Chicken mother and owl father

I did say I wouldn’t turn this into a cat blog, but…here’s an update, which has led me to learn a couple of new Portuguese phrases.

Rumple the Kitten came to us with an eye/respiratory illness, which we are currently treating with an antibiotic eye ointment that must be applied three times per day. This involves catching a very reluctant kitten and tormenting him, while he stares at you with huge, round eyes of betrayal. Needless to say, I’m not enjoying it either, and it has brought out my protective instincts. I’m…hovering. It’s possible that I’m being a totally paranoid worrywart. Not that I’m admitting anything, just saying it’s possible.

In English, the term for the behavior which I am not admitting is “mother hen.” Portuguese has an exact equivalent: mãe-galinha. But the Portuguese take it one step further, and acknowledge that men can also exhibit this behavior. They’re not chickens, though. They’re owls: pai-coruja, which means “father owl.” Why the female is a chicken and the male is an owl, my wife could not explain. What’s more, the coruja isn’t just any owl; it is specifically the group of owls that do not have little feather tufts atop their heads. (Tufted owls are called mocho. There are exceptions, but only birders need to worry about them.)

I’m wondering about this etymology…and also why English doesn’t have a male equivalent for pai-coruja. (The sad thing is that it took me over four decades to even realize that there’s no English term for male mother hens.) And of course, I’d love to know the words in other languages.

Since we’re talking about Rumplekitten, I might as well include a photo. This was taken a few hours ago, beneath my office chair:

Kitten face

You can see the goo beneath his eyes from the antibiotic ointment. That stuff does not come off. But it’s done the trick: Rumple is no longer tearing, nor sneezing, and his breath has dramatically improved. (Before, it might have been described as “an exhalation from the grave,” which is just wrong for a tiny kitten. Old cats, yes. Kittens, no.)

We are amazed at how fast he is growing. In our living room there stands an armoire with exactly 5.5 cm (a hair over 2 inches) of clearance between its front molding and the floor, and Rumple found it within an hour of arriving in our home. For the first week, he ran under that armoire without even slowing down. Then came a day when I distinctly heard a klonk as he ran under, and another klonk when he came back out again. Gave me a headache just hearing it.

Now he comes screeching to a halt just in front of the armoire, flattens himself down, and squeeeeeezes under. Then he squeeeeeezes back out again, reinflates, and dashes off. We sincerely hope that he’ll recognize when he’s too big to get under before he’s actually under it and can’t get out again.

In the meantime, we’ve been watching our very own National Geographic special as Rumple gradually wins over our 6.5-year-old Chartreux cat, Graymalkin. She did not take at all kindly to the intruder, and spent several days atop high objects while watching the tiny ball of fur sniffling around HER home. There was quite a lot of hissing on her part, and a few smart smacks about the head when he got too close. But Rumple is determined, and he really wants to be close to her. In fact, when we introduced them (through the bars of a cat carrier), he burst into a loud purr the moment he saw her.

Over the course of three weeks, Graymalkin has gone from pure outrage to grudging tolerance to a sudden realization that she now has a playmate. And play they do! It’s hilarious to watch her chase him when she’s five times heavier than he is. She shortens her stride and sort of trots, so as not to run him over. Of course, it’s even funnier when he chases her — kind of like a terrier chasing a German shepherd.

He really does worship her, and part of that is wanting to use her bowls instead of his. We gave up keeping a water bowl in his bathroom, because he never used it. Instead, he’d eat his food, then go across the hall and into the master bath in order to drink from Graymalkin’s water bowl.

Drinking buddies

After much persistence, he’s managed to ingratiate himself to the point where Graymalkin will allow him to use her water bowl even while she’s eating. This was the first photo I managed to take with both of them in the frame.

A couple of nights ago, Rumple played a very crafty, patient stalking game with Graymalkin on our bed. She was sleeping next to my pillow, where she often stays for a few hours at bedtime. He was sleeping in a little ball at my hip. When he woke and saw his idol so close by, he moved up a few centimeters and slept again. Then woke, and moved a few centimeters more. Wash, rinse, repeat. Until finally…contact!

Sleeping buddies

(Crappy photo quality due to iPad pic in low light. But Rumple’s expression is perfect.)

I’m betting that within another month, possibly two, they’ll be sleeping together. It won’t be Graymalkin’s idea, or even her preference, but Rumple is not going to give up until he gets what he wants. It is amazing how much stubborn willpower can be contained in a little 1-kilo package.


