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 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 be impossible. 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 more convenient than re-typing it out for consideration every time someone wants a little advice with their cockerel. Please do not take this as a rebuttal of anyone else's experience to the contrary of what follows.
Here is an overview of my situation, to maybe aid in your understanding of how flock dynamics work in my coop and how yours may differ. I have had a flock of ornamental, layer, and dual-purpose type chickens, ducks, quail, and for a while, guineas, for five years that hovers at a population of around thirty to fifty birds. They are kept in a 12' x 12' walk-in coop and free range during the day in summer. The snow depth does not allow this in winter, so they stay indoors. Their yard schematic allows for birds lower in the pecking order to have turns in preferred areas and easily escape dominant flock members. The closest number I can reach for how many birds I have had total comes in at about two hundred and thirty-five. Accounting for sexed birds and early dispersal, I am guessing I have had around forty cockerels and cock birds that were old enough to have reached sexual maturity. Out of those, only a few were human aggressive, and most were entirely my fault for not being attentive at the time to how they were acting.
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. By picking up on small muscular shifts in eyes and posture, he was able to seemingly add numbers and answer questions.
Genetics also comes into play. Breeding for temperament has been extensively demonstrated to work and to defy other attempts to shape their personality. The thing to keep in mind here is that we are talking about animals, not robots, so selecting cockerels for personality based on breed is far from an exact science. I tend to find that broad classes have larger personality distinctions than actual breeds do. I do not know how hatcheries select their breeding males, 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. Some of my cock birds, mainly those in Mediterranean classes or with similar body types, are clearly of a temperament that could go bad if I were letting them push me around. Others, such as my 8 lb Chantecler cockerels, don't seem to have it in them to attack anything. I've attempted to provoke aggression in one out of curiosity, and got no response. Bantam cock birds seem to be another class entirely. Most of the individuals I have owned seem to take 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 I have never had one go 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 I have observed that belong to friends have been aggressive, particularly the ones that are often exposed to visitors not comfortable with chickens. The personality of the individual bird is important when deciding how to act around them. Sensitive or flighty birds will be easily scared by any affrontive behaviour and may well lash out. Slower, stubborn birds might need that extra force.
I'd like to address a related fallacy while I'm here. Some people say there are no bad roosters, or bad dogs, or bad fill-in-the-blanks. That is absolutely not true. Some individuals are truly not suited to living around humans or even fellow members of their species. I wholeheartedly recommend the soup pot for these animals.
Starting a flock is a difficult time for flock dynamics, because there are no older birds to bring up the chicks properly. Some forethought might make this process easier. 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 that are difficult to iron out. 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 repeatedly get taken down a peg or twenty. I did that when I first got chickens by pure chance rather than intention and it worked very well. By now I have anywhere from 5–15 cock birds/cockerels year round and the older birds train the youngest birds beautifully. I don't have to do much work: they grow up knowing the world won't bow to them and that challenging things bigger than them is a really stupid idea.
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 spend the first few weeks of their life in an indoor brooder under a heating pad. I pick a few of them up whenever I change their feed or water, but I don't handle them excessively. Living indoors helps to desensitize them to humans in a variety of postures at many different levels. To chicks that have their brooder on a table, humans will be terrifying when they are placed on the floor. Once the young birds are a month or two old, they become more skittish and resistant to handling. I do not force them to be friendly to humans, I let them come back around in their own time. The cockerels should be identifiable at this age. If they decide on their own that they would rather do their own thing instead of sticking to my heels, that is great. If not, I start encouraging independence by not picking them up and starting to change my body language towards him, which was still fairly confident before. I do not move out of his way, I make him move out of mine. I keep my shoulders square but relaxed, feet square, and I move through him when I am working in the area. (If you're a horse person, think of it as riding: look where you want to go.) I don't chase him, he's done nothing wrong, I simply ask for respect by my stance. I don't 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. I don't make these changes suddenly, in fact, gradually is best so as not to confuse him by such a sudden change in the way his caretaker behaves. I have a personal space of about a 1/3m to 2/3m radius around me and I keep him out. If he walks in there, I make a short move at him to get him out, and will kick if needed. No, I am not advocating punting a cockerel halfway across the yard because he walked too close, I am talking about a small shove to move him away. I could do the same thing with the same intensity by bending over and giving the bird a push with my hand, but using my boot is safer for me. I drop aggressive behaviour immediately after he jumps and runs away a metre or so. 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: attacks that are short, forceful, and not sustained. That is a key point.
