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The Trouble with Roosters: How To Plan for Backyard Chickens
Are you prepared for surprise roosters? What decisions will you make if one of your chicks turns out to be a rooster?
No matter where you get your chicks, whether from a hatchery, feedstore, or home raised, half of all chickens are roosters. And this leads to some ethical and practical issues that you'll need to plan for.
So you're going to raise your own backyard chickens! You may have several reasons: to produce your own healthy food, or to raise your food humanely, or because chickens make entertaining and beautiful pets. Or because you want to be more self-sufficient, and able to grow some of your own food in an urban homestead.
You've pored over lovely books and articles, all telling you how easy, how simple it is to raise poultry in your backyard hobby farm and gather all the delicious eggs. And if you get one rooster, you can hatch your own chicks, too!
But are you ready for roosters? Read on!
Best Chicken Reference
Gail Damerow is a noted expert on keeping small-scale farm animals. Her advice is always practical and complete.
This book has all the information you need, from choosing breeds and hatching chicks to building coops and keeping the birds healthy and safe from predators.
Excellent chapters on butchering, cleaning, and storing the meat; preserving chicken health; managing laying hens; collecting and storing eggs; and building feeders and shelters. New chapters in this edition on training chickens and running a hobby farm.
So What's Wrong with Roosters?
The rooster question is something that new backyard chicken owners are often unprepared for. They are usually accustomed to mammals, which are easy to differentiate by sex when young, and whose males are easy to castrate. Neutered male dogs, cats, horses, and goats make fine pets or work animals, and the neutering isn't too difficult or expensive.
But chickens are birds, and birds are different.
If you order chicks by mail from a hatchery, you'll get new-hatched babies. You can specify the sex and order all hens. But sexing tiny chicks is a difficult art, and no one can guarantee that some boys won't slip in. Also if you get a free bonus chick, that will always be a cockerel (baby rooster). Why? Because the hatchery has way too many male chicks. Few people order them, and most of the cockerels are disposed of as soon as they are sexed.
So you get four or five chicks in your backyard suburban chicken coop, your kids give them names and lavish them with love, all is great. Until maybe one or more of them starts to crow...Then you have some decisions to make. Your potential problems are:
- It may not be legal to keep roosters in your area, due to the noise.
- Roosters are often quite aggressive to each other, and sometimes to humans.
- Birds can't be easily neutered - it's major surgery.
- Roosters and hens together may make more chickens than you can keep.
Then What Are Roosters Good For?
If you want to breed your own backyard chickens, a rooster is essential for every dozen or so hens. (They'll lay perfectly good eggs without him, just not fertile ones.)
Roosters help with the huge problem that everything wants to eat chickens. They watch out for trouble and sound an alarm to send the hens scurrying for cover. They'll attack predators, and sometimes drive them away, or at least buy time for the hens to escape. And as a bonus, they hunt for bugs and other goodies and call the hens over to eat first.
And roosters are beautiful! They look great strutting around the backyard, and sound great crowing (at least I think so - your neighbors may not!) If you want to get into showing chickens, you'll want some roosters.
There's also the growing fashion of keeping chickens as pets. If you train your rooster to be gentle, he can make a nice companion.
At the other end of the spectrum, roosters make good eating. Lots of people buy or raise mixed-sex flocks, keeping the hens for eggs and butchering the roosters for meat.
Coq au Vin Recipe
Coq au Vin ("Rooster in wine") is a modern version of an old recipe for cooking roosters. As mature roosters tend to be tougher and gamier than hens, they need to be stewed for a long time in flavorful broth. It's also a good way to cook an old laying hen.
Prep Time: 1/2 hour
Total Time: 7 1/2 hours
- 1 rooster plucked cleaned and jointed
- Salt & pepper to taste
- 3 T. flour
- 4 slices bacon chopped
- 3 T. butter or olive oil divided
- 3 carrots chopped
- 2 cloves garlic chopped
- 2 stalks celery chopped
- 2 cloves garlic chopped
- 1 c. chicken broth
- 3 c. red wine
- 2 tsp thyme
- 2 tsp parsley
- 8 oz mushrooms chopped
- Season both sides of chicken with salt and pepper. Lightly coat all over with flour.
- Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add bacon and cook until golden and just crisp, 3 minutes. Drain bacon on paper towels and set aside. Discard drippings and wipe out skillet. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in same skillet over medium high heat.
- Add chicken and cook until lightly browned all over, about 3 minutes per side. Transfer chicken to a large plate as done and set aside.Â
- Heat remaining 1 tablespoon butter or oil in same skillet. Add carrots, onions, celery, and garlic and cook until vegetables just begin to soften.
- Transfer vegetables and broth to crock pot. Arrange chicken on top. Sprinkle bacon over chicken. Add wine, parsley, and thyme.
- Cover and cook on low for 6 to 7 hours. Add mushrooms in last half hour. Season with salt and pepper.
- Serve over brown rice or egg noodles, with potatoes on the side.
How Can You Tell He's a Rooster?
Looking Like a Rooster
Cockerels and pullets (young roosters and hens) can be difficult to tell apart for several months. Cockerels will begin to develop a more upright posture, but they don't stay upright long enough for you to separate them, so you have to look at their physical details.
