THE FIRST TIME I SAW CONOR, I thought he was a ghost. He showed up in early October, the day after a new interpretive sign was installed at Me-Kwa-Mooks Park, three houses down from my home in West Seattle. In 1904, the sign noted, the park had been part of Ferdinand and Emma Schmitz’s homestead. Ferdinand and Emma kept poultry, and for one strange moment I thought the sign had conjured up the large, improbable rooster scratching in the dirt just below their names.
After I blinked a few times and he didn’t disappear, I started knocking on doors: Had anyone lost a white-and-buff rooster? No, not even the neighbors next to the park, who keep very low-profile chickens. (In Seattle each household can legally keep up to three; there could be as many as 800 coops around town right now.) No one knew where Conor had come from. Maybe he was an adventurous escapee or someone had dropped him off with a hasty “Good luck, dude!”
Didn’t matter. The neighborhood immediately warmed to him. The four children across the street named him. The neighbors next to them, Bob and Andrew, began feeding him. They started tossing stale bread and rapidly progressed to specially purchased wheat berries. The smaller of their two dogs liked to bark at Conor when he strolled into their yard; unruffled, he would silently raise a foot at her. (“Have you seen his talons?” Andrew asked, one hand crooked into a monster claw. “They’re huge!”)
Conor was also quick; he sprinted with startling grace, making gentlemanly little buk-buk sounds as he ran. He adopted Bob and Andrew as fast as they adopted him, and when they left home to walk their dogs, Conor would race after them.
Conor liked to forage in the narrow stream that runs between the greenbelt and our one-lane street, stepping deliberately upstream, dipping his small yellow beak.
“He’s fishing!” I said to a neighbor.
“For salmon!” she replied gaily.
When I first learned his name, I said, “Conor the Barbarian?” “No,” a neighbor corrected, “that’s Conan.” Our woods were full of magnificent barbarians—eagles, owls, osprey, raccoons, even a coyote—but Conor wasn’t one of them. He belonged to a gentler world. Something about the sight of him pecking underneath Bob and Andrew’s big Douglas fir was deeply, almost atavistically soothing.
Having Conor here reminded me of what a woman told The Seattle Times when city hall made it legal to keep mini goats: “We would be a really charming city if we were a place people could keep mini farms with chickens, goats, a vegetable garden, and fruit trees.” I agreed. I hoped for even more. While I didn’t expect to find Conor nestled cheek by jowl with the coyote, I did fantasize about seeing him perched in the same tree as a great blue heron.
I wasn’t sure how hardy roosters are, so when the temperature dipped into the low 40s I went online. I discovered that they’re tough (they can survive Minnesota winters in unheated coops), generous (when they find something tasty, they immediately cluck to their hens to come and get it), and, contrary to what slang might lead you to believe, completely without external sex organs. Even so, roosters remain symbols of virility, courage, good luck, and new beginnings.
For all my research, I couldn’t figure out what breed Conor was. He didn’t seem sinuously shaped enough to be a leghorn.
“He’s a…Me-Cock-Wooks,” Andrew said.
The last time I saw Conor was on a morning in early November. I was headed toward the top of the meadow at Me-Kwa-Mooks when I noticed a movement to one side. There he stood, inside a bush, framed in an open circle of greenery like a Victorian valentine. The sun was shining on him. We both froze. I just wanted to look at him: his natty pale coat, the wing edge speckled lightly with brown, the profile of his red comb and wattles, and, most of all, the eye that was focused on me. It was dark, bright, calm and—I swear—benevolent. I set off again in a glow of good cheer.
Conor kept defying the odds, traveling back and forth between Bob and Andrew’s domestic kindness and the hell’s kitchen of the greenbelt. He was like a Buddhist monk who had set out on a perilous alms round, accepting whatever came—a wheat berry here, a worm and a sinister rustle in the brush there. His presence was so serene that my dog, who shrieks at seagulls, never barked at him.
A few mornings after my encounter with Conor I saw Bob, who beckoned to me, looking wan. “We’re in mourning,” he said.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I hope it was quick.”
“At least raccoons eat what they take,” Bob said. “He was such a sweet little guy. He’d tilt his head at you and peep.” Bob turned and walked away.
Not far up the street, white feathers lay on the stream bank, attached to what looked like a bit too much cartilage. If I caught sight of Conor again, I thought, he really would be the Ghost Rooster of Me-Kwa-Mooks. A forlorn week passed.
Then Conor rematerialized.
“I just saw him,” my next-door neighbor told me. “He looks all right.” The raccoons were off the hook. The owner of an unleashed dog had eventually confessed to breaking up what we’d thought was a tragic scuffle.
I went for a walk that afternoon, searching unsuccessfully for a glimpse of the rooster with nine lives. “He’s keeping his distance,” said my neighbor, who’d set out bread. “Maybe that’s a good thing.”
A good thing, and a sad thing. But I’m betting on Conor to make a new beginning and reclaim his place on both sides of the street. With any luck, one day, he’ll take us under his wing again, back into a peaceable kingdom.
This article appeared in the January 2008 issue of Seattle Met.