The Year in Chickens
The last two weeks saw a number of milestones pass for me. 20 years as a muslim. 10 years in Malaysia. 10 years running this website. 6 years of keeping chickens!
In Malaysia, my first personal encounter with chickens beyond the dinner table was over 12 years back, when a neighbor’s rooster attacked my firstborn son, drawing blood. Incredibly, the same rooster did it again to my toddler daughter three years later.
Somehow, that didn’t stop me. The tiny and attractive ayam serama that are commonly raised here were cute and non-threatening enough (as opposed to ayam laga, fighting cocks, a phrase used metaphorically for young thugs) that I got a pair to raise in the backyard. Before long, I had chicks, hatching them in a flower pot full of dracaena, in my kitchen no less. They were great fun, and the children loved them. They were educational too: you can learn a lot from a chicken.
But then disaster struck. First came the cats. Then came the biawaks. Giant monitor lizards living under your foundation and terrorizing your flock are bad enough. But when a reticulated python crept into the coop and crushed Juliet to death, I was just about ready to give up. Only Romeo my original rooster managed to survive, after nearly a year of chicken rearing. I decided to suspend the chicken project till conditions improved. Romeo was alone.
When we put an addition on the house in 2007, Romeo moved with us to the rental down the block for six months. When we returned to the wreckage in 2008, Romeo lived a solitary existence for years, nearly feral, often deciding not to return to the coop in the evening and sleeping rough on some perch or another overnight. Only in the last year did I finally feel the time was right to find Romeo a new spouse. The backyard has grown up, providing shade, cover and interest. A brick and mortar wall around the perimeter keeps a lot of the critters out. The swampy scrub jungle in the adjacent lot has been cleared and filled, awaiting development. A more friendly environment for chickens in every respect.
And so, dear readers, I am happy to announce that Halia the Hen has joined Romeo the Rooster, and in a very short time indeed they have between the two of them produced three generations, 10 chicks that have all survived to adulthood, including a very fine and promising young rooster named Jack. That’s him at the top of the story. He’ll rule the roost one day. With Jack is Jill, and then there are Turmeric, Fennel, Cumin and I can’t remember the rest. Only KakYang can keep them all straight.
The flock are free range in our backyard now, living on a forage diet generously supplemented with cracked corn and table scraps. KakYang takes particular interest in them. She has redomesticated Romeo who last month, for the first time ever, ate grain out of the palm of her hand.
Relatedly, after all these years, I only just now put two and two together and realized that the name of these chickens is actually another word that Malay has contributed to the English language. These chickens are bantams, meaning semi-arboreal small-sized chickens. The word comes from the ancient city of Bantem (or Banten) on the island of Java in Indonesia. As it turns out, chickens are thought to have first been domesticated in the Malay Archipelago, or it may be that chickens have been domesticated by humans separately on more than one occasion, mostly around Southeast Asia. It’s complicated. Either way, these small, clever, gorgeous chickens – bantams – are another Malay loan-word to English. Bantamweight boxers, Bantam Books publishers: indebted to Bahasa Melayu.