I'll start with a warning...the rooster dies.
But, this isn't the typical story of the aggressive rooster that has to be culled. I'm posting this because so very many people post questions about the rooster that hits adolescence and becomes a problem. Most of the advice on here falls into either a) culling, or b) dominance training.
I think if people wanting to understand rooster behavior had a fuller picture of the complete life cycle of a rooster then they would have greater perspective on evaluating their own rooster. So, here is just one story aimed towards giving a more complete picture. I am hopeful that others who have raised individual roosters for 5+ years will also chime in with their stories.
Here's the story of The Rooster.
I think he had a name at one time; it might have been Rudolph. But we quickly took to calling him The Rooster in the way someone says The President. He earned those capital letters and maintained the right to them for 4 1/2 of his 5 years of life.
I made the mistake of telling my sons they could each pick out a chick when I went to choose chicks to begin our flock. I peered into the large watering trough at the farm supply store and studied each chick's behavior while the boys dithered endlessly in the way small children will. By the time the boys finally made their choices (based mostly on fluffiness) I knew exactly which chick I wanted. I particularly liked one Barred Rock chick that seemed to be aware of us from the moment our faces appeared over the edge of the trough. It followed our movement, cocking its head to keep us in sight.
I was a novice. I thought the reason the alert chick was maintaining eye contact was because it was intent on friendliness. Wow, already all about relationship building! What an awesome little chicken! Aren't I smart to pick out the friendliest chick of all!!
*Hint to people buying chicks from a straight run: if you don't want a rooster, avoid chicks already instinctively scanning the skies for predators at two days old.
*Hint to people who translate chicken behavior into human behavior: stop.
On the way home, the bigger boy clutching the cardboard box with holes punched in the sides on his lap while the little boy peered inside, the kids began talking about one mean chick pecking the others. "Which chick?" I asked, expecting one of their fluffy choices was overly stressed by the ride. "Your chick, mama, the one you chose!" I confess that I didn't believe them. Mine was the friendliest, right?
Within days a pecking order had been established and The Rooster was clearly at the top. He trilled the alert when we came in to feed them, bossed the others as needed, and always got the best spot under the heat lamp. He wasn't ever cruel to the other chicks, though. They never questioned his position of dominance after he'd established it on the ride home.
In a few months we realized we had one rooster and three hens. When people made faces of concern I said, "what's the big deal?" I had been raised on a large working farm and understood that an intact male must be treated differently than a female but that was fine; we could accommodate its needs. I began reading up on roosters and learned all about the "how to dominate your rooster" mentality.
There's a pecking order among chickens and I should be at the top? Okay, I can do that. After all I've trained horses and dogs, how hard can it be to train a 10 lb chicken when the only skill I want it to learn is to stay away from us?
*Hint to people who confuse poultry with mammals: different species, different instincts, different rules.
For the first five months the chickens were great fun. They came when I called them, ate from my hand, followed me around the yard, let me handle them at night when I took them off their perches. Let me tell you, I was an Uh-Maze-Ing chicken farmer...until the rooster hit adolescence.
I flipped the switch one day in my own front yard. That week the flock had suddenly begun leaving our yard and roaming over into the neighbor's barn. I was in the process of building new fence but in the meantime I checked outside every few hours and called them back when they started wandering. This time they must have left our yard the moment my back was turned because they were clear out of sight when I checked. I called and called and eventually I saw The Rooster poke his head out of the neighbor's barn. I tossed some seed in the air to attract his attention and he came a running. I waited just long enough to be sure the hens were following and then I began hurrying back to our yard. I only had a little seed and I needed to lure them a long ways.
He caught up to me right by the road. I felt him slam into the back of my legs and turned to find my sweet little chicken had morphed into a demon. Feathers stood up around his neck as he flew into the air and came at me with both feet and his miniature new spurs flailing back and forth. Luckily I had my tall wellingtons on to protect my legs so I could get a toe under his breast and meet his charge with a lift that launched him upwards and back. We did this freaky dance for a good 30 feet. Jump, flail, kick, launch. I realized cars had slowed and people were staring. I wanted to reassure them I didn’t start this insane dance; that I was just defending myself! I was alternately furious at him and afraid I’d kill him.
