Adding a cockerel (rooster) to your existing flock of hens is one of those things where you'll find almost as many different opinions as there are chicken breeds! It's a passionate subject, and one that I had the opportunity to delve into recently.
In the fall of 2010, a post came across our local Freecycle group looking for a home for a beautiful young Buff Orpington rooster. He'd been part of a larger flock that included a number of roosters, most of whom had ended up in the stew pot - save for this guy, and his infinitely more aggressive coop-mate. At the time, I seriously considered bringing him home, to the point of contacting the owner and making arrangements to go out for an introduction.
But things just didn't gel and we never did make it out to the farm to see him.
Then a couple of months later, the post came over Freecycle again. He was still looking for a home. And my research background kicked into high gear.
I spent an entire day, maybe two, researching rooster behaviour, flock behaviour and the best way to introduce a rooster to an existing group of hens. Visited probably 20 different websites and forums - all with really valid and experienced advice on the best way to accomplish the task successfully (and safely for all involved). But the best wisdom came from our Facebook page - I can't thank everyone there enough! (If you haven't had a chance to join us there, do! We've got a fantastic group of people from all walks of life and stages of 'self-sufficiency' - newbies, will-be's, and incredibly experienced folk: facebook.com/modernhomesteading).
After a number of questions and a lot of reading, we decided to take the plunge.
I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't a bit nervous. In my research, I'd come across some horror stories of roosters who were way too aggressive for the hens, and hens that literally 'hen-pecked' their new gentleman caller til he had to be removed to save his life. Life with chickens isn't always pretty. But I decided to swallow that fear and take the plunge into the world of roosters and having an intact flock of birds living as nature intended. Well, sort of like nature intended - as much as can be realistically recreated in a backyard type arrangement.
Why Have a Rooster?
There are numerous reasons to have a rooster as part of your flock. Some people thought we were crazy for wanting to bring a rooster on board, and many others were excited for us as we took this further step towards 'self-reliance'.
These are the reasons we wanted a rooster:
- After losing a hen to a coyote because she wandered far away from the flock, we thought having a rooster to keep the girls 'rounded up' would be advantageous.
- A good rooster will apparently throw himself between the hens and a predator, essentially sacrificing himself for the good of the flock. Not that I want to sacrifice our gorgeous guy, but hens are a big time and sometimes financial investment - losing just one is a big deal (at least to me). And roosters are just tougher, generally speaking.
- Once a good rooster is present, the hens can settle into more of a relaxed state because they no longer have to be hyper-vigilant about keeping an eye out for predators. They've got someone else to do that job now. Not that we want them to get totally complacent, but having them not beating each other up on a regular basis was a definite plus in our eyes.
- We plan to renew our flock with a few new chicks every year - this way, the flock becomes self-sustaining to a degree. I do need to do more research in this regard as to how the genetics work after the first year (we're still new at this), but for 2012, we now have that capacity.
- There's just something about a rooster on a homestead. Many people can't stand the sound of a rooster's crowing, but I love it. (Yes, even at 4:30 a.m.)
How We Did It
Now, after assessing all the pros and cons and determining our reasons for wanting a rooster were valid and reasonable, here are the steps we took to introduce our 'Tom Wattles' successfully to our girls:
- Determine a Good Fit: First off, the rooster in question had to be a good fit for our existing flock of hens - and for our family. In this case, we knew he wasn't overly aggressive (he'd lost the battle with is coop-mate), had a gentle disposition, and was slightly older than our 14 hens (they were 7 months at the time, he was 9). I'd read that younger roosters can be ripped to shreds if introduced to older hens, especially if the rooster is on the docile end of the spectrum, so it was important to me that any rooster we brought into the flock was able to hold his own and exert dominance without being overly aggressive). The breed mattered as well - Buff Orpingtons are known as a more 'personable' breed, so that fed into our decision as well, as my son does a lot of our chicken care, and it was important to me that the rooster was gentle and not aggressive to children especially, but to humans in general. Also, when we visited him at his original home, it was clear he was well cared for and healthy. We were able to get a full history on his health and behaviour, which allowed us to determine if he was a good fit. We decided he was perfect!
