Cover image for My fine feathered friend
My fine feathered friend
Grimes, William.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : North Point Press, 2002.
Physical Description:
84 pages : illustrations ; 20 cm
Personal Subject:
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
SF487.3 .G75 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order


Author Notes

Kari Melby, Department of Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture, Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Christina Carlsson Wetterberg, Department of Humanities, Örebro University and Anna-Birte Ravn, Institute for History, International and Social Relations, Aalborg University

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Grimes, food critic for the New York Times and resident of Astoria, Queens, woke up one morning to discover a chicken in his backyard. And not just any chicken but a huge bird with gleaming black feathers and a bright crimson comb. Merging itself into the neighborhood population of stray cats, "the Chicken," as it was named, joined them at their food bowls and gave as good as it got in the ensuing tussles. The Chicken finally revealed her gender in the spring when she built a nest under a pine and began to lay eggs, which Grimes declared superior to any he could buy. As he learned more about chickens, he discovered the Chicken's breed (Australorp) and what was best to feed her, and he gives the reader a primer in poultry science and history. After months of residence and a bout with fame after being profiled in the New York Times, the Chicken disappeared. This delightful read may turn readers on to the idea of a chicken as a pet. --Nancy Bent

Publisher's Weekly Review

The arrival of a particularly cheeky chicken in his Queens neighborhood gives New York Times food critic Grimes the impetus for this entertaining little book about the unusual visitor and all things fowl. The bird touches down in Grimes's backyard without warning, and the reaction of the animal-loving author and his wife turns from surprise to delight when the chicken makes a home among their family of cats, staking out its own patch of turf in their backyard and brazenly taking its place in the "cafeteria line" for cat food. Grimes deftly sprinkles historical background and anecdotes about chickens into his chronicle of the bird's behavior and the reaction of neighbors and colleagues. He muses on the small adjustments he made in his own lifestyle to accommodate the chicken as a pet, and offers subtle, compelling observations about the ancient relationships between animals and humans, which have their place even in the city. The bird's moment of fame is short-lived it vanishes as mysteriously as it came only a few days after Grimes begins writing about the chicken in his column. The moment is a sad one for Grimes and his wife, but the chicken's short hiatus in Queens will be a boon for readers who chuckle their way through this well-told tale, proving once again that a good writer can make a meaningful story out of anything. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

As restaurant critic for the New York Times, Grimes knew something about chickens: "deep-fried, fricasseed, poached, boiled, broiled, jerked Jamaican, and coated in a luscious Albufera sauce." But when a large black hen appeared one winter day in his Queens backyard and happily settled down at the foot of a pine tree, Grimes and his wife were stymied. Where did it come from? Did it escape from the Bangladeshi neighbors' soup pot or from the live poultry market a few blocks away? In this charming if slight expansion of his Times article, Grimes recounts his growing fascination with the Chicken (as he came to call it) as it took over the yard, scratching for food and bullying the resident cats. He studied up on poultry lore and, when the Chicken started laying eggs, conducted comparison taste tests between his eggs and commercial organic products. (The Chicken won hands down.) Tragically, a few days after the Times story appeared, the Chicken disappeared as mysteriously as it had arrived. Was it a victim of fowl play? Did evil walk the streets of Astoria? An amusing trifle; for larger collections. (Illustrations not seen.) Wilda Williams, "Library Journal" (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



