Learning from Chickens

Shortly after Hari Raya Eid al-Fitr, I was given a lovely gift in the form of a rooster, hen, and four small chicks. The chickens are a small variety known locally as ayam katik. Although smaller and more tame, these chickens are not related to our modern poultry or egg laying machines, but are bred from semi-wild chickens similar to bantams. They are fairly self-reliant, semi-arboreal (they can nest in trees) and better flyers than the more heavily bred factory farm chickens.

The main reason I had wanted to get chickens was to control insects and produce better compost for my garden. I thought my children may enjoy them too, but I didn’t know the half of it. The kids, especially my eldest daughter KakNgah, are fascinated with them, and spend lots of time watching them just going about their chicken business. For a while, my youngest, KakAndak, who is just learning to speak, called them meow!, which is her word for cats, of course. But now she’s got it straight, and calls them ‘yam! They are surprisingly endearing, and have a grace to their movements which you wouldn’t necessarily expect. Our favorite is the way the mother hen scratches the ground with her talons with a quick “left, right” while her head looks skyward, and then quickly steps back to allow her chicks to grab the insects she’s unearthed. It’s so clearly maternal.

Another great benefit of the chickens is the rooster’s crowing. It didn’t occur to me before I got them that the rooster would crow at dawn. Well he crows! He cockles his heart out for about 15 minutes straight. It’s better than any alarm clock and there is no snooze button. The only trouble is, he’s a bit of late crower. By the time he lets loose, there’s only about twenty minutes of subuh left. That means he’s no use in getting me to the musallah for group prayer, but he has helped me from missing the prayer altogether on the occassions when I oversleep. My buddy.

Raising chickens, and connecting yourself to the land in general, revitalizes your language. There are so many sayings and proverbs related to farm life that, while still common in the language, have lost their power or beauty for city people like myself. This first occurred to me with the expression “Make hay while the sun shines”. Of course, we all know, this means to sieze an opportunity without delay. But it was just a cliche to me until I spent some time working on a farm. In order to prepare hay, which is the food source for barn animals all winter long, the grasses in the field must be cut. After they are cut, they must lay out on under the sun to dry. After they are dry, they must be baled, and after they are baled they must be collected and brought to the barn. For the length of this whole operation, sun is needed, and the more the better. If it happens to rain at any point in the process, the hay is drastically reduced in quality and can even be ruined. I still remember waking up early in the morning after the hay had been drying in the field, going out behind Abdul Haqq on his tractor, and throwing bale after bale of hay onto the trailer until the sun went down. From “cain’t see in the mornin’ to cain’t see at night”, as it were. At the end of the day, I was dead on my feet, my body was covered in tiny cuts from the hay particles, and I was blowing bloody snot from my nose from the hay dust. I now am fully aware of what it means to make hay while the sun shines.

In the same vein, there are plenty of expressions related to chickens that are becoming more vivid to me, and I hope to my children as well. I noticed that the chickens would peck and scratch without a care, and then for no reason at all, one of the chickens would squawk, jump and flap its wings for a moment, and then resume like nothing had happened. The problem? He’s chicken, of course. In English, if you’re chicken, it means you’re easily scared. In Valpo, Indiana, instead of saying “cheese!” to smile for the camera, they say “Hippy Chickens”, the hippy being how they say happy over there. There’s a lot of colorful language related to the rooster’s behavior too, but I won’t go into that!

In Malay, chickens have contributed to the language too: there’s kaki ayam, literally “chicken foot”, but meaning barefoot, cakar ayam, chicken scratch, the meaning same as English, ibu ayam, literally mother hen, but referring to a madam of the ill repute variety. I’m sure there are plenty more, and I invite my BM-speaking readers to leave them in the comments.