About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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20 Responses to Chicken mother and owl father

  1. Inge says:

    Lovely story. i bet he’ll be next to her in a fortnight.

    Right mother hen.. in Dutch: moederkloek.. which is a bit double up but anyway. Moeder= mother, kloek= mother hen. But we use it for both sexes.. even when talking about Christ, we say that he was a ‘moederkloek’ who called for children under his wings. (difficult to translate)

  2. Cathy White says:

    What lovely pics esp. side by side with their noses down. When I introduced my younger cat for the first time to the elder it was hiss and spit, three days and he was taking food from Teega’s dish, and seven days they were curled up together on the bean bag in front of the fire.That was eight years ago. Teega is old and frail now, but Sweep ( aka Kiwi Silver Fern cos he is All Black ) will tuck in and Teega will wrap a paw or tail around him.

  3. Lisa Shaw says:

    More like this, please! I loves me a good animal story. 🙂

  4. Lilaine says:

    How not to love these sweet, funny, most clever, social and loving creatures (they are, too! Even Graymalkin, though she’s not ready to fully express it toward Rumple, … just yet 😉 )?
    Thanks for sharing these fun stories (I could hear the klonk and the screeching halt noise from here! 😀 ) , wish you plenty more of them (just so that you can definitely turn this into a cat blog ;)…. Well, maybe not… You gonna create another blog, then, just for the feline lovers …? ).

    • Lilaine says:

      Oops, forgot to tell about mother hen in French.
      So, we do say mother hen (mère poule) either for a woman or a man, though we can specifically say ‘papa poule’ for a dad taking loving and attentive care of his children. Mère poule is generally used to qualify a parent or any person acting like an attentive, caring parent. Can be used sometimes in a humorous way for someone dealing with any creature (or thing) that requires attentive care.

  5. IsabelPS says:

    Actually, pai coruja has a slight different twist, as it comes from this Lafontaine’s fable:

    The Eagle and the Owl

    The eagle and the owl, resolved to cease
    Their war, embraced in pledge of peace.
    On faith of king, on faith of owl, they swore
    That they would eat each other’s chicks no more.
    “But know you mine?” said Wisdom’s bird.
    “Not I, indeed,” the eagle cried.
    “The worse for that,” the owl replied:
    “I fear your oath’s a useless word;
    I fear that you, as king, will not
    Consider duly who or what:
    Adieu, my young, if you should meet them!”
    “Describe them, then, and I’ll not eat them,”
    The eagle said. The owl replied:
    “My little ones, I say with pride,
    For grace of form cannot be match’d,–
    The prettiest birds that e’er were hatch’d;
    By this you cannot fail to know them;
    ‘Tis needless, therefore, that I show them.”
    At length God gives the owl a set of heirs,
    And while at early eve abroad he fares,
    In quest of birds and mice for food,
    Our eagle haply spies the brood,
    As on some craggy rock they sprawl,
    Or nestle in some ruined wall,
    (But which it matters not at all,)
    And thinks them ugly little frights,
    Grim, sad, with voice like shrieking sprites.
    “These chicks,” says he, “with looks almost infernal,
    Can’t be the darlings of our friend nocturnal.
    I’ll sup of them.” And so he did, not slightly:–
    He never sups, if he can help it, lightly.
    The owl return’d; and, sad, he found
    Nought left but claws upon the ground.
    He pray’d the gods above and gods below
    To smite the brigand who had caused his woe.
    Quoth one, “On you alone the blame must fall;
    Thinking your like the loveliest of all
    You told the eagle of your young ones’ graces;
    You gave the picture of their faces:–
    Had it of likeness any traces?”

    • Lilaine says:

      Oh, My! Well seen Isabel! 🙂
      That’s probably why we just have ‘papas poules’, here… they don’t want that to happen. :p
      The fable is nicely translated, btw. 🙂

    • oregon expat says:

      Is that where it comes from? How interesting!

      And wow, did that fable stir up some olllld memories. I must have read that when I was knee high to a grasshopper.

  6. M. says:

    Hm, and here I thought you didn’t say a “mother hen” anymore in US. I thought now you say a “pitbull mom”… ;D
    No good equivalent for both in Polish, I am afraid.

    • oregon expat says:

      I think that’s just Sarah Palin. The more common term these days is “soccer mom,” but that really means something different — a mom who is rushing her kid all over to 16 different afterschool activities, rather than a mom who is protecting her kid beneath her wings. Then there’s “helicopter parent,” a parent who hovers over the kid at all times, and “stage mom,” the mom who pushes her kid into commercials and pageants and acting…the list goes on. But “mother hen” is timeless and I don’t think there’s a modern equivalent.