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 frightened, beaten creatures, and that is why I think humans trying to take over the leading role completely is not a good idea. We are not chickens, we are a separate entity that demands respect. We are not present enough to keep the role of flock leader and do everything the lead rooster would do. When humans try this, I think that the cockerels are alone with the flock enough that they partially think they control the flock yet they're scared out of their minds at the same time. This seems particularly evident if the bird is an only cockerel or the top ranking one. If you're with them enough that chasing the bird around whenever you see them works, I'd suggest not bothering to own a cockerel since you're probably roosting in the coop with the chickens 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 him 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 the arrival of 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 would have kept him longer just to see what happened. It was nice to have some confirmation of what I have been thinking.
Sometimes I might not realize something needs to change until it's too late and the bird is aggressive. Or, maybe I don't think I did anything wrong, but genetics made him predisposed to aggression. While the best option is often an axe and a soup pot, particularly if children are involved, there are a few things I have tried, some quite successfully. I have seen some discrepancy over the definition of "aggression", so I will define it for the purposes of this article: any behaviour intended to cause physical damage to the target. Motives are separate and should not be responded to the same way.
To understand how to change a bird, I 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 responses: treating them the same way will not work, particularly if you try to reform a fear-aggressive cockerel using the familiarity-based method. Sometimes there can be an element of both in a bird.
Fear based aggression is characterized by the bird holding its feathers close to its body and its head high, moving jerkily, like a squirrel, and vocalizing alarm calls when you walk into the yard. When they attack, it is usually from behind, and they run away as fast as they can when you turn and confront them. Scared birds will bite too if you handle them. In 2015, I had a Sultan cockerel that was treated more like a 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 eleven months that he went bad. He started running up to me whenever I came near and would whale and beat at my ankles 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 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 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 point I am trying to make is to not copy me. If I ever had another fear based case (which shouldn't happen—this is easy to prevent by simply not scaring the living daylights out of them) I would try moving calmer, slower, and avoid any strong body language. This does not mean to not act confident, it means to not be affrontive. I would 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, like hawks or dogs. They've placed humans into the index of bad things in their mind, and we have to get out of it. They think they are being brave 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 aggression. These cases are characterized by the cockerels that stare you right in the face, 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 birds 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, that is a tip-off. Just like starting 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 circle back and 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 move 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, possibly shielding himself with other flock members.
- 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 I see these signs, I start the same protocol as described in the familiarity based aggression section. I 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 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, I 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.
Here are some photo comparisons of aggressive and non-aggressive cockerels.
The first bird in these photos, the Sultan, was aggressive. Note that in one photo he's holding a rock in his mouth while dropping a shoulder towards the camera. In all of them, his head is inclined to me, he is using his body like a barrier to prevent me from going past a certain point, and if his feet are down, he is standing very squarely. The other birds were not aggressive at all. Their bodies are much more relaxed, their eyes are softer, and their shoulders are up. The last image shows a good example of a curious but non aggressive cockerel.
Right now I don't have a good selection of roosters to film, but these are a few quick examples of some various temperaments in birds of several different ages.
#1—non aggressive. This rooster is four years old and I basically let him do whatever he wants now. The slight posturing you see is intended to impress the nearby hens I was throwing food to. Note at the end that when I move through him, he circles around, but not tightly. He doesn't feel threatened by me and therefore doesn't see why he should move significantly, but he isn't trying to get behind me. That's good. In a younger or more fiery cockerel, I probably wouldn't tolerate that. Note: I only moved him for the purpose of the video, not due to any behaviour of his. I don't bother him, he's earnt my trust.
