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Chanticleer



DURING the month of September I spent several days at a house standing on high ground in one of the pleasantest suburbs of London, commanding a fine view at the back of the breezy, wooded, and not very far-off Surrey hills; and all round, from every window, front and back, such a mass of greenery met the eye, almost concealing the neighbouring houses, that I could easily imagine myself far out in the country. In the garden the omnipresent sparrow, and that always pleasant companion the starling, associated with the thrush, blackbird, green linnet, chaffinch, redstart, wren, and two species of tits; and, better than all these, not fewer than half a dozen robins warbled their autumn notes from early morning until late in the evening. Domestic bird-life was also represented by fifteen fowls, and the wise laxity existing in the establishment made these also free of the grounds; for of eyesores and painful skeletons in London cupboards, one of the worst, to my mind, is that unwholesome coop at the back where a dozen unhappy birds are usually to be found immured for life. These, more fortunate, had ample room to run about in, and countless broad shady leaves from which to pick the green caterpillar, and red tortoise-shaped lady-bird, and parti-coloured fly, and soft warm soil in which to bathe in their own gallinaceous fashion, and to lie with outstretched wings luxuriating by the hour in the genial sunshine. And having seen their free wholesome life, I did not regard the new-laid egg on the breakfast-table with a feeling of repugnance, but ate it with a relish.

I have said that the fowls numbered fifteen; five were old birds, and ten were chickens, closely alike in size, colour and general appearance. They were not the true offspring of the hen that reared them, but hatched from eggs bought from a local poultry-breeder. As they advanced in age to their teens, or the period in chicken-life corresponding to that in which, in the human species, boy and girl begin to diverge, their tails grew long, and they developed very fine red combs; but the lady of the house, who had been promised good layers when she bought the eggs clung tenaciously to the belief that long arching tails and stately crests were ornaments common to both sexes in this particular breed. By and by they commenced to crow, first one, then two, then all, and stood confessed cockerels. Incidents like this, which are of frequent occurrence, serve to keep alive the exceedingly ancient notion that the sex of the future chick can be foretold from the shape of the egg. As I had no personal interest in the question of the future egg-supply of the establishment, I was not sorry to see the chickens develop into cocks; what did interest me were their first attempts at crowing--those grating sounds which the young bird does not seem to emit, but to wrench out with painful effort, as a plant is wrenched out of the soil, and not without bringing away portions of the lungs clinging to its roots. The bird appears to know what is coming, like an amateur dentist about to extract one of his own double-pronged teeth, and setting his feet firmly on the ground, and throwing himself well back before an imaginary looking-glass, and with arched-neck, wide-open beak, and rolling eyes, courageously performs the horrible operation. One cannot help thinking that a cockerel brought up without any companions of his own sex and age would not often crow, but in this instance there were no fewer than ten of them to encourage each other in the laborious process of tuning their harsh throats. Heard subsequently in the quiet of the early morning, these first tuning efforts suggested some reflections to my mind, which may not prove entirely without interest to fanciers who aim at something beyond a mere increase in our food-supply in their selecting and refining processes.

To continue my narration. I woke in the morning at my usual time, between three and four o'clock, which is not my getting-up time, for, as a rule, after half an hour or so I sleep again. The waking is not voluntary as far as I know; for although it may seem a contradiction in terms to speak of coming at will out of a state of unconsciousness, we do, in cases innumerable, wake voluntarily, or at the desired time, not perhaps being altogether unconscious when sleeping. If, however, this early waking were voluntary, I should probably say that it was for the pleasure of listening to the crowing of the cocks at that silent hour when the night, so near its end, is darkest, and the mysterious tide of life, prescient of coming dawn, has already turned, and is sending the red current more and more swiftly through the sleeper's veins. I have spent many a night in the desert, and when waking on the wide silent grassy plain, the first whiteness in the eastern sky, and the fluting call of the tinamou, and the perfume of the wild evening primrose, have seemed to me like a resurrection in which I had a part; and something of this feeling is always associated in my mind with the first far-heard notes of Chanticleer.

