by Leah Zerbe, an online editor at RodaleNews.com
I'll never forget where I was the day I heard Lady Gaga crow for the first time. Not the singer, but my chicken, a particularly beautiful little guy with flashy feathers and a gorgeous, larger-than-life swagger.
To backtrack: I never asked for Lady Gaga the day we ordered 50 baby chicks from our local feed mill. In fact, I never order roosters for our farm's small pastured-egg operation (but inevitably always get a few).
Still, I recognized something so dainty and feminine in Lady Gaga as I watched the chicken grow. Unlike most other hens on our farm, this one featured poofy feathers that flowed like a reverse waterfall atop its head. With long, showy feathers covering "her" toes and such ornate plumage, this chicken looked like it was wearing a wild, flamboyant costume--hence the name, Lady Gaga.
We weren't even thinking gender when we named Gaga. This chicken was so pretty, there's no way it was a guy! Except one morning, as we were out in the field gathering vegetables for our CSA customers at Potter"s Farm, we heard the most awful, pathetic, screeching noise near the chicken coop.
It made us cringe. It was like nails scraping down a chalkboard. It was...it was Lady Gaga crowing?!?!
From that moment on, Gaga's demeanor changed. Although a tiny bantam-type rooster--quite literally a featherweight, perhaps some sort of cross between Polish and Silkie breeds--he took his role as rooster, protector of his hens, very seriously. Although we had several other, much larger roosters in the flock, Gaga always seemed the most stoic.
He was the one who ventured to the outer perimeters of the pasture to keep watch. If he saw a hovering red-tailed hawk or sensed a predator in the area, he'd reach into his toolbox of rooster sounds, alerting the ladies to take shelter while he continued to hold watch by the edge of the fence.
He was brave.
He was entertaining.
He became a rising star on the farm and accompanied children on the hay wagon during our fall "Happy Hayrides." They'd pass him around, and he'd patiently allow it as I taught the children about chickens and organic farming. They all would laugh when I'd tell the story about how Lady Gaga got the name--and our surprise when we learned months later "she" was a "he." Some of the kids even started calling him "Papa Gaga."
Gaga was very intelligent, too. Whatever he lacked in stature, he made it up with smarts. That was never more evident than the Christmas morning my husband and I looked out the window to admire the fresh snow, only to see Lady Gaga riding the perimeter of the chicken coop...atop our goat, Stanley! He knew how to police the area, protect his ladies, and stay warm.
During the last polar vortex, I'd open the coop in the morning and see him watching over his flock, sometimes sandwiched between hay bales to stay warm. I'd tend to the chores with the little guy in my sweatshirt, feeling much like a mom walking around with a baby sling. He seemed to appreciate the few minutes of extra warmth, but was always eager to hop out to keep an eye on his girls.
As our frigid, snowy Pennsylvania winter raged on, the snow and ice had accumulated so high it nearly reached the top of our portable fence. The electric zaps that usually pulsed through the fencing were failing, but we hadn't had predator problems in the five years I'd been raising chickens, so I opted to still let the chickens outside for fresh air. They were used to it--being "cooped up" wasn't something our chickens enjoy. Besides, it was a rare gorgeous day during this tough, freezing winter, and I wanted them to be happy outside.
As I approached the coop at sunset to close the door and secure them all in for the night, I knew something was off. To the right of the coop I spotted a pile of feathers, a leghorn that was the unlucky target of our first fox attack. To the right, I spotted another victim, but it was getting dark quickly and I couldn't ID the second perished chicken.
I scanned the inside of the coop, looking for Lady Gaga's usual spot. He was nowhere to be found. I felt a pang in my gut. Of course, I love all of my chickens, but Gaga was special. And he brought so much happiness to so many Potter's Farm visitors.
I went back to the crime scene and hunched down to investigate. The victim had five toes, a characteristic of silkies and a few other breeds. It was Lady Gaga.
I'm no forensics expert, but if I had to reenact the crime scene, I'd say Lady Gaga jumped out of the coop as the hen was being attacked, trying desperately to save her, but probably well aware he was no match for a fox. The fox quickly, and probably pretty painlessly, killed Lady Gaga, who likely interrupted his feeding on the hen.
The hen and Gaga's bodies lay motionless less than two feet apart. In the morning, I buried him in the snow about 50 yards from the coop, under a fallen tree, beside his fallen hen. I thanked Gaga and the hen for all of their hard work over the last two years. I wished they could have made it to feel the warm spring sun on their backs after such a long, hard winter.
Rest in peace, Lady Gaga.
Additional Note: One of the reasons I've always allowed roosters to live on the farm involves the way they are generally treated in industrial farming. According to animal welfare investigations, many roosters are born into this world and die on the same day--they aren't seen as valuable because they don't lay eggs and take too long to grow fat enough to sell for meat. Hours-old baby chick roosters are often cruelly ground up alive, tossed into a grating machine, because they don't fit into the factory farm system's plan for profit.
But roosters do serve many purposes. They play an important social role in the flock hierarchy, according to My Pet Chicken Handbook. And, as we saw in the case of Lady Gaga, they help protect the flock, and will often go down fighting, sometimes even sacrificing themselves for their hens.
I've been told by more than a few people that I'm "not tough enough to farm" because I develop real relationships and love for my animals. I take death harder than others, but also know that, despite our mistakes, we give our chickens the best lives we can. And they give us a lot, too. Many laughs, free security for the flock, and perhaps the best lessons of all--the reminder that every day is a gift, and even when it comes too soon, death is part of the package deal--something not you, I, or even the bravest rooster in the world can escape.
Leah Zerbe is online editor for Rodalenews.com. Prior to working at Rodale, she was the senior online editor at NBCPhiladelphia.com, where she headed up the station's online "Going Green" initiative, wrote about center city crime and traffic jams, and blogged about her beloved Philadelphia Phillies. She and her husband run a sustainable organic farm in Schuylkill County where they grow vegetables, strawberries, herbs, and flowers, and raise heritage breed chickens.
For more from Maria Rodale, visit www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com