Raising Roosters and Hens
By Pam Freeman
Learn all about raising backyard chickens from small beginnings with chicks and eggs to identifying problems within backyard flocks and how to fix them in Pam Freeman’s Backyard Chickens Beyond the Basics (Voyageur Press, 2017). Freeman’s practical advice makes chicken keeping easier with these guidelines. The following excerpt is from Chapter 3, “Life with a Rooster.”
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Flock Dynamics with a Rooster
If you’ve never had a rooster in your flock, you’ll find the dynamics change when a rooster is added. Hens that looked up to you and squatted as you walked in the yard will no longer pay as much attention to you. They now have a rooster instead of a human leader. But it’s not all bad.
People make roosters out to be horrible, yet there are actually pros and cons. Let’s take a look at both.
Protection: When your flock is without a rooster, usually there’s a lead hen that will take over guard duty. However, there’s nothing like a good rooster. You’ll find that a rooster who takes protection seriously will always have an eye or ear on alert for predators. If something is near that a rooster doesn’t like, he will gather his hens in a safe, protected spot. If some of his hens have wandered and he’s not close to them, he will sound an alarm by calling loudly. Once you’ve heard this call, you’ll recognize it every time. If all else fails, he will fight even to the death to protect his hens.
Tip: If you have more than one rooster, make sure the steadfast protector is allowed to lead the flock. Sometimes this means separating roosters, but in the end it’s better for your flock to have good protection. Just don’t always assume the biggest, prettiest rooster is going to be your best protector. That’s not always the case.
Mediation: We talked about chickens not getting along in the last chapter. Well, roosters are great to have around when hens squabble! They don’t like discord within the ranks, so they will mediate disagreements between the flock members and keep the peace in general.
Reproduction: If you don’t want to rely on hatcheries, you’ve got to have fertilized eggs to expand your flock. That means you’ve got to have a rooster if growing your flock size is a goal. Also, in flocks that have roosters, the pullets tend to mature and lay eggs faster than in flocks that don’t have roosters.
Foraging: Roosters are all about their genetic destiny and the only way to ensure that legacy is by having a group of hens healthy enough to lay eggs and raise the young. This means roosters will spend large amounts of time ferreting out the best treats in your coop or yard. They will then signal the hens that they’ve found something and let the hens eat first.
Noise: Roosters are loud and they don’t just crow in the morning. They will crow to each other if you have more than one. They will crow if they feel threatened or hear other noises. They will crow all day! Noise is definitely a consideration.
Neighbors and Legal Issues: Many neighbor-hoods don’t allow roosters. Even if they do allow them, it’s always a good idea to consider your neighbors. While you may not find a rooster crowing offensive or disruptive, others might. So make sure everyone within earshot is on board before adding a rooster.
Fertilized Eggs: A fertilized egg has the ability to become a chicken, but a chicken is not formed until the egg is incubated. I can tell you fertilized eggs don’t taste different and they don’t have a chicken inside. Still, some people will not eat fertilized eggs.
Aggressive Behavior: Some roosters can become highly aggressive and can cause injury to pets and people. This behavior doesn’t normally present itself until roosters mature and their hormones are raging. You may be able to tame this aggressive behavior by showing your rooster who is boss. But if not, it’s good to have plans for your mean rooster. Many people will choose to re-home their roosters or eat them.
Before we talk about the actual mating process, it’s important to understand a rooster’s reproductive system. Roosters do not have a penis or external reproductive organs. Their sperm are viable at body temperature, unlike humans, so everything is housed in their body. Roosters have two bean shaped testes, which are located in front of their kidneys. The testes produce testosterone and sperm on a regular basis. Since a rooster’s reproductive system is influenced by lighting just like a hen’s system, the testes shrink and grow seasonally. Deferent ducts carry sperm on a trip that takes one to four days, to a storage area in the cloaca where there is a small papilla, or bump, that is the mating organ.
When chickens mate it’s quite a sight, both comical as the rooster dances and violent looking during the actual mating. Roosters spend their days trying to impress their hens; they’ll tidbit to show hens the best treats in the yard and find the ideal sun bathing spots for the hens. If a rooster wants to mate, he will woo his hen of choice by lowering his head and puffing all his beautiful decorative feathers. (This is the reason for those hackle and saddle feathers.) Then he drops a wing and dances with little hops back and forth.
Hens are very specific when they’re looking for a mate. Here are the qualities they find most attractive. They look for large, bright red combs with tall points, evenly formed wattles and big spurs. This makes sense because these are all indications of a healthy bird that can carry on a strong genetic line. Interestingly, feather color matters little.
If a hen is receptive she will crouch or squat to let the rooster know. The rooster grabs her head and neck with his beak and then stands on her back. He uses a walking or shuffling motion, called treading, on her back to maintain balance. The rooster sweeps his tail to move her tail feathers to the side. Since roosters don’t have external sex organs, the act of mating is just the touching of cloaca, sometimes referred to as a cloacal kiss. At this time, the hen everts her cloaca so the rooster’s sperm has a better chance of making its way up her oviduct.
Fun Fact: Even in a flock without a rooster, hens will crouch or squat to indicate they are ready to mate and are submissive. This often happens when you walk up to a hen in the chicken yard. And with young hens, it’s a good indicator they are mature enough to lay eggs.
Mating itself doesn’t hurt a hen, but hens can suffer injuries from the process. Some roosters are a little too heavy for the hen and this can cause leg injuries. A rooster’s spurs can cause cuts on a hen’s back and sides as well. A common injury is the loss of back and wing feathers from treading. To make sure your hens don’t get injured from too much of a rooster’s attention, start by maintaining a safe ratio. Ten to twelve hens to one rooster is a good ratio to maintain, on average. The goal here is to have enough hens so a rooster’s attention is distributed evenly and no one hen is hurt being overly mated. Yet even with enough hens, I find that roosters have their favorites. You’ll soon find certain chickens with their backs or wing areas becoming bare. You can fit those hens with a saddle to prevent further damage and let feathers grow back unmolested.
Tip: Hens may not like their saddle at first. Some may not tolerate a saddle at all. However, I find most get used to it after a day or so and then resume normal activities.
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Reprinted with permission from Backyard Chickens Beyond the Basics by Pam Freeman and published by Voyageur Press, 2017.
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