Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cock-a-Doodle-Don't

“Silence, rooster. In the name of the Idea of your Genus, nature commands that you be quiet!”
-St. Augustine, Socrates' Rooster

In an interview with Dick Cavett in the 1970s, Len Deighton, historian and author of the Harry Palmer series of spy stories,* was asked why he refused to own a telephone. He explained that he would rather not have a bell in his house that anyone with spare change could ring.** In the Philippines, they need neither bells nor coins to pervade the country with what is easily the most common, and commonly annoying, noise that can be heard from just before dawn until dusk - and now and then in the middle of the night - in every city and province, every poor barangay and even some of the most exclusive subdivisions. Thanks to the Philippine national sport, the noise is made by the tandang, the male manok in Tagalog, or the common rooster. This concerted but cacophonous daily routine, like John Cage at his worst (or worse, his best), is an assault on unaccustomed ears. Amazingly, however, Filipinos don't even seem to notice it. Inured to the noise by a lifetime of exposure, it is no more noticeable to them than the sound of waves to a fisherman or hammers to a carpenter.

One of the simplest but most direct examples of this forbearance is the sheer number of roosters that Filipino men seem to spend half their time feeding, grooming, and pampering. While hens and their chicks range freely throughout the rural barangays, the cocks are tethered and cooped - separately of course. They are objects of pride to their owners, and in my barangay just about every household owns at least one. They attract mates by crowing. And as anyone who has ever lived on a farm can tell you, they don't just crow at dawn.

From my own observation, a well-developed cock can crow every ten to fifteen seconds, and it will go on crowing as long as any other rooster within earshot crows back. At dusk, like most other birds, they sleep. But their sleep is often interrupted by the false dawn of an electric light, and, like the old saying, "when one dog barks at a shadow, five more make it into a reality," one cock will crow at a spark of light and five more turn it into the dawn. (Chickens, you may have guessed by now, are rather stupid animals.)

On Saturdays and Sundays, the Bulang takes place at a koral (that's right, from the Spanish "corral") or alad, where the care and attention the birds have enjoyed all their short lives pays off. The matches themselves are typical of all such contests, with competitors paired off by their owners, who ante up a winning pot. And there is a great deal of side-betting among the spectators. All that's left is for the cocks to fulfill their function and eviscerate one another. But there will always be plenty more from whence they came. As much as I am against such barbarity in principle, the thought of all those beaks being shut forever one after another - Death in the Afternoon Filipino style - gives me unspeakable pleasure.


*Of course, he was called just Palmer in the stories. He got the name Harry only when Michael Caine played him in the movies.
**Today, of course, people put that bell into their pockets without a thought.

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