(To understand the factors that triggered him to attack, a) research “feed bucket aggression”, b) think about how a teenage rooster views something running away from it.)
I don’t remember how it ended but somehow I got the little flock back into their coop. My confidence was totally shaken and I immediately came here to Backyard Chickens to do more research. I spent hours reading all the advice.
The next morning I began “The Human is the Head of the Pecking Order” lessons. I caught him and carried him upside down. I forced him to squat in front of me. I carried sticks and made him run away. I chased him if he crowed or mated a hen near me. I behaved, in short, like an idiot.
*Hint to people who want to be a part of the pecking order: you’re not a chicken and even your chickens with their teeny tiny brains know you’re not a chicken. Stop it.
The Rooster was very dignified and he didn’t do battle with me very often. We’d have a session about every 3-5 weeks. From my perspective I decided he was a “slow learner” and needed these lessons repeated. I believe every go round was another battle and eventually I’d win the war.
From his perspective, every attack was a full on war he expected to win. He’d only quit from sheer exhaustion. He was fighting to the death each time except his stupid opponent didn’t know the rules and kept forgetting to finish him off.
Then, came the moment that changed our whole relationship, and by that I mean I finally understood who he was.
I was walking by an upstairs window and paused to look out into the backyard as I often did for the joy of watching my little flock. The next moments were equally terrifying and magnificent. A huge bird of prey swooped into the yard and headed right for one of the hens. Just as I was registering what I was seeing The Rooster came out of nowhere. He was giving the predator warning at full volume as he charged between the predator and the hen. When he came between them he leaped up into the air and flailed his feet just as I’d seen him do to me. The predator was just about to strike...when our little terrier dog came streaking across the lawn and chased the large bird off.
I am certain that the rooster would have sacrificed himself that day.
Suddenly I had a new appreciation for him. I had witnessed his instincts in action. Now I felt grateful that he was always scanning the skies. Now I understood why he attacked in his particular way. I wanted to know more about a species I realized I knew nothing about.
Over the next few days I began really observing my flock. Instead of placing myself among them I stood back and watched their natural behaviors. I learned to differentiate between the many sounds he made (tidbit call, aerial predator warning, human approaching alert, etc.) I learned to appreciate the careful way he danced for his hens and only mated upon their acquiescence.
Everything changed the day I realized my rooster was doing an amazing job caring for his flock and our problems were caused by me, not him.
I set out to very intentionally fix the problems I’d been creating. I put on different boots (I realized he’d come to recognize and hate the boots I’d wear whenever I was planning to fight with him) and became obsessively careful about my posture.
I intentionally averted my eyes; looking just a few inches past his shoulder rather than right in his eyes (a direct stare is aggressive behavior for many animals...think about it, a predator locks eyes on its prey as it stalks it).
I angled my shoulders slightly away to stand perpendicular rather than parallel (think of two males of almost any species facing off to fight).
I pointed my feet slightly off to the side rather than right at him.
Just by thinking about where my eyes, shoulders and feet were pointing I created a complete change in him. At first he so very much expected me to fight. He pranced and postured all around me just waiting for me to so much as shift my weight. It took every ounce of self-control for me to not move because, let me tell you, it’s incredibly scary to let a critter that has hurt you before dance around two inches from your feet. The first time I did it I couldn’t breathe I was so frightened and I nearly wept when he finally gave up and walked away. But the next time was easier, and shorter. The third time was just a few seconds long and I was relaxed during his entire invitation to fight, knowing that I could safely decline.
To his credit, The Rooster never once attacked me again so long as I was mindful of my body language. And, I want to add here that he never once ever attacked any of my children or their friends during his entire lifetime.
The summer that he was 2 years old, I decided to conduct a test to see if my body posture really was having an effect or if he had just settled down now that he was older.
I was moving the flock, now about 10 hens plus him, from one fenced section to another. I tossed handfuls of birdseed in front of the flock to move them out of one gate, across a wide lane, and into another gate. As usual, he put himself between me and the hens so he was at the back of the flock as they ran to the next pile of seed raining down from the sky. (Note: this is a good way to avoid feedbucket aggression. Do NOT walk backwards dropping feed at your feet encouraging the flock to rush TOWARDS you. Instead, position yourself at the rear and toss seed ahead so the flock is running AWAY from you in the direction you want them to go.)
