Roosters: A Complete Guide

Roosters: A Complete Guide by Yellow Birch Hobby Farm
 

If you own chickens, chances are you either: (1) Have a rooster, (2) Had a rooster, or (3) Thought about having a rooster. As in most animal instances, roosters are typically flashier than their female counterparts, making them a desirable spectacle for your farmstead. But perhaps fear of having a “mean” rooster around has prevented you from doing so? Or maybe you just don’t have all the information you need before making a decision on the matter? Whatever the case may be- I’d like to give you a handy, complete guide to this master of the barnyard so that you can be well-equipped for your future rooster keeping endeavors.

History/Terminology
  • Did you know that the chicken can be traced all the way back to a very distant ancestor- the Tyrannosaurus Rex? From the King of the Dinosaurs to the King of the Coop! But while the T-Rex was a carnivore, the chicken is an omnivore, meaning he eats both plants and meat.
  • The name “rooster” originates in the United States. In the UK, they are called a “cockerel” or a “cock”. Here, we call a male chicken under the age of one year a “cockerel” and over the age of one year a “rooster”. A castrated rooster is called a “capon”. 
  • It is surmised that chickens were first domesticated for cock fights, not as a food source.  
Anatomy
Anatomy of a Rooster: Yellow Birch Hobby Farm
  • The anatomy of a rooster differs in a few ways from that of a hen. They typically possess long, impressive “sickles” {the longest of the tail feathers}. Quite likely, the Phoenix is the most famous of the extra-long tailed breeds, although the Onagadori cocks claim the prize when it comes to the longest of them all!
  • Most roosters also differ from hens in that they have thin, pointy pin feathers known as “hackles” {around the neck/cape} and “saddle feathers” {draping down from the back}. 
  •  The comb and wattles of a rooster tend to be much larger than those found on a hen. 
  • “Spurs” {though sometimes found on hens} generally grow into sharp, lethal weapons and are a means of defense against other roosters or predators.
Personality/Characteristics
  • If you have ever owned a rooster, you know full well that they are active, comical, and full of personality. No matter their size, they love to be the “big man on campus”. From a very young age, male chicks are seeking out their position of dominance over one another until ultimately their social structure or “pecking order” is established. Males will spar with one another until the Alpha is established, and then continue to fight until each subsequent position is in place. The Alpha continually has to defend his position and does so in many instances. For example, if a lesser cockerel is attempting to mate with a hen, the Alpha will quickly intervene and chase him away. Or if a cocky underdog challenges him, he will swiftly teach him who’s boss. Consistency is key. And because the Alpha faces this constant struggle, he becomes vulnerable to defeat due to age or simply tiring of the game. {Our Alpha rooster Rusty met constant challenging from his son Morty, who eventually defeated him}. When an Alpha is defeated, it can be psychologically devastating to him, which makes him an easy target to other contenders, knocking him all the way to the bottom of the social arrangement. 
Rooster: Yellow Birch Hobby Farm
  • A rooster naturally takes to his responsibilities with ease and confidence. As the hens eat, he is in upright watch, sometimes perched atop a fencepost, a tree stump, a hill, or in my case- the deck. He is on constant lookout for danger, and at the first sight or sound of it, he alerts his beloved flock with a shrill, vocal warning.
  • He also lends his aid in finding the most scrumptious edibles, “tidbitting” with a TOOK TOOK, TOOK TOOK sound {very similar to the sound a mother hen makes to her chicks}, bobbing his head and directing the responsive females to the exact spot where the goodies lie. According to some studies, females seemed to prefer males who do a lot of this tidbitting, and paired with a flashy set of waddles and a large comb- it’s pretty much a done deal. He’s the guy.
Rooster: Yellow Birch Hobby Farm
  • Let’s take it a step further, from the tidbitting to the “cockerel waltz”. This is where the rooster does a half-circle dance around a hen, with one wing spread downward. In this way he is exerting his dominance over her and showing his desire to mate. The hen will generally do one of two things: assume the “submissive squat” position where she crouches down, flattening out her back and slightly lifting her wings so the rooster can jump on her. Or she will ignore him/chase him away. And even if she submits to a lesser male, the clever hen can actually reject the sperm from her undesirable mate. 
  • The most famous of the rooster activities is his crow. But contrary to the common assumption that roosters only crow at dawn, they actually crow any time of the day or night. Sometimes they crow to claim the territory on which they sit. And like a sneeze, crows are contagious. If one rooster gets going, they all do- taking turns, circling round and round, one after the other. Breed and personality of the rooster largely determines how much he will crow {I’ve been told by owners of Silkies that they tend to take longer to crow, and do so less often than other breeds they’ve owned- and yet you will often find instances of the opposite! So I rather believe that crowing is more personality-based than anything else}. And if there is no rooster present in a flock, a dominant female will assume his role- even taking it to the extent of crowing herself. Yes, it happens. Strange but true!
Rooster: Yellow Birch Hobby Farm
Sexing
When ordering baby chicks through a hatchery, you are most often given the option of “sexed” chicks, meaning you can choose your breeds according to sex {of course certain limitations apply, depending on hatchery, by way of breed and size- many won’t offer sexed bantams, for example}. Trained professionals examine the chicks’ vent {which have up to 15 different indicators of sex, breed depending} with 90% accuracy. Or you can gamble and order “straight run” chicks, in which case you can generally expect half to be males and half to be females. And if this is the case, how can you tell if you have a rooster in the batch? Well, there are some early indicators {keep in mind these indicators are not solid proof- but they can be quite reliable in most cases} you can watch for:
  • From the earliest age, baby chicks when startled can act differently according to sex. A loud noise often causes the females to crouch down low and quietly, whereas the males will stand upright and chirp in alert {a trait they carry into adulthood}. They tend to be more alert, stand taller, and can be noisier.
  • Females develop wing and tail feathers more quickly, usually within the first week whereas males take longer to develop them, maintaining more “fluff” over their body.
Determining sex of baby chicks: Yellow Birch Hobby Farm