#2—young, but super friendly cockerel. I haven't made any effort yet to keep him out of my space. I may or may not have a bit of a soft spot for him. He's 2 or 3 months old, I think. Absolutely zero indicators of aggression or attitude. He just wanted chips. Wasn't sure about the camera though.
#3—respectful but scared. This rooster will occasionally bite if I try and pick him up. I bought him as a cockerel so he isn't as confident around me as some of the others. He has never made any attempts to flog and based on his behaviour I don't think he will. He settles down eventually if I insist on handling him. I am working on reducing his fear levels because I don't like fear biting when handled either, even if it isn't a problem that would balloon.
#4—aggressive tendencies. This is a new rooster, and he's possessive of hens. I really don't like roosters that I haven't raised. It doesn't help that he's in a pen, which is one of the worst ways possible to keep a rooster, in my experience. All that reaching in with hands and no way to move his feet—a near perfect method of turning them bad. Note that when I reach towards him to move him away, he scoots sideways with his shoulders held out and his attention directed on me. His wings are nearly dragging on the ground and he keeps throwing glances at me. His movements are sharp and deliberate. I think he's a little scared of me, but not much. He never turns his back on me without clearly keeping an eye on what I'm doing, and he moves stiffly.
#5—a young and completely docile Leghorn cockerel. Again, zero indicators of aggression. The alarm calls they were wheeling off at the start were not directed at me I think a crow had just flown overhead. I don't handle him that much but he is comfortable with me squatting nearby. Note the relaxed leg positions and complete confidence in turning his back on me. Also, the little rooster in #2 decided he was going to hog the camera.
Mature cock birds seem to require a different tack. I have had maybe five 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 bird 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 is 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) when he was little. I corrected him and he's been an angel ever since. My purpose for my flock is more practical than that of many others on this site, and my handling methods reflect that. Even if I could get the same result (a gentle cockerel) by handling them frequently, I wouldn't want to. I don't have time for that. I get over a dozen males every year just out of the birds I keep to maturity, and I eat most of them. I do not want to invest weeks of training just so I can walk safely in my own yard. Your purposes may well be different. Experiment. Find what works for what you want.
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. Your method does not matter as long as you can get the same result. 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 rhyme or reason, and they will not.
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 I apply common sense and change my 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 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 named Glurk that rather unnerved me. His behaviour was so far off standard that he barely even seemed like a chicken some days. 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, since I don't wear shoes in the summer. 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.
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 Kathy Mormino, who runs the popular on-line blog The Chicken Chick. 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.
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.
A Viewpoint on Raising Cockerels
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"Just what I’ve been looking for!"
- 5/5, 5 out of 5, reviewed Apr 23, 2019
I began reading this article, as I have many, in hopes of finding an answer to a problem I’ve encountered with too many of my cockerels, 6 to be exact. I am to the point of thinking I’ll never be able to keep a cockerel, much less dream of having a beautiful, mature rooster. I am not one for giving up on anything, and please don’t tell me I can’t do something, because I sure enough will prove you wrong...until it comes to cockerels, that is.
Out of my last batch of eggs that I incubated, 7 out of 8 were male. Yeah! Go figure! Anyway, I took this as a sign to do a little experiment. I mean, I have enough birds to experiment with, right? There’s no way I’d be keeping all 7 anyway, so if my project doesn’t work, no harm done, chicken soup it is.
They were all mixed birds and two of the males were given more attention from the get go, and naturally I bonded with them. They were my first and they were prettier.
When all 7 were running loose with the flock, even though none presented any ill will toward me, they were like a gang of thugs running loose on the streets and were wreaking havoc on my girls. So now, five are in the batchelor pen/soup holding pen and the two I like are still with the girls.
So far things are going good and I’m hoping beyond hope that I’ll be able to employ some of the suggestions in this article to help me correctly raise a decent boy, if not two.
Hallelujah, this information is what I’ve been waiting for and I didn’t want the article to end! Thank you, thank you!