A disclaimer: this is in no way meant to be taken as a be-all and end-all to raising cockerels. This is what works best for me in my situation with my coop and my flock. I spent too long paying attention to what other people told me to do rather than what common sense kept pushing me towards, so my aim with this article is mostly to make you use your brain and come up with something that works for you. There are an almost infinite number of variables to this topic and experiencing all of them would take a lifetime. Chickens teach me something every day, and I have changed my mind several times on some points—I most likely will continue to do so as I learn more. I will edit and correct myself as this happens. I have hesitated for a long time to put this into an article format, but it is much more convenient than re-typing it out for consideration every time someone wants a little help with their cockerel. Please don't take this as a rebuttal of anyone else's experience to the contrary of what follows.
I have had a flock of layer and dual-purpose type chickens for five years. The closest number I can reach for how many birds I've had comes in at about two hundred. Accounting for sexed birds and early dispersal, I am guessing I have had around fifty cockerels and cock birds that were old enough to have reached sexual maturity. Out of those, only a handful were human aggressive, and all but one of that handful of birds were ruined by my inability at the time to read what they were saying.
First off, it is my belief that although there are multiple factors that determine whether a cockerel goes bad or not, the way its caretaker behaves is the most influential one. Birds don't have a formal language like humans do, so they communicate through body language and some vocalizations. Because body language is so important to their survival and communication as a species, they are incredibly sensitive to it. Birds have eyesight that can detect smaller and more obscure movements than humans can. There have been observed cases of animals picking up and interpreting human movement too small to be noticed or controlled by us. Clever Hans, a horse that lived in Germany, is probably the most famous example of this. While humans might not be able to consciously communicate with them in a way more refined than Grawp, the giant from Harry Potter, yelling "GRAWP HUNGRY", we can at least do that. Genetics also comes into play. Breeding for temperament has been extensively demonstrated to work and to defy other attempts to shape their personality. Some of my roosters, mainly those in Mediterranean classes or with similar body types, are clearly of a temperament that could go bad if I was letting them push me around. Others, such as my largest Chantecler cockerel, don't have it in them to attack anything. I've attempted to provoke aggression in him out of curiosity, and it didn't even seem to register that I was baiting him. Bantam cock birds seem to be another class entirely. Most of the individuals I have owned seem to take a joy in skirmishes. One even made his first jump for my finger with raised hackles when he was not even a day old! They have all been quite intelligent, though, and none of the ones I have owned have ever gone bad. They know when they have met their match. I enjoy having them around—their fire is fun to work with and they are complete showoffs. Several of those belonging to friends have been aggressive, particularly the ones that are often exposed to visitors not comfortable with chickens. I do not know how hatcheries select their breeding roosters, but I would be interested to learn if anybody knows for sure. I personally haven't seen much personality variation in the males by breed across hatchery lines.
The thing to keep in mind here is that we are talking about animals, not robots, so selecting roosters for personality based on breed (which is a wide category) ends up being pretty much down to luck and location. The point I'm trying to make is that if you're trying to decide on a breed of rooster, get whichever one physically suits your reasons for having chickens—getting a bad egg is unlikely. Starting a flock can be a bit tricky. I have found that allowing a cockerel to grow up with no other chickens except pullets the same age as him leads to warped social skills and a difficult time rehabilitating him. I don't like buying adult cock birds, either. They require a bit more of a personalized handling method. I suggest getting only hens and raising them to maturity, then getting your male chicks and bringing them up with the hens. They will do much of the training that a cock would: they learn to ask permission before mating and that they're not such big stuff. I did that, it worked; a friend of mine did that, and it worked too. By now I have anywhere from 5–15 cocks/cockerels year round and the older birds train the younger ones beautifully. I don't have to do much work: they grow up knowing some things just need to be respected.
