8A.M. sharp. Like nearly every morning over the past few months, I hear the beating of wings accompanied by a series of loud, staccato clucks as she descends from her hideaway in the Chinaberry trees. Our little renegade. She follows me from the house as I walk into the yard and scoop a handful of feed from the bag of scratch, stooping and holding out my palm. She flicks her head from right to left, eyeing the grain, finally darting in to begin her meal for the day. After hearing the rustle of the bag of scratch, the six hens in the coop cluster together in the corner of the pen, poking their heads through the chain-link towards the food—and the bantam.
Our friend Amy had found this lovely bantam hen abandoned and half dead near her ranchito on the Santa Cruz River. She took her in, nursed her back to health and, knowing we were “chicken people,” delivered her to our house last fall.
Chickens can be a finicky lot. Much like people, once they have settled into their order they don’t like the established rules to be upset. They don’t take a fancy to the outsider, the unknown, or change in routine.
So when Amy’s pretty little bantam was introduced to our flock of six, they fanned out along the edges of the pen and chicken-patrolled back and forth as the newcomer stood stock-still in the center of the coop. After several minutes, at some unseen, secret chicken signal, they rushed the bantam. The bantam took a few pecks to the head and then began to scramble, squawking wildly about as the others chased her down with murder in their reptilian eyes.
I dove into the coop and grabbed her, saving her from the clutches of an early chicken lynching. We put her back in a cardboard box and re-strategized.
Our barrio roost is made of a couple of old two-by-fours set at four feet or so under a tin-roofed, ramshackle shelter, all held together with baling wire. It’s an ignoble structure that serves a higher purpose. We call it the Kate Moss Coop because the famous supermodel once squatted inside while an equally famous photographer shot pictures of her holding our chickens for an even more famous international magazine. We thought all this fame would go to their little hen heads, but their egg laying stayed the same as ever. They say chickens, like supermodels, aren’t the brightest of birds, though over the years of living with them (chickens, not supermodels) I beg to differ. There is great generosity in what they have offered up over the 20-odd years we have kept them in our barrio yard and though I can’t have a philosophical debate with them, I can’t lay an egg.
We decided to place the bantam back in the coop at nighttime, after everyone had roosted and settled in. In theory they would all wake up with the sun, assume the stranger had been there all along, and peck their way toward a new, harmonious brown and blue egg-hued future … all sunny-side up.
At 10 p.m., I plucked the bantam from her cardboard box and carried her to the Kate Moss Coop. Bantam in one hand, flashlight in the other, we silently approached the roost where all the ladies were lined up. Disturbed, the chickens stared broodingly down at the light. I shifted the bantam around to where her rear was pointed away from me and then scooted her gently between an Araucana and a Barred Rock. Her feet latched the two-by-four and I pulled my hands away. I backed out of the shed but before I was out, one of the hens next to the bantam began a nervous clucking, one that got louder and louder. Her rally cry alerted the others and soon they were all a flutter-cluck of chicken indignation. In fear, the bantam leapt from the roost and shot past my head.
I hadn’t yet clipped the bantam’s wings and rather than take any more abuse from the others—or me—she simply flew up and landed on the top rail of the six-foot chain-link fence. I could barely see her in the dark, but I could hear her as she flew up and hopped higher, branch by branch, into the Chinaberry trees and starlight above.
Sometimes I don’t see or hear from her for days at a time, but she has been living wild and free for almost a year now. At times I even forget that she is in the neighborhood and then, unexpectedly, I hear the beating of her wings and her familiar clucking announcing her expectant arrival at our back door.
Gary Patch is a long time Barrio Viejo resident and designer. Concerned with the global homogenization of design and loss of historic aesthetics, Gary, along with his partner Darren Clark, strive to incorporate the local vernacular in a true-to-place, modern way. Some of their public works include the Cup Cafe, the Portrait Project in the Fourth Avenue Underpass, and the Rialto Theater’s new R Bar.