Note the presence of wing feathers on the females.

  • At one month of age, young cockerels tend to display brighter, more red combs {whereas females tend to retain the yellowish or more pale comb at this age} that tend to also already be larger in size when comparing males and females of the same breed.

Easter Egger cross pullet (left) and Silver Sebright cockerel (right). Note the larger {and redder} comb and presence of wattles on the cockerel. Both age 7 weeks.

  • Males will typically be larger than females with longer legs. And head shape/size plays a role as well: males will have larger/angular heads while the females have smaller/rounder heads. By about 3 months of age, males start showing their hackles {the pointed feathers around their neck}, saddle {pin} feathers, and can even start crowing this early {usually closer to 4 months}. The development of spurs {appearing as a bump on the leg} is also a sign, but females can develop spurs as well.
  • Finally, you can simply decide to choose a “sex link” variety of chick, which allows you to sex the chick according to color. A Black Sex Link {or Black Star} male will be black and white whereas the females will be all black. A Red Sex Link {or Red Star} male will be all white/yellow, whereas the female is red or buff/caramel in color. These breeds are great options for those of you who live somewhere that does not allow you to own roosters, and you simply don’t want to take the chance of getting one {a hazard of the 90% vent sex guarantee}.

 Male Black Sex Link chick.

Raising
So you know the facts, you want a rooster, but how do you do it? Especially if you want {or feel you might end up with} more than one? First off, I feel your pain. I love roosters- and I love to have more than one. I will admit, however, that one rooster seems to be the magic number. But due to my breeding farm dreams, I know that I will have more than one. So let’s tackle how to care for a rooster {or multiple ones}.

