EVER since that far-off day in the prehistoric past, when some unknown Aryan shikari captured a pair of Gallus ferrugineus and domesticated them, the fowl has been the constant companion and friend of man. The utility of the hen bird soon rendered her indispensable to human beings, while the proud bearing and the valour of the cock gained for him the admiration of mankind.
Idomeneus bore on his shield at the siege of Troy a representation of the gallant chanticlere. The warlike Romans held the birds in high esteem ; they were in the habit of using them as augurs. The method of ascertaining the will of the gods was to place food before the sacred birds. If the grain was consumed quickly, the omen was favourable; if, on the other hand, the fowls were slow in disposing of the victuals, the omen was evil. Since both cocks and hens have a habit of devouring their food as though they were travellers, determined to have their money's worth, eating dinner at a railway restaurant with the train waiting impatiently outside, it was not often that fowls gave an unfavourable omen. On one memorable occasion, however, they seem to have been off colour; the pullarius must have been trying experiments with them, for they refused the food offered them. This was too much for Claudius Pulcher, who was consulting them; he fairly lost his temper, seized the recalcitrant birds, and threw them into the sea, with the remark, " If you won't eat, you rascals, you shall drink!"
Our mediaeval ancestors highly honoured the cock. Gerald Legh asserts that "the Cocke is the royallest birde that is, and of himself a king, for Nature hath crowned him with a perpetual diademe, to hime and his posteritie for ever. He is the valliantest in battle of all birdes, for he will rather die than yielde to his adversarie.' The cock, moreover, was believed to be able to impart his valour.
Porta writes: " If you would have a man become bold and impudent, let him carry about the skin or eyes of a lion or cock, and he will be fearless of his enemies -: nay, he will be very terrible unto them." Extract of cock was held to be a cure for consumption.
The prescription runs: " Take a red cock, cut him into quarters, and put him into an earthenware pot with the rootes of fennell, parcely and succory, corans, whole mace, Anise seeds, and liqorice scraped and slyced, two or three clean dates, a few prunes and raysons." Then add half a pint of rosewater and a quart of white wine and stew the whole gently for twelve hours. A teaspoonful of the resulting broth should be taken twice a day.
The fowl, alas! has now fallen from his high estate, j especially in India. In this country, although it is the true home of gallinaceous birds, the murghi is a very degenerate creature. Natives do not understand the art of breeding, as their miserably undersized cattle, horses, and donkeys, and their mongrel pigeons, demonstrate. Indian poultry, however, are worse than undersized ; they exhibit a strong leaning towards pachydermism -: a fatal creed for a table bird. This the traveller is able to verify for himself at any dak bungalow, for murghi will inevitably appear on the table, and the would-be diner, after many ineffectual attempts to get his degenerate teeth into the bird sacrificed to him, is obliged to console himself for his unsatisfied appetite by singing gently: -:
" That bird must have crowed when they built the Tower of Babel, 'Twas fed by Cain and Abel, And lived in Noah's stable, All the shots that were fired on the field of Waterloo Couldn't penetrate or dislocate That elongated, armour-plated, Double-breasted, iron-chested, Cock-a-doodle-doo."
All the various breeds of poultry were at one time supposed to be descended from the common Indian jungle fowl. It is now, however, thought that Cochins and Brahmas have possibly arisen from other ancestors.
The Scrapers are a dimorphic family of birds -: the sexes differ in appearance. The males are more showy and larger than the females. This is supposed to be due to sexual selection, that is to say, the preference of the ladies for gaily-coloured husbands. Each cock does his utmost to secure a goodly harem of hens. In order to gratify his ambition he must be of gallant appearance, of winning manners, and a good fighter. The former qualities enable him to obtain wives and the last to retain them when once secured.
The Rabbi Jochanan says: " Had the law never been given us, we might still have learned politeness from the cock, who is fair spoken to the female in order to win her. ' I will buy thee a dress,' he whispers in the hen's ear, ' a dress that shall reach down to the very ground.' And when the victory is achieved, he shakes his head solemnly and cries, 'May my comb perish if, when I have the means, I do not keep my word.'"
If the cock and hen birds differ in appearance, they exhibit still greater diversity in character. The cock is a warrior, valiant, careful of his honour, hot-tempered, albeit prudent, proud, and vain. The hen is the type of good-tempered bourgeoisie, humble, prone to cackle, subservient to her husband, foolish, and affectionate. The carefulness with which she bruises every grain of corn, lest it should hurt the soft palates of her chicks, the way in which she teaches her children to scrape the ground to make it yield up its good things, the tender manner in which she gathers her brood under her wings, and her anxiety and solicitude if one stray from her, are among the most homely and the sweetest sights in nature. But it is unnecessary to dilate upon the affection of a hen for her chickens; let it suffice that it has been made the subject of one of the most beautiful similes in the Bible.
Cruel man must cause the poor foolish bird many an anxious moment when he sets her to rear up ducklings. It is truly pitiful to watch her distress when the unruly brood betakes itself to the dreaded water.
There is a story told of a goose that saw a hen in this predicament, and swam up to her to cackle a few words of comfort. The hen seized the opportunity to jump upon the goose's back. The latter, although a little scandalized at the hen's familiarity, was too kind-hearted to shake her off, so swam with her alongside her duckling children. The hen enjoyed her trip so much that she repeated it the next day.
Then the goose, who hailed from Scotland, determined to float a company to take distressed hens for trips on the water at 2d. a -: but stay! Methinks I hear the gentle reader complain of a pulling sensation in the leg. This will never do. Let us hie back to the young chicks.
It is characteristic of the Gallinae that their young are hatched in a highly developed state, and not blind, naked, and helpless, as is the case with most young birds. The downy chick is so precocious a baby that it needs no nest to protect it, consequently the hen does not build one, but lays her eggs on the hard ground. While yet inside the shell the chick calls out to let its mother know that it is prepared to face the troubles and dangers of this life ; then the excited parent breaks the little bird's frail prison by pecking at it. An opening is soon formed and the young chick emerges, ready for a good solid meal as soon as its mother has taught it how to eat, a lesson that is quickly learned.
Although born in so highly developed a condition, the young bird differs greatly in appearance from either of its parents, and has thus to pass through a transitory, a hobbledehoy stage, before it assumes the adult plumage. Most birds live through this period hidden away in the nest, but the poor fowl has to do so in public. Hobbledehoys are always awkward, ugly creatures, and the pullet forms no exception; a more ungainly bird it would be difficult to find.