Story and photos by Jennifer Sartell of Iron Oak Farm
I am very pleased with the collection of roosters we have at the farm. They’re pleasant birds that get along nicely with one another. They’re gentle with our hens and I don’t have to worry about visitors approaching our roos. This hasn’t always been the case…sometimes you just get one that has a mean streak.
Rhode Island Red with Attitude!
In my early years of raising chickens I had a Rhode Island Red that would come at me with neck feathers flared, raise his feet and go at my calves with his sharp, dagger spurs. It was such a fast action as he reared up and beat at me with his inner legs several times before landing, getting his balance and going again. I soon learned to go to the coop with the protection of a large plastic leaf rake as a shield. But he was quick and could get around it. One day, he left me with a puncture wound so deep that I had to be on antibiotics for two weeks! This was before my “farmer” mind set…(if that’s what you want to call it) and I looked at my chickens ONLY as pets. Even though he was mean as the Dickens, it broke my heart when my father suggested we add him to the freezer. Now days I wouldn’t tolerate this behavior from a chicken. But back then, I was young and hopeful that he would learn to love me…yeah right!
Saving from the Stock Pot
In one last attempt to save Red (as we called him) from the stock pot, I bought a pair of tall rubber boots which protected my legs (somewhat) from his persistent attacks. Eventually he learned to hate the boots and would attack the boots in the same manner whether my legs were in them or not. Red eventually met his doom from a coyote attack, which in many ways, I was grateful to the coyote for making that difficult decision for me.
I was recently telling the story of Red to a friend who has kept chickens for over 40 years. He laughed at my “soft, newbie” decision to keep a mean rooster, and confirmed with my dad’s suggestion of adding him to Sunday’s supper after he laid into my calf with one of his spurs. Then he suggested something I hadn’t thought of.
“You could have trimmed his spurs.”
“Can you do that?” I asked.
Indeed you can! But there are a few things to consider.
When to Trim Spurs?
The spur is a pointed, rigid growth on the inner leg of a rooster and a hen. The hen’s spur only amounts to a small hard nubbin just under the skin. But the rooster’s spur grows much longer than the hen’s. It has an inner layer the “quick” which supplies blood flow and an outer layer which is hard like a finger nail.
There are some things to consider when dealing or not dealing with spurs. Roosters have spurs to protect themselves and their hens against predators or other competing roosters. If they are removed, the rooster looses a natural defense which may or may not be an issue for you and your flock set up. Most of the time a rooster’s spurs will not cause any problems if left alone.
However, there are times when spur removal is appropriate. The spurs will continue to grow as the rooster ages and can become quite long and sharp. Even if you have a gentle rooster, sometimes while mating, he can slide down the hen’s back and cut her with his spurs. I’ve also noticed that some roosters have an odd angle in the way the spurs grow from the leg, this can also cause injury to your hens. Inspect your hens often for feather loss or wounds on their sides especially in the springtime when mating increases and multiple roosters tend to be a little more competitive. Or, be proactive and consider removing the spurs before your hens incur injury. (Suggested methods below)
An Aggressive Rooster
This could be the subject of a whole new post, but as suggested to me above with my rooster Red, a roosters spurs can be removed if he shows aggression. However, while my friend was trying to be helpful, in my experience, an aggressive rooster is dangerous regardless of his spurs.
Let’s talk a bit about an aggressive rooster vs. a rooster showing normal pecking order behavior. There is a notable difference between aggressive behavior in a rooster and a mere squabble like a peck on the head at the food dish, or a signal to tell someone they’re out of line. A true aggressive rooster is relentless and will attack persistently. The body language is unmistakable. Usually the feathers on the neck flare, the head goes down in “charge” mode and then the body is flipped forward and the legs pound the victim like a drum while supported with flapping wings. This behavior should not be tolerated whether it’s toward another rooster or a human. In the early stages, watch for body language like trying to “round you” up with the flock, or a lowered stance like the one mentioned above. Many times the rooster will drop his wing and dance around you, sizing you up. There might be a few false “runs” where he might charge but then get confused as he approaches. These are signs that the rooster is testing you to see if you are a threat. This behavior should be monitored and small children should not be allowed around a rooster who acts in this way. Sadly, it is next to impossible to correct this behavior once it starts and usually it will only escalate. If any of our readers have suggestions that have helped them deal with a mean rooster I would love to hear from you!
Rooster that are aggressive with only other roosters can still prove to be nice chickens to humans as long as the roosters are separated from each other. For more on keeping multiple roosters read my post Keeping Roosters Together.
If you decide to remove the spurs on your rooster there are a few methods to choose from. Some better than others. Always have cornstarch or a styptic powder on hand in case of accidental bleeding. An antibiotic wound spray like Vetericyn is also handy. If bleeding does occur, treat with a wound spray or salve (appropriate for chickens, do not use salves with numbing agents as these are toxic to birds) and apply cornstarch or styptic powder with pressure until the bleeding stops.
Hot Potato Method
This is the method that my friend told me about. You cut a potato in half and microwave it on high till it’s too hot to touch. (About 5 minutes) Use a towel or hot pad to handle the potato. Hold the rooster firm under your arm, and pierce the spur through the hot potato (being careful not to get too close to the leg) and hold it there as long as the bird will let you or until the potato starts to cool. The moisture and heat from the potato will penetrate the dry sharp layers of the spur and cause them to soften. The sharp spur will fall off in a day or two or can be coaxed off with a twisting motion by hand or with pliers. If it doesn’t want to give easily, apply the potato again. Eventually the process may need to be repeated as the spur will grow back over the years.
File or Rotary Tool
Spurs can also be filed so that the sharp end is more blunt. This method removes a little at a time but is a slower, safer way than cutting. Hold the rooster under your arm and sand the spur 1/8th of an inch at a time. You can do this with a file or a rotary tool fitted with a sanding disk. You can repeat the sessions every few days as the outer layer will harden and the quick (the inner layer with blood flow) will recede allowing you to cut more off each time.
Clipping with a Saw or Nail Clippers
Personally I don’t recommend this method, though it seems to be the most commonly used. This is where the tip of the spur is clipped with guillotine style nail clippers or sawn off with a hand saw. This is perhaps the most dangerous method as it is hard to tell where the quick begins on a spur and you run the risk of cutting into the blood supply, which if not treated can cause infection and/or death. Not to mention it would be extremely painful for the rooster if done incorrectly. Many people said that the nail clippers can cause the spur to shatter and split into the quick area. Hmmm… and the idea of using a saw on an animated animal like a chicken seems like a risky venture.
Do you have a tried and true way of dealing with rooster spurs? We’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or visit the Community Chickens Facebook page.