Friday, July 29, 2011

Keeping Roosters Together

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by Jennifer Sartell

Many of my friends who keep chickens marvel at the array of roosters that we have living in harmony together. At one time we had 14 roosters coexisting happily in the same coop/yard.

It's getting to be that time of year when many of the cute little un-sexed chicks we raised in the spring are starting to develop those lavish tail feathers, the large wattles and the stunning plumage that many times their female counterparts lack. Roosters are beautiful, and can make wonderful additions to your flock, so don't start putting up the re-homing posters just yet. There are some options.

I feel like for the first few years I kept chickens, I actually sold myself short. I only bought chicks that were sexed pullets ... and prayed that we didn't get one of the 3% who could be males. One year we had a great opportunity to get our hands on some rare chicks that I had been searching after for many years. Unfortunately, they were straight run. I had been looking for this particular breed for so long, though, that I couldn't pass them up. I figured we'd hope for females and deal with the roosters when it came to that.

Sure enough, as the chicks got older, our batch of 10 chicks was split right down the middle: five pullets and five cockerels. Frantically, I started posting chicken pictures on every farm site I could find. I put up posters at the feed stores, and dropped hints to people I knew who had large farms that "we had some fine-looking cockerels that needed a good home."

But to our dismay, no one bit. As the chickens got older, I kept watching for the classic sparring signs, the flaring neck feathers, the jumping attacks with legs, spurs and feathers flailing. But other than the occasional peck on the head, everyone seemed to be getting on just fine.

"Maa-a-a-a get these chicken's outta here!"
We decided that we would keep the cockerels and pullets, unless something came up, and as any chicken owner knows, something always comes up. Once you seem to get down a routine, find something that works, the chickens change that all up, and you, in turn, must find alternative ways to do things. That's one of the bittersweet things about raising chickens. It seems they're always changing. Sometimes it's exciting changes, like collecting your first egg ... and sometimes it's not-so-fun changes, like when all the chickens decide one day that they are going to sleep in the goats' feed trough rather than their own roosts. (Then you find yourself washing dried chicken poo out of the goat feeders every morning. Yay!)

The "thing" that "came up" was, they all came of age. Everyone's combs and wattles were turning vibrant red, the unmistakable teenage crowing began as everyone struggled to perfect their own version of "cock-a-doodle-doo" (they sounded like they were dying), and needless to say the poor females were loosing quite a few feathers from all the ... ahem, attention. But still no sparring.

It was in the winter when I'd had enough, and so had the females. The chickens weren't being let out as much because of the snow and the females couldn't take the high ratio of males. So one by one I gathered all the roosters and put them in the barn. Surprisingly, they got along just fine. In fact, without the females as added jealous temptation, even the small pecking seemed to cease. Everyone lived out the winter in harmony.

So, needless to say you can keep roosters together successfully, but there are some things that I've learned over the years:

  • The first being, if you're going to keep roosters, you might have to think about separating them from your females. Too many roosters mating with the same females can really injure your girls. If you notice feathers missing from the back of the head or on their backs, it's time to remove the boys. There is a product called a chicken apron/saddle that fits over the back of the chicken and protects from "over-mating." (You can use a pattern to make one yourself.)

  • Another thing to remember is that where one rooster goes, all roosters must go, or forever shall he be separated. We've found that we can keep roosters together, so long as we keep the roosters together. Sounds redundant, I know, but if you separate one out for too long, like to pair up for mating, all bets are off. I separated a pair of my best Black Coppers to mate for a week. When I had collected the eggs I needed, and went to put the Rooster back with his "friends," relationships had changed. It was as if he was a whole new rooster invading the flock. Now I only keep breeding roosters with the females for a couple hours at a time. At night he sleeps with the rest of the flock.

  • Finally, introduce new cockerels to the males after they're feathered in, but before their wattles turn red and they start crowing. They will have to go through pecking order just like any other chicken, but chances are, the males will accept them without sparring. And, I'm not saying it can't be done, but I've never had success introducing an adult rooster to a new adult rooster.

