Monday, September 21, 2009

Sunshine the rooster -- a rescue tale with a happy ending

Meet Sunshine --

a cross-breed rooster (probably Leghorn x Buff Orpington) that we rescued in 2005.  If he looks a little ragged  and henpecked -- well, you should have seen him the day we got him.  He was a whole lot worse back then.  This bird has been through a lot in his life.  Here is his story:

In the fall of 2005...  

My neighbor Bob from down the road stopped by and asked if I wanted a chicken. Seems this rooster had turned up at his brother's place and was being chased by the dogs and pecked by other chickens, until he finally squeezed himself behind some hay bales in the barn and hid.  His brother didn't need a rooster, but neither did he want to eat him or see him be killed. Could I please take him?   How could I say "No" to a story like that?

He gets his name

Bob had the chicken in a sack in the back of his pick-up truck and said the bird was pretty wild, so I didn't get a look at him until I put him into an empty cage.  Man, was that rooster in sorry shape. Most of his feathers were missing or broken, his comb, face, and back were all bloodied up, and he was absolutely terrified (can you blame him?)  From what was left of his feathers he appeared to be white with golden shoulders. I immediately thought of the John Denver song, "Sunshine on My Shoulders " (which, by the way, was written here in Minnesota) so I named him "Sunshine."

A bird with a serious social problem...

Sunshine spent that winter living in a cage by himself, both to heal and because he was so terrified of the other chickens. I speculate that he was somebody's "Easter chick" who imprinted on humans, then grew too big and noisy to keep, so they dumped him "out in the country" to fend for himself. Which he did not do very well.  Had we not captured him, he would never have survived a Minnesota winter. 

Sunshine was definitely a young bird from that year's hatch -- you could tell by the short spurs on his legs, which had not even grown in at the time I got him.  As he got to know me, he became tamer, and I was able to take him out of the cage for some attention and exercise. 

In the spring of 2006 a predator killed the old rooster in my flock, so I thought maybe Sunshine could live with those hens. Total disaster! They chased and harrassed him until he hid in the corner or in one of the nest boxes.  They saw him as an intruder to be driven away.  So it was back to the cage again. I hated that, because he was a big bird who needed to get out and stretch. In order to give him some freedom, I let him run loose inside the goose pen when the geese were outside free-ranging. 

The happy ending....

By the end of that summer, those roosterless hens were moulting and growing new feathers for winter. Sunshine had gotten to know them through the chicken wire door, and was no longer afraid of them. Plus, fall is the season when breeding is over and birds, both wild and domestic, are beginning to flock.   Could the hens accept Sunshine now? 

I gave it a try and.... YES !!!!! This time, there were no fights. Having been deprived of sex all summer, those hens were more than ready to accept a new rooster.  Sunshine began to flap his wings and strut like a rooster should.   And that's when I found out that Sunshine was what I call a "dancer" -- a rooster who struts and shows off and courts the hens gently, rather than chase and rape them like some roosters do.  He still looked pretty straggly in places, but he eventually lost his old battered feathers in the fall  moult and, as the new ones came in, was even more beautiful.

Then he became a father!

In the spring of 2009, he sired 3 chicks, two hens and a rooster, shown half-grown in this picture, with the barred bantam hen named Spunky who hatched them.   The white one in the upper right turned out to be a male that my grandson named Star.  (The others are both hens, named Snowball and Maggie.)   Star is almost full-grown now and so far, he gets along fine with his father and the rest of the flock.

Then he crossed the Rainbow Bridge in 2009 

Sunshine died peacefully in his sleep during the winter of 2009, "Crossed the Rainbow  Bridge," as some people say.  Star, his son, became leader of the flock, and his 2 sisters inherited thier mother's colored-egg-laying ability -- Snowball lays olive-green eggs and Maggie lays light blue ones. 

(This story was originally posted on my eBay blog in September 2006.  It was moved here and updated when eBay decided to close down their own blog platform.)

Monday, September 14, 2009

"A Sacred Duty," the film -- behind the scenes at my place in the country

On June 6, 2006, film director Lionel Friedberg came to our farm to interview me and film our geese and chickens for a documentary called "A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World,"  sponsored by the Jewish Vegetarians of North America (JVNA). Friedberg has produced films for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, PBS, etc. so this was a real honor.

The film covers Jewish teachings on ecology, non-violence, vegetarianism, etc. Footage was shot in the USA and Israel (and maybe elsewhere?) and includes a number of prominent rabbis, scholars, animal welfare activists, vegetarians, etc. I got involved both because I'm on the advisory committee of JVNA and because I'm a Hasidic Jew living in the country who actually has animals.  (Nowadays, most Hasidim are urban people, but this was not always the case. Hasidim in pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe lived mostly in small rural villages.) 

I also got involved in this film because I believe it is very important for people to know that there are Orthodox Jews who care about peace, the environment, civil rights, etc. Right now, the only images of us that many people see are from the war between Israel and Palestine -- but I won't go into my rant about that!

We were originally going to film outdoors in the morning, then do the interview with me in the afternoon, but nature decided otherwise.  There was a huge, powerful thunderstorm that morning, so we had to reverse our schedule.  Luckily we did the filming before the record heatwave and drought hit Minnesota that year, when everything was still lush and green.   The storm washed everything clean and just perfect when it cleared.

One of my hens, whom I called Mama Hen (because she was the best mother and just loved to raise chicks) had a 3-week-old brood of four. They were just the right age to be little movie stars -- old enough to be outside without risk of getting chilled (yes, it actually was chilly back then!) but still young and cute enough to be just adorable. We did a sequence where I carried the chicken family out into the yard in a cage that, I explained, was the size of a battery hen cage, where chickens on factory farms spend their entire lives. Then I opened the cage and let them all go free to scratch, peck follow their mother around. (Unfortunately, this part did not make the final cut, but Friedman has the footage, so maybe it will get used someday.)  However,  Mama Hen and her chicks did make it into the movie, along with some of my geese running freely (in contrast to some horrible factory-farm footage.)