Rooster: Yellow Birch Hobby Farm
  • The magic hens: rooster ratio is 10:1; meaning for every 1 rooster in your flock, you should supply him with at least 10 hens. So if you want 2 roosters, you should have at minimum 20 hens. Too few hens per rooster can result in overbreeding and feather loss from treading {the rooster’s nails will cause bare backs on overbred hens}. Keep in mind that every rooster is different, too- some are more aggressive than others. And not every scenerio will work perfectly for every flock. {In fact, some flocks full of cooperative roosters works well!} But this is a good place to start when planning your coop.
  • When following this ratio, each rooster will establish his own flock within the flock as a whole. If you observe them, you will see this. When our lead rooster Rusty was knocked down the social ranks by his son, he quickly found his new “home” among our young pullets, taking to their care almost immediately. In his place, Rusty’s son Morty took over the mature hens, including breeding rights to them. You can expect fights to ensue between all of the roosters at any given time- again, that constant battle for the Alpha position. Be sure to supply enough coop and/or run room for the roosters to flee from one another when they need to. Free Ranging is one of the best ways to maintain a multiple rooster flock.

 Rusty is there in the middle of his “new flock”, the young pullets.

  • If you wish to keep more roosters than you have hens, you can always house them together, separately from the females. Roosters when living together free from the sight of females can do so peacefully. If they have nothing to fight over, they won’t fight- other than to establish the pecking order between themselves. Roosters bred for show are often raised in this way.

A group of 4 pleasant cockerels.

  • Finally, how do you keep a rooster from turning on you? I have vivid memories of our White Leghorn rooster attacking my 3-year old sister, literally pecking a hole in the top of her head. And a few years ago, we had a Lakenvelder rooster who attacked my own 3-year old. Both roosters were put down- but efforts can be made early on to prevent such disasters, especially if you are able to start with young chicks. And that is simply by being present in the flock. Claim your rank right away- you provide the food, water, and shelter. You keep an eye on them when they are out ranging. {And mine have seen me chase off many predators, that’s for sure!}. When offering treats, you can reinforce your position by keeping the roosters away while the hens get first dibs on the edibles, only allowing them to enter when you say so. Little things like these all are good ways to show that you have a prominent place in their social order. Since applying these myself, I have yet to have another rooster turn on me. 
I certainly hope you’ve been able to gather enough information here about roosters to make a decision for yourself on whether or not you would like to go from admirer to owner. Roosters are not all mean and nasty creatures. They can be loving, sweet, and a true asset to your flock. When equipped with proper knowledge and understanding, you truly can be successful in rooster ownership! 

**If there are any terms in this article with which you are not familiar, check out my Chicken Dictionary– a handy guide of poultry terminology!**

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Sources:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rooster
 http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/science/2011/08/14-fun-facts-about-chickens

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About yellowbirchhobbyfarm

Hi! I'm Erin, a 19th-century homesteader at heart. Here at Yellow Birch Hobby Farm we practice self-sustainable living by way of organic gardening, canning & preserving, raising a variety of livestock, hunting, foraging, and cooking from scratch. And here at our blog, we share it all with you! So glad you've found us.

8 comments on “Roosters: A Complete Guide

  1. Hi there! This is a wonderful post on roosters, I really enjoyed it. We had a meanie rooster about 20 years ago that ended in a pot dumplings. He was tougher than rubber bands, but we got the last lick. 😉

  2. What an awesome post! I’m so happy your wrote this because there are a lot of misconceptions out there about roosters. We hatched out some of our own eggs last spring and 4 out of the 5 chicks were boys! I didn’t want to get rid of them, so they are housed in a separate coop and we let them free range during the day, while the other chickens all stay within the run. It has worked out great so far! I’m really happy that we found a solution. Although I don’t think we’ll be hatching out any more chicks of our own for a while!

  3. We have two roos right now: Thunder and his son (who we’re thinking of naming Thor). The chick is only 9 weeks old. We’ve had other roosters that we ate 🙂 Thor is spared from the dinner plate because he was one of our surviving chicks after the hawk took the mama hen. However, we’re not actually supposed to have any roosters at all, so I really don’t know what I’m going to do with *two* of them!

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