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The Mean Rooster Myth
The rooster bit me...
There is a scar on my elbow. It's an innocuous little thing--you wouldn't even notice it if I didn't point it out to you, but it tells the story of a brutal attack from a feral rooster that left me battered, bloodied, and with a very poor opinion of roosters. I was about three at the time, and as was my ritual, I had gone out to my grandpa's chicken pen to visit the birds. I liked to feed them tidbits of dandelion greens and grass through the fence, and they were eager to devour them. On this day however, there was a new chicken... A rooster was on the wrong side of the fence, and he was approaching me.
Now, of course, I was a three-year-old who had only had good experiences with chickens up to this point. I had no reason to suspect this rooster had any ill intent, so I offered him a dandelion leaf just like I would if he were any other chicken. He bit my finger--hard. I scolded him for his poor manners, and this apparently escalated the situation, because the next thing I remember is a rooster wrapped around my 3-year-old self, flogging and biting me as though I were the devil incarnate. I don't remember how I managed to get away from him, but I somehow did, and I stormed into my grandfather's farm house bloodied and indignant.
"Grandpa!" I declared, outraged and dripping with blood. "The rooster bit me!"
That's where my memories of the event come to an end, but my father tells me that my grandpa was reluctant to catch and deal with the feral rooster because that was "just how roosters are." My grandpa believed, as most people do, that roosters are just aggressive creatures by nature, and that it's pointless culling a mean one because they'll all be mean. I believed this too for many years, and because of that, I unfortunately tolerated behavior from my own roosters that was frankly unacceptable. It took a hero in white to teach me that I didn't have to put up with a roosters' bad attitude, and to teach me that a good rooster doesn't have to be human-aggressive to do his job.
The Myth About Roosters
The conventional wisdom states that a rooster who attacks people is just doing his job, trying to protect the flock from a perceived threat. As such, culling him for human-aggressive behavior would be punishing him for doing what he is supposed to do. This is the terrible myth about roosters--that they have to be people-aggressive to do their job and protect their flock. Because of this myth, people put themselves and their families at risk of serious bodily harm from aggressive roosters, believing that it's a necessary price to pay for the protection he provides to the hens.
The reality is, there is no correlation between a rooster's aggression towards people and his willingness to lay down his life in defense of the flock. When a rooster attacks a person, he isn't attacking a perceived threat to his flock's safety--he's attacking a perceived threat to his authority. He perceives humans not as caregivers or potential predators, but as fellow roosters that have to be beaten into submission to secure his status. A rooster who will beat human beings bloody will not necessarily demonstrate the same bravery when confronted with an actual predator, as I learned the hard way with our first rooster: Milton.
Milton was a terror. He started flogging us when he was still just a young cockerel, and we being the inexperienced chicken owners that we were, tolerated it. The attacks only became more savage, and when he actually started leaving the yard to terrorize the neighbors, we trapped him in a net and locked him in a dog crate until we could find someone willing to take him off of our hands. We had tolerated his abuses for over a year, thinking that he was just trying to protect his flock, but over the course of that time he had inexplicably survived numerous dog attacks and predator strikes unharmed while his hens were slaughtered.
It wasn't until Mars entered the picture that we realized how useless Milton truly was. While Milton greedily gobbled down treats, Mars called the hens over to eat them instead. While Milton circled us looking for an opportunity to strike, Mars would actually place himself between us and Milton to protect us from the aggressive rooster. The sight of a hawk flying overhead sent Milton running for cover, but Mars sounded the alarm and stood guard for his hens until the danger passed. Once Milton finally went too far and was removed from the picture, Mars stepped into the role of alpha rooster with grace and dignity, demonstrating to us how a good rooster should be.
Since then, I have raised hundreds of roosters, only two of which demonstrated aggression towards people, proving a.)that human-aggression is the exception, not the norm and b.)that human aggression is not necessary for a rooster to be a strong flock leader. But dispelling the myth about human-aggressive roosters is just the first step. How do you know if your rooster is a good rooster? How do you know he's truly bad? To find the answers, you have to understand chicken behavior, and how they have evolved to survive.
What Makes a "Good" Rooster?
So, now that we know that a rooster doesn't have to be "bad", what actually makes one "good"? For the answer to that question, you have to understand what natural behavior for a chicken actually is. It's important not to anthropomorphize chickens in our efforts to determine what makes a rooster "good" or "bad", so let's take a look at what natural behaviors for a healthy, well-adjusted rooster should actually be.
"Tidbitting" is a behavior good roosters do in which they call their hens (and even chicks) over to share in something tasty he just found. He will begin to cluck excitedly, bob his head, and point to the treat with his beak until the hens run over and take it. A truly devoted rooster will refuse to eat any of the "good stuff" himself if there is even the slightest chance a hen might want to eat it instead.
2. Mating with consent
This one may surprise even some experienced chicken owners, but it isn't necessary for a rooster to run down a hen and mate with her against her will. Prior to being domesticated by humans some 5,000 years ago, roosters never mated with unwilling hens. Courtship was fundamental to their existence, and hens were free to accept or reject any rooster as it suited them. As we began breeding chickens for production and favoring certain traits over all others, we essentially bred consent out of our roosters. We may not have deliberately bred courtship out of our roosters, but that was a side-effect of our other endeavors. Fortunately, the capacity to be a gentleman was not completely eradicated, and it still manifests in many roosters to varying degrees. A rooster who will court his hens and wait to be accepted before he tries to mate with them is a keeper for sure.
One important note: like most teenagers, young cockerels may have a difficult time controlling their new rush of hormones, so if your young fella seems to be a little too pushy with the ladies, give him some time to mature before deciding whether or not you want to keep him.
