from Fruit Garden and Home
My Neighbor's Chickens
by Ellis Parker Butler
The Crowing of the Cock
If the cackling of geese saved Rome, or the gentle rain at Waterloo defeated Napoleon, the crowing of the cock has made America great. The crowing of the cock is ever a call to duty; Peter heard the cock crow, and he remembered, and he wept. The call of that cock may be said to have brought about the foundation of Christian civilization.
One Sunday morning I found my neighbor watching my cock, as he arched his neck and flung out his call. "Do you know," he said, "I heard him crowing last night? There were a lot of them -- some a long way off. I couldn't sleep until I heard them, then I slept like a boy!"
"I'm going to have a pen," he continued, "a pen of brown ones, like Mother used to keep. That crowing -- it took me back to those years so long ago, when I was a boy on the farm, down on the river bottom. I dreamed of brown setting hens and little chicks, and of hunting eggs in the straw stack!
"I thought of the time we hid eggs at Easter... and so I 'm going to have a pen."
The oldest conundrum in the world is "Why does a chicken cross the road?" It is so ancient I believe Adam must have invented it in order to give Eve the first intelligence test ever known. My own opinion is that Adam took a chicken -- probably a long-legged wide-winged variety -- and went down the gate of Eden and threw that chicken hard and far over the fence. Instantly the chicken turned and scuttled back across the road, just missing a couple of snorting pterodactyls that were cavorting down the road, and squawked loudly as it ducked under the gate.
"Eve," said Adam, "did you see that? Then let me ask you a question: Why does a chicken cross the road?"
"To get to the other side!" cried Eve triumphantly.
"Wrong!" declared Adam. "The correct answer is: To get into the Garden."
To me the saddest thought that comes when I think of Noah's ark is not of poor dear seasick giraffes leaning over the rail of the vessel as the waves toss, nor even of the ennui of all the dogs and bears and other hairy animals with only two fleas aboard to keep the whole lot of them amused, but it is the thought of the two miserable chickens wandering dolefully up and down the decks looking for a neighbor's garden to dig up and not finding any.
I don't know whether you have ever tried the following experiment, but it is significant and worth trying: Some time, when you are invited over to look at your neighbor's beautiful chickens, bend down and take from the nest a new-laid egg. Hold the egg to the light to make sure it is a fertile egg -- that is to say, make sure it is an egg that will hatch into a chicken if properly incubated either by a hen or a box. Next place a small, flat board on the floor of the chicken coop, using a spirit level to make sure the surface of the board is perfectly level and not tilted one way or the other. Now stand the egg exactly upright, either on the large end or the small end, and let go of it. Nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight times out of every ten thousand the egg, in rolling off the board, will roll in the direction of your garden. Two eggs out of each ten thousand will not roll at all; these are what are called "sports" or "freaks" and if hatched will probably turn out to be alligators or ostriches. Every egg that contains the germ of a chicken will invariably roll toward your garden, especially if you have just planted the garden. The more irascible your temper is, the more rapidly the eggs will roll toward your garden. If you are one of the men who get purple in the face whenever you see a chicken in your garden the egg will roll toward your garden with a regular hop, skip and jump and sometimes a low, irritating laugh can be heard issuing from it.
This desire of the chicken for the garden is called instinct by the scientists. I believe the man that owns the garden calls it something else, but I never use such words myself, having been brought up in a proper manner. I understand that the naturalists hold that the desire of the hen for the petunia bed is a "hold-over" from the very earliest days of the hen (approximately 75,675,000 B. C.) when the hen -- as they believe -- was used as either (1) a garden ornament, or (2) a worm scarecrow In any event the belief is that for over seventy million years the garden was the birthplace and home of the hen, and that consequently the hen became used to being in the garden and invariably trends in that direction. I cannot vouch for any of this except the trend of the hen. She certainly does trend.
It is a matter of considerable doubt with me as to how much damage a hen actually does to a garden, but I know how much it can do to a temper. I wish someone would get up some reliable hen-in-the-garden statistics, with charts and diagrams, so that a man like myself who wants to be truthful and exact could study them and write an article entirely free from errors. I would like a large chart, with lines ruled crossways and up and down, and such statistics as these:
1. Actual damage done to a garden (30x60 feet) by one (1) shifty eyed hen owned by the owner of the garden, said hen having yellow legs and a low mezzo-soprano voice.
2. Actual damage done to a garden (30x60 feet) by one (1) albino hen, owned by the man next door, between 1:30 P. M., May 16, 1922 (Eastern Standard Time) and the moment when the hen gave a wild eyed squawk and scooted for home, avoiding the brick by one-eighth of an inch (actual measurement, 3.5 millimeters.)
