Bruce and Elaine Ingram share their tips and tricks for understanding and managing roosters.
Over the years, my wife, Elaine, and I have typically possessed two or three roosters holding forth in a pair of pens that adjoin each other. Some cocks have tolerated each other, others have not, and some have forged their own particular kind of relationship. If you plan to include roosters in your backyard flock, an understanding of their dynamics will hopefully help you have a more harmonious flock, as well as give you sires for chicks.
Regarding those dynamics, Boss and Johnny, for example, were two heritage Rhode Island Red males who arrived as 2-day-old chicks. From the beginning, Boss was the clear alpha, and although he did not bully Johnny, lines existed that the latter dare not cross. The most obvious was that Johnny was never allowed to mate; and any time he attempted to do so, Boss was Johnny-on-the-spot (pun intended) to put an end to any such nonsense.
The most interesting part of their relationship, though, was that Johnny never crowed while inside the pen. Had Johnny once, unseen by Elaine or me, attempted to crow and been thrashed? This was impossible to answer, of course, but Johnny was “allowed” to crow while outside in the yard.
In the evenings when we let out our flock out to graze in the yard, Elaine typically sits on the stoop to watch over the proceedings. One day, Johnny strolled over to her, parked himself on her left side, and began nonstop crowing. Boss immediately ran to the stoop, positioned himself on my wife’s right side, and initiated his own unending crowing.
From then forward, this was the pattern of the evening foraging: dueling cocks crowing, with my wife in between them. We speculated that Johnny felt protected by Elaine’s presence, and we guessed that Boss perched there to present the case that he remained the alpha male – Johnny’s vocal outbursts notwithstanding.
A year or so later, Boss must have fallen ill from some malady, as one morning I found Johnny standing over him, pecking and flogging him. I removed Boss from his flock, and he died the next day. When it comes to the pecking order, you will likely find that some roosters are merciless in advancing through the ranks, as Johnny was that day.
Why Roosters Rumble
Christine Haxton of Troutville, Virginia, raises some five dozen chickens, 14 of which are roosters. She admits to a fascination for the males.
“I love roosters,” she says. “They have far more personality than hens do, which make them much more interesting to be around and to observe.”
Three Reasons for Brawling
From those observations, Haxton believes roosters brawl for three reasons. Obviously, two of the reasons they fight are for dominance and for hens, she says. The males begin their pugnacious displays when they’re just a few weeks old. It’s all part of the sorting process and establishing a pecking order. Sometimes, these battles involve simple staring contests, other times chest bumping, and occasionally flying leaps at each other accompanied by pecks. A chicken run with four or five 2-month old cockerels is a dysfunctional place.
As a school teacher, I would describe it as a cafeteria populated by only 12-year-old males engaged in a never-ending food fight. By the time cockerels (roosters less than a year old) are five or six months old, they are ready to mate. By then, the run’s pecking order has most likely been established, and the brawling has largely stopped. Of course, by that time, Elaine and I have usually given away or cooked the cockerels we don’t want to become the next generation leader of a flock.
The third reason Haxton says roosters may fight is to establish or defend territory. That’s why roos crow when distant cocks sound off. Basically, each crowing male is saying, “I’m in charge here, and you’re not.”
“A really good rooster will even crow when a stranger walks or drives down your driveway,” Haxton says. “I believe what they are communicating is, ‘This is my yard. Get out of here.’ Most of my roosters are very docile and sweet around my family and me. But they have a change of temperament when someone visits.
“One of my roosters will even walk up to strangers when they leave their cars and follow them. He has never attacked anybody, and I don’t think he would. What he seems to be saying, though, is, ‘I’ve got my eye on you, so watch it, buster.’”
I’ve noticed the same behavior at our house. Don, our 4-year-old heritage Rhode Island Red rooster, begins crowing any time someone drives or walks down our driveway. If he spots Elaine or me or our car, the outburst ceases. If the individual or car is unknown, the intensity of the crowing increases once he makes visual contact. This territorial instinct is why both Haxton and I believe that roosters make excellent watchdogs.
How Many Hens?
Haxton maintains that a rooster can easily serve 10 or so hens, and she says that is a good ratio as well. Healthy males can often mate two dozen or more times per day. If a rooster, say, only has four or five hens in a pen, he may abrade several hens’ backs because of his constant mounting of them. The Virginia chicken enthusiast adds that some hens seem to be preferred targets either because they are more willing than others to submit to mating or because these females may not be as good at avoiding a roo’s advances.