I waited until he looked at me and then I “squared up” in a clearly aggressive stance. I stared right at him and aimed my toes directly at him. He immediately puffed up. I averted my gaze and angled my toes and shoulders to the side. He relaxed. I squared up; he puffed up. I averted; he relaxed. It was fascinating. I repeated my behavior at least five times, spaced anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes apart and his response was immediate and dramatic every single time.
This was not a human-aggressive rooster. This was a rooster defending his flock from predators, even when that predator was also, at the exact same time, the human with the feed.
Every spring, especially when there were newly hatched chicks with a broody hen nearby, he would get testy again. I’d have to be extra careful to avoid initiating anything for those weeks but by mid-summer he’d settle back into our routine. And, I confess, last summer when I had my new baby in my arms I was feeling a bit testy myself and I went after him when I thought he was posturing. So, we weren’t perfect. But, from age 2 to 5 his life was pretty nearly ideal.
Then, one day, it came to an end in a devastating way we never anticipated.
It all started with my latest pregnancy and the fact that my husband took over the flock for me. Typical guy that he is, he had to build a bigger and better coop and fill it with more chickens. We were up to about 20 hens and 5 roosters, one of them The Rooster’s son, by mid-summer.
It was insane. Five roosters all competing for hens and territory. Non-stop crowing.
*Hint to spouses who consider handing over the flock to a spouse without a farming background and hence no practical understanding of un-fun topics like manure load and pasture management: don’t.
Back to the story. One day I looked out that same upstairs window and saw a strange sight. First, the entire backyard was empty of all chickens. Something was clearly wrong. Then, I spotted the The Rooster’s son pacing back and forth in front of a cavity under a tree root. I looked more carefully...dark feathers on a still form were blowing in the wind. A chicken was dead. Had a predator killed it and then dragged it under there to eat it? Was this stupid rooster hanging out to see what would happen next?
I didn’t want to do it but I had to know who had gotten killed. I went outside. As soon as the porch door banged the son ran off like the coward that he always was. I walked slowly toward the feathers. I knew it was one my Barred Rocks but not which one. Suddenly, when I was about 15 feet away, the “dead” chicken began moving! It was The Rooster! He was bloodied from his head all down his neck and shoulders. There was dirt matted to his feather from where he’d sought to hide his head under the tree root to protect himself from his son’s flogging. His spurs were broken and his feet bloodied.
The rooster limped off without looking and me. He found a place to hide. His wounds healed but he never rejoined the flock. His hens abandoned him. He spent every day moving from one hiding place to another. We aren’t very sentimental but we couldn’t stop ourselves from helping him to hide from his son. We’d stash him in the greenhouse, or on the front porch, with his own feed and water. This went on for months.
He became the most docile chicken I could imagine. It didn’t matter how I stood, he never postured again. He never crowed. He never looked me in the eye.
He was completely broken and without a purpose. He stopped watching the skies.
Exactly 24 hours after he was dethroned we had our first hawk attack since the attack from the bird of prey that I’d witnessed years before that had changed my understanding of The Rooster. A hawk killed my son’s favorite pet bantam that was as friendly as a parrot. We all shed some tears. I hated the incompetent son who had somehow overthrown his father but was unable to protect the rest of the flock.
My husband and I talked. We could not go into the deep winter with plans to keep hiding The Rooster. We did not want to keep his incompetent son. It was time to start a new line for breeding purposes anyway.
The Rooster, his son, and another hen, went to a competent woman, an immigrant from Africa, who knew how to do the job swiftly. They became her family’s New Year’s day meal. She was extremely grateful for the food; we were glad that his death, just as his life, served a greater purpose.
I am grateful to The Rooster for all that he taught me about chickens. My days of fighting roosters all over the back yard are long gone, never to be repeated. Though we’ve had many roosters since him we’ve never had a problem with any of them attacking humans. We understand their instincts; we follow their rules.
With roosters it’s not personal, it’s business. Really. Let them do their job and just hope you have the opportunity to live alongside a really great one who always keeps one eye on the skies and one eye on his hens.
Backyard farming with my flock of super talented manure composters and bug hunters.
Backyard farming with my flock of super talented manure composters and bug hunters.