When our first flock was 16 weeks old, I thought I’d made a huge mistake raising a rooster. The big, white, freight train named Rooster Cogburn had just inflicted injuries on a couple hens and had started pecking me, too.
Weeks before, he’d been a sweet lap chicken. Now he was dangerous. His behavior was worst in the coop, so on the day of the 2nd injury, we quickly built and moved him to a separate coop to plan our next move. If this is who this chicken were going to be, it wouldn’t be wise to keep him.
We had intentionally ordered a male chick of a “docile” breed because roosters are supposed to protect the flock and keep the peace. Ours was causing more chaos than he prevented. I dove into research to figure out what we were missing. Why was he so cross?
First of all, contrary to what we’d heard, Brahma roosters aren’t more docile than other breeds. Secondly, more experienced people often avoid roosters until their hens are old enough to stand up for themselves. Older birds will check cockerels (baby roosters), teaching them to be civil. Pullets (baby hens) mature more slowly than cockerels, so a flock the same age will experience all kinds of disconnects during puberty that make it easy for a cockerel to turn into a bully.
There’s a consensus that, hands down, the easiest way to end up with an aggressive rooster is to hand-raise it around chickens its own age <–exactly what I did.
Why So Angry, Bird?
The most helpful fact I uncovered is that the motivation for a rooster’s behavior is to further his genes. Roosters can be silly and curious with no hens around, but if they have a flock or an opportunity to grow one, expect zero sense of humor. Serious rooster face:
The slightest perceived interference can 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 families. Most roosters see even the kindest of humans as threats. Nature of the beast.
Separating our beast from the flock at night went a long way to calm everyone’s nerves, but Cogburn was still acting aggressive. I tried all kinds of methods for “gentling” roosters: carried him around, put him in submissive posture, emulated grooming, fed extra protein and electrolytes, flatly ignored his rooster kisses (pecks), and much more.
Cogburn still has rough moments and will continue to evolve until he’s 2 years old, so I’m not ready to say which of these techniques work. However, while bungling around, trying to tame this raging roo so he can move back to the coop with his flock, it’s become clear that the best rooster balm of all is time. Time for the pullets to catch up to his maturity level.
Cogburn became a kinder, gentler bird almost overnight when 2 of the pullets started laying eggs at 19.5 weeks. That’s when my rooster regret changed to fascination. Having a rooster has been the most interesting part of raising chickens.
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 feels so light I separate him from the pullets so he’ll eat a meal. 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 yells loudly enough to alert us at the house that something scary is approaching, like when a daytime raccoon came out of woods to case the electric fence around the chicken yard.
Protection is one of the main reasons we thought a rooster was a good idea, but 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 with hens. When they find them, they pick them up and drop them over and over while calling to the hens.
Cogburn will pick up and drop even his favorite treats, saying “Chook, chook, chook” until a hen or 2 comes to see what he has. The louder his “chook chooking,” the more fabulous 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.
One of my joys in life is finding creative ways to sneak him treats to share so he can make his hens happy. Happy hens = happy rooster = happy chicken tender (that’s me).
Helping Choose Nests
I had no idea all the ways roosters assist hens when it comes to laying, but it makes sense. Hens who feel safe and happy will lay more robust eggs.
When one of our pullets is going to lay an egg, she might wander around for hours figuring out where she should lay it. 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, and walk into another nesting box to do the same thing.
What’s amazing is that 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’s making a “chook chook chook” sound similar to when he has treats. That’s him calling Eula to see if the nest is cool. Honestly, she may watch what he’s up to but rarely chooses the nest Cogburn likes best (she may still be mad at him for his head-pecking days back when they were 16 weeks old).
What queues the rooster to audition a nest? Does a hen’s curiosity about the nesting boxes kick off Cogburn’s, or is it some other signal? Either way, this is about as adorable as it gets with roosters, followed by the next couple of surprising behaviors.
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 could get a surprise peck on your shoe. Usually not a problem because Cogburn doesn’t like to leave the coop when someone’s in a nesting box.
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 assess the situation and give me the rooster eye.
I appreciate that he watches the hens this way, so when someone’s laying, I either stay out of the yard or try to be inconspicuous. He doesn’t try to chase me off, but he’s much touchier when there’s a lady “setting.”
Making the Egg Call
Contrary to popular belief, it’s been Cogburn, not the hens, who sounds the BAKAWWW when an egg is laid. This was especially true with the first few eggs. He stalked around the coop bakawing and crowing while the pullet stood up, stretched, sipped some 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 are 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.
There’s no question it would’ve been easier to raise hens only, but we’d’ve missed out on a special and illuminating 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.