3. Actual damage done to garden by the brick.
4. Chart showing actual cash damage done to a garden by ten hens, said hens being aided and abetted by a rooster with a frost-bit comb and a jaunty disposition, the hens observing the eight-hour day regulations of the Hens' Union, and the wind blowing N. N. E. but shifting slightly to N. E.
Having had considerable experience with hens in gardens I am inclined to believe that a series of reliable charts would show that the actual money damage done by our neighbors' hens is greatly overestimated. This, however, is not true of the temper damage. While I have sat at my window (armed only with a rubber sling-shot and a pile of pebbles) and watched my neighbors' hens digging in my garden with all the eagerness of a squad of raw soldiers trying to "dig in" under machine-gun fire, and have seen this happen day after day, I have never noticed that one dear little blossom has been missing when blossoming time arrived. True, when the hens were eating the radish tops they may have reduced my crop of radishes somewhat, but anyone who had eaten one of my radishes -- taking it from his mouth now and then to make sure he was not chewing a hickory nut by mistake -- would not feel that the hens had done any evil, excepting in letting any of the radishes mature. And right here, speaking as an expert, I would like to say that I do not feel that a sling-shot and a handful of pebbles constitutes the best weapon for protecting the garden from the hen. At any range over three feet the sling-shot ceases to be a weapon of precision, and if you are as close as three feet to a hen you don't need a sling-shot -- you can kick the hen. Beyond three feet the sling-shot becomes erratic and wild. I have, it is true, often hit a hen with a pebble fired from a sling-shot, but it has seldom been the hen at which I aimed. Often, when I have aimed at a hen in my garden I have hit a perfectly respectable and non-trespassing hen that was scratching in its own home coop thirty-six feet distant from the hen at which I had aimed. This well-behaved hen then instantly arose in the air with a shrill cry of surprise, leaped all intervening boundaries and hastened to the safety of my garden, where she began to dig. And when I did happen to pop a hen squarely on the broadside the hen only looked up in surprise, looked down in gratitude, and swallowed the pebble, thus aiding its digestive apparatus and being able to eat more garden.
I think that we have a prejudice against the hen that exact statistics would not bear out. I think the damage done by a bevy of, say, eight hens in a garden 30x60 feet in size is much less than is commonly supposed. Let us say that my property is worth $10,000 exclusive of buildings, and contains 18,000 square feet. A 30x60 foot garden would be worth $500. This, at six percent, would be worth, if otherwise invested, $30 per year. The tax on the garden plot would be $10. Seeds and fertilizer would be $10. The time I put in on the garden, at my usual earning rate of about $50 a day, would be $500. The garden thus costs me $550 per year. Off of it I get vegetables of a market value of $28.30. This shows a net profit of $521.70 less than nothing per annum, in a normal henless year.
Now, from over the fence, come eight snow-white hens. For a few moments they pretend to be spotlessly innocent of guile. They scratch in the plantain and ragweed along the fence and say, "Well! Well! I never knew our chicken yard reached this far!" Then one hen cocks a yellow eye hither and yon and strolls over into the garden. She pretends she is still in the plantain and ragweed. If you told her she was in her neighbor's garden she would say, "My! My! Is that so! I never imagined it! The last thing in the world I would think of doing is to poach in my neighbor's garden!" But she would keep right on poaching. And then the other hens, equally innocent, would wander over into the garden and begin to scratch there. Suppose they came every day. Suppose they scratched up and ate everything in my garden. The worst they could do would be to scratch a hole in my deficit of $521.70.
I am strongly inclined to believe that the loss caused by neighbors' chickens is largely a moral loss and that it never does amount to much in dollars and cents -- but the moral damage is terrific! I can easily see, for example, that a hot-blooded lady who has with difficulty decided that she will not, after all, murder her husband and elope with the butcher, might look out of her kitchen window just in time to see seven hens come over the fence and get to work in her sweet pea patch, and become so angry and bitter and violent that she would not only murder the hens but her husband and the butcher himself. I can easily imagine that the man who wrote "Under the bludgeonings of Fate my head is bloody but unbowed" might stand calmly and with folded arms and see his fondest hopes hurled down to chaos and never quiver an eyelid, but if he saw his neighbor's hens in his garden, jump for the door with a yell of rage and pick up anything handy, from the ice cream freezer to the axe. It is one thing to sit around and smile while Fate does a little high grade Indian-club work on your head, but when the chickens of the man next door come over the fence and get busy in your garden you do get mighty mad!
