Casa Verde, an Italian restaurant at the Botanic Gardens, attracts just as many animal as human patrons. Dogs on their morning walk will look up from their tethers to hope for table scraps, mynahs stalk the edges of the tables for unattended plates, and from the edges of the adjacent forest lurk a third group – the ‘wild chickens’.
A family of red junglefowl dwells at the edges of the thick vegetation swathing the end of the gardens near Cluny Road, seemingly usually content to dig around in the leaf litter for grubs and fruits. On occassion, though, they can be seen peering at the diners and cautiously strutting around the fountains in the open area leading from the garden entrance. In many respects, junglefowl resemble their domesticated clucking cousins, but it would be erroneous to simply call them ‘chickens’. They go largely unnoticed, or mistaken for feral birds. But for those who know their provenance, they could be a subtle reminder that the Gardens, despite their manicured plants and winding paved paths, is still a slice of the wild.
I noticed this hen perched on a railing over a plate of French toast in the morning. Junglefowl never travel alone, and I looked behind her to see if her other female companions were romping around nearby. This one seemed to look like she wanted a morsel of whatever her smaller avian cousins were eyeing, too. But the stout frame and awkward flight of junglefowl makes her much less adept for the task. Imagine the horror of an innocent diner at seeing a large bird plonk itself onto their unfinished breakfast after they leave.
As if she knew that there was no business for her there, she leapt off the railing and walked off to join her fellow fowl scrounging near the vending machine around the gift shop. That was when a flash of colour caught my eye. A rooster had strode up behind her, his iridescent flame-hued feathers gleaming in the sunlight.
Instantly I was reminded of that little scene at the beginning of The Arabian Nights, where a merchant overhears a rooster tell a dog that he has 51 wives and is able to easily satisfy them all. Steamy implications aside, it was evident that this tough fellow had arrived to make sure his wife was okay, craning his neck aggressively towards the offending diners.
Then, as if he was aware that there was a set of camera lens being trained on him, he began to swivel on his perch, showing off different parts of him from every angle. Almost as if he knew the Year of the Rooster was about to end and he wanted to use the oppurtunity to bask in the last rays of the animal limelight.
At the end of the morning, he would go strutting back to his harem, proud that he had once again managed to preserve it in the manic sprawl of parkgoers. Has he managed to satisfy them as easily as his fictional counterpart? We might never go – or if his flock has expanded with a few long-legged junglefowl chicks on our next visit, we shall have a clearer inkling of the answer.