Why did the chicken cross the road?

We can finally put paid to this old joke because the answer, after visiting 17-year-old Cord Bailey’s 11 chickens and single rooster on State Road in Vineyard Haven, is that none of his chickens has ever crossed the busy road, nor even set claw on the sidewalk.

“They know their own boundaries,” said Cord, although the band of fowls also takes a proprietary interest in the lush, shaded lawn next door. “The neighbors don’t mind,” he added, “In fact, they like the chickens!”

Who wouldn’t?

There’s Summer, the stately buff Orpington who appears at the first sight of a visitor and sticks around, plus Hazel, a Sussex with white spots, and the rooster Russell Crow, with plumage so lavish — black, red, purple, and greenish-gray — even on his claws, like fluffy slippers, that he puts one in mind of that old portrait of the robust, bejeweled Henry VIII.

“He’s a very kindly rooster,” said Cord. “He makes sure all the hens are in the pen at night, and in the winter he’ll sit in the doorway to keep out the cold.”

So he’s not a bit like Henry VIII.

Tall, strapping Cord, with blue eyes and red hair clipped in a crewcut, is one of the guiding lights in the new urban farming revolution. All over the country, perhaps in response to the hash we’ve created of our planet’s health, people are making an effort to grow cucumbers on the rooftops of city skyscrapers, and to turn one-acre lots of suburban ground into terraced gardens able to sustain whole villages.

And as ever, whatever is changing in our culture of an avant-garde nature is happening twofold on Martha’s Vineyard.

Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have chickens thrust upon them. So it was with Cord Bailey.

“Two years ago,” he recalled, “SBS was offering an Easter special on baby chicks — $2.50 each.”

Many of us have experienced a passing interest in having a chicken or two pecking away in our gardens, if only to rid our grass of ticks, but Cord followed through on this mad whim. In a covert, nighttime operation, he and his dad, Robert, acquired four chicks, smuggled them onto their property and set about banging together a brooder. Mom Carol had been opposed to the idea of hens, although, once she saw the cute chicks she said, “Oh, okay.”

A week later, a caller from SBS offered Cord three remaining chicks that no one had cared to buy. “One of these chicks was the ugliest creature you’d ever seen,” said Cord. “It was all dark skin and bones, with a grizzled neck, and a few scraggly feathers.”

No one realized, until this ugly duckling began to work his vocal cords, that it was a he — and now of course, a glorious he. (There is a new rooster in residence, Russell’s son, Jumbo, who will be going to live with Cord’s Aunt Molly up the road.)

When I first set eyes on Russell Crow in all his multi-feathered splendor, he attempted a few feeble yodels. He sounded hoarse.

I asked Cord if he and his family had encountered any trouble with Russell’s vocalizing. I was thinking, of course, of the notorious rooster Rupert of Leonard Circle in Vineyard Haven, whose rebel yells at four in the morning last year raised the ire of neighbors, enough to elicit lawsuits.

“Rupert is louder,” explained Cord.

Good neighbor relations are a must with new do-it-yourself farmers. On the Baileys’s cul de sac (Cord calls it the compound) everyone is charmed by the family’s chickens, Jack Russell terrier, cat, rabbit (with its own hutch built by Cord), two goldfish and four lizards, including a bearded dragon named Duke whom Cord throws over his shoulder for walking-around entertainment at the Tisbury Street Fair.

Compound dwellers are taking Cord’s good example to heart and are expanding their vegetable plots. The man at the end of the small dirt road is intent on developing a bee hive.

And everyone shares. Eggs are freely circulated in the compound now, and it’s exciting to contemplate honey in the near future.

In West Tisbury on one and a half acres of land, musicians Joyce and Steve Maxner cultivate quantities of vegetables in raised garden beds. Plugs of shitake mushrooms have been stuck into shady ground for next spring. Steven and Joyce also raise goats for milk and cheese, in addition to love and comfort. Go ahead, Google goats: they make splendid, affectionate pets (just don’t leave any articles of clothing around for them to eat).

I want a goat! Do you want a goat?

And now you may well ask, “What’s the zoning policy on livestock in Island towns?”

In some places, notably down-Island towns, it’s verboten. But if you manage things with grace, intelligence and aplomb, as Cord Bailey does, no one will mind; the neighbors are all for it, and passersby spying chickens pecking within a circumscribed lawn, will be tickled pink.

I visited the Baileys’s small menagerie on a sizzling hot, humid day in July. Ten of the hens (excluding the sociable Summer still serving as cicerone for the tour), were clustered in the east-facing shade of the two-story house, assembled peaceably around a gently-spewing fountain. I stepped into this sacred space. The hens accepted me without a single ruffling of feathers (Had Russell’s earlier crows signaled to them I was okay?)

I told Cord that in my next life I wanted to come back as one of his chickens.

He nodded somberly as if anyone would be a fool not to aspire to this.


Gazette columnist Holly Nadler lives in Oak Bluffs.