The truth is that the amount of damage done by your neighbor's hens has nothing to do with the anger they arouse. To create something is the greatest thing you can do, and the garden -- whether flower or spud -- is something you have created. When you have dug the soil, and harrowed it, and sweetened it, and enriched it, and placed the seed in it, the garden is more truly you than your own children are. Presently your children will depart and the full fruitage of their lives will be their own creation, but your garden is yours only; you have made it, you will tend it, you will gather its harvest of flowers or kohlrabi. At the best it will be imperfect, but you long for perfection and mean to do all you can to make it a perfect thing. And then some careless neighbor lets his dad-blasted chickens loose and they come over and paw all over the place! You not only feel angry pity for your garden, and selfish anger for your gobbled seeds and lettuce plants, but that deadliest of all anger -- the anger we all feel when another scorns our just rights.
We who have gardens and who don't have chickens are the victims of a cruel irony of fate. We were born to be the meek and misunderstood of this world. Our neighbor has chickens; we have a garden. Our garden cannot climb over the fence and eat the chickenfeed of the hens. Our garden cannot get up at two A. M. and crow its lungs out and awaken all our helpless neighbors. Our garden stays at home and meekly minds its own business and bothers no one. There can be a thousand other gardens and no one is harmed. But the minute my neighbor's hen comes into my garden my neighbor is "set" to hate me. If I say anything to him about his hens I expect him to get mad; if I do not say anything to him he says to himself, "He don't say anything, but he's thinking it, and I'll just tell him, when he does say anything, about that time his boy came over and --" and so forth! If I wanted to be on friendly terms with my neighbors I would rather keep a Greco-Turkish boundary than a coop of hens. As soon as I bought a flock of hens and brought them home I would begin thinking what "come back" I could hand my neighbor when he came over to complain about my hens getting into his garden.
Personally I have solved the hen problem; I plant bulbs. My chicken-keeping neighbors do keep their hens at home the greater part of the time. We have never quarreled about chickens; in the spring I merely telephone, "My wife is going to plant her sweet pea seed tomorrow; your chickens --" and the chickens are gathered in and corralled. And that is proper. No one has any right to let his chickens roam my garden or roam your garden or roam anyone's garden.
I say quite frankly that in my opinion the chicken with the wanderlust is a greater menace to the happiness of the average American than the Turk or the bolshevist ever was or ever will be. The Turk may grasp Western Thrace from the Greeks -- if the Greeks have it; I'll be blessed if I know whether they have or have not -- and Mrs. Murphy and Mrs. Casey will converse fondly over the back fence in amity and good will. The bolshevists may arouse India to oust the British and Mrs. Murphy will hand a large slice of chocolate cake over the back fence and the heart of Mrs. Casey will beat with warm loving kindness for all the Murphys in the world. But once let Mrs. Casey's speckled hen come over into Mrs. Murphy's garden and get whacked on the back with the broken hoe handle thrown by Mrs. Murphy and black hatred and enmity will curdle the blood of the Murphys and Caseys forever more!
On the banners of the world the dove is recognized as the bird of peace; wherever flags wave the eagle is recognized as the bird of war; on the standard of France the rooster perches as the bird of triumph; Minerva's owl is the bird of wisdom. There is the peacock for pride and the ostrich for folly and the lark for hope. To the great gallery of birds I offer a new symbol -- the domestic hen, the symbol of neighborly enmity.
On the whole I consider the chicken situation gloomy. Although I am by nature an optimist I see no immediate amelioration of the chicken-from-the-next-door state of affairs. The chicken will continue to come over the fence, except on those occasions when it comes under. The next-door chicken will continue to be a nuisance. I can see but one ray of thankfulness to clasp to our bosoms; as Mike Flannery would have said -- What if them chickens was guinea-hens!"
Most of you will read Mr. Butler's "My Neighbor's Chickens" with a great deal of amusement. Especially so, if you don't keep chickens and your neighbors do. Butler is no nature faker. He knows his subject "like a book." If you don't believe it, read again his description of how a flock of hens enters a garden.
There is a deal of truth underlying his fun, for all o' that. Neighborhood rows without end have started over such trivial things as a hen invading a garden. Fights have ensued, lawyers have been hired, witnesses subpoenaed, courts occupied and much economic waste entailed. In the end, we learn that "one man's rights end where another's begin." Good point to keep in mind.
It matters not whether it be chickens, or a sumac bush sending suckering plants into the neighbor's garden, or a small boy with a beanie-shooter or an air-rifle. Neighbors should be neighbors, for what's the fun of living without neighbors? Let us have a little more tolerance for the human being across the fence, yes; but let us all be ever considerate of the neighbor's rights. Butler's viewpoint will help.