Tuesday, November 15, 2016


I was reminded recently of the role chickens have played in my life when a stray one lolloped across the road ahead of me at Blackmount.  I braked but there had been a time in my life when I would not have.  As students we ate potatoes, cabbages and what we could run over.  Feral ones are a bit of a rarity in Southland.  Too many predators and a coolish and wettish climate – the same factors which have counted against the establishment of other related birds, the Californian quail, partridge and pheasant – have kept the population low.

In the North Island, however, there are feral fowls at every roadside layby.  They are a pest in parks, they probably harbour chook diseases and they forage in the bush where they can damage new plantings.  They appear for food whenever a car pulls up. 
In Niue I found twenty sorts of birds, the commonest of which was the chicken.  The roosters started each morning sometime between 1.52am and 2.03am.  I should know; I timed them!  Being interested in birds I enquired of the Ministry of Agriculture if there was anyone who knew about birds.  “O yes”, said the girl, “I know the birds.”  “That’s marvellous,” I said, “Can you tell me what they are?”  “Oh yes,” she said,  “They’re called chickens.”  “I’ve seen the chickens,” I said patiently.  “What about the others?”  “O yes,” she said, “They’re the others.”

In Tonga there was a sign ‘Moa and chips’.  Moa meant chicken.  The Pacific had chickens for a thousand years – one of several food species derived from Southeast Asia.  It is natural that the name was transferred to the new edible species in Aotearoa.

In Dunedin our scouts had a troop chicken called George Trigwell Johnson.  George wore a miniature scarf and earned the Buk Reader badge.  She was handy for testing cooking on, for rescuing from various dangerous situations in emergency training and for first aid.  Ever tried to put a sling on a chicken’s wing?  Instead of the usual things you see on a knotboard, scouts had to invent their own knots.  One was Brian’s Cacklebend for securing George to a peg by both legs.  There was also Jeremy’s Milo-hitch for tying a full mug to a rope so it could be hoisted up to someone trapped in the treetops and the Warren Knot which stayed firm if two enemy captives pulled the same way but released them if they pulled in opposite directions.

George’s first and only flight was as test pilot for the trebuchet.  Cackling hysterically from delight or something, she went up in a wide arc and dropped, flapping vigorously, onto the neighbour’s roof.  From a vantage point on a park above the city we aimed the machine.  A dead possum cleared the trees and the fence.  Spinning lazily and silhouetted in the evening sky, it vanished into suburbia below.

On a seabird count along Oreti Beach, one of the hikers arrived with a bulging sack.  “They’re chickens,” he said.  “Well,” I said, delighted at his innocence,  “we don’t call them chickens.  They are shearwaters, prions, petrels, shags and gulls.” He up-ended the sack.  They were chickens.  One sort of seabird is called a chicken.  These are ‘Mother Carey’s chickens’ which is a sailors’ name for the tiny Storm petrel.  They were believed to be the restless spirits of drowned seamen.  Mother Carey was the conscience of the sea, the female equivalent of Davey Jones.  Her name probably comes from Mater cara which means caring mother.

Back to the chickens…  I’ve kept odd ones.  I’m not particularly fond of them and it’s always going to be cheaper to buy eggs than to keep chooks.  Some people are simply terrified of them.  Alectorophobia is fear of chickens.  “Having to hold a chicken is my worst fear,” a friend told me.  I didn’t believe her.  “It’s your third worst fear,” I said.  Number two is appearing naked in public.  Number one is appearing naked in public whilst holding a chicken.