Friday, April 15, 2016

Roosters, Oh, Roosters

Roosters can be a wonderful addition to the flock! They come with their own set of pros and cons - and you must have at least one if you wish to hatch your own eggs. Sometimes they are intentionally sought out, but many of us get roosters on accident from the "pullet" bins at feed stores. So are you looking to add a rooster to your flock? Or are you starting to notice red combs and wattles on some of your Easter chicks? Either way, read on!

*Some words used in this article may have unclear meanings. To begin with, let's clear them up.

Rooster - a colloquial word meaning any male chicken, commonly used in the US.
Cock - a male chicken over the age of one year; a breeding-age male chicken.
Cockerel - a male chicken under the age of one year
Pullet - a female chicken under the age of one year
Hen - a female chicken over the age of one year; a breeding-age female chicken
Spurs - sharp, pointed spine on a rooster's leg
Cull - to remove from the flock, usually by killing but not always
Butcher - to kill for the purpose of eating

What you need to know before keeping a rooster

 Roosters are beautiful, but there are a lot of problems associated with them. Whereas hens are fairly easy to care for, roosters can complicate things pretty quickly.

The main problems chicken owners run into with roosters are temperament issues; roosters can be mean! There are reasons for this, the main reason being testosterone. The male hormone is known to cause aggression in virtually every male animal, birds included. The reason he is so aggressive it due to his drive to reproduce, caused by testosterone. Basically, he wants your backyard filled with his offspring, and he has to keep his hens alive and mated by himself in order for that to happen. He sees basically everything as a threat to his hens, an obstacle on the way to his goal of filling your backyard with his offspring. So he grows fiercely protective. Sometimes this is a good thing, as a rooster will deter small predators, such as stray cats, and even sacrifice himself to let the hens escape a larger predator. Depending on the rooster, this aggressive instinct can be completely nonexistent to so bad that you can't even step in the coop without getting spurred. If it's the latter, he's probably gotta go! Personally, I'm willing to deal with a certain amount of aggression if the rooster does his job well. If he keeps my eggs fertile and keeps his girls safe, I can handle occasional aggression as long as he is not too territorial. When people visit, I tell them not to try and pick up the hens lest they be spurred by our Fonzie.

Ruby has to wear a caped "saddle" to protect her from the roosters' spurs
 Another commonly encountered problem with raising roosters is aggressive mating and over-mating. Young cockerels, flooded with more hormones than their bodies can handle, will often chase and grab younger pullets or even hens and try to mate them. Pullets are not yet mature enough to understand what's going on and get scared, and hens generally won't respect a young cockerel trying to mate them, so the youngster can get quite forceful and aggressive. An older rooster generally will not allow this behavior and will knock off young boys who try to mate his hens. If the behavior persists, however, the young rooster will likely have to spend some time in solitary confinement until he matures a little bit or the pullets catch up and begin squatting. A rooster who continues aggressively mating into adulthood can be a big problem. Over-mating occurs when there are too many roosters for a given number of hens, or he favors a specific hen and mates her too often. An over mated hen will often have a bare back and may have lacerations caused by the males' spurs. This can be solved by reducing your number of roosters, or putting "saddles" on your hens to protect their backs and wings. 

Roosters often crow 'round the clock
 Also keep in mind that roosters crow, a lot. They don't just crow in the morning; they crow in the morning, noontime, afternoon, evening, and yes, sometimes they crow at night if something wakes them up. The crowing itself measures in at roughly the same volume as a dog's bark, but is harder for many people to tune out. If your city or HOA doesn't allow roosters due to crowing, you may be able to get around it using a no-crow collar, but it doesn't work with all roosters and care must be taken that they are used correctly. Even if you don't mind the lovely songs (which I don't - I have four crowing boys right now and I love it!), do take my advise and don't put the coop right next to anyone's bedroom window. If you do, you will regret it!

 Even if you have a rooster, you can eat the eggs! Fertile eggs are no different from infertile eggs nutritionally. The embryo will not begin to develop unless it is kept at incubating temperatures. They will not develop in your fridge. Some people have said that fertile eggs will not keep as long, but I have not had this problem. I experimented with some eggs by putting them in a carton in my fridge labeled "aged eggs" and checked them 4 months later. Still good! These were unwashed, keep in mind. Please don't sell anyone 4 month old eggs. 

Multiple roosters will fight occasionally, but it shouldn't be a bloodbath. Game-based breeds need males to be kept separately because they will literally fight to the death - it's what they were bred for! Most common breeds will have an occasional scuffle with a few drops of blood, ending with the more dominant rooster chasing the other off. This is usually over mating rights, as the lead roo, (cock of the walk, if you will) rarely allows the boys below him to mate. This is acceptable behavior, so don't try to intervene unless they are seriously injuring each other. You could end up at the end of their spurs! If you do have to stop them, use a broom rather than your hands!

Although roosters fight on occasion, excessive fighting is problematic

You want a rooster, but what breed?

Some breeds are more docile than others, and roosters of these breeds generally follow those traits. It is often debated whether a rooster's personality is due more to nature or nurture. Given the chicken's primitive and instinctual mindset, and my personal experience, I lean on the side of "nature" being the main determining factor of a rooster's temerament, with nurture being a factor. Keep in mind, these are generalizations and may not be true for each individual bird. 

Marquis, keeping the bantams warm because he was too docile for the big hens at the time
Docile breeds, like Orpingtons, Cocins, and Faverolles generally produce docile roosters. These roos tend to be low on the totem pole with other males and are the least likely to show human aggression. My Salmon Faverolles cockerel is so far the sweetest of all my boys, lets me pick him up and rarely fights. These breeds are good options for people with children.