For example, Haxton has one hen that is exceptionally skillful at avoiding mating.
“She almost always remains in the henhouse long after everybody else has gone out,” Haxton says. “Most roosters want to mate as soon as they come out of the coop in the morning, so that hen avoids the intense chasing and sexual displays that go on every morning.
“Once she does come out, she always seems to be keeping her eye on the rooster, and if he even walks in her direction, she moves somewhere else. If the rooster does try to mount her, she immediately runs back into the henhouse.”
From Elaine’s and my experience, a ratio of 5 to 7 hens to one rooster will work, though it is not as ideal as the 10 to one ratio is, especially if a cock is under two years old. For instance, Don still mates a dozen or more times a day, mostly in the evenings. In the morning, Don makes a few half-hearted attempts at mounting, then turns his attention to eating and to the rooster in the adjoining pen, Friday, his one-year-old offspring. Friday easily sexually performs twice as much as Don does. That’s a major reason why Don only has five hens while Friday has eight in his pen.
How Adult Roosters Sort Things Out
How do adult rooster sort through the whole dynamics issue? That depends on a number of things, including the temperaments of the individuals involved. Carrie Shinsky of Meyer Hatchery weighs in on this topic.
“Roosters that are raised together will usually have their dominance sorted out, but you have to watch for the less dominant bird being beaten up,” she says. “They need to have space to have their own harems and territory or at least room to get away from each other if they do get harassed.”
Of course, sometimes the proverbial bad blood exists between roosters that were raised together. For example, Orville and Oscar were two heritage Buff Orpingtons that dwelled in the same pen and it was a disaster, even though they had lived together their entire lives. Oscar was a testosterone-fueled misfit from the day we watched him hatch. On his first day out of the egg, he performed the mating dance for a chick that was just a few hours old. The poor, little pullet was still trying to gain her footing while Oscar was doing the rooster half shuffle around her.
Oscar’s aggressiveness only increased as he grew older. He chased and pecked Orville at all hours of the day, and if the latter even came near a hen, the former attacked. Those transgressions were bad enough, but what turned Orville into Sunday lunch one day was when he started trying to mate with hens while they were within their nesting boxes and attempting to lay eggs. The hens were just as terrified of Oscar as Orville was, and a cock like that simply must be removed from a flock.
On the other hand, Don and his brother Roger were hatched and raised together, never fought and co-existed very well. But it was clear that Don was the alpha and would do all the mating. Later, we gave Roger to our daughter Sarah when she started raising chickens.
If you raise separate flocks in adjoining runs, you can expect daily sparring to take place between your roosters. After I dispatched Oscar, Orville would meet Don at the middle post between the runs for daily, morning battles. Whichever cock was released from his coop first would immediately run to the pole and await for his adversary to arrive.
Once both combatants were in position, they would stare at each other for a while, bob their heads up and down, pace back and forth in tandem, and then eventually launch their bodies against each other. These displays usually continued for some 15 minutes until it was time for both males to eat and/or mate with their respective hens. The epic “meet me at the pole” battles continued until Elaine and I gave away Orville when we decided to just raise Rhode Island Reds.
The next rooster to live adjacent to Don was Al, whose mêlées eventually caused us to put a layer of green, plastic fencing (in addition to the wire fencing) between the runs. Al simply never learned that Don was bigger and a better brawler than he was. One day when I left for my job as a school teacher, they were still fighting long after the typical “15-minute daily warmup” skirmish should have ended most hostilities for the day. When I arrived home that afternoon, a dazed Al was sitting in a puddle of his own blood, cuts across his body. I examined Don and he had one small scratch on one toe. An extra layer of fencing can help insure that your roosters don’t harm each other.
Like Christine, Elaine and I are big fans of roosters. Chances are that you will enjoy their antics, personalities, and guard dog traits just as much as we do.
Bruce Ingram is a freelance writer/photographer and author of 10 books, including Living the Locavore Lifestyle (a book on living off the land) and a four-book young adult fiction series on high school life. To order, contact him at BruceIngramOutdoors@Gmail.com. To learn more, go to his website or visit his Facebook page.