My Fine Feathered Friend By William Grimes Farrar, Straus & Giroux ISBN: 9780865476325 My Fine Feathered Friend O NE DAY in the dead of winter, I looked out my back window and saw a chicken. It was jet black with a crimson comb, and in classic barnyard fashion, it was scratching and pecking and clucking as it moved across the tiny rectangle of my lawn. It was, in every way, a normal chicken, except for one thing. It was in the middle of New York City. I looked closer, blinked a few times, and shrugged off the apparition. Birds come and go in New York. Usually they're pigeons, not chickens, but like other birds, this one had wings and would probably use them. Or so I thought. Night fell. Day broke. I looked out the backwindow and the chicken was still there, large as life. A little larger, actually. It looked content. It certainly showed no sign of wanting to move on. I sensed that this fly-by-night visitor was thinking about becoming a permanent resident. New York, the city of immigrants, was getting another one. It was a fine-looking bird. Tired and poor, perhaps, but no wretched refuse. This chicken was huge, and it had obviously been eating weal. Its black feathers shone, giving off a greenish purple iridescence in bright sunlight. Its beady brownish orange eyes had a healthy sparkle. They looked like the glass eyes on a stuffed toy animal. Its legs, thick and strong, supported it like two heavy-duty tripods. In Russian folklore, there's a witch, Baba Yaga, who lives deep in the forest. Her home is a hut that rests on chicken legs. I'd always found that description puzzling. Now I understood. Two chicken legs would be ideal for supporting a hut. These particular legs gave the chicken a lurching,confident gait. With its chest puffed out, it paced self-importantly, like a mid-level bureaucrat. As far as I could tell, it had nothing special to do, but it did nothing with a grand flourish. One moment it looked overweight, pompous, and slightly ridiculous. The next it seemed rather imposing, a dashing black figure on a mysterious mission. It was the right bird in the wrong spot. The chicken may be a domestic creature, but it's not meant for the city, and that's exactly where this country cousin had come to roost. Astoria, my neighborhood, is just across the East River from Manhattan--only three or four subway stops from Bloomingdale's, in fact. It's a quiet, workaday sort of place, with three-story apartment buildings and small houses in two styles: square boxes covered in aluminum siding and brick "Tudor" houses with steeply pitched slate roofs. My own house is one of the square boxes, with gray siding and a narrow walkway on either side. With outspread arms, youcan easily touch my house and the one next to it. There's very little about the house, or the area, that would entice a chicken. Even humans find it hard to get excited about Queens, New York's least charismatic borough. Except for Staten Island. Thank God for Staten Island. Anyway, nothing much happens in Astoria. People go to work, then come home. They wash their cars, leave Christmas and Halloween decorations up for months on end, and spend far too much time looking for parking. Nancy, my wife, once dropped her wallet on the sidewalk. Someone returned it. When she looked inside, the money was still there. The only really shocking event that I can recall in my twenty years in Astoria is the day a deranged cabdriver walked into his bank, withdrew thirty thousand dollars in savings, and threw the bills up in the air on the sidewalk outside. It's not quite fair to say that the neighborhood is a blank. Astoria has a history of sorts, starting withits name. Like most of Queens, it simply dozed for the two centuries after the Dutch sailed into New York Harbor. Then in 1839 a fur merchant named Stephen A. Halsey saw opportunity. Hoping to flatter John Jacob Astor, king of all fur traders, and entice him into a partnership, he asked the state legislature to change the area's name from Dutch Kills to Astoria. There's no evidence that Astor paid any attention, but wealthy New Yorkers noticed that bucolic Astoria, with its gently rolling hills, offered fine views of the East River and plenty of fresh air. They began building mansions near the water. Look at the map, and you'll see that Queens is on Long Island. The opening of the Queensboro Bridge in 1909 and an elevated subway in 1917 touched off a half century land rush that turned that island's pristine woodlands, wetlands, and potato farms into a continuous, densely populated suburb of Manhattan. Astoria was the first stopalong the way. Ordinary New Yorkers and throngs of immigrants found their way to the neighborhood, and no wonder. Although close to Manhattan, it was cheap, and it was safe. It still is. Greeks especially took a liking to the place, which has the largest Greek population in the world outside Athens. Starbucks did not arrive until a year ago, but almost any deli sells at least a half dozen varieties of olive and four styles of feta cheese. A lot of cars still have Michael Dukakis bumper stickers. Television shows and films are shot in Astoria these days, although you'd never guess it. The work goes on in a complex of enormous windowless soundstages that might as well be data processing centers. They were built by the early motion-picture pioneers, then abandoned in the 1920s, when someone discovered that Los Angeles gets more than three hundred days of sunshine a year. The peeling relics they left behind are humming again, but stars do not go to local shops for a cup ofcoffee. There are no paparazzi hiding in the bushes. The glamour