A Meditation on the Chickens of Kauai

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A Meditation on the Chickens of Kauai

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Jan 21, 2012

Driving home from the Mahaulepu coastline on Kauai’s south shore, I thought about a book I am reading called Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness. On one level, the book inspires its reader to find nature in the every day world—be it the city, suburbia, your backyard, the city park, wherever and everywhere. But the bigger message, the hopeful one, is that in doing so—in playing the naturalist, walking around with a pair of binoculars, a notebook, pencil and, perhaps even, a 10x glass hand lens—you, me, we will reconnect with the natural world, our environment. This, in turn, will peak our curiosity, get us to do a little research on a bird or bug or spider or plant and that understanding of the said bird or bug or spider or plant, daresay, will lead to caring about it. Understanding is the necessary component. Once we get to know something (the same is true with people) we do our best to care for it, protect it, save it.

I have written extensively here on this blog about excursions in search of monitoring and counting and observing Hawaii’s native and, often, endangered species from Laysan albatross, black-footed albatross, short-tailed albatross and Newell’s shearwater. To Hawaiian monk seals, humpback whales, false killer whales. Green and hawk’s bill sea turtles. And hedyotis st. johnii. And yet, I have not once written about a species of great intrigue, especially to Kauai’s visitors. Perhaps because the species of which I allude is found in my backyard. Its numbers are rising unchecked. And it’s not included on any list except, perhaps, one of a nuisance to insomniacs.

I refer, of course, to the chicken.

You’ve heard about Kauai’s chickens, right? They roam free of predators except the occasional dog or cat and frequent collisions with cars. Stories abound—about a crate of mongoose that fell into the sea, the assistance of Hurricane Iniki in spreading the birds to the far corners of the island, about the original chicken ancestor that arrived on the first canoes with the first Polynesians and, later, the advent of cockfighting. So, I won’t go into that here.

I may not have written about Kauai’s chickens, but I have penned this bio for a feature story or guest blog or anthology collection that I have written: Kim Steutermann Rogers lives with three chickens, two dogs and one husband on the Hawaiian Island of Kauai. 

So, it’s about time I do right by the chickens.

As I drove home from the south shore—through Tree Tunnel and into Puhi, Lihue, Wailua and Kapaa until I finally reached my home in Anahola, I wondered if any great poets had written poems about chickens. I knew Pablo Neruda had written odes to artichokes, tomatoes, onions and even something as ordinary as his socks. Wallace Stephens wrote 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Poe had his raven. I wondered if Greek or Romany mythology included any stories about chickens.

I wanted something more than pseudo-philosophical questions, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and “What came first? The chicken or the egg?”

When I returned home, I went straight to my computer and searched “chicken poem.” There was nothing from Neruda or Stephens or Poe. Not a tale of a chicken rising from the ashes; no Greek or Roman gods transmogrifying in the body of a chicken, either. But I did discover this haiku:

Speckled chicken pecks
All day stirring up the ground
Turning the brown soil

On Kauai, chickens spend their days pecking in the sand at beaches, they stir up the gravel on the sides of Kauai’s roads, and they scratch the ground below the picnic tables of the island’s outdoor restaurants. I’ve braked behind cars that have stopped to allow a hen and her string of chicks cross the road. I’ve witnessed a man let loose his terrier on a hen’s brood. I’ve started when a hen flared her cape and charge me to protect her chicks hidden in a bush.

In my poetry search, I also discovered this children’s tale of the Little Red Hen:

One day the Little Red Hen was scratching in a field, she found a grain of wheat that had dropped from heaven.
She said, "This wheat should be planted."
Then she asked her farm friends, "Who will plant this grain of wheat?" 
"Not I," said the Goat
"Not I," said the Pig
"Not I," said the Goose
"Then I will," said the Little Red Hen. And she did. 
Soon the wheat grew to be tall and strong.
"The wheat is ripe," said the Little Red Hen. "Who will cut the wheat?" 
"Not I," said the Goat
"Not I," said the Pig
"Not I," said the Goose
"Then I will," said the Little Red Hen. And she did. 
When the wheat was cut, the Little Red Hen said, 
"Who will thresh the wheat?"
"Not I," said the Goat
"Not I," said the Pig
"Not I," said the Goose
"Then I will," said the Little Red Hen. And she did. 
When the wheat was threshed, the Little Red Hen said, 
"Who will take this wheat to the mill?"
"Not I," said the Goat
"Not I," said the Pig
"Not I," said the Goose
"Then I will," said the Little Red Hen. And she did. 
She took the wheat to the mill and had it ground into flour. 
Then she said, "Who will make this flour into bread?"
"Not I," said the Goat
"Not I," said the Pig
"Not I," said the Goose
"Then I will," said the Little Red Hen. And she did. 
She made and baked the bread. 
Then she said, "Who will eat this bread?"
"I will," said the Goat
"I will," said the Pig
"I will," said the Goose
"Oh no you won't!" said the Little Red Hen. "I will do that." And she did.