Starting from day one, I treat all the chicks the same, male or female. I don't have autosexing breeds so even if I wanted to vary treatment between them I couldn't. They get cuddles, they learn humans are nice, and they get to live in the house for their first weeks—because I can't resist how cute they are any more than you all can. I think this gives them a good base of confidence in humans to build on later. Once the young birds have hit a few weeks of age, they will be a bit distant, rather grumpy due to pinfeathers, and in general go through a skittish stage of a few weeks to months. Some pullets won't completely settle until lay. I don't force handing then, I let them do their own thing except for checkovers now and again. The cockerels should be able to be identified around this time. With every male that has reached this stage, I start slowly refusing to handle them even if they ask for it later. Cockerels are so friendly as juveniles (especially when compared to pullets) that it's hard not to, but you have to be tough even if he's asking nicely to get picked up. At the same time slowly switch your body language towards him, which I hope was still fairly confident before. Do not move out of his way, make him move out of yours. Keep your shoulders square but relaxed, feet square, and move through him. If you're a horse person, think of it as riding: look where you want to go. Don't chase him, he's done nothing wrong, just ask for respect by your stance. Don't directly challenge him; that would constitute of staring eye contact and a slightly sideways square posture. A shorter or hunched posture with hands reaching towards them also seems to set them off. You don't have to make these changes suddenly, in fact, I suspect gradually is better so as not to confuse the poor hormonal thing. Have a personal space of about a 1/3m to 2/3m radius around you and keep him out. If he walks in there, make a short move at him to get him out, kick if needed. No, I am not advocating punting a cockerel halfway across the yard because he walked too close to you, I mean a shove to move him away. You could do the same thing with the same intensity by bending over and giving the bird a little push with your hand, but using your feet is safer for you. Drop aggressive behaviour immediately after he jumps and runs away. Watch your birds when they are not paying attention to you; if you have two cocks or cockerels you will see this method is how the dominant corrects the upstart. Short, forceful, and not sustained. That is a key point right there.
As a side note on interaction between cocks, have you ever noticed that sometimes the winning bird will chase and chase and chase the loser? That bird is then terrified of the winner and will nearly kill themselves trying to get away. They are terrified, beaten creatures, and that is why I think humans trying to take the leading role is a bad idea. We are not a chicken, we are a separate critter that demands respect. We are not present enough to keep the role of flock leader. When humans try this, I think that the cockerels are alone with the flock enough that they still think they control the flock yet they're scared out of their minds at the same time. If you're present enough that chasing the bird around all the time works, I'd suggest not bothering to own a cockerel since you're probably roosting in the coop with the chooks at that point. What I am trying to say is speak their language, but don't try to be a chicken—they have a job to do, and for Pete's sake, let them do it.
I did an experiment this spring where I let a cockerel grow up without asking for space at all. If he was in the way, I would move around him. I let him eat out of my hands, sit on my head, and run straight at me when he was excited about food. Sure enough, by about 7 months he was sparring with my hand when I reached towards him and pecking occasionally. I culled him shortly after because he was destined for that anyway, but if I had more space I probably would have kept him longer just to see what happened. It was nice to have some confirmation of what I've been thinking.
Sometimes you might not realize something needs to change until it's too late and the bird is aggressive. Or maybe you don't think you did anything wrong, but genetics made him predispositioned to aggression. While the best option is often an axe and a soup pot, there are some things you can try...