It was very dark and quiet when I woke; my window was open, with only a lace curtain before it to separate me from the open air. Presently the profound silence was broken. From a distance of fifty or sixty yards away on the left hand came the crow of a cock, soon answered by another further away on the same side, and then, further away still, by a third. Other voices took up the challenge on the right, some near, some far, until it seemed that there was scarcely a house in the neighbourhood at which Chanticleer was not a dweller. There was no other sound. Not for another hour would the sparrows burst out in a chorus of chirruping notes, lengthened or shortened at will, variously inflected, and with a ringing musical sound in some of them, which makes one wonder why this bird, so high in the scale of nature, has never acquired a set song for itself. For there is music in him, and when confined with a singing finch he will sometimes learn its song. Then the robins, then the tits, then the starlings, gurgling, jarring, clicking, whistling, chattering. Then the pigeons cooing soothingly on the roof and window-ledges, taking flight from time to time with sudden, sharp flap, flap, followed by a long, silken sound made by the wings in gliding. At four the cocks had it all to themselves; and, without counting the cockerels (not yet out of school), I could distinctly hear a dozen birds; that is to say, they were near enough for me to listen to their music critically. The variety of sounds they emitted was very great, and, if cocks were selected for their vocal qualities, would have shown an astonishing difference in the musical tastes of their owners. A dozen dogs of as many different breeds, ranging from the boar-hound to the toy terrier, would not have shown greater dissimilarity in their forms than did these cocks in their voices. For the fowl, like the dog, has become an extremely variable creature in the domestic state, in voice no less than in size, form, colour, and other particulars. At one end of the scale there was the raucous bronchial strain produced by the unwieldy Cochin. What a bird is that! Nature, in obedience to man's behests, and smiling with secret satire over her work, has made it ponderous and ungraceful as any clumsy mammalian, wombat, ardvaark, manatee, or hippopotamus. The burnished red hackles, worn like a light mantle over the black doublet of the breast, the metallic dark green sickle-plumes arching over the tail, all the beautiful lines and rich colouring, have been absorbed into flesh and fat for gross feeders; and with these have gone its liveliness and vigour, its clarion voice and hostile spirit and brilliant courage; it is Gallus bankiva degenerate, with dulled brains and blunted spurs, and its hoarse crow is a barbarous chant.

And far away at the other end, startling in its suddenness and impetuosity, was a trisyllabic crow, so brief, piercing, and emphatic, that it could only have proceeded from that peppery uppish little bird, the bantam. And of the three syllables, the last, which should be the longest, was the shortest, "short and sharp like the shrill swallow's cry," or perhaps even more like the shrieky bark of an enraged little cur; not a reveille and silvern morning song in one, as a crow should be, but a challenge and a defiance, wounding the sense like a spur, and suggesting the bustle and fury of the cockpit.

If this style of crowing was known to Milton, it is perhaps accountable for the one bad couplet in the "Allegro":


While the cock with lively din
Scatters the rear of darkness thin.


Someone has said that every line in that incomparable poem brings at least one distinct picture vividly before the mind's eye. The picture the first line of the couplet I have quoted suggests to ray mind is not of crowing Chanticleer at all, but of a stalwart, bare-armed, blowsy-faced woman, vigorously beating on a tin pan with a stick; but for what purpose--whether to call down a passing swarm of bees, or to summon the chickens to be fed--I never know. It is only my mental picture of a "lively din." As to the second line, all attempts to see the thing described only bring before me clouds and shadows, confusedly rushing about in an impossible way; a chaos utterly unlike the serenity and imperceptible growth of morning, and not a picture at all.

By and by I found myself paying special attention to one cock, about a hundred yards away, or a little more perhaps, for by contrast all the other songs within hearing seemed strangely inferior. Its voice was singularly clear and pure, the last note greatly prolonged and with a slightly falling inflection, yet not collapsing at the finish as such long notes frequently do, ending with a little internal sound or croak, as if the singer had exhausted his breath; but it was perfect in its way, a finished performance, artistic, and, by comparison, brilliant. After once hearing this bird I paid little attention to the others, but after each resounding call I counted the seconds until its repetition. It was this bird's note, on this morning, and not the others, which seemed to bring round me that atmosphere of dreams and fancies I exist in at early cockcrow--dreams and memories, sweet or sorrowful, of old scenes and faces, and many eloquent passages in verse and prose, written by men in other and better days, who lived more with nature than we do now. Such a note as this was, perhaps, in Thoreau's mind when he regretted that there were no cocks to cheer him in the solitude of Walden. "I thought," he says, "that it might be worth while keeping a cockerel for his music merely, as a singing bird. The note of this once wild Indian pheasant is certainly the most remarkable of any bird's, and if they could be naturalized without being domesticated it would soon become the most famous sound in our woods. . . . To walk in a winter morning in a wood where these birds abounded, their native woods, and hear the wild cockerels crow on the trees, clear and shrill for miles over the surrounding country--think of it! It would put nations on the alert. Who would not be early to rise, and rise earlier and earlier on each successive morning of his life, till he became unspeakably healthy, wealthy, and wise?"

Soon I fell into thinking of one in some ways greater than Thoreau, so unlike the skyey-minded New England prophet and solitary, so much more genial and tolerant, more mundane and lovable; and yet like Thoreau in his nearness to nature. Not only a lover of generous wines--"That mark upon his lip is wine"--and books "clothed in black and red," all natural sights and sounds also "filled his herte with pleasure and solass," and the early crowing of the cock was a part of the minstrelsy he loved. Perhaps when lying awake during the dark quiet hours, and listening to just such a note as this, he conceived and composed that wonderful tale of the "Nun's Priest," in which the whole character of Chanticleer, his glory and his foibles, together with the homely virtues of Dame Partlett, are so admirably set forth.