The young cockerels will start growing their rooster feathers at about 3-4 months. Their necks will become longer, with a ruff of long, thin feathers (the hackle feathers). Across the back, at the base of the tail, are the long, thin saddle feathers. The tailfeathers will grow out longer and more curved than a hen's sheaf of short, straight tailfeathers. In many breeds, the rooster's tailfeathers are pointed at the end, while a hen's are rounded.
The roosters' combs (on top of their heads) and wattles (those red things dangling under their beaks) will be larger and longer than a hen's of the same breed. The size and shape of combs and wattles vary a lot by breed, so you need to compare the birds in your flock to see the difference.
Acting Like a Rooster
After the rooster feathers make their appearance, a day will come when you hear a dreadful choking sound from the coop. When you rush out to perform a chicken Heimlich maneuver, you'll discover a cockerel trying to learn to crow. It will take him a few weeks to get the hang of it.
He'll begin to act like a rooster as he matures further. One distinctive sign is the "rooster dance", a cute little sideways shuffle with a dropped wing, that he dances around the hens and rival roosters to make them submit. If he does it to you, walk at him until he backs up. You don't want him deciding that you're a rival, because he's also growing big claws and spurs right now.
And finally, he'll start leaping on the pullets. The younger ones will scream and run away, but mature hens will often squat down. The rooster jumps with his full weight and claws onto the hen's back, which is why it's important to make sure that you have enough hens for each rooster. Overmated hens may have bare, even clawed backs, and may spend too much time hiding to even eat. These are signs that you definitely have a rooster problem.
Making Your Rooster Plan
Consider all the alternatives above, in light of your own means, morals, and level of squeamishness. Are you looking for a pet? Can you bear to kill (and eat) something you've raised? Can you bear to sell it to someone who's going to eat it?
One rooster per dozen or so hens is a good ratio for a flock guardian. If your hens are in an uncovered pen or free-ranging, he can be a life-saver. Your eggs will be fertile and the hens (if they're a breed that still broods) will exert all their wiles to raise some chicks. This is great if you want a sustainable flock!
If you want to try slaughter, Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens is an excellent resource. But if you plan to do that, tell the kids from the beginning and don't let them name the potential dinners!
If you want to sell or give away your excess roosters, advertise on Craigslist and local classified papers. Some people specify their roosters must be kept as pets, while most others don't ask questions. Decide ahead of time which camp you're going to be in.
Some people keep all their roosters in a bachelor pen for life, to keep them from overmating the hens. This is fine if you can afford it, but realize that you may have to separate them if they start fighting, and feeding all those separate birds is a lot of extra work.
Others keep them as pets, even as house pets. There are more avian vets these days, and lots of products you can buy for pet chickens. Just be aware that this option can be as expensive as you want it to be. Decide ahead of time how much you want to spend.
Training a Farm Rooster
Roosters come in a wide range of personalities. Some breeds are more likely to be aggressive than others, but since chickens have not been bred as pets, roosters of any breed may be aggressive towards humans. They instinctively attack perceived rivals and threats, and they sometimes aren't bright enough to know that the person who feeds them isn't either one.
If you just want him to keep his distance, you have to establish yourself as the Head Rooster, the one lesser roosters move aside for.
Training should begin as soon as you can tell you've got a young rooster. It's simple: never move aside for him, never back up. Don't fight, don't chase, don't kick him aside. There is never any reason to hurt your rooster! But stride confidently towards him until he backs up. Do this regularly, every day while he's growing up.
As he begins to mature, he may challenge you. This starts as a cute little dance, circling you with a funny shuffle and maybe a dropped wing. Don't laugh - if you stand still or back up, he'll be Head Rooster. Walk briskly towards him until he cuts it out and backs up.
I taught my own roosters to stay three feet away from me, so I never have to worry about bending over. I carried a stick or plastic bag with me and waggled it in their faces until they backed out of range. Done consistently, they learned to stay back from me, without being frightened.
If you have children, teach them to do this also, while the roosters are little. But don't let the kids chase them, as frightening them may cause an attack. The kids need to be calm and decisive. And don't leave small children unsupervised with the rooster - an excited rooster can leap two or three feet in the air, and leads with his sharp claws.
Training a Pet Rooster
If you want to keep the rooster as a pet, start picking him up and cuddling him while he's little. Carry him around under your arm. If he's hard to catch, get him after he's gone to roost and gotten sleepy. Feed him treats while you're holding him so that he comes to look forward to being held. Drop treats near your feet when you're sitting outside, to lure him closer.
This will give you a good outdoor pet or flock guardian. But many people now want more - they want an indoor chicken. Which presents an interesting problem, as chickens poop copiously wherever they happen to be standing. Folks use to cope with lots of towels on the furniture and Febreze. But now there is an alternative! Now there are chicken diapers!
Yes, chicken diapers. You can buy chicken diapers. In various colors and patterns. And then you can diaper your chicken.
And did you know that you can train him to do tricks? Yes, chickens can learn very elaborate tricks and routines, which is a big help if you want to keep them indoors.
Clicker Training a Chicken
What would you do if you ended up with a surprise rooster?
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© 2012 Valerie Proctor Davis