We have a couple separation pens for breeding time. The roosters can still see the rest of the flock, which makes re-introduction easier.

But even following these guidelines, chickens will be chickens.

For example, there was the time our Bantam Cochin Rooster woke up one day and just decided he hated the world. He came at me like a mad hornet when I went in to feed everyone. Thank goodness he's pint-sized!

If you're thinking about keeping roosters, have your options handy.

Another example of a separation pen we use.
  • Make sure you have a couple of safe places to separate someone for a while until you can find a good, permanent solution.

  • Sometimes it's a good thing to keep the females out of site. Some roosters will get so fixated that they will pace back and forth obsessively trying to get to the flock of females.

  • And finally, keep in mind that re-homing a rooster can be difficult. Unfortunately, not many people are looking for pet roosters. It's a big step for some, but consider having them processed, and if it's too emotional to eat yourself, donate the birds to charity.
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  1. Great article. Thanks for all this information. It will come in handy when we can finally have our own chickens. :)

  2. I guess I'm one for whom it is not a big step to eat a chicken. I mean, you eat the eggs from your layers right? We also eat our pigs and cows. It's part of the farming life. We hatched out 30 eggs last spring and we are, like you, beginning to see who is who in the crowd and are looking forward to some Rooster stew and fried chicken very soon.

  3. Wonderful article. My spring flock, which was supposed to be 38 pullets and 2 roosters, ended up being 5 roosters. My 5 were divided kinds, I had 3 Buff Orpington (sp?), 1 Americauna (sp?) and one undetermined, all males. 2 of the Buffs became VERY aggressive and flew at me one day. I was glad that they had not gotten their spurs yet. That same day, I had 2 for the freezer. I am watching the other Buff closely, but the other two seem to be happy as clams. Of course they have 35 females to choose from. I will keep in mind your advice and thank you for your timely article. KSutton, Missouri

  4. Hi there:
    I agree with Jennifer. I have quite a variety of roosters from Frizzle Cochin to the Big Ameracauna rooster and I have had success introducing an adult Polish rooster to the crew. I did have to remove the "old man" George, a Rhode Island Red because all the younger roosters wanted to kill him once he obtained a limp. Other than that, my roosters do real well together and the younger ones know their place in the "pecking order." I do cage certain couples off for breed specific mating and haven't had any problems with re-introducing them to the crew.
    It is pretty obvious when the hens are being loved a little too much. I'm in the process of creating some individual cubbies for just that reason.
    Thanks Jennifer for the great information.
    Margaret in Fairbanks, Alaska.

  5. I don't see anyone mentioning capons--my mother said her grandmother used to do that to the excess male birds in their flock.

  6. What a timely post, Jennifer! We have 9-week old chickens who were all supposed to be pullets, but as time goes on our suspicion grows that most may be cockerels. It's breaking my heart because (1) I raised them like laying hens that I thought I'd have around and nurture for years to come and (2) we don't have as much secure room or time to keep more than one rooster for breeding and as a pet. Still, if there's a chance that a second tractor could contain them and protect what may be our one hen from over-attention, then maybe we can keep them. Thanks again!

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  8. I have several roosters living in complete harmony with each other and the hens. Although this was not mentioned in the article, I believe the reason everyone gets along so well is because there is plenty of room for all inside and outside the barn. The roosters and hens have ample space, which reduces the opportunity for friction. I believe over-crowding is the bases for many problems.

  9. Very timely indeed! We're introducing a 10-week old rooster and 4 pullets to our adult laying "flock," (which is a rooster and two hens) later today! My chicken keeping friend says the trick is to keep the new groups balanced in terms of their relative advantages and disadvantages. So five younger birds vs. three older birds makes it so neither group will feel confident enough to start anything and they might just choose to all get along. Also, we'll introduce them at night, when everyone is settled in sleeping and inactive. They'll wake up and be together as if they've always been there. She says it works better than trying to introduce newcomers during the day...