factor in Astoria remains, as always, quite low. Astoria is a quiet neighborhood, in other words, but it is not rural, and hasn't been for at least a century. Nevertheless, it was in Astoria that the chicken mysteriously appeared. How? And why? Nancy and I tried to get to the bottom of the matter. Our first guess was that the chicken belonged to the people next door, Bangladeshi cabdrivers and hotel workers, who might be fattening it up for a feast. The bird spent a fair amount of time in our neighbors' yard, exploring the tall grasses, and it was obvious the Bangladeshis knew how to cook. Clouds of spicy steam would drift our way every day around lunchtime, filling the air with scents of cumin and coriander, so fragrant that even the meter reader would stop dead in his tracks and inhale deeply. The Bangladeshi hypothesis unraveled when the chicken hopped the fence and began spendingnearly all its time in our yard. But if the chicken was not destined for the soup pot, what exactly was it up to? We were left scratching our heads. In the meantime, I got used to beginning the day by peeking out the back window and checking for the chicken. It was hard to miss, a large black mass of feathers in constant motion. The chicken always gave the impression that it had been up and around for hours, getting lots done, while I loafed in bed. It was like the overeager worker who shows up an hour before everyone else, sleeves rolled up and ready for a really terrific A-plus day. I found it a little annoying, to tell the truth. No one wants to see that much productivity before the first cup of coffee. Sometimes I'd hear the chicken before I saw it, cackling and clucking as it made its rounds, digging its powerful toes into the dirt border along the walkway. In spring the border would be filled with flowers, but now it lay fallow for the winter, andthe chicken, bearing down, sent the dirt flying until the concrete walkway was punctuated with conical piles of rich earth. If the chicken did manage to turn up a grub or a worm, I never saw it. But it persevered nonetheless. Did the mere activity of looking for food give it a sense of satisfaction? Or did chickens ensure personal happiness by setting their expectations very, very low? The chicken would train a beady eye on a square inch of lawn, snatch at an invisible something with its curved ebony beak, and move on to the next inviting spot. Frustration was not in its vocabulary. Hours of fruitless pecking did not curb its zeal. When snow blanketed the backyard, it simply waited for the snow to melt. A lot of the time it simply paced back and forth, with that funny, half-stumbling chicken walk that seems like a model of inefficiency. In some ways, this daily program was a study in futility. But the chicken appeared to be as full of purpose, and as fulfilled, as Thoreau on Walden Pond. Its needswere few, its desires simple. Was there a lesson in this for me? I studied the chicken closely. And as I studied, I felt warring emotions. I make my living as a restaurant critic. In other words, several nights a week I eat chicken. This one looked very appetizing. It brought back memories of an epic poulet de Bresse that Nancy and I encountered in Lyons, so large that it had to be delivered to the table in two installments. We attacked that chicken with knife and fork and no sense of guilt. As a card-carrying carnivore I have made peace with the idea of feasting off the animal kingdom. Like most diners, I don't see Thumper when I bite into a tender loin of rabbit wrapped in pancetta. But in practice, I knew that I could not kill anything more sensitive than a tomato. My policy toward animals is pure hypocrisy. Once I meet them, I don't want to eat them. So this chicken was not going to be on the menu, especially as I began tocome up with a theory about its origins. The most likely explanation for its appearance was that it had escaped from a live poultry market about four blocks away. It was on the run. Our hearts went out to the brave little refugee. We had to save it. We also had to name it. Easier said than done. Well-meaning friends suggested Henny Penny, which we rejected instantly. This chicken was fat, but it wasn't fatuous. Someone proposed Vivian, which had a dark allure to it. But the longer the search continued, the less satisfying each new candidate seemed. We decided to leave things as they were. The chicken was simply the Chicken. The no-name name seemed right for a bird that came out of nowhere. Meanwhile, as the days passed, our new tenant began pacing the perimeter of the yard with a proprietary air, sizing things up with an appraising eye that said, "I've seen better, but I've seen worse." When we bought the house, the backyard was awasteland of weeds, knee-high grass, and impoverished soil. Absentee owners had left the place untouched for several years. A rusting antique barber chair with a rotting leather seat sat in the middle of the yard like a hobo's throne. Only by hacking