Protective breeds may show mild aggression, but are very good at protecting the flock. Leghorns, Rhode Island Reds, and Easter Egger roosters may serve this purpose well. Use caution if you have young children, make sure they know not to chase or grab the hens, and don't let them go out with the chickens alone. Multiple roosters may fight but do not normally cause any serious injuries to the other. 
Although Fonzie, a Rhode Island Red, is blind in one eye, he is fiercely protective of his flock and has survived several attacks.

Aggressive and fighting breeds are not recommended if you have young children or multiple roosters in the same flock. Any gamefowl, and some ornamental game-based breeds like the Sumatra or Pheonix are part of this group. If you will only have one rooster, or a way to separate all of the males, these breeds will likely be very protective. Males are likely to fight until one bird is dead, as that is what they are bred for. 

If your getting your bird as a chick, you can help prevent human aggression by handling him regularly to get him use to you. This may keep him from seeing you as a threat, however it may not prevent him from fighting other males or ferociously attacking the FedEx guy. This is why it is important to choose a more docile breed as well if you want a docile rooster. Some people say that heritage-bred chickens of the same breed are gentler than than their hatchery-bred cousins, but this is not always the case, as it is up to the individual breeder to only select friendly breeding stock.
 The temperament of a rooster can change a lot as he ages. A kind cockerel can turn very aggressive as he approaches his second year, and an aggressive youngster into a gentleman. For your first roo, it may be a good idea to skip the uncertain teenage years and get an adult whose personality is already revealed. Some 

Options when you have an accidental rooster

As the weeks following Easter pass by, many people are finding their little fuzzballs to have big red combs and wattles. Uh oh, didn't think about that, huh? Don't fret, there are options!

Keeping the rooster is the first choice. Roosters can be a joy to have around, and having one lessens your dependence on hatcheries to replenish your stock! If a dog kills 5 of my hens, all I have to do is grab some eggs and put them in the incubator, because my roosters provide me with the means to do so. I don't have to wait until feed store chick days or buy 15 chicks from a hatchery, hoping they'll make it okay in the dead of winter. They never leave my little farm - accustomed to me the whole time! However, as I stated previously, roosters can come with a whole slew of their own problems, and beginner chicken keepers may not what to deal with that. Also, many cities don't allow roosters due to noise. This may be remedied by using a no-crow collar, a device that slightly restricts airflow through the chicken's vocal cords. When used correctly, it does not hurt them at all, and they can make all sounds except the crow. For comparison, take two fingers and put pressure on your larynx - the bump in your throat. You can talk and breath fine, right? Now try to sing loudly. That's sort of how the no-crow collar works. It doesn't work with all roosters and may need some adjusting to get right. 

You may try and rehome the rooster to a pet family. Depending on your rooster's breed, this is a possibility! Fonzie is a Rhode Island Red, a favorite breed in my area, that I got from a friend who doesn't like to butcher unless it's necessary. If you have a more rare breed, some people will jump at the chanced to have one at low cost or for free! Facebook groups and online classifieds are great places to list your boys. However, after the rooster is no longer in your hands, you have no control over what happens. If he develops aggression, the new owner may kill him. They may kill him just because they found another rooster that they like better. Many people run their farms like that, and if you absolutely can't handle that, you should probably find a way to keep him. 

Many of us butcher roosters that we can't keep. Most farmers simply don't want more than one rooster for every five or more girls, so finding "pet homes" for all of these males is often unrealistic. Think about it, why don't you want to keep him? Why would anyone else be able to? This is an unpleasant reality that chicken owners must face, unless they are willing to keep equal males and females. Butchering assures that the animal gets a death that is up to your standards of painlessness, whereas a stranger may use more painful methods. It also provides you with healthier food that was humanely raised, not raised in a filthy barn packed with thousands of barely-alive meat birds. I'm not going to lie, this is hard to do, especially your first couple of times. There are two common methods of killing chickens - decapitation and bleeding out. My dad prefers the former, the old way, while I prefer the latter because there is less twitching and flapping afterwards. Both are very quick and humane ways of killing the rooster. If your blade is sharp, he will be gone before he even realizes what's going on. 

Feeding and housing roosters

A rooster will excitedly alert his hens when he finds food
Some people keep all of their males totally separate from their hens when it is not breeding season. I do not find this separation necessary unless the rooster or roosters are being aggressive or over mating the hens. The reason some people do this is because they don't want their males eating layer feed due to the extra calcium. Some suggest that the calcium can lead to kidney problems because they males do not need it for eggs. Others respond that this is purely speculation, and that layer feed does not hurt the roosters, since there's not that much extra calcium (hens still need a calcium supplement if they eat layer feed). I keep roosters and hens alike together. You may need more space per bird, especially if you have more than one male, so that all of them can easily get away from each other. As for feeding, I have used two methods in the past. I have fed the whole flock unmedicated 20% protein chick starter and provided a supplement for the hens, and I've given the whole flock layer feed. I have had no problems with either method, but if you're concerned about the extra calcium, the former method is the way to go! As chick feed is a little higher in protein than layer, this is an excellent method for free ranging flocks that eat a lot of grass and seeds. Make sure you always provide free-choice oyster shell for your hens with this method, as they need the calcium for laying. 

You and your rooster

Your rooster probably won't be your best friend, but with luck and patience, he will respect you. He will make you more self sufficient by giving you the means to produce your own chicks, and he will keep your hens safer. A rooster also makes a pretty addition to your yard and will sing for you every morning, and noon, and evening! My flock would not be complete without my lovely roosters, is yours?

Do you have roosters? Do you want one? Leave a comment and share your boys! Remember to check out our Facebook page and our Instagram for regular updates!

All images used in this article are either owned by me or were obtained through Creative Commons.