When our first flock was 16 weeks old, I thought I’d made a huge mistake intentionally raising a rooster. The nasty Yeti named Rooster Cogburn had just injured a couple pullets (baby hens) and had started pecking me, too. Hard.
Weeks before, he was a sweet lap chicken. Now Donna was missing the tip of her comb, and Miss Eula’s bell was rung so hard it apparently impacted her crop. Cogburn was dangerous.
His behavior was worst in the coop where the pullets couldn’t get away, so even as I fed Eula olive oil and massaged her neck (her crop went down in a couple hours, thank goodness), Chris was building us a separate coop, later dubbed, “Cogburn’s Cabin for Angry Birds.” We separated Cogburn into the cabin to plan our next move.
When we planned our first flock, we had the farmers co-op order a male Brahma for us. Brahmas are labeled a “docile” breed, and roosters are supposed to protect the flock and keep the peace among the hens. Ours was causing more chaos than he prevented. If he were going to be this aggressive, could we keep him? I dove into research to figure out what we were missing.
Why So Angry, Bird?
First of all, contrary to what we’d heard, Brahma boys aren’t necessarily more docile than other roosters. Secondly, experienced people often avoid adding roosters until their hens are old enough to stand up for themselves. Females mature more slowly than males, so a flock the same age will experience all kinds of disconnects during puberty that set the stage for a cockerel to turn into a bully. Older hens are less afraid to put roosters in check and teach them to be civil.
There’s a consensus that the easiest way to end up with an aggressive rooster is to hand-raise it around chickens its own age <–exactly what I did. Doh.
The most helpful thing I learned is a rooster’s reason for being is to further his genes. This explains everything. He’ll do anything to protect his family.
Roosters can be silly and curious with no hens around, but if they have a flock or an opportunity to grow one, biology will take over, and you can expect zero sense of humor. Serious rooster face:
The slightest perceived interference can freak him out and cause static, like attacks on people and flockmates.
Humans interfere with rooster goals in many more ways than we’ll ever know. We’re always stomping past the invisible lines roosters draw to protect their flock. It’s easy for roosters to view even the kindest of humans as threats. Nature of the beast.
Removing our beast from the ladies’ coop worked wonders to calm everyone’s nerves. I worried he’d be depressed if he were totally isolated, so we let him forage with the flock during the day. That worked, too. The pullets easily eluded Cogburn in the yard when he got beaky. Chicken-on-chicken injuries stopped immediately, and peace began to come over the flock again.
The real change happened 3 weeks later when some of the pullets started laying eggs. The layers were suddenly actively seeking Cogburn’s company, foraging and dustbathing with him instead of giving him wide berth. Cogburn responded by taking on the role he was born to play: protector and leader. Rooster regret turned to fascination.
Misunderstood, Magical Male Chickens
Rooster stories are usually about 4 a.m. crowing or being attacked on the head as a child. Roosters are bossy, touchy, feathered bulls. It’s not surprising most of us don’t realize how hard they work.
Some days, I lift Cogburn up, and he’s so light I separate him from the pullets so he’ll eat, because he won’t eat in front of the flock. He has the weight of the flock on his shoulders even though he’s a growing chicken like everybirdy else. Both of our cockerels, including the little Easter Egger Stilton, have been willing to put themselves in harm’s way to round up their flockmates when there’s a threat like a low-flying hawk. Cogburn regularly hustles the pullets under cover and bakaws to alert us that something scary is approaching, like when a daytime raccoon came out of woods to case the the chicken yard.
Protection is one of the biggest reasons we thought a rooster was a good idea. We’re learning there are plenty of lesser-known behaviors that make roosters amazing.
I’d heard about this before owning a rooster, but seeing it in person is astonishing. Roosters comb the yard all day for treats to share. When they find tasty bites, they pick them up and drop them over and over while calling to the hens.
Cogburn will pick up and drop even his most favorite treats, saying, “Chook, chook, chook” until a hen comes running to see what he has. The louder the “chooks,” the more incredible the treat.