away at the underbrush did we discover a concrete walkway and brick paths. An ancient, arthritic hydrangea tree shocked us by bursting into spectacular bloom when summer arrived. Several old rosebushes, against the odds, survived. Two giant pine trees, nearly forty feet tall, stood like sentries on either side of the yard, giving shelter to multitudes of birds and squirrels. They made an impressive sight. But overall, our little patch of earth, measuring twenty-five by forty feet, was an eyesore. The only thing missing was a rusting refrigerator, or a car on blocks. Like pioneers, we cleared the land and replenished the soil. We created an herb garden near the house and laid down vegetable patches near theold rosebushes. We reclaimed the perimeter and planted border beds of flowers and decorative shrubs. In time, the backyard flourished. It became a pocket paradise that yielded tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, strawberries, green beans, and bell peppers in three colors. We planted flower beds with lilies, moonflowers, daffodils, hyacinths, and irises. We set up arches and planted climbing roses. After the hydrangea was split in half by a lightning bolt, we replaced it with a little cherry tree that, after two years, produced just enough fruit for one pie. The pine tree population, alas, declined by 50 percent only a few months after we took possession of the house. A ferocious nor'easter ripped across the area and, with one barbaric tug, pulled up one of the towering trees by its roots. The event was violent, the aftermath strangely peaceful. The tree fell to earth almost politely, landing in a perfect diagonal across the yard, the top neatly balancedagainst the far corner of the chain-link fence. A handyman came over the next day and reduced the mighty pine to a pile of wood chips. The yard offered rich pickings for small animals. What we thought of as a garden, they saw as habitat. Every square inch of earth was precious in a neighborhood where improving the yard usually means covering it in concrete. Squirrels drilled holes nonstop in the lawn and in the garden, burying peanuts that seemed to come from an inexhaustible supply. At sunset, vast flocks of birds settled in the pine trees. Neighborhood cats spread the word of this promised land. Before long Nancy and I began to see furry faces peeking out from under the leathery leaves of a hosta plant. Behind the purple smoke bush, we would spy a creeping figure with whiskers at one end and a long tail at the other. In the early afternoon, feline forms could be seen sunbathing on the lawn. The cast of characters was in constant flux. As we worked the land,we began following the ups and downs of the indigenous cat tribe. By the time the Chicken arrived, the backyard had seen generations come and go. The patriarch was Chuggsy, named, as most of the local cats were, by a neighbor who set out food on her back porch. The legend of Chuggsy lives to this day. He was an enormous black-and-white tomcat, with a head the size of a softball and a fearsome gaze. When Chuggsy walked, the earth shook. I once crossed his path. He didn't run. He stood his ground and then fixed me with a look that made me take two nervous steps back. Female cats were putty in Chuggsy's oversize paws. He was the Romeo of Astoria, and when the mating season was in full swing, sounds of love filled the air night after night. Chuggsy's offspring were good-looking and full of fun. One of the best was Cookie, a black-and-white copy of Chuggsy, but half the size. Cookie showed up whenever Nancy and I did gardeningwork. She had no fear of humankind. In fact, every time I leaned over to weed, Cookie leaped onto my back. If I sat down, she jumped into my lap. She had a mysterious attraction to rubber. She was constantly finding scraps of balloon, or kitchen gloves, and dragging them across the yard. We never got to the bottom of that. Cookie was game for anything, but her all-consuming project was hunting for sparrows. The abundant bird life in the backyard was her torment. There they were, dozens upon dozens of them, just out of reach. insolently chirping and cooing and flapping. Cookie became obsessed. She spent hours hatching schemes. At dusk she would pace and fume. One evening inspiration struck. It suddenly dawned on Cookie that she could take the battle to the enemy. She approached the pine tree next door, threw her arms out wide, and embraced the trunk. Then, like a telephone lineman, she began shinnyingher way up, higher and higher. She had the look Sylvester gets when he has Tweety dead to rights. Before long, she had reached the lower branches. She could taste victory. Cookie tiptoed out onto a branch and swiped furiously at the nearest bird, which simply hopped up a few branches and resumed its song. Several more times she lunged, with no success. Running back and forth along the branch, she swatted this way and that. The birds flew upward and continued their evening