellow.”
I see immediately how different are the feet of the leghorn, for example, and the Minorca. The Minorca, its feathers shiny black that in the light sometimes seems a shade of blue, has a distinctive white ear patch and a pretty red comb falling over its head. The leghorn is white as snow and is sitting all puffed up in a corner like a prima donna.
“She’s getting ready to lay. They are all good layers,” says Jeremy. He runs inside, but emerges walking carefully carrying a bowl. “Look. Their eggs. He holds up two. See the difference? This one, its shell is brown. Which one laid it can you guess?”
I guess correctly it’s the Rhode Island.
“And this?” The egg is pure white.
“The leghorn,” I offer confidently only to see Jeremy shake his head.
“The Black Minorca lays very white eggs,” I am told.
“Are they going to need a….” I search for the correct word.
“Rooster? We don’t say the other word nowadays,” Jeremy says, all serious.
“So will they need a rooster to continue laying eggs?”
The rooster is only needed if the eggs are to be fertilised, I am informed. Then these fertilised eggs can be hatched. Otherwise, without a rooster around, the hens will carry on laying eggs.
“Did you know that the egg is actually soft until moments before it hits the ground? My dad says that as soon as the shell comes in contact with the air it becomes solid.”
Would he like to hatch chickens?
“Yes, dad is getting a rooster.”
It’s true, confides Jeremy’s father, adding, “You say you’ve learned a lot? The next time you’re here I’m sure Jeremy will talk you through the brief cloacal kiss.”
Cloacal kiss? I must research thoroughly before next visiting if I don’t want to appear more fluffy-headed on chickens than I already am.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.