And longer ago it was perhaps such a note as this, heard in imagination by the cock-loving Athenians, which all at once made them feel so unutterably weary of endless fighting with the Lacedaemonians, and inspired their hearts with such a passionate desire for the long untasted sweets of security and repose. Is it one of my morning fancies merely--for fact and fancy mingle strangely at this still, mysterious hour, and are scarcely distinguishable--or is it related in history that this strange thing happened when all the people of the violet-crowned city were gathered to witness a solemn tragedy, in which certain verses were spoken that had a strange meaning to their war-weary souls? "Those who sleep in the morning in the arms of peace do not start from them at the sound of the trumpet, and nothing interrupts their slumbers but the peaceful crowing of the cock." And at these words the whole concourse was electrified, and rose up like one man, and from thousands of lips went forth a great cry of "Peace! Peace! Let us make peace with Sparta!"

Hark! once more that long clarion call: it is the last time--the very last; for all the others have sung a dozen times apiece and have gone to sleep again. So would this one have done, but cocks, like minstrels among men, are vain creatures, and some kind officious fairy whispered in his ear that there was an appreciative listener hard by, and so to please me he sang, just one stave more.

Lying and listening in the dark, it seemed to me that there were two opposite qualities commingled in the sound, with an effect analogous to that of shadow mingling with and chastening light at eventide. First, it was strong and clear, full of assurance and freedom, qualities admirably suited to the song of a bird of Chanticleer's disposition; a lusty, ringing strain, not sung in the clouds or from a lofty perch midway between earth and heaven, but with feet firmly planted on the soil, and earthly; and compared with the notes of the grove like a versified utterance of Walt Whitman compared with the poems of the true inspired children of song--Blake, Shelley, Poe. Earthly, but not hostile and eager; on the contrary, leisurely, peaceful even dreamy, with a touch of tenderness which brings it into relationship with the more aerial tones of the true singers; and this is the second quality I spoke of, which gave a charm to this note and made it seem better than the others. This is partly the effect of distance, which clarifies and softens sound, just as distance gives indistinctness of outline and ethereal blueness to things that meet the sight. To objects beautiful in themselves, in graceful lines and harmonious proportions and colouring, the haziness imparts an additional grace; but it does not make beautiful the objects which are ugly in themselves, as, for instance, an ugly square house. So in the etherealizing effect of distance on sound, when so loud a sound as the crowing of a strong-lunged cock becomes dreamy and tender at a distance of one hundred yards, there must be good musical elements in it to begin with. I do not remark this dreaminess in the notes of other birds, some crowing at an equal distance, others still further away. All natural music is heard best at a distance; like the chiming of bells, and the music of the flute, and the wild confused strains of the bagpipes, for among artificial sounds these come the nearest to those made by nature. The "shrill sharps" of the thrush must be softened by distance to charm; and the skylark, when close at hand, has both shrill and harsh sounds scarcely pleasing. He must mount high before you can appreciate his merit. I do not recommend any one to keep a caged cock in his study for the sake of its music, crow it never so well.

To return to the ten cockerels; they did not crow very much, and at first I paid little attention to them. After a few days I remarked that one individual among them was rapidly acquiring the clear vigorous strain of the adult bird. Compared with that fine note which I have described, it was still weak and shaky, but in shape it was similar, and the change had come while its brethren were still uttering brief and harsh screeches as at the beginning. Probably, where there is a great mixture of varieties, it is the same with the fowl as with man in the diversity of the young, different ancestral characters appearing in different members of the same family. This cockerel was apparently the musical member, and promised in a short time to rival his neighbour. Having heard that it was intended to keep one of the cockerels to be the parent of future broods, I began to wonder whether the prize in the lottery--to wit, life and a modest harem--would fall to this fine singer or not. The odds were that his musical career would be cut short by an early death, since the ten birds were very much alike in other respects, and I felt perfectly sure that his superior note would weigh nothing in the balance. For when has the character of the voice influenced a fancier in selecting? Never I believe, odd as it seems. I have read a very big book on the various breeds of the fowl, but the crowing of the cock was not mentioned in it. This would not seem so strange if fanciers had invariably looked solely to utility, and their highest ambition had ended at size, weight and quality of flesh, early maturity, hardihood, and the greatest number of eggs. This has not been the case. They possess, like others, the love of the beautiful, artificial as their standards sometimes appear; and there are breeds in which beauty seems to have been the principal object, as, for instance, in several of the gold and silver spangled and pencilled varieties. But, besides beauty of plumage, there are other things in the fowl worthy of being improved by selection. One of these has been cultivated by man for thousands of years, namely, the combative spirit and splendid courage of the male bird. But there is a spirit abroad now which condemns cock-fighting, and to continue selecting and breeding cocks solely for their game-points seems a mere futility. The energy and enthusiasm expended in this direction would be much better employed in improving the bird's vocal powers.

