Love lessons taught by a cross-beak chicken

There are pets and then there are pets. Some are quickly forgotten, while others fail to depart your heart even years after they have departed. Starbead, our little cross-beak rooster, was one of the latter. The sadness of losing him was so great, it hadn’t allowed me to write about it until recently.

Several springs ago, my nephew purchased a variety of chicks. He kept them under heat lamps in an old water tank until they were mature enough to transfer to a less-secure setting. He fenced off a makeshift pen around my abandoned silo, firmly establishing us in the backyard poultry business.

My children were four and five at the time. They delighted in hanging out among the chickens. Hours of watching these interesting creatures resulted in favorites. The kids’ two chosen chickens, Rosie and Rockette, were the friendliest toward humans. They received preferential treatment and special treats. At first, I resisted championing any particular chicken, until one caught my eye.

Among the many similar-looking chickens, a little white and gray rooster stood out via a physical defect known as a cross beak. Instead of closing evenly, his upper and lower beak halves crossed over one another, making eating a Herculean task. My son named him “Starbead” after a character he’d seen on TV.

Watching Starbead try to pick up the food with the defective beak made me cringe the way dining companions must when they see me struggling with chopsticks at a Chinese restaurant. Pathetic doesn’t even begin to cover it. Sometimes, Starbead got lucky and snatched a morsel of grain on his first attempt, but it often took 10-12 tries. Inadequate nutrition rendered him smaller than the rest of the flock.

The other chickens knew Starbead was different, which landed him at the bottom of the pecking order. They’d chase, peck at and ignore him. While it made me sad, it made him quick. At feeding time, we’d sometimes throw vegetable scraps to the chickens. Starbead became the master of the grab and go. He’d outrun the other chickens to the food, snatch up something and then dart off to a place far away from the others to privately enjoy his loot. We rooted for him. You couldn’t not.

While the rest of the chickens roosted in the barn, they wouldn’t allow Starbead to perch next to them. Shunned, he took to hanging out with the hogs. I have a photo of him sleeping perched atop a snoozing sow and her piglets in a farrowing crate. You had to admire his resourcefulness.

When it got really cold, I brought Starbead and the other chosen few to perch on my enclosed porch, which I warmed with a space heater. At the first sign of activity in the house, while his fellow chickens slumbered on in the darkness, Starbead would hop up on the window ledge and persistently tap on the glass until I opened the door to the kitchen.

He’d then hop in and wait for me to put down a towel (to cushion the force of his beak from hitting the floor) and sprinkle it with kernels of thawed frozen corn, raisins, or small cubes of bread. I’d watch TV with Starbead nestled in a towel on my lap, lapping up the attention.

When it got down to us only having five chickens left, four roosters and a hen, Starbead was the hen’s preferred partner. Much to the chagrin of the much manlier roosters, the hen seemed to sense he was different and liked how much more gently he treated her.

Our family learned so much from our association with this little rooster: brave tenacity; brain versus brawn; the importance of a diversified support network; getting up early with a goal in mind; and asking so that you might receive.

Unfortunately, the day came when Starbead disappeared from our lives. Although it was most likely to some predator, our preferred explanation was that after teaching us all he knew about loving relationships, Starbead had gone on to be with another family in need of his plucky wisdom. Positive spin was the least we could do in memory of the chicken who had done so much for us.


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