  10. Hello Jennifer, thanks for your article.
    We raise chicks up and when mature we introduce the hens we want to keep to our flock and sell off the rest... we also keep the roosters to raise up for the freezer. They can live in harmony together for a long long time if need be, and never any sparring occurs. We even keep them within viewing distance of our hens. Often the hens who grew up with the roosters will hang out beside their cage while free ranging. Never any problems...

    I had planned to introduce a new breed of rooster to our flock, as we are getting too many hens for our one keeper rooster, but now I am hesitant as to how to go about that. I figured giving them a week of seeing "HIM" would be enough, but now I am not so sure. What would you recommend?
    - I have a large chicken tractor to raise my chicks in (then just the roosters), and my keeper flock are day free-angers, but I also have a dog cage near by which sometimes we convert to a chicken pen... I had planned to put the new guy in there for a week so they can get to know each other before adding him in permanently.
    Are you saying the old rooster will NOT accept him and they'll dual it out to be boss? I don't want anyone getting hurt. I had always thought (was told) that if you have enough hens per rooster, you can have more than one can be in the flock, but one will be the dominant one.
    I'd like your opinion on this, thanks.

  11. Ditto what Matthew said: it's all part of farm life. Unless you're vegetarian, if you're going to be eating chicken meat, you might as well eat your own that have been raised well rather than the ones from supermarkets.

  12. I am a vegetarian and do not plan to eat the chickens I hope to be able to start raising next year. It's good to see that buying straight run can be a viable option for acquiring chicks because I've read that sexing chicks results in a lot of unwanted male chicks who are disposed of very cruelly. I was wondering whether the extent to which you make your chickens 'tame' or pets makes any difference, but I suspect we're dealing with very strong instincts. With regard to instincts, multiple roosters might make for a better protected flock?
    What about capons, as Carole mentioned? Is neutering something you can do yourself, or do you have to take them to a vet? I'm familiar with dogs and cats neutering, but have no idea how a bird is neutered. If this settles the males down, it might be great, but Carole didn't say anything about how the capons are personality/socially or how they relate to the flock. Are they still protective?

  13. Hi Cris,
    That's sort of what we do too. We raise our females for eggs and breeding, we sell chicks, keep some to freshen our flock, and process the extra roosters. It's a good balance for our small farm.

    To answer your question about introducing a new breed of rooster, well, as one person said above, I guess it is possible, but personally, I have not had success with this, and I've tried it a few times, hoping that this time it would work, and everyone would all be friends. What usually happens in my flock is, the two roosters will somewhat ignore each other for a while, or dance around one another, wings down, sizing each other up, sometimes they're still fine at this point, then once the new rooster starts to mate with a female the other rooster will notice all the commotion and run over, and then the sparring starts.

    The ratio of females to males may help, but I've found those numbers to be more helpful with breeding purposes. Like if you want a successful hatch rate you'll need enough roosters to ensure he gets to all your hens. It also has to do with over mating, too many roosters can be rough on your hens. I've always heard a 1 to 10 ratio is good, but again, it all depends on the personality of your chickens, how much space they have etc. I had 38 hens with one rooster at one point, and I tried to introduce another rooster, and they went at each other.

    Some of the suggestions above are helpful too. Lots of room to run, keeping them in an open cage so everyone can see everyone else, introducing at night, (Although, this one makes me a little nervous, normally it's a good idea to introduce new chickens at night, but don't assume that this plan is fool proof. If you stick a new rooster in with another rooster at night, in a coop that's locked up, I would suggest getting up before the sun and getting down to your coop before they all get up, otherwise, you might find out the hard way that they didn't get along after all. This has happened to me. It only takes seconds for them to draw blood, and the sparring is relentless, and a little dangerous to separate.)

    What has worked for me, more than anything, is getting them young. If you could get a cockerel of the new breed, instead of a rooster, you might have an easier time. In fact, this has never not worked for me, but then again, chickens will be chickens. Hope this helped.