But my favorite expression is hangat-hangat tahi ayam, which I can really only literally translate as “hot like chicken sh*t”, but which in Malay is not crude or profane at all as it would be in English – it’s a perfectly acceptable phrase. It’s used to mean somebody who is very excited about a thing, but will grow tired of it and quit in a short while, as in, “That kid is hangat-hangat tahi ayam with his new bike – he’s ridden it all day long today, but next week it will be gathering dust.”

Unfortunately, I saved the bad news for last. It’s not all Hippy Chickens here at Bin Gregory Productions. When I first got the family of six, I bought a nice new wire frame cage for them to live. That very evening, a stray cat, of which there is a small army where I live, burgaled the cage and made of with two of the little McNuggets. Well, I cat-proofed the cage with boards, bricks, and anything else I could find, and that worked for a few days. (I’m sure my neighbors are none to pleased with my ramshackle coop. Wait till I have my camper-trailer up on cinderblocks in the backyard, then they’ll know what kind of Orang Putih they’ve got living next door.)

But while I had cat-proofed the cage, I had not chick-proofed it, and one of the chicks wandered out of the cage after lock-up time and met his doom. That left us with only one chick, who I took to calling “Lucky”. He’s the little yellow one. He was doing great, and his wings had started to grow in, which I thought would embue him with cat-evasion ability. Sadly, in the middle of the afternoon last weekend, a cat struck again and made off with him. When I arrived on the scene, seconds after the attack, the mother hen was running in circles, clucking and distraught, looking for her lost chick, while I could see tufts of the hen’s downy feathers here and there, evidence of her struggle to save her child. The rooster had run off to a comfortable distance from the scene and was making loud noises from the safety of his perch. And that is why Malays will say, “Don’t become a bapak ayam“, an irresponsible father.

As always, you can click the thumbnail to see the full picture

Postscript:

Couldn’t find room for this in the story, but wanted to mention a few famous personalities strongly influenced by chickens:

Also: Previous entry dealing with chickens in Malaysia


9 thoughts on “Learning from Chickens

  1. What a touching and sad post. My wife grew up on a farm and knows what you are talking about. You may need a real hen house, and maybe a dog too, to keep away the cats. If a puppy is raised with the new chicks, he will protect them and watch over them.

    Ya Haqq!

  2. Thanks, Irving. Your advice is spot on, but I’d rather find a dog-free way to go about it. My wife has informed me of a rattan covering shaped like what they might cover a meal with at a fancy restaurant (what’s that called?) that is used to incubate the chicks until they’re old enough to defend themselves. I’ll be scouting for one around town for when the hen starts brooding again. I’ll post a picture when I find it.

  3. Lovely post. It’s amazing…all of the expressions in all languages that come from the domestication of animals or cultivation of crops, something that we not so long ago had to do as part of our survival. And now if we do it, it is something of a novelty or hobby. I often wonder how I’d have managed as a cotton picker or a cow milker. Somehow a part of me longs for that simple life! SubhanAllah.

  4. Malaysia and the West Indies, especially my island, seem so similar from your description of life over there, down to the chickens! Recently a nasheed group from Malaysia performed here, and they too remarked how our islands reminded them of home. So you see Muslims are Muslims are Muslims wherever we are. Alhamdulillah. We have things in common. Chickens and coconuts for starters.

  5. As far as I know, ‘bapa ayam’ means ‘pimp’. I never used it for an irresponsible father.
    Is it ayam serama you’re breeding?
    We also say “macam ayam dengan itik”, meaning two parties talking in different languages, struggling to understand and make understand each other.

  6. No, they are larger than ayam serama, halfway between serama and a normal ayam kampung. They were introduced to me as ayam katik, although I don’t know if that is the name of a specific breed or just means a small chicken.

  7. Watch who you’re calling orang putih. We have a camper up on cinderblocks behind the barn since ’05. We got it for $50 cash and two dozen eggs a week for a year, with free delivery and set-up, but my blocks. Several of our volunteers have enjoyed staying there. In fact, we might put you in there when you come.

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