To understand how to change a bird, you need to know the cause of the behaviour. Aggression can have many roots. It is my belief that there are at least two distinct types of aggression: fear based and familiarity based. They need different treatments, and the fear based aggression can be harder to eliminate and may even spin off from familiarity based. Sometimes—or even a lot of times—there can be a share of both in a bird. Prevention is the best cure for these cases. Fear based aggression is characterized by the bird running away with their feathers flat to body if confronted, a desperate look to them, and quick jerky movements that I'd describe as how a squirrel runs. Their attacks are generally from behind, and when you spin and confront them they run away in a tangle. In 2015, I had a Sultan cockerel that was treated more like a (spoiled) dog than a chicken. He would run up to me and sit on my lap, follow me around in search of treats, and was trained to do a few different tricks. He was a real sweetie. Then, as it does for all birds, maturity came. He became more distant and acted a bit off. Being a new chicken keeper with a year or less under my belt, I didn't do anything to correct him and gave him the same gentle treatment as always. I do not remember all the details, but I think it was at about 11 months that he went bad. He started running up to me whenever I came near and would whale and beat and do whatever he had in his little fluffy power to put bruises on me. He was quite successful at it too and managed to inflict bleeding even through a pair of stout boots. Spurs are sharp! Unfortunately, I turned to the Internet for help, and it didn't give me much of it. I read posts written by those that wouldn't even let the bird look at them. I tried that. He wasn't allowed to crow, mate, or come into the coop while I was there. He was not injured physically during this, but it scared him badly. I was too harsh and inconsistent. That backfired, and it turned into a lovely case of fear based aggression where he would sneak up on me, nail my boots, then run away in terror before I came after him. After that, I read posts from the "roo huggers" that cuddled their aggressive birds. I tried that to see if it would work even though he had been handled a lot before the first incident. He was so terrified of me by that time that all that did was make him more hostile. It started as a classic case of familiarity based aggression but unfortunately I did all the wrong things and it spiraled down to fear. The moral of this story? Don't copy me! If I ever had another fear based case (which shouldn't happen—this is easy to prevent by handling them right) I would try moving calmer, slower, and be confident but avoid any strong body language. I would probably even spend some time holding the bird. The reason why I think gentle and frequent handling might help in these cases is that these birds see us as threats, as hawks or dogs. They've placed humans into the index of bad things, and we have to get out of it. They are being brave in their minds and defending themselves and their beloved hens. This approach might have still worked for the aforementioned case if I had been willing to spend longer working with him, but I was sick of not being able to enjoy the hens, and I didn't know then what I know now. So he was sold for slaughter. I rather regret that—I think I could have fixed him.
Now for familiarity based. These are characterized by the cockerels that stare you right in the face, that give you the figurative middle finger when you ask them to move out of the way, and attack you right from the front without any hesitation. Many times these are the hand raised brooder babies that were just darling as chicks. They have no respect for humans and a potty mouth like any Ottawanian. Like fear based cases, these are best off defused early before they attack, but if you are reading this in desperation for your little Fluffy, there are a few things to try. Evaluate your body language to determine whether it might be an issue. If the bird attacks just one member or all but one member of the family, then that's a tip-off. Just like starting with a young bird, keep them out of your space, except be even stricter about it. I would keep an aggressive bird at closer to a whole metre away. Don't let them come close even if you're feeding them. Don't let him run up to you, even in an innocuous manner. If he's perching above you on objects and staring at you, pull him down and run him away. Be consistent, too. You're only going to scare him if you are friendly one day and running at him the next. Don't jump on him suddenly, there is no need to conceal your intentions. By suddenly, I mean that you should not surprise attack him, not that you need to give him a five minute warning. When an attack occurs, get after him IMMEDIATELY. Use as much force as you need to get him off you and running. Don't let up until he stops trying to get after you again when you slow. Usually they run a good 10' off when they've given up. Never run from him, that does nothing helpful.
I have tried to decipher what I do with aggressive cocks and I think after a rush at the bird I copy to some extent the quarter turn/side exposed move the winning cock does to a lesser. I think it tells them "You have a choice. Come at me again, I'm still ready; or drop the matter now and I won't continue." Often they pause and then scurry away. All of the above should be done too if you have a bird showing warnings of aggression that I will detail later. It is better to prevent than to cure.
If you can identify early signs of aggression you can start correction sooner and save yourself much hassle. Birds that seem dangerous and possibly aggressive as cockerels can be trained up as lovely flock leaders with a bit of care and watching. Some of the most common pre-attack signs are as follows:
- The bird gets very close to you and often follows you around without interacting.
- The bird stares at you from a distance and tries to get higher than you on objects.
- The bird drops one shoulder and shuffles at you in a sort of dance. Sometimes they pick up and drop rocks or items with their beak. When directed towards the ladies, this means he's trying to woo them, but it means aggression when directed at people. They'll seek out eye contact and have a rather villainous look on their faces.
