A Whistling Girl & a Crowing Hen

                                                                A Whistling Girl and a Crowing Hen

By Elton Camp

(This is an episode extracted from my unpublished book, The Granny Room:  the Story of a Southern Family.  It’s set in the rural area near Albertville, Alabama and the time is the early 20th Century.)


          “We keep thet big flock o’ chickens fer eggs and meat,” Milas explained to his niece Elvira visiting from the city.  “We git tired of so much pork an’ we don’t have t’ feed them much.  They partly make their own livin’ from eatin’ bugs an’ whut they kin scratch out o’ th’ ground.” 

            “That one looks like it’s eating little rocks,” remarked the adolescent visitor with a puzzled look.   

            “Hit ez.  They need thet t’ holp grind up stuff they eat.  Some o’ hit’s pretty hard an’ theys got a gizzard t’ cut hit t’ little pieces.”

            Damp chicken manure made for unpleasant walking, especially for bare feet. “Don’t brang thet mess ’n th’ house, Howard,” Miranda ordered her young son. “Clean yore feet. I won’t have them drappin’s on my floors.”  The youngster sought grass beyond the limits of the bare soil of the yard and rubbed away the offensive material as best he could.

            “Kin I feed th’ chick’ns now, Paw?” Albert asked. 

            The mildly retarded teenager rushed to the corncrib and collected several cobs with dried grains attached. He liked the feel and smell of the corn as he rubbed it from the cob with the palm of his hand. Soon, he had a fistful of the seeds. They felt hard and clean. 

            “Here, chicky, chicky,” he coaxed. Albert used a pitch higher than his normal voice.

            The chickens crowded in front of him in anticipation of a nutritious meal. “Watch whut happens when I throw th’ corn on th’ ground,” he told his younger brother who stood beside him.  “I like t’ throw hit all amongst ’em ’n’ watch ’em fight over hit.  They’s greedy thangs ’n’ can’t seem t’ git enough.” 

            “Them two ez fightin,’” remarked Albert’s little brother. 

            “Naw, they jest both wanted th’ same grain.  Thet big ole hen ez th’ boss over th’ pullet.  She pecks hit away ever time.  Hear com’s th’ rooster.  What whut happens when he shows up. There ain’t never but one rooster cause they’d fight ’til one wuz dead.  Besides, paw won’t allow but one since he don’t lay no eggs.”   

            Shaking his large, red comb, and sporting sharp spurs on his legs, the rooster strutted around in the yard, scratched and pecked at the ground as did the hens, but accomplished the task with great dignity, as if he merely condescended to eat.  At his approach, the hens moved aside so he could claim his rightful share of the corn, but they continued to peck hungrily at what they could reach until it was gone. 

            Elvira walked over as the feeding was almost completed.  To Albert’s intense discomfort, the rooster suddenly raced toward a white hen.  She squawked and ran away, but he easily overtook her, jumped on her back, seized her smaller comb, lowered his body into hers, and shook for a few seconds as he fulfilled his conjugal duty. 

            “Albert, what in the world are they doing?” Elvira innocently asked.  “I never saw chickens do that before.”

            Her cousin vaguely knew it was something like the bull mounting the cow, but didn’t want to explain that to his cousin or any girl for that matter.  Such delicate matters were never discussed. 

            “I don’t know.  Maybe he jest wanted a ride,” he replied as his face turned crimson and he walked quickly away. 

            The now-fertilized hen indignantly shook her ruffled feathers into place, flapped her wings a couple of times and returned to feeding.  The rooster crowed loudly in seeming celebration of his conquest. 

            Rarely, a hen would attempt to crow. As Dr. Samuel Johnson remarked about a dog walking on its hind legs and a woman preaching, “It was not done well, but one was surprised to see it done at all.” 

            “Y’u shore shouldn’t have did thet,” remonstrated Milas’ wife as she threw a rock at the offender.  “There’ll be no mor’ aigs from y’u.”

            A crowing hen alarmed country people as few things could.  It seemed contrary to the natural scheme of things.  Such deviations from expected gender actions wouldn’t be tolerated. 

            When he learned about the crowing hen, Milas frowned, shook his head, and vowed, “I ain’t puttin’ up wif’ nothin’ like thet ’round heer.”

            “Git th’ axe ’n’ go out thar an’ kill thet brown an’ white hen,” he instructed one of his sons. 

            “Y’u might as well hesh thet squawking,” the teenager said to the hen as she struggled to escape his grasp.  Yore gonna make some mighty fine chicken ’n’ dumplings.” 

            Scientists later discovered that a hen has a bit of rudimentary testis. Under certain conditions the tissue begins to grow. The resulting hormone outflow begins to persuade her that “she” is a “he.”  In those days nobody would’ve cared, even if such an explanation had existed. They knew just what to do if a hen dared crow.  

            Condemnation and violence were the standard reactions to failure to meet the expectation of poorly-educated people.   Whatever didn't fit with preconceived ideas was instantly rejected, be it newer practices in farming, a clearer understanding of religion, or even a hapless hen with an identity crisis.  

            “Ah whistlin’ girl ’n’ ah crowin’ hen always com’ t’ some bad end,” repeated anyone who thought of the well-known rhyme when either occasion arose. It was literally true in the case of the hen. The girl, with less to fear, grinned in disbelief at the old country saying, but nearly always stopped whistling.  It was "better to be safe than sorry," she thought.   

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