  15. Although I have a small flock of 5 hens and one rooster,I have found that two roosters doesn't work but three or more usually will be tolerated by all. The amount of hens and the size of the yard does have an effect on the likelyhood of sucess. My roo has never attacked anyone. In fact, my chickens are so friendly that when I try to walk my son's husky who would like to eat them,they come closer!! It could be because I give them treats all the time or because I pet them at night when I close them in the coop(even though they always have something to say about it)

  16. My ex had 6 left in his flock; they roosted on his porch every night. He would pick them up and carry them (!)to their coop every night. I was pretty amused, but after seeing one almost peck his eye out & cause swelling, I taught them to go ahead of me for the night to their roost. He was amazed; called me the "chicken whisperer." Eventually down to 4 roos, then 3, they roamed the yard peacefully together a long time. Finally down to 1, he was lonesome, so he now has 4 large hens in his harem; but 1 bosses HIM, & I keep thinking about the "crowing hens" saying...LOL--it's true U never know what they'll do next. Now I'm trying to teach them not to come in the house to eat the dog food, and strip the house plants like they live there!!! Replace the storm door, check!

  17. I have to add---as to the eating of the animals, my grandfather was a farmer all of his life, had a smokehouse, raised chickens, cattle, bees, crops...but when it came to slaughter time for the hogs, he would go to a closet inside his farmhouse & hide; he was a gentle soul & couldn't stand to be there when they were killed...also, one time when 2 little chicks were found dead & flat by my sisters, they put them between 2 slices of bread & asked him if he wanted a chicken sandwich!! He responded as he often did at extreme circumstances--"Great Gawd Almighty!"

  18. I too would like to know more about capons. I have found that the more space each rooster has the better they get along.

  19. I've heard of capons,...but that's about the extent of my knowledge. I will do some research and maybe do a future post.

  20. We raised chickens on the ranch years ago, so now I have them again. Thank you for your articular. Last year we hatched out some babies & decided to keep a rooster as we are running about 30. This rooster is about 7 months old now & his tail is still down on the ground. I have not seen this before, that I remember. The older rooster doesn't bother him but was wondering if he is just being submissive. He crows & us mounting the hens fine, so don't know why his tail is still down.

  21. What they do to a roo to turn him into a capon looks cruel to me. They actually make a slit under his wing and spread the rib cage and cut him. Sometimes it must be done on both sides. You can buy caponing kits.

    A capon rarely crows and grows much much larger. According to a book I read recently it said that a regular sized roo could get as large as a small turkey.

    I did not read anywhere where the bird was given any sort of painkillers during the procedure.

  22. Hi Jennifer.
    Your post is really interesting. But, is there a particular solution/ trick to avoid the fighting when introducing a rooster to another.
    Thank you.

  23. I have no problem eating the roos when they are ready, but i have roos that I don't want to eat, they are breeding roos and valuable to me. I do keep them together if they are raised together and there is no problem. When I integrate hens I do it in goups, so that i don't introduce one new hen at a time, in this way the whole group has to restructure it's pecking order and one bird doesn't get singled out for bullying. I was thinking of trying this with the roosters. Using a completely different coop than they are used to and just aggregating several groups of roos. Just wondering if anyone has experience in doing this.

  24. " That's one of the bittersweet things about raising chickens. It seems they're always changing. Sometimes it's exciting changes, like collecting your first egg ... and sometimes it's not-so-fun changes..." <----THIS sums up my week to a T. I've been keeping chickens for 10 years now and have never had a problem finding extra roos new homes, until now. I already have one bachelor flock going just fine, but wouldn't ya know, the problem is now with the other 3 guys I have ranging with my hens. It's SO frustrating! You think you have it all worked out and running smooth, then BAM, spring arrives and they think now would be a good time to act like raging fools. Yeesh. So glad I found your post, it's nice to know I'm not the only one who deals with the craziness of chickens. Great information and encouragement for the bewildered chook keeper. Thanks so much!


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