- The bird takes to crowing pointedly in your direction when you enter or leave the area. I wouldn't really recommend this as something for a newbie to look for in terms of aggression as it's too easy to mistake regular crowing for aggressive. Nevertheless, I included it as it is something I have noted.
- His clucks take on sort of a low minor tone that swing up at the end. They're often chopped in sound and may be directed to hens, which is innocuous, so see the warning on the last item and apply it to this too.
If you see these signs, start the same protocol as described in the familiarity based aggression section. Treat it about as severely as an actual attack. I have prevented a few birds from going bad this way, including a Svarthöna cockerel that I was thankful that I could keep. He started displaying those signs above at about six months of age after admittedly being raised until then with rather lax methods. I immediately chased him two metres away (I didn't have enough time left before I thought he would attack to ease him into that distance gradually) and never let him get closer for a few months. No exceptions. He completely dropped all signs of aggression and became a model bird, not even looking askance in my direction. After a while, I gradually reduced that bubble size and let him become a bit friendlier again. Slowly is the key here, you can't just drop this one day and expect to be able to handle him easily. By the time he was a year old, I had reduced that bubble size to nearly nothing and he was perfectly behaved. He turned into one of my most respectful yet tame cocks and he was trustworthy around even children. Quite a change from a bird that acted ready to take an eye out.
- The bird moves his head around a lot and flips his wattles back and forth. Learn 'normal' and then you can note all these things.
What about if you really would like to purchase a grown male? I have had maybe five to ten cock birds that were purchased after 4 months of age. In my limited experience, they require a different, softer hand for a good while. These birds are unsure about you, and can and will turn sour. Rushing at them whenever they come near only solidifies you being a danger in their mind. I had noted this with the last two I bought, one of which actually ended up jumping me a few times. With my most recent purchase I tried a new strategy. I held him. I'd catch him in the morning and lug him around while I did chores. I didn't let him go until he was relaxed enough to close his eyes and put his hackles down. It worked. He no longer beat himself against the pen bars trying to get away, and he didn't bite. This isn't promoting overt familiarity, this is making up for what home-raised cockerels have that he didn't: confidence in me, that I won't harm him or his flock. Will he get any more leeway than my own males in the future? No. I'm just setting a foundation.
Despite the impression you may have gotten from the above passages, I am not always strict with my cockerels. You should be having fun with your flock. Rigidity and keeping at arm's length don't exactly a passion make. Once a cock gets to about 2 years of age (when he is truly mature IMHO) he's likely safe to tame completely if you still trust him then. I have a 4 year old cock that is allowed to come up to me when I am sitting down and poke around by my feet. I pet him or mess with his wattles sometimes, because he doesn't mind it and he's too cute to ignore. Why do I let him do this? Because I trust him. I think he is truly safe in people now, after being raised according to the above points. He has shown one slight sign of intended aggression (dropped shoulder, cocked head) once in his life, when he was little. I corrected him and he's been an angel ever since.
See these two eating off my lap? They were just under a year old in this image. They never, ever came this close to me in daily life, and were raised by the above guidelines. I had given my permission to them here, and look at them: they are not afraid. Respect and fear are different, and we're trying to gain respect. If your cockerel is terrified of you, you are doing it wrong. Speak their language, and they will listen. Scare them by whacking them around without cause, and they will not. It's all about respect and permissions.
Now, what about those special exceptions, those cockerels that are just the sweetest little cheese puffs and the other cockerels that seem to be made of smouldering evil? Those exceptions are why you have to apply common sense and change your methods sometimes. Case one: an OEGB cockerel that was softer than a feather mattress and refused to stop being friendly. Even if I pushed him away he'd just look up at me with big doe eyes and wonder what he did wrong to make his 'mommy' mad. (He was a brooder raised chick, so to him, I was a hen.) He really seemed to be different. He was quiet, meek, and good with the girls even when he was well past the stage to have started hen-chasing. So, I let him be friendly, and I'm glad I did! He was the sweetest thing, and would come and interrupt picnics to beg for some food. He particularly liked cotton candy, the spoiled thing. He would come oversee all projects, whether it was changing the tyres or fixing the lawnmower or weeding the garden. He was a character, and children loved him. After a while he did grow a bit more distant but he was still quite respectful until he got killed by a dog at 10 months of age. We all miss him and I am glad I made an exception to my 'rules' for him. I rather wonder if he had something wrong with him, because the amount of damage the dog did should not have killed him, and his comb was purple after death. A weak heart, maybe.
