Gateway to the Classics: Our Humble Helpers by Jean Henri Fabre
Our Humble Helpers by  Jean Henri Fabre

The Cock and the Hen

U NDER the big elm tree in the garden Uncle Paul has called together for the third time his usual listeners, Emile, Jules and Louis. After the story of the Ravagers, which destroy our harvests, and that of the Auxiliaries, which protect them, he now proposes to tell the story of our Humble Helpers, the domestic animals. He thus begins:

"The cock and the hen, those invaluable members of our poultry-yards, came to us from Asia so long ago that the remembrance of their coming is lost. At the present day they have spread to all parts of the world.

"Is it necessary to describe the cock to you? Who has not admired this fine bird, with its bright look, its proud bearing, its slow and sedate walk? On its head a piece of scarlet flesh forms a scalloped crest; under the base of the beak hang two wattles resembling pieces of coal; on each temple, by the side of the ear, is a spot of dull white naked skin; a rich tippet of golden red falls from the neck over the shoulder and breast; two feathers of a greenish metallic luster form a graceful arch of plumage in the upper part of the tail. The heel is armed with a horny spur, hard and pointed; a formidable weapon with which, in fighting, the cock stabs his rival to death. His song is a resonant peal that makes itself heard at all hours, night as well as day. Hardly does the sky begin to brighten with the twilight of dawn when, erect on his perch, he awakens the nocturnal echoes with his piercing cock-a-doodle-doo,  the reveille of the farm."

"That," said Emile, "is the song I like so much to hear in the morning when I am about half-way between sleeping and waking."

"It is the cock's crowing," put in Louis, "that wakes me up in the morning when I have to go to market in the next town."

"The cock is the king of the poultry-yard," resumed Uncle Paul. "Full of care for his hens, he leads them, protects them, scolds and punishes them. He watches over those that wander off, goes in quest of the vagrants, and brings them back with little cries of impatience, which, no doubt, are admonitions. If necessary, a peck with the beak persuades the most refractory. But if he finds food, such as grain, insects, or worms, he straightway lifts up his voice and calls the hens to the banquet. He himself, however, magnificent and generous, stands in the midst of the throng and scratches the earth to turn up the worms and distribute here and there to the invited guests the dainties thus unearthed. If some greedy hen takes more than her share, he recalls her to a sense of her duty to the community and reprimands her with a peck on the head. After all the others have eaten their fill he contents himself with their leavings.

"Plainer in costume, the hen, the joy of the farmer's wife, trots about the poultry-yard, scratching and pecking and cackling. After laying an egg she proclaims her joy with an enthusiasm in which her companions take such a share that the whole establishment bursts into a general lively chorus in celebration of the happy event. She has a habit of squatting down in a dusty and sunny corner where she flutters her wings with much content and makes a fine shower fall between her feathers to relieve the itching that torments her. Then with outstretched leg and wing she sleeps away the hottest hours of the day; or, without disturbing her voluptuous repose, spying a fly on the wall, she snaps it up with one quick dart of her beak. Like the cock, she swallows fine gravel, which takes the place of teeth and serves to grind the grain in her gizzard. She drinks by lifting her head skyward to make each mouthful go down. She sleeps on one leg, the other drawn up under her plumage and her head hidden under her wing."

"These curious particulars of the hen's habits," said Jules, "are quite familiar to us all; we see them every day with our own eyes. One only is new to me: hens, you say, swallow little grains of sand which take the place of teeth for grinding the food in the gizzard. I don't know what the gizzard is, and I don't see how little stones that have been swallowed can be used as teeth."

"A short digression on the digestive organs of birds," replied Uncle Paul, "will give you the information you ask for.

"Birds do not chew their food; they swallow it just as they seize it, or nearly so. The beak, lacking teeth, is for that very reason unsuited for the work of grinding. It merely seizes; it strikes, picks up, digs, pierces, breaks, tears, according to the kind of food adapted to the bird's needs. A solid horn covers the bony framework of the two mandibles and makes their edges sharp and very well fitted for dismembering if necessary, but not for triturating.

"Rapacious birds that feed on live prey have the upper mandible short, strong, hooked and terminating in a sharp point, sometimes with serrate edges. With this weapon the hunting bird kills its prey, and tears it to pieces while holding it with its vigorous talons armed with sharp, curved nails.

"Fish-eating birds that tear the fish to pieces in order to swallow it have the hooked beak of the rapacious birds; those that swallow the fish whole have a straight beak with long, wide mandibles. Some throw it into the air to catch it in their beak a second time, head first, and swallow it without any difficulty in spite of the fin-bones, which lie flat from front to back while the fish is passing through the narrow gullet. A great fishing bird, the pelican, has in its lower mandible a large membranous pouch, a sort of fish-pond, where it stores the fish as long as the catch lasts. Thus stocked up, it seeks a quiet retreat on some ledge of rock by the water-side and takes out, one by one, the fish packed away in its pouch, to feed on them at leisure."



"The pelican seems to me a wise fisher," remarked Emile. "Without losing a minute in swallowing, it begins by filling the bag under its beak. The time will come later for looking over the catch and enjoying the fish at leisure. I should like to see it on its rock with its bag full."

"And that other one," said Jules, "that throws the fish it has caught into the air so as to catch it again head first and not strangle when swallowing it—is not that one just as clever?"

"Each has its special kind of talent," replied Uncle Paul, "which it uses with the tool peculiar to the bird, the beak. If the story of the auxiliaries, related some time ago, is still fresh in your minds, you will remember that insect-eating birds have the beak slender and sometimes very long, to dig into the fissures of dead wood and bark; but those that catch insects on the fly, as the swallow and the fern-owl, have the beak very short and exceedingly wide, so that the game pursued is caught in the open gullet and becomes coated with a slimy saliva which holds it fast. Finally, I will remind you of the granivorous birds—the sparrow, linnet, greenfinch, chaffinch and many others. All these birds, whose chief food consists of grain, have the beak short, thick and pointed; adapted, in fact, to the picking up of seeds from the ground, freeing them from their husks, and breaking their shells to obtain the kernel. By virtue of its strong mandibles, the beak of the hen belongs to this last category, although at the same time its rather long, sharp, and slightly hooked extremity indicates carnivorous tastes. Such a beak calls not only for seeds, but also for small prey, such as insects and worms."

Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.