preening. By now Cookie was beginning to take stock of her situation. She was twenty feet off the ground on a narrow, unstable branch, with no idea how to get down. She took a few cautious steps toward the far end of the branch, which drooped suddenly, nearly dashing her to the ground. No hope there. She looked earthward, envisioning one heroic leap. It was a long, long way down. She began to mew piteously. In the end, I put a ladder against the tree,climbed it, and coaxed Cookie into a basket, which I then lowered on a rope. After that, Cookie limited her military operations to the ground. Her days as an outdoor cat were numbered anyway. She was the "it" girl, too attractive to remain an outcast for long. A neighbor took her in, closed the doors, and Cookie was never again seen in the wild. Cookie was only one of many cats that passed through the yard. One wound up in our house, for keeps. She was a little tortoiseshell, the only survivor of her litter, and she was having a hard time. Her mother, one of Chuggsy's many paramours, was neglectful, and Sweetzie, as we named this abused daughter, could often be heard mewing in fright, left to fend for herself. She had spirit, though. At the first sound of our back door opening, she would scale the fence and patrol the backyard as we did our pruning and weeding. She had movie star looks and topaz eyes, perfectly round and glowing, like a lemur's. But her future as anoutdoor cat looked bleak. She was scrawny, and whenever she managed to locate food, other cats pushed her aside. It was her fate, in the competition for survival, to be last in line. One day she turned up limping badly. A bird's nest and scattered pine needles on the walkway confirmed my suspicions. Sweetzie had fallen out of the tree and broken her left front leg. This cat was not going to make it. Nancy and I adopted her, and the vet outfitted her with a bright green cast. She was one of the lucky ones. In the harsh Darwinian world she had failed to conquer, we saw a parade of cats vanish. Greystoke and Sooty Cat gave way to the devilishly handsome Butterscotch, who was replaced by Ugly Cat and later Ugly Cat Deux. Chuggsy eventually disappeared. And into the yard, almost on cue, strolled two very large, very tough-looking toms. They were tabbies, with broad noses and yellow eyes, and almost impossible totell apart. We named them Bruiser and Crusher. Bruiser had white paws, but that was just about the only way to distinguish him from Crusher. The two were inseparable. They ate together. They slept curled up together, as close as yin and yang, in a wicker basket we had set out on our small patio under the remaining pine tree. In cold weather they huddled together in a large igloo we bought for them. They groomed each other and wrestled until the fur flew and floated in the air in tufts. When Crusher would take it into his head to go off alone for a walk, Bruiser would wander the yard forlorn, mewing in distress until his pal came back. With Bruiser and Crusher presenting a united front, many of the neighborhood cats took off for parts unknown. But not all. Two of Chuggsy's children stayed on. One was Midnight, a gorgeous long-haired female, as black as her name, with yellow-green eyes the color of Key limes. She loved to lounge under low, leafy plants, and when eveningshadows gathered, you could just make her out, a deeper darkness within the darkness. When she blinked, her eyes flashed like neon lights. The other survivor, Yowzer, bore the distinctive black-and-white markings of his father. His coat looked like a pinto pony's. He had an almost feminine face, with a delicate shell pink nose and two different-colored eyes. One was a pale blue, like the shallow end of a swimming pool. The other was sea green. The sensitive face was deceiving, for it was Yowzer, skittish and shy around humans, who acted as strongman whenever a new cat tried to penetrate the backyard and gain access to the food bowls on the patio. These encounters were something to see. Yowzer would go face to face with the intruder, as Bruiser, Crusher, and Midnight stood nearby as backup. Yowzer would throw a punch or two if necessary, but usually it wasn't. There must have been something chilling about that pale blue eye. Or perhaps it was the strong, silent presence of thetwins, matching packages of solid muscle. In almost every case, the interloper would slink away. Yowzer would follow, escorting it off the premises like a bouncer with an unruly customer. He was thorough about it too. It wasn't enough for the defeated cat to turn tail and hop the fence. Yowzer would hop right after it, follow it threateningly all the way across the next yard, and make sure it reached the sidewalk. Copyright © 2002 by William Grimes Excerpted from My Fine Feathered Friend by William Grimes All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher. Excerpted from My Fine Feathered Friend by William Grimes All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.