The thermometer on the side of the barn read 4 degrees when I came in at 6 a.m. to feed the barn cat and scatter some grain for the chickens. Winston, my speckled rooster, was lying on the cement floor, motionless. I’d never touched Winston, nor would he have allowed me to, but I moved closer. He didn’t stir. I prodded him gently with the tip of my boot and there was a slight response.
I was certain he was nearly dead, and felt surprisingly sad. Winston looked bewildered and seemed humiliated. He had come to me almost two years before, from another farm, and he had a history. A hawk had entered the chickens’ coop and gone after his hens. The other rooster, his brother, ran for his life, but Winston stood the predator down for a few precious minutes until the farmer got there with his shotgun. The hawk fled.
Winston’s honor and flock were intact but his left leg was mangled. From that point on, he limped like the war hero he was, adding to the gravitas he already seemed to bring to his life and work.
I bonded with Winston, in part, because I, too, had a gimpy leg. And he inspired me with his refusal to surrender his dignity or abandon his duties.
He crowed faithfully at 4 a.m., and then hourly, more or less, throughout the day. He followed his three hens all over the farm and the pasture, hobbling over quickly if they squawked or wandered too far or if a stray dog appeared to menace them.
He befriended Orson, my troubled, territorial border collie. I often would look out the farmhouse window and see, to my wonder, the two of them sitting side by side in the sunshine, gazing out at the valley below.
At dusk, Winston gathered the hens and escorted them into the barn, where they would hop up onto their roosts to sleep while he kept an eye out for foxes, weasels, coyotes, and, of course, hawks.
I’d named him in honor of the other Winston, for his stature and leadership and similar eloquence: His crowing could be heard far away. I worried that he was disturbing my neighbors, but they assured me they were happy to hear farm noises. His salutes seemed to bring back lost memories and mark their day in a comfortable way.
I would be sorry to lose him. But local farmers all agree: You don’t call the vet for a chicken. I didn’t have an ax, the surest way to kill a rooster swiftly, so I went back to the house for my .22. I wanted to make sure he didn’t suffer.
Confirmation came from my farmer friend Pete, who’s had chickens all his life. He happened to come by, and he walked into the barn to look at the rooster. “This guy is gone,” he said. Fond as I was of the rooster, it seemed his time had come.
But as I was returning to the barn with my gun, my friend and farm manager Annie DiLeo (she calls herself the Bedlam Farm Goddess) pulled up in her pickup truck. Annie is another refugee from the city, a flatlander from suburban New York City who’d suffered a tragedy and left that world behind. She had a gift with animals.
Almost every farmer knows someone like her. Animals trust and love her, and she seems to understand what is happening with them. Nothing they do or need is frightening or repellent to her. She loves them all more or less equally, except for goats, her personal favorites. She has nine.
I’d christened her the Goat Lady of Cossayuna, because when my goats’ horns became infected, she nursed them back to health. It was remarkable: When I tried to give them antibiotic shots, they ran. If I tried to put medicine on their wounds, they butted. Then Annie would arrive, offering cookies, calling their names, hugging and kissing them, and they’d wag their tails and run around in circles with joy. Then they would sit patiently while she cleaned their wounds, applied disinfectant, and checked their stools. Before long, they were waiting at the barnyard gate half the day for her truck. They bonded so completely that when they were well, I sent them home to live with her and her other goats; it seemed selfish to keep them apart.
Somehow, Annie communicates with animals in ways that people like me don’t understand or, frankly, quite believe in. I’m always shocked at how sheep and donkeys, even my shy border collie Rose, take to her and welcome her presence. Perhaps not surprisingly, she is now a shaman-in-training, studying with an animal soul-retriever in Vermont.
So, I quickly put the gun back when I saw Annie’s truck. Annie would not like to see me shoot anything and would tell me so. “Winston is dying,” I said, and she rushed into the barn, found him, and scooped up the limp rooster into her arms.
His eyes opened and he stirred, almost as if he were turning himself over to her. He actually rested his head on her shoulder as she talked to him and stroked him. I saw Winston come to life right in front of me.
Annie put together a straw nest and laid him in it and then, without saying a word to me, drove home and returned with crushed oyster shells, homegrown grain, and feed laced with antibiotic powder. She hauled out one of my heat lamps, left from last winter’s lambing, and set it in a corner. She built a low-lying perch “so he can get off the ground and still keep an eye on his hens.” And he accepted her touching, force-feeding, and warming him.
Over the next few days, the deep winter came, and the night temperatures dropped into the minus 20s. Annie came over each morning and evening to give Winston his special diet, make sure he was warm, and place him on his perch so he could do his job. He still looked weak and sluggish, not moving more than a few feet all day, and he remained uncharacteristically silent. Between Annie’s visits, I brought him greens, apple slices, and some of my wife’s chili.
My farmer friends made fun of Annie, and of me for having her around. “You’re giving medicine to a chicken?” one guy asked. “How ‘bout satin sheets and a pillow?” He offered to bring his ax over and “fix him right up.” Another volunteered to do the job with a rifle. “That’s dinner you’re keeping warm.” Eager not to appear foolish, I shook my head, too. “Can you believe all of that trouble for a rooster?”
But Pete, a perceptive and honest man, the kind who doesn’t need to ridicule, took me aside. “I saw that rooster the other day,” he said. “He was dead. I was going to offer to snap his neck. I don’t know what she’s doing, but she does have a gift,” he said. “He’s a different animal. I know what I saw, and I never saw it before.”
A couple of days ago, Winston crowed at 5 a.m. It wasn’t the most forceful wake-up call, nowhere near what he could muster in his salad days, but it was a welcome sound. When I went into the barn, he was walking around imperiously, pecking at the apple core I had left him.
The first day temperatures rose above freezing, I saw him march the hens over to the bird feeder, where he and the girls like to peck at the seed the blue jays scatter on the ground.
He is better, though not quite himself. Today he led the hens up to the pole barn, then back. He has a hearty appetite, a softer but persistent crow. He can’t hop up on the high roost with the hens anymore, but he likes to sit on the perch Annie built for him. Perhaps he will make it through one more spring.