The morning song of the cock is a sound unique in nature, and of all natural sounds it is the most universal. "All climates agree with brave Chanticleer. He is more indigenous even than the natives. His health is ever good; his lungs are sound; his spirits never flag." He is a pet bird among tribes that have never seen the peacock, goose, and turkey. In tropical countries where the dog becomes dumb, or degenerates into a mere growler, his trumpet never rusts. It is true that he was cradled in the torrid zone, yet in all Western lands, where he "shakes off the powdery snow," with vigorous wings, his voice sounds as loud and inspiriting as in the hot jungle. Pale-faced Londoners, and blacks, and bronzed or painted barbarians, all men all the world over, wake at morn to the "peaceful crowing of the cock," just as the Athenians woke of old, and the nations older still. It is not, therefore, strange that this song has more associations for man than any other sound in nature. But, apart from any adventitious claims to our attention, the sound possesses intrinsic merits and pleases for its own sake. In our other domestic birds we have, with regard to this point, been unfortunate. We have the gobbling of turkeys, and the hoarse, monotonous come back of the guinea-fowl, screaming of peacocks and geese, and quacking, hissing, and rasping of mallard and mus-covy. Above all these sounds the ringing, lusty, triumphant call of Chanticleer, as the far-reaching toll of the bell-bird sounds above the screaming and chattering of parrots and toucans in the Brazilian forest. A fine sound, which in spite of many changes of climate and long centuries of domestication still preserves that forest-born character of wildness, which gives so great a charm to the language of many woodland gallinaceous birds. As we have seen, it is variable, and in some artificial varieties has been suffered to degenerate into sounds harsh and disagreeable; yet it is plain that an improved voice in a beautiful breed would double the bird's value from an aesthetic point of view. As things now are, the fine voices are in a very small minority. Some bad voices in artificial breeds, i.e., those which, like the Brahma and Cochin, diverge most widely from the original type--are perhaps incurable, like the carrion crow's voice; for that bird will probably always caw harshly in spite of the musical throat which anatomists find in it. We can only listen to our birds, and begin experimenting with those already possessed of shapely notes and voices of good quality.

I am not going to be so ill-mannered as to conclude without an apology to those among us who under no circumstances can tolerate the crowing of the cock. It is true that I have not been altogether unmindful of their prepossessions, and have freely acknowledged in divers places that Chanticleer does not always please, and that there is abundant room for improvement; but if they go further than that, if for them there exists not on this round globe a cock whose voice would fail to irritate, then I have not shown consideration enough, and something is still owing to their feelings, which are very acute. It is possible that one of these sensitive persons may take up my book, and, attracted by its title, dip into this paper, hoping to find in it a practical suggestion for the effectual muzzling of the obnoxious bird. The only improvement which would fall in with such a one's ideas on the subject of cock-crowing would be to improve this kind of natural music out of existence. Naturally the paper would disappoint him; he would be grieved at the writer's erroneous views. I hope that his feelings would take no acuter form. I have listened to a person, usually mild-mannered, denouncing a neighbour in the most unmeasured terms for the crime of keeping a crowing cock. If the cock had been a non-crower, a silent member, it would have been different: he would hardly have known that he had a neighbour. There is a very serious, even a sad, side to this question. Mr. Sully maintains that as civilization progresses, and as we grow more intellectual, all noise, which is pleasing to children and savages, and only exhilarates their coarse and juvenile brains, becomes increasingly intolerable to us. What unfortunate creatures we then are! We have got our pretty rattle and are now afraid that the noise it makes is going to be the death of us. But what is noise? Will any two highly intellectual beings agree as to the particular sound which produces the effect of rusty nails thrust in among the convolutions of the brain? Physicians are continually discovering new forms of nervous maladies, caused by the perpetual hurry and worry and excitement of our modern life; and perhaps there is one form in which natural sounds, which being natural should be agreeable, or at any rate innocent, become more and more abhorrent. This is a question which concerns the medical journals; also, to some extent, those who labour to forecast the future. Happily, all our maladies are thrown off, sooner or later, if they do not kill us; and we can cheerfully look forward to a time when the delicate chords in us shall no longer be made to vibrate "like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh" to any sound in nature, and when the peaceful crowing of the cock shall cease to madden the early waker. For, whatever may be the fate awaiting our city civilization, brave Chanticleer, improved as to his voice or not, will undoubtedly still be with us.



W. H. Hudson

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