Case two: a huge, brooding Australorp that rather unnerved me. Not in a scared way, more in a "What on earth is wrong with this bird" way. He was raised the same way as every other cockerel, and he had two brothers that were sweet little boys. Not him. He was a biter from week one. Correction didn't seem to have an impact on him. He would accept it then turn around and bite again. He would bite if you came close, not in a confrontational manner, but as a retaliation for coming near. Birds don't generally exhibit tit-for-tat tendencies towards humans, so that was quite strange. Repeated attempts to get him moving out of my space did nearly nothing. I had to shove him out of my space every time I came near—he would not move much on his own. I dialed up the severity of my pushes with some success. By the time he was 6 months old he'd grudgingly slurp out of my space when I approached. He stopped biting at puberty, but that foreboding look still lingered. He made no outward moves to be aggressive. I still trusted him as far as I can throw a polar bear... which isn't far, by the way. He aged to about nine months, and then he finally attacked. I sent him running about three metres (whether he felt like it or not) and repeated that every single time he came near. He settled back down a bit and did not attack me again but he still felt like a bomb and a match stuck in a concrete mixer. I couldn't have kept that brooding thing around to possibly injure children—or me. So I butchered him for the table. I can't help but think that I was missing some aspect of his behaviour that I should have paid attention to. Maybe if I get another bird like him I'll be able to see more.
Anyway, that's a long spiel about nothing, eh? I am sure I have forgotten some points, especially since body language is hard for me to describe. There are probably things I do that I don't even know about. This seems an exhaustive list, but it is really only describing what some people do naturally and others have to learn. One other thing I couldn't find where to put was that tapping on the head with a finger is a great way to correct young birds. It is what an older bird would do to reprimand a younger one and they get the point instantly. It works well on older birds as well, especially aggressive pullets/hens. Remember too that these things are broad generalizations, as the last two cases show. Some have luck with other methods... this one works for me. You will see as many opinions as you see flock keepers and you have to come up with your own. Some even say that treatment of the bird has no effect on their end temperament, including the famous Kathy Mormino, who runs the blog The Chicken Chick. A lady that goes by the name Beekissed on here has many interesting posts on raising cockerels that I recommend reading too.
I hope you've come away with some more things to think about. Cock birds are a lovely addition to any flock, and I'd never have a coop without one—they make my job of caring for the hens much easier.
Edit: If you're interested in digging deeper into animal communication, I HIGHLY recommend anything written by Temple Grandin. That lady has an incredible gift for taking the subtle and writing it so even fools can understand. She's put into words some things I've struggled for years to describe or communicate.
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Recent User Reviews
"A good article that I couldn't agree with."
- 5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Jan 29, 2019
This is a good article. The author has obviously put a lot of effort into trying to find the best ways to manage male chickens. My approach has been entirely different but then I don't have the same number of chickens and I don't have the same keeping arrangements.
Any attempts to try and understand chickens and male chickens in particular I'm always going to be in favor of. I don't have to agree with the approach to recommend that this article is well worth reading and outlines someones experience rather than regurgitating some of the nonsense that can be found on the web.
"Great Info on Raising Civil Roosters"
- 5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Jan 23, 2019
Very well thought out! There's a lot of good information here, presented in a clear, easy-to-follow manner. It's a good read for anyone contemplating a few cockerels in the flock or dealing with a feathered "problem child." The recommendation to read Temple Grandin's work is a good one, too. If you don't have time to work through the books, look for the speeches and video shorts on YouTube. They're pretty much all good!