By Guo Moruo
My wife is very keen on raising chickens. She does this not for studying genetics or making a profit out of it, but merely for collecting more eggs for our kids to eat.
Therefore, she always prefers to raise hens. She will be immensely delighted whenever a hen is laying, giving it additional feed, making it a new roost, etc. Sometimes she finishes making two or three roosts at one go.
We consume our eggs sparingly. My wife has to go to a lot more trouble when a hen is sitting. As the brooding hen will fly out of its roost to seek food once every other day, she has to get the feed ready for it beforehand. And she has to be careful not to let the hen leave its droppings in the roost for fear that it should cause the eggs to rot. She puts all the eggs that a hen is sitting on in lukewarm salty water by way of a test. Those that float are judged rotten and must be thrown away; those that sink are kept for the hen to continue to brood. She will thus busy herself with all that for as long as three weeks until the yeeping sound comes out of the eggs. Then she will be left in a state of great excitement for two or three days.
We have been raising chickens for five or six years, and broods upon broods of chicks have been hatched. But the baby chicks were either carried off by cats or rats, or died of beriberi caused by eating too much polished rice. None of the chicks hatched by ourselves lived until they were full-grown.
We are a family constantly on the move. When we travel to a faraway place, we can’t take our chickens with us. All we do is give them away or sell them to chicken vendors because we don’t have the heart to slaughter the chickens raised by ourselves. We ate none of our own chickens during the five or six years.
We raised only a small number of chickens, four or five at most. Apart from feeding them with the leftovers of the table, we let them out to seek food by themselves.
Five or six years of chicken raising has left me with a deep impression of how chickens behave. Like humans, chickens also live a life characterized by love.
Take for example a flock of chickens, among them a rooster, put out to feed in a courtyard. If you sprinkle some food onto the ground, you’ll invariably find the rooster start clacking to call all the hens to help themselves. The rooster himself will not eat first. This is no uncommon occurrence among chickens, but doesn’t it border on woman-worship as expressed by the medieval troubadours in their amorous lyrics?
Once we had three hens and two roosters. One rooster, however, held sway and monopolized all the three hens. The other got the worst of it and looked crestfallen. Not only was he bullied by the stronger opponent, he was also snubbed by the three females. Sometimes, driven by sexual impulse, he used every trick to seduce them in the absence of his rival in love. He clacked to call the hens when actually there was no food available. He offered to preen their feathers for them, but they just ignored him. Finally, in desperation, he resorted to the use of force. That sent the three hens scampering in panic and raising a call for help — a call to the all-powerful autocrat. As soon as the autocrat came on the scene, the poor lonely heart fled with the tail between his legs.
O you lucky all-powerful autocrat! O you haughty Don Juan! You took exclusive possession of a group of females; consequently, you have among you one more marriageable male remaining unmarried.
Hence, out of a sense of justice, I sold the domineering rooster. The three hens, at first keeping the lone rooster at arm’s length, soon became his loving mates one after another.
The maternal love shown by hens is something even more noteworthy. Hens are normally very tame and docile, but when the eggs they have been sitting on are hatched they immediately become as fierce as birds of prey. They spare no efforts to protect their young. With eyes flashing like two fiery balls, they frequently stick their necks high up to find out how things stand. Their nerves were overstrained to the point of collapse. Sometimes they acted on the offensive instead of on the defensive. Even if you approach them without any ill intention, they will squawk and peck you all the same. At feeding time, they never eat first, but cluck to call for their young. And they will mercilessly fly on any intruder, male or female, who attempts to scramble for the feed. At sleeping time or when it rains, they will clutch their young under them so much so that they pitifully end up losing all their breast feathers. They continue to live like this for two or three months. And during this period, they completely abstain from sex.
Ah, we have so far done quite well this year. We now have two hens and sixteen baby chicks.
My wife began to raise the two hens after she returned from Shanghai to Fukuoka at the end of February. One is yellow and the other looks like a falcon.
Our house on the Katakawa Bay has a very big rear garden with a giant linden tree in its centre. When I first came here early last April, the tree, with a bare trunk, had not yet put forth buds, and we didn’t even know it by name. We guessed it to be a chestnut or persimmon tree. Soon afterwards, as it was turning green, I found it to be neither a chestnut nor a persimmon tree. However, my neighbours, upon my inquiry, told me it was a linden tree.
By the time when the linden tree was leafy and made shade, the two hens had each hatched nine baby chicks. The baby chicks were just lovely. Some were yellowish, some black, some grey, some white, and some motley like quails. They were fluffy like balls of cotton wool. Their eyes were jet black. Their pippings were even more pleasant to the ear than the bubbling of a mountain spring.
Ah, we have done quite well this year. Of the original eighteen baby chicks raised by us, one was carried off by a cat and another died of some disease. The remaining sixteen, however, are growing fine. It is late June now. They have been gradually feathering out and we can already tell males and females apart. Hope they will never be carried off by cats or die of some disease. Healthy young chicks, if they eat too much polished rice, may die of a disease similar to beriberi to which humans are liable. Fortunately, instead of polished rice, we have presently taken to eating oats. So our baby chicks will no longer die of eating too much polished rice.
“Ah, we’ve done quite well this year,” exclaimed my wife beamingly as she was throwing the leftovers of our supper onto the ground under the linden tree for the chicks to eat.
The yeeping chicks scrambled for the feed like anything, pushing and shoving each other, treading on and pecking each other.