You can see how badly he wants the sweet corn. Instead, he tossed the cob to the pullets and waited until they were finished to peck at the last straggly kernels for himself. Researchers say this makes him more attractive and ensures his flock has the nutrients to make strong successors.
I love finding creative ways to sneak him treats to share to make his hens happy. Happy hens = happy rooster = happy chicken tender (that’s me).
I had no idea all the ways roosters assist hens when it comes to laying, but it makes sense. Hens who feel calm and secure can lay more robust eggs.
When a beginner layer is ready to lay an egg, she might wander around for hours figuring out where to do that. She’ll settle into a nesting box, rearrange the wood chips and turn in circles to get comfy, only to hop up, go for a drink of water, then go to another nesting box and do the same thing.
What’s amazing is Cogburn will be right there with her. Here he is auditioning nests. Eula’s off camera, watching him closely. It’s like they’re shopping for furniture.
He makes a “chook chook chook” similar to when he has treats, calling the pullet over to see if the nest is cool. Honestly, the girls will act interested but rarely choose the nests he likes. You kind of wonder if they’re still mad at him for his bad behavior back when they were 16 weeks old.
Guarding the Laying Hen
If you enter the chicken yard when someone is laying an egg, it’s best not to turn your back on Cogburn, as you may receive a peck on your shoe. He keeps close watch on the coop.
Here’s a video from Peep’s first week laying, before she decided to try the nesting boxes. Cogburn was right outside, but when he realized how close I was, he came in to give me the rooster eye.
I appreciate the protection he’s offering them, so when someone’s laying, I stay out of the yard or try to be inconspicuous. He won’t chase me off, but he’s touchier when there’s a lady “setting.”
Making the Egg Call
Contrary to popular belief, it’s often Cogburn, not the hens, who sounds the BAKAWWW when an egg is laid. This was especially true with the first eggs. He stalked around the coop bakawing and crowing while the pullet stood up, stretched, sipped water, and waddled out to forage with the flock.
Cogburn usually bakaws to repel hawks, raccoons, butterflies, and airplanes, so we thought something was wrong the first time he went off in the coop like a crazy bird. When Chris and I peered in, Peep was just standing up to regard a perfect little egg. Isn’t it the prettiest?
The pullets have been mostly silent when they lay. There’s a post on BackyardChickens.com that hypothesizes that a hen’s egg song is actually a call for a rooster to escort her back to the safety of the flock. Since Cogburn’s never far away, maybe our hens don’t find it necessary to bakaw.
Time Heals All (October 2020 Update)
Exactly 10 weeks after the first night Cogburn spent in his cabin, he toddled to the big coop at dusk and hopped on the roost with the rest of the flock. Unlike when he tried this a few weeks ago, this time, nobody freaked out. The flock had finally welcomed him back.
These days, they argue over who gets to snuggle up with him at night. They used to sleep evenly spaced on the roost, but here they are crowding Cogburn so much he’s been pushed against the wall and nearly off the roost. You can see the Brahmas on the left planning how to get closer. He loves it.
Cogburn is now far kinder to his chickens and a beloved steward of the flock. He’s still crabby to me, however. I’ve tried all kinds of methods for “gentling” roosters: carried him around, put him into submissive posture, emulated grooming, fed extra protein and electrolytes, flatly ignored his rooster kisses (pecks), avoided bright shoes, and much more. He’ll respond to a firm “no” and turn around mid-charge, but we have a ways to go. Evidently, he’ll continue to evolve until he’s 2 years old.
Truly, it’s become clear that the best balm is time. Time for these teenage chickens to mature and for us to learn how to read and work with them.
There’s no question it would’ve been easier to raise hens only, but we’d have missed out on an awesome part of chickens. We’re at the beginning of our poultry journey, but it’s already obvious society doesn’t see these birds the right way at all. We might all be vegetarians if we did.