A year ago, my husband and I adopted a black-and-white dog from the Kauai Humane Society that we named Lulu. One day, we let her outside, and she took off in a dead sprint around the corner of the house. By the time my husband could catch up with her, she had a young chicken in her mouth. Upon command, Lulu dropped the bird, and it pitifully hobbled away. We started calling her “Hoppy” and spent the next few weeks tossing her bread crumbs, the rind and skin of papayas and watermelon and apple cores. Neither of us wanted her death hanging over our heads.

The simple search for “chicken anatomy” revealed that Lulu had probably broken Hoppy’s shank. As we’d witnessed before in chickens, the leg eventually healed so well that the day arrived when we could no longer distinguish Hoppy from her sister by Hoppy’s physical deformity. That’s when we named her sister Green Legs. And, for whimsy, her brother, “Ham.”

By this time, Hoppy came running for me at full speed whenever I emerged from the house in the morning. She ran with such glee in her step that I swore she was smiling. She knew a good food source when she met one. My weekend research revealed that chickens can run at speeds up to nine miles per hour. (They can also fly, lest you are deceived, and I didn’t have to Google anything to discover that.) 

I decided to photograph Hoppy for this essay, but I couldn’t find her. 

“I haven’t seen Hoppy lately,” I said to my husband later that evening.

“I saw her a couple days ago,” he said.

Instead, I photographed Ham and Speckles.

According to Lyanda Lynn Haupt in Crow Planet, a famed zoologist named Louis Agassiz at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology gave a potential student a fish in a specimen jar. The student—a guy named Samuel Scudder—tells the story this way: “Take this fish,” he [Agassiz] said, “and look at it; we call it a haemulon; by and by I will ask you what you have seen.”

With that, Agassiz left. He returned a few minutes later. “What do you see,” he asked and Scudder shared his thoughts. “Keep looking,” Agassiz would say and leave again. Apparently, this would go on for hours and days with Agassiz encouraging his student to “Keep looking.”

I downloaded my photographs of Ham and Speckles and studied their faces, realizing how little I really knew about chickens, even though, for 12 years, I have lived with them as local wildlife, their crowing has woke me at all hours of the night, and their calls have provided background music to many a telephone conversation.

Speckles’ “double wattle” particularly intrigued me, although at the time I didn’t know the fleshy skin below the beak was called by the same name as Richard Fish's fetish on the television show Ally McBeal. I learned the wattle—and comb—help cool the bird by redirecting blood flow to the skin. 

Back at Google, I scratched around some more and discovered chickens and roosters have eight different types of combs: Rose, Strawberry, Silkis, Single, Cushion, Buttercup, Pea and V-shaped. 

Ham and Speckles both have the classic Single comb, a moderately thin strip of flesh attached at the beak and running over the breadth of their skulls. Five or six distinct serrations form points, the middle points being the highest. In males, the comb is always upright and more pronounced.

In just a few minutes of research, I’ve already learned much about chickens. I suppose that would make Agassiz and Haupt happy. But if I’m really going to learn my lessons from these two naturalists, I will keep a journal, use a sketchpad, take more pictures and look, look, look.

These days, I keep both dogs—Lulu and Nickel—on a leash when we go for our walk-abouts.  They know that the chickens are off-limits, but I don’t trust them 100%. They are too close to their hunting days spent racing through woods and fields and ravines chasing down pigs. 

Hoppy re-appeared today, emerging from the naupaka bushes in the backyard followed by seven chicks fresh out of their shells. I raced for the phone.

“Hoppy has seven chicks,” I said to Eric.

“So, that’s where she’s been hiding,” he said.

And, now, there are seven more lives to document.  Truth be told, I don’t know if I’m up for this.


susan | Jan 24, 2012 10:22 AM

Egads, more chickens! You've never heard the story of Chicken Little? Look it up, it will be a lesson on how intelligent chickens are. Not!

Kim | Jan 25, 2012 02:00 PM

Oops. Now, there are eight. Another nugget of wisdom: not all chicks hatch at the same time. I guess Susan is not convinced that chickens are worth observing with the eye of a naturalist. Obviously, I have not done my job. That means, there will be more blog posts about chickens to come! Look out, Susan.

Alan | Jun 28, 2012 09:00 PM

This is just great, I really enjoyed reading about. Thank you for this wonderful sharing.

kristl | Aug 23, 2013 09:17 AM

Do you still have your chickens?

Kim | Aug 23, 2013 06:23 PM

Hi Kristl, thanks for asking. We ALWAYS have chickens. Many mentioned in this blog post still roam the yard. A few have disappeared. Some new ones have replaced them. It's a constant circle of chickens around here;-)

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