One of my favorite books of the last 10 years or so is Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation – I’d highly recommend it for anyone who works with animals!
One part that particularly interested me was her discussion of the evils of single-trait breeding and the monstrosities it has produced. Apparently in the process of breeding fast-growing birds with strong hearts and legs (to correct the earlier disaster of crippled hens who were always in pain), the breeders came up with a line of birds in which half of the roosters didn’t know how to do the mating dance. If the rooster doesn’t do the dance, the hen doesn’t crouch down and become receptive, so he has to chase her all over and mate with her by force. In Grandin’s example the roosters would slash the hens with their beaks and spurs, often killing them.
I assumed this only applied to one particular industrial breed of chicken, although Grandin doesn’t mention the breed. I had earlier spent some time on a homestead that had chickens, and had been surprised to see the roosters always chasing the hens, and the hens doing their best to get away from them. I concluded that hens just don’t like mating. After reading Grandin’s book I decided this probably was due to the aggressive rooster phenomenon she writes about.
Fast forward to 2015, when I began raising my own chickens. These were heritage breeds — Buckeyes and Icelandics. As the birds reached adolescence, I was surprised to see behavior similar to what I had observed on the other homestead: young cockerels grabbing young pullets and hanging on while the latter ran around screeching. Fortunately, in my case the cockerels weren’t actually harming the pullets, but they sure weren’t doing any mating dance either. Perhaps it was just a pubescent male thing, I thought — like middle-school boys harassing the heck out of middle-school girls.
I mentioned this to another homesteader, who told me that sometimes she would see one of her roosters walk around a hen doing a kind of dance and the hen crouch down for the rooster before mating occurred. She was interested to hear about the mating dance — she never knew they were actually supposed to do that!
Eventually — though they were still adolescents when I lost the entire flock to a predator — the pullets began to get used to the routine and would allow the cockerels to mount them without totally freaking out. But I still never witnessed anything like a mating dance. My new flock is still at least a couple of months from puberty, so it will be a while before I get to see any mating dances or receptive hens. I’m curious to know what’s the norm for other homestead chickens these days — especially with heritage breeds.