- The First Night: We brought him home that first day in a big cardboard box in the back seat of the car. The whole process was pretty calm. He was super gentle and allowed my son to collect him out of the box to transfer him to his temporary quarantine pen inside my son's 'fort'. We provided him with a bit of scratch and a dish of water, as well as a towel covering up the tarp we'd put on the floor. Not ideal, probably, but he was safe for his first night with us. Hearing him crow that next morning was so wonderful!
- Quarantine: In my research, I'd read many experienced people making it very clear that quarantine of new birds was absolutely essential. The advice went from 72 hours to assess disease to 30 days of isolation from the existing flock. We decided on something to the lower end of the scale, mostly because we didn't have a secure 'extra' coop to house him in for 30 days. He stayed in my son's fort (the only other place on the property that is secure from weasels) for 5 nights, and was moved to our portable run during the day. We located the portable run about 50 feet from the coop and run where the girls were and they spent 5 days eyeballing each other across the lawn... or rather what's left of the lawn now that the chickens have had their way with it for the last few months! This went really well, even through a coyote ambush where our new guy got his first taste of life in our little hollow - including a few lost tail feathers. He definitely knows what to look for now!
- Checking for Disease and/or Mites: The quarantine period allows us to watch our new bird for any signs of illness - runny 'nose', sneezing, droopiness, etc., as well as checking him for mites. I was pretty sure he didn't have any of these things, but I'm glad we took that time. Some more cautious chicken-raisers warned that some illnesses don't show up in a few days, but rather a few weeks - and that anything less than a 30 day quarantine is asking for trouble. This may absolutely be true in many cases. But in our case, we visited the flock that this guy came from, and I trusted the owners when they said that the flock was not ill and had not been ill and showed no signs of illness of any kind. Sure, some illnesses don't show signs right away, but their birds aren't located near any other flocks, and while yes, I'm sure there was a chance of something 'getting through', I was comfortable in what my research had turned up and in our decision. So we watched him closely, gave him two dust baths with diatomaceous earth (which was a bit of a challenge, but I think it worked), and planned the big introduction.
- Introductions: On Day 6, we decided it was time to get these birds all together. So on the advice of numerous experts, we waited til nightfall, carried 'Tom' into the coop when all the girls had taken to their roosts for the night, and popped him up on a roost by himself (across from the others). Then we waited. It was fascinating - first of all, he looked a bit flummoxed by the whole thing, like he couldn't believe his good fortune... all those girls!! (Yes, I'm anthropomorphizing, but it's hard not to). Then came all the calls and sounds we'd never heard the hens make. After 10 minutes or so, we locked up the coop for the night and crossed our fingers that when we came out in the morning, we wouldn't find a rooster massacre.
- Monitoring: The next morning it was like he had never not been there - just like everyone said would be the case. We monitored them over the next few days, ensuring there wasn't going to be any bloodletting by the hens, but everything was pretty sedate - save for the first day when one of the hens decided she wasn't having anything to do with him, and expressed her displeasure by taking a swipe at his comb and wattles (to the point of blood - it was a bit of a mess... but we cleaned him up and all was well). We watched the dominant hens settle down into a new, more relaxed state (there was less fighting among them and less picking on the lower-level hens), and all seemed well. We did this for 4 days to allow for the rooster to get used to the idea that the coop and run was 'home', and to cement his role as the dominant member of the flock. And then we let them out to range late one afternoon
It was quite the process, and I'm grateful to everyone who shared their expertise on the subject. Here's a video of them all together that first day:
Now, three weeks later, we've seen that Tom is quite the gentleman, collecting food for his first harem and proudly caring for them when they're free ranging. He's not overly aggressive when it comes to mating, and seems to have settled into his role as the protector of the flock. All in all, a great experience! If we hadn't done our research, the outcome could have been very different. You can check out our chicken videos for updates about Tom Wattles and his girls...
Have you ever introduced a rooster to an existing flock of chickens? How did it go? We'd love to hear any advice you have to share in the comments below.