  7. Ana_ñ says:

    Oh my, little Rumple (Rumplelito) can’t possibly be more hilariously cute than in that last photo! :D)

    I’m not sure about your linguistic question. Regarding the male term, we have in Spanish the word “padrazo” (a derivative of the word “father”), which means “a father that is good, tolerant and understanding with his children.” Although it can be used in other situations, for instance, a teacher regarding his students, it always refers to a man regarding people or, less frequently, to a male animal regarding other animals.

    And I have the impression that it is the same for the female expressions: either the corresponding “madraza” or the gallinaceous terms “gallina” or “gallina clueca” can be used for persons regarding persons, not animals; or for animals regarding animals. I never heard that a woman is a “gallina clueca” regarding her cats.

    We don’t have any expression with owls (“búho” or “lechuza,” with or without tufts)

    • oregon expat says:

      I’m interested in your madraza, and wondering if it has an etymological relationship to the Portuguese madrasta — a stepmother. But the older meaning of the term (no longer used today) is a bad mother, or a mother who doesn’t take care of her kids. So the old Portuguese madrasta is exactly the opposite of the Spanish madraza. Hm.

      • Ana_ñ says:

        I’ll try to satisfy your curiosity. There isn’t any discrepancy with Portuguese. A little change of letters and different meaning.

        – The Spanish word for stepmother is madrastra. Just as in old Portuguese, it has a second negative meaning, actually two: a wicked stepmother, as in Cinderella, and an abusive mother.
        The suffix –astra/o in Spanish can form nouns with a derogatory connotation: politicastro (despicable politician – useful word I think), musicastro (bad musician) or the word we are talking about, madrastra, and the corresponding masculine padrastro (funny that among the meanings of this polysemous word not only are stepfather and bad father, but also hangnail – but I digress here and am confusing you, sorry). Also, not all the words ending in –astra/o are derogatory; for instance, alabastro (alabaster)
        It has nothing to do with the prefix astro-, which has the same origin and meaning that in English (celestial body, star)

        – On the other hand, the Spanish words madraza and padrazo, indulgent or doting mother and father, respectively, are formed with the suffix –aza/o, which has several meanings; in this case, an augmentative.

        • oregon expat says:

          Thank you, that was perfect. And also a little frightening, how tiny the difference is between the positive meanings and the negative ones. Languages are fraught with pitfalls, aren’t they?

        • Lilaine says:

          I knew someone was going to give us a most thorough lecture about the obviously derogatory suffix in this word, I just wondered who, and in which language… 😉
          Let me just add my two cents:
          In French, and without any surprise, being a Latin tongue, we have the derogatory suffix too.
          mother is mère
          step-mother is belle-mère, originally marâtre. (derogatory suffix: -âtre (feminine, and masculine, too))
          Marâtre is nearly the same word with probably the same origin as the Spanish madrastra and the Portuguese madrasta, with the usual, typically French circumflex accent which is nothing but the s that grew wings and flew away sometime in the past and went back to land on top its pal (or more… who knows?) the vowel… 🙂
          And marâtre has the dual meaning, too, though the step-mother one is no more in use (we say belle-mère). The derogatory one is better known but not much more in use. La marâtre de Cendrillon is well known, and, among others, we also have la Thénardier, marâtre de Cosette, in ‘Les Misérables’ (Victor Hugo).
          Parâtre is even less in use than its female counterpart…. Yess!! We win…! 😛 😀

          And, as far as I know, Italian also has a derogatory suffix: -accio/-accia but I’m not sure they use it in association with their most cherished Mamma. 😉

          • Ana_ñ says:

            “Parâtre is even less in use than its female counterpart…. Yess!! We win…! 😛 :D”

            Maybe you will find amusing, dear Lilaine, that in the operatic version of Cinderella by Rossini, La Cenerentola, the ‘marâtre’ is replaced with a ‘parâtre’, a wicked Don Magnifico. :D)

          • Lilaine says:

            Oh, cool! 😀
            I didn’t know. Thanks Ana_ ñ ! 🙂
            Rossini was a feminist, then ? 😉
            … that or he had some score to settle… ^

  8. IsabelPS says:

    By the way, there is a nice children’s book (Portuguese text and illustrations) called “O Pai Galinha e o seu Pintaínho” 🙂

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