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Wednesday, April 26

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Detour

Before his daily commute downtown, Bob Piper sat in his car while it warmed on a frigid February morning. Eyeing the doghouse on stilts in his back yard, he noticed the rooster that inhabited the house hadn't flown to the patio below, where Piper left its breakfast. Instead, it remained inside, with only its beak jutting from the small doorway. Upon closer inspection, Piper discovered a cadre of ravenous squirrels eating the rooster's food. Incensed and already late for work, he chased the squirrels away with a broom.

"I had to protect the cock so he could eat," Piper says. The next morning, he also fed the squirrels so the bird could eat in peace.

The rooster (or cock, the preferred term among chicken afficionados) mysteriously appeared in the back yard of Piper and Bob Hogan last May. Proudly, they have accepted the task of keepers and caregivers of the cock they simply call Rooster.

03052004_rooster.jpg

Fig1. Rooster, in the flesh.

Prior to its claiming residence in their yard, both had seen him perambulating about their North Side neighborhood in search of food. Considering he is a white chicken dappled with black and brown specks, he wasn't hard to spot.

Piper was one of many who fed him. "I felt sorry for him," he says. "I found out later he was a whore, getting food from all the neighbors."

No one in the neighborhood knew where Rooster came from, but both Piper and Hogan speculate that he escaped from one of the local restaurants known for its penchant for fresh meat.

Escaped chickens aren't as uncommon as some might think. Ray Ziyad, owner of John's Live Poultry and Egg Market, says a chicken (a term encompassing both cocks and hens) escapes from his shop about once every three months.

"If a door on a cage swings open, BAM, the chicken is gone," says Ziyad. Early on in his profession as a fowl dealer, he made attempts to catch runaway chickens. But that practice ceased when an escaped chicken led him on a chase across several lanes of traffic. They are too difficult to catch, he says, and it's also time consuming. "I've spent a half hour before, just trying to catch one -- and I never did. I just say, 'If you want to go, go.'"

After Rooster's escape, he found a neighborhood full of hospitable folks. His first home was amidst a neighbor's grape vines. The family who lived there was comprised of a mother, her daughter and the daughter's toothless husband. Rooster's arrival caused familial discord, which both Hogan and Piper witnessed. The daughter would chase the bird away, and the mother would lure him back with food, says Hogan.

"We didn't know if Granny Clampitt was fattening him up for the holidays, or what," says Piper.

Eventually, the toothless husband sheared the grape vines off at the ground, robbing Rooster of shelter. He then migrated about five feet west into Piper and Hogan's yard through a gap in the adjoining fence, and has been living there ever since.

"At first we thought he was a hen because he didn't crow," says Piper. He was small and very young when he first moved in, but eventually his gender became apparent when he began making Peter Brady-like attempts at crowing.

After several months of practice, Rooster mastered his call of the wild, much to the chagrin of a few neighbors. The daily cacophony at sunrise drew enough attention that a nearby condominium complex called a special meeting to address the cock issue. Though no residents were available for comment, Piper and Hogan say that the majority decided against calling Animal Control, admitting they actually like the rooster.

03052004_night.jpg

Fig2.The cock's residence, complete with tractor lights.

In urban areas, people often have fowl as pets, says Francine Bradley, a Ph.D. in poultry science at the University of California, Davis. "I see as many adults who have chickens as pets, as kids who are in 4-H." Often, these adults are professionals living in an urban area. They find it very therapeutic and entertaining to watch chickens clucking and interacting with each other.

It's been Rooster's good fortune that most of his neighbors find him entertaining as well. Blissfully ignorant of his near demise at the hands of a few embittered condo dwellers, Rooster remains unscathed. But both Piper and Hogan still fear for his safety, as do others. While the two men were on vacation, neighbors fed and watched over Rooster. (They declined an interview, voicing concerns over Rooster's privacy.)

Such vigilance is necessary to protect Rooster from such derelicts as drunken next-door neighbors. One night, at a late hour, Piper caught two men attempting to unlock the gate to his back yard. When asked their intentions, they slurred some inane excuse, but Piper was wise to their treachery.

"I knew they were trying to hurt our cock," Piper says.

That instance was one of many where Rooster required rescuing. When Piper and Hogan's condo was being renovated, they arrived one day to find the man hired to sand their hardwood floors, chasing Rooster around the back yard. He explained that in his home country of Romania, cocks make a divine soup.

"He's food to a lot of people. If he disappeared, I would just assume that someone is eating him," says Hogan. Rooster has proven resilient, surviving the rapacious appetite of the sanding Romanian and late night visits from inebriated neighbors.

"Jack, from Will & Grace, talked about Cher being a survivor; well, Rooster is a survivor too," says Piper.

As the months passed, many people in the neighborhood cultivated a sentimental attachment to the cock -- visitors even come bearing treats for him. But, that isn't his only source of sustenance; he also receives regular feedings. "I swear he talks to us when we feed him," says Piper. "He says, 'I love you for taking care of me.'" Rooster has a water bowl, and because of the cold snap in December he now has a heating pad and an insulated doghouse on stilts decorated with a string of miniature John Deere tractor lights.

"Tractor lights make him feel as though he's back on the farm -- of course, it's not like he's ever been on a farm," says Piper.

03052004_inside.jpg

Fig3. Rooster snuggles in for the night.

The only good aspect of the freezing weather is that it makes cleaning up after Rooster, much easier. "He shits on the porch all the time," says Piper. "When the weather's cold, it's easier to sweep the chunks away than have them clump in the broom," says Hogan.

With lugubrious tones, they both acknowledge that Rooster's time with them may be drawing to a close. Though he is city-savvy, such an urban area is still a hostile environment for a rooster, Piper says. Those factors aside, the sun is rising earlier and he's crowing louder. When the weather warms, people are going to leave their windows open and most likely won't appreciate a wake-up call.

They are searching for a farm where Rooster can live without the imminent threat of decapitation, and where he goes, the house will follow. But giving away his home won't leave the two without mementos of their time with Rooster.

"You know, the thing about having a cock is that all of your friends give you cock paraphernalia," Piper says.

With the zeal of a proud parent, Piper sets myriad knick-knacks on the table, including a brightly colored ceramic cock, and cock cordial glasses and a salt-and-pepper shaker set.

Prior to the arrival of Rooster, Hogan admits he was never a bird fan. "Every bird he sees, he calls a pigeon -- but not this one," Piper says. "He actually calls this one Rooster. From the start, he knew this one wasn't like the others."

Author's note: To protect the renegade avian's whereabouts, the last names of its caregivers have been changed to those of professional wrestlers. This furtive measure is to avoid kidnapping and/or consumption of the aforementioned fowl by some sick bastard(s) with nothing better to do. Bribery will not work, for even if the Colonel himself, in all his chicken-frying, slaw-slinging glory, arose from the grave and asked me for a location, I would not be persuaded to talk -- unless he bequeathed me a lifetime supply of those fabulous biscuits.

 

About the Author(s)

Erin Burke is Chicago's dirty little secret.

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