The Canterbury Tales includes a few stories that reward the careful reader. They’re hardly “ROFL” type laughing, but by the time you’ve waded through the new vocabulary, figured out how to pronounce the Middle English and looked up a few of the references, the titillation of talking about farting, feels like quite a relief. The “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is a particular favorite.
Modern readers find Chauntecleer particularly laughable in his pride: he’s just a rooster. In the story a fox tricks our proud hero into stretching his neck out to sing and not incidentally presenting an easy target. The chicken gets the last word by playing on the fox’s own pride. The fox opens his mouth to taunt his pursuers and Chauntecleer escapes.
The tale is funny and plays on the basic risibility of a chicken’s pride. They strut around pecking in their own poop, but they hold their head up and stroll as prim as a runway model. Until they see a bit of corn: “And with a cluck he them began to call,/ For he had found some corn within the yard. / Regal he was, and fears he did discard.”
Despite this chickens represent a huge value as protein producers. These days there are many of us elitist semi-urbanites who own a few chickens and fancy ourselves living a bit more sustainably. But for most of human history a few hens and a rooster could represent an enormous step towards food security. The fox’s larcenous and self-serving behavior was actually quite a threat to the livelihood of the old widow who kept him. Despite the small dairy business she ran, seven hens and a rooster meant eggs for her to trade and the occasional chicken in the pot.
These days a fresh chicken at the market actually costs less than a laying hen. I can buy a fresh whole “Nature’s Promise” chicken from Stop and Shop for $8.36. A layer hen costs ten – even a chick will cost $3.22 at McMurray Hatcheries. The industrialization of broiler chicken production has lowered the price to the point where prepared chicken meat costs less per pound than broccoli.
Stealing chickens used to be a serious crime. In 1931 in Nebraska a Mr. Vohlan received a year in prison for stealing ten chickens – total value five dollars (nebraskahistory.org/exhibits/mugshots/Vohland_Jake.htm). Now the value of chickens is so low that the idea is laughable.
Neverthless when I received a call last week that a neighbor had a forlorn chicken on his back porch I worried that chicken rescue might be misconstrued as chicken rustling. The very cold and scared hen turned out to be some sort of easter egger, at least that’s my guess. She’s molting and so looked nearly naked. I put her in our basement with food and water and immediately posted messages to the listserves for backyard chicken keeping and my neighborhood. I figured that somebody would be missing a chicken. Not a word for over a week.
By this time I’ve integrated Henrietta into my flock. It didn’t take much work as she’s a bossy little bitty. She quickly established herself as an important chicken Unfortunately, as I mentioned, she’s molting. That means she’s not laying eggs. Even more unfortunately some of the other chickens are molting as well. So I’ve got eight chickens who aren’t producing very many eggs. Perhaps it’s time to advertise for a fox.