The interview part was done indoors and covered my philosophy on how Jewish mysticism fits with vegetarianism, some Hasidic teachings about animals, etc.  Of course, I'm not the only one in the film, but a section of my interview was used to introduce it -- for which I am both humbled and honored.  The film has been released on DVD and you can view it for free on YouTube at the homepage, where you will also find a printed overview and a list of all the rabbis and educators who appear in it. (And yes, my Israeli readers, there is a llink to a version with Hebrew subtitles.)  In addition, if you are interested in Jewish vegetarianism, I recommend visiting the JVNA website at

UPDATE:  Mama Hen has passed on and crossed the Rainbow Bridge.  She was 11 years old, a full lifespan for a chicken, and had a good life.  In a way, appearing in this film became sort of a memoral to her.

My Cat Sapphire was in Cat Fancy Magazine!

Those of you who were following my old eBay blog will remember I mentioned this article when the interview was done in July 2006. When the December 2006 issue was published, there we were, Sappire and I, in a 4-page article entitled "Clergy Cats." The article was about -- you guessed it! -- some clergy who have cats.    The clergy included are:

  • Cardinal Roger Mahoney (Los Angeles) and his two silver tabbies, Raphael and Gabriel
  • Father Chuck Giradeau, Associate rector at All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta, with his orange tabbycat, Ivan
  • Father Allan Warren, Church of the Advent in Boston, with his four cats, Jake, Jeoffrey, Skipergee and Owl
  • And yours truly -- Rabbi Gershom, freelance writer, on a farm in MN with my cat, Sapphire 

Each of us was profiled with some anecdotes about our cats. There were also short facts about cats.  I learned that Pope Benedict loves cats, as did Confucius and Mohammed.
The pictures here are the ones that they used of me and Sapphire (now that the issue is  published, the rights revert back to me and my stepson, who took the pic of me, so we can post them).  One blooper, though - -they identified Sapphire as a female, but he's a neutered male.  He got his name, Sapphire, because of his beautiful blue eyes.  My old sheepdog, Grett (may he rest in peace) led me to Sapphire on a cold winter day.  He was lost, hungry, thirsty and scared.  Whoever dumped him here missed out on a wonderful, affectionate, loving cat.

Mine was the only cat shown twice -- once with me and once alone.  (He's sitting on the branches I put on the chicken pen during the heatwave that summer.  He's  not after the chickens, just getting some early morning sun.)  The pic on the left was also used in a composite graphic.  I suppose that might have been because I was the only one to send in two photos?  Or maybe it was because he's such a beautiful cat!

How did Sapphire and I rate this honor?   The author, Sandy Robins, who is also a freelance writer,  is Jewish, and wanted to find a rabbi with a cat to round out the article.  So she searched the Web and contacted me after reading a story about Sapphire on my old website.

Bonnie and Clyde: Two chickens on the run!

In late summer of 1997, my wife and I were driving to Duluth (75 miles away) on Interstate 35 and went to use the facilities at a wooded rest stop located near a little pond. We noticed a pair of brown and grey half-grown chickens running around and asked the caretaker about them.  He told us they had showed up a couple weeks ago -- probably dumped there -- and he had been trying unsuccessfully to catch them in a live trap. He wasn't even sure they were really chickens -- he thought they might be pheasants -- but I assured them that yes, they were indeed chickens, only not the usual white-feathered commercial variety.

I asked if we could have the chickens and he said yes, if we can catch them, we can have them -- good riddance! Well, the best way to catch a chicken on the run is not with a trap. Rather, you figure out where they are roosting and come back at night. So I asked where they hung out at dusk, and he told me they went into some short evergreens. I looked under the trees and sure enough, there were chicken droppings on the ground. It was about 5:00 PM and we would not be back from Duluth until after dark, so I said I would bring a box and capture them then. This particular caretaker had just come on duty and said he would still be there when we got back.

Around midnight we returned, borrowed a flashlight, and headed for those trees. The two chickens were roosting on a branch about 6 feet off the ground. I simply picked them up and put them in the box, no problem. The caretaker was amazed at how easy it was. (But then, we are experienced Chicken Busters!) We took them home, put them into an empty breeding cage in the coop, and went to bed.

Next day, when I examined the chickens more closely, I could see we had a young rooster and a hen. We dubbed them Bonnie and Clyde because they were captured "on the run." They turned out to be some kind of gamecock variety. Clyde had a lovely silver-grey breast with golden hackle feathers, a reddish rump and shoulders, and a flowing silver-grey tail. Bonnie was brown and did indeed resemble a pheasant -- without the long pointed tail.

Clyde eventually sired a number of chicks with Bonnie and some of our other hens, and was an excellent watch-bird around the yard. He was friendly with people, but don't let a predator come around! He actually attacked my old sheepdog, Grett, who everafter stayed away from the chicken yard. (Grett didn't chase chickens, but Clyde was making sure!)

Bonnie lived to be 8 years old and died in the spring of 2005. Clyde lived to be 9 and died in the late winter of 2006. Both are buried in our pet cemetery now, but left many descendants behind, including. Rocky Rooster, the cocky bird on the covers of my Happy Rooster eBay selling series, who was a cross between Clyde and a Barred Rock hen.  (He, too, has now crossed the Rainbow Bridge.)  And so, their memory lives on!

Rock Rooster, son of Clyde,
inspired my eBay store,
"The Happy Rooster"