3. Scouting Nests
A more subtle practice of good roosters is when they scout out good nesting sites for their hens. If you ever catch your rooster in a nesting box, it's not that he's confused--he's checking out the real estate so he can suggest the best possible nesting local for his ladies. A rooster who has found a good spot to nest will nest in it himself and coo at his hens to draw their attention to it, then leave so that they can put it to use. He will then stand guard outside of the nest to make sure she is not disturbed.
4. Vigilant and Brave
Good roosters are watchful for potential threats to their flock's safety, and will sound an alarm to warn the flock if they see a predator approaching. If the threat proves to be sincere, the rooster will then confront the attacker, either driving it off or laying down his life to give his flock a chance to escape. Hopefully, your rooster won't have to sacrifice himself to prove how valuable he was, but you can observe how he responds to perceived threats to flock safety to get an idea of how seriously he takes his duties.
The Traits of "Bad" Roosters
There's more to bad behavior in a rooster than flogging his people, though that is often the most obvious sign you have a bad roo on your hands. How do you know if your rooster simply isn't worth the trouble to try to rehabilitate?
1. Greedy with the treats
Just as tidbitting is a sign of a good rooster, being greedy or stingy with the treats and feed is a sign of a bad one. If your rooster drives hens or youngsters away from the feed, then he is failing to demonstrate proper rooster behavior and won't take proper care of the flock.
2. Aggressive towards hens and juveniles
While it's normal for chickens to scuffle a bit and for roosters to fight a bit with each other, a rooster should never display aggression towards a hen, juvenile, or chick. Aggression demonstrated towards fellow roosters is to be expected--to a point. A good rooster will teach the lower-ranking roosters to respect him and then leave them alone. A bad rooster will bully the other chickens needlessly. Just like aggression towards humans, it's not necessary and not helpful to maintaining a happy, healthy flock.
3. Non-consensual mating
As explained earlier, a good rooster will seek consent from the hens before he tries to mate with her. Bad roosters, on the other hand, will run hens down, bully them into submission, and refuse to relent. Not only is this stressful for the hens, it can result in feather damage and even injury. To make matters worse, because the hen is used to being run down by overly-amorous roosters, she is more likely to confuse a charging predator for a rooster and squat for it rather than flee.
4. Human aggression
A rooster that demonstrates aggression towards people is not trying to protect his flock. He has identified human beings as fellow roosters, and is fighting them for dominance over the hens. Flogging is the most obvious sign of human aggression, but there are some warning signs before it comes to blows. If your rooster circles you with his head held close to the ground, occasionally picking up and dropping small twigs, pebbles, and other objects, then he is trying to intimidate you. Same goes for the "wing dance", when a rooster drops a wing and circles his target. Contrary to popular belief, this is not a form of courtship so much as an attempt to dominate. If the target responds like a hen, he will treat her like a hen, while if it acts like a submissive rooster, he will treat it as such. If his target fails to back down to his challenge, he sees it as an act of aggression.
What to Do With a Bad Roo?
Just like with people, roosters will have their own unique personalities. Most roosters will have faults of some kind, so it is up to you to decide if the good outweighs the bad, and if not, what to do about it. If you do decide you have a problem rooster, there are a few options for dealing with him:
- Isolation: Keep him penned up and out of harm's way
- Rehabilitation: Attempt to retrain him to have a better attitude
- Rehoming: Find him a flock better suited to his personality type
- Processing: Have him butchered for meat
If your rooster is valuable, such as an extremely rare breed or someone's pet, isolating him may be the best option for you. This way you can keep him without his behaviors putting him or others in danger. This is the best option if he is only aggressive towards specific individuals, or if he has other bad habits like running the hens ragged. It may not be adequate if he is truly aggressive, because if he escapes his confinement, he could cause serious harm to someone before he is caught.
Rehabilitation will work in some cases, and a simple search online will turn up countless articles of advice on how to rehabilitate a problem roo. In my personal experience however, I can teach an aggressive rooster to respect me, but I cannot teach him to respect others. This method will only work if he is aggressive to a specific individual, and that individual does the rehabilitation exercises with him. If the rooster is aggressive towards all humans, efforts to rehabilitate him may only mask his aggression, resulting in an unexpected attack later on when someone new enters the run.
Rehoming is a tricky matter, since you don't want to just pass your problems onto someone else, and there tend to be far fewer homes than there are roosters who need them. If you do decide to rehome, make sure the person acquiring your rooster is fully informed of his issues so that they know what they are getting themselves into. Believe it or not, there are people who want mean roosters, whether because they think they'll keep the flock safer or because they want a "guard chicken" to keep trespassers off of their property, so don't be shy about letting people know if your rooster is people aggressive.
Processing your rooster for meat is another option. Many chicken keepers jokingly refer to the crock pot as the "Aggressive Rooster Rehabilitation Program", because ultimately, most bad-tempered roos end up in the slow cooker. You can either attempt to process the bird yourself, or find a processor to handle the task for you. Either way, the problem will be dealt with, and you will have a nice, free-range bird for your next Sunday dinner.
One thing that is not an option in dealing with a problem rooster is to abandon it. Dumping your chicken in the country or a park is not only cruel to the animal, but may put other people in danger--as it did for me when I was three years old.
Ultimately, you will have to use your own best judgement on whether to cull, isolate, rehabilitate, or even just live with your rooster's behaviors. At the end of the day, it's your flock, and you make the choice on whether he stays or goes. As long as you know that you have the option and that you don't have to tolerate a bad attitude if you don't want to, you can handle the situation as you please, so long as no one is in physical danger from his behavior.
Just please, whatever you do, don't dump him at my grandpa's farm. I have enough scars!