I'm writing this article first and foremost to those of you who've only had negative encounters with roosters. From what I've read around the web, this seem to be an awful lot of people. Stories about roosters mating hens every 10 minutes, crowing at 3 am, picking fights with the dog or killing cockerels are disturbing. This is not how a rooster should behave.
I'm going to be using my 2 Buff Orpington roo's as models for this article, 'cause they fit the bill of a good rooster quite well. Their names are Buffulf and Orpulf.
Back To The Roots
In the wild, a rooster's job is to protect the flock. He guides the hens to food sources, finds good nest spots for his hens, warns about enemies from the ground and air and of course, fertilize the eggs.
Imagine if a wild rooster spent all his time mating the hens. Not only would he be distracted from looking for predators, he'd spend an enormous amount of energy on a useless activity (Yes, useless, a hen collects the sperm inside and can store it for weeks. Ergo, mating her a couple of times a day should be more than sufficient), and even hinder the hens from feeding and possibly injuring them by ripping out their feathers. Does that sound productive?
A wild rooster would not picks fights with everyone and everything. In the entire animal kingdom, males tend to avoid fighting at all costs. They've developed elaborate displays of horns, colors and dances to measure strength without asserting to physical violence. Every fight is a risk for injuries, even for the winner. The expression "pick your battles" is rule number one for animals in the wild. A wild rooster doesn't have access to antibiotics, bandages or pain killers, and while waiting for his wounds to heal, his flock is without his protection.
Buffulf being a good protector, walking first. The ladies trust him and follow along.
The same goes for overly excessive crowing. Crowing functions as a call to the flock to get up and start moving (it's 6 am, time for breakfast), to locate members of the flock (marco – polo) and a means to warn other chicken flocks nearby of their presence (yo, neighbor, I'm over here!). Crowing attracts predators, so every time a rooster crows, it's a potential risk. This is actually used as a way to demonstrate strength, not only by roosters but other birds as well. A bird who's not afraid to call out his presence, is one that's confident he'll escape any predators that comes his way. Ergo, the ladies see a crowing rooster as a healthy specimen. But moderation is key. And there's no reason at all for Mr. Rooster to crow at 3 am. You're supposed to be sleeping, young man!
Crowing. Roosters love it, neighbors hate it.
It's all in the genes
I feel that a lot of people tackle the aggression and "misbehaving" in roosters from the wrong end. What if the rooster wasn't aggressive or misbehaving in the first place? A lot of behaviors are encoded in the DNA. Animals do the strangest things (in our eyes) without no one telling them to do so. Grebe ducks feed their young down feathers as a first meal in order to help the duckling digest fish bones. Do momma duck remember that she was fed feathers when she was just a day old when it's time for her to have her first batch of ducklings? Probably not. The likelier explanation is that this specific action is encoded in their DNA. With that in mind, it's easy to understand how rooster behavior is also much down to genetics. If the rooster is the offspring of a line of calm and naturally acting roosters, it's likely to also act calm and natural.
Here's a digression in the field of genetically transferred temperament: There's a line of English Pointers descended from a dog called Appalachian Annie, that's referred to as "nervous pointers". Annie was a fearful and shy dog in all ways. A group from the University of Arkansas acquired Annie and started selectively breeding fearful dogs by choosing the most nervous dogs in each litter. This was done to research methods of helping with neurosis and anxiety disorder. (Quite terrible, really. Poor dogs.) The result were extremely fearful dogs that paniced around all things new. (Source: "How Dogs Think" by Stanley Coren)
Breeding for looks or temperament
So why not just breed for calm and naturally behaving chickens? It's not as simple as that. Poultry breed standards focus mostly on exterior looks. There are mentions of temperament, but mostly it focuses on body shape, comb shape, colors and size. Show breeding is a complex job that I will not even begin to understand. There are many factors involved in choosing the absolute best animals to continue the lines, and I'm not going to pretend to know anything about that.
There's a still ongoing experiment that started in 1959 in Russia with the goal of domesticating red foxes. The experiment is simple: take the most tame and calm individuals from each litter, and breed them. The result were interesting. After umteen generations, the foxes were fundamentally different in temperament, but also physical appearance. There were specific morphology towards more juvenile traits and also physical changes in fur color, to include white spotted patches.
The reason this is important to poultry breeding is that it shows just how complex genes are. The chicken and other poultry are also domesticated to be more compliant than their wild ancestors. The researchers only had one criteria in their breeding; tameness. Yet, there were a great deal of physical changes. As you can see, there is no way to breed only for temperament, and retain all the physical traits from the parent generation. There has to be a compromise to get both the exterior look described in the breed standard and a natural temperament.
Unfortunately, not all breeders focuses on temperament. Big hatcheries want to churn out as many baby chicks as possible and breed for quantity. Backyard mix breeds can be bred for their strange looks or egg color only. For those with a small flock of mix breeds who has a few babies a year, it's an excellent chance to breed for temperament rather than exterior looks.
Gorgeous mix rooster, eh? Unfortunately he was aggressive, so no babies for him.
Some breeders do focus on temperament, but in the other way around, to create cock fighting birds. Luckily, this "sport" is illegal in most places.
Body language - it's all in the details
In order to assess genetic temperament, one must spend a considerable time watching the adult individuals go about their day in a natural environment. Adolescents tend to behave erratic and aggressive because they're trying to find their place in the flock and don't yet show their true genetic make-up in terms of behavior. Mistreated and abused animals are very difficult to assess for true temperament. A rooster that's been kicked, chased, hurt or egged on for fighting will be cautious and aggressive no matter what his genes tell him.
Watching adults for temperament is a useless activity if you don't know what to look for. How do chickens talk? Chickens and other poultry can't speak human language. They do speak to each other using sounds, but their main form of communication is through body language. Once you start focusing on that while watching the birds roam around, a whole new world opens up. They don't use big letters, but small, almost insignificant movements of their body. A head turned away when a superior bird approaches: "I want no trouble". Bigger movements like cockerels stretching their necks to peck another one in the comb are more obvious: "I'm bigger than you".
Going back to what I wrote about wild birds not wanting to fight, watching roosters in the same flock communicate says a lot about how in tune they are with natural behavior. Learn what dominating and calming body signals a rooster sends off. Some dominating signals are; dropping wings and dancing around male challengers (as opposed to doing the same to hens, then he's flirting with them), walking straight at challenger with head high, and ,obviously, attacking.
Some calming signals are; turning either head or body away from challenger, cowering and displacement behavior like pecking the ground for food, clucking and drinking.
A good alpha-rooster will use mild dominating signals first, and only escalate if his submissor don't give way. He will also stop his dominant display when the other roo shows his respect. A good lower-ranking roo will use clear submissive signals consistently.
This is a sequence from a video I shot. Buffulf the boss (left) approaches Orpulf head on. Orpulf turns away immediately. Buffulf starts pecking on the ground and calling the hen towards him. It's a good example of clear and non-aggressive body language.
The Good Rooster
As mentioned earlier, a good rooster is a protector, guide and fertilizer. A good rooster does all this while treating his girls nicely. He flirts and dances with them before mating, he gives them the best treats and he comes running when a hen calls out. The hens trust him and will follow him around. He also treats the submissive roosters in the flock with respect, and acknowledges the way they contribute to the flock by being extra lookouts.
If this sounds like your rooster, congratulation! You have a naturally behaving rooster!
Buffulf following a hen to her nest spot.
The Not So Good Rooster
If not, it is possible to help him act better. Just remember: he's not being evil, just following his instinct. He can't help himself! Rule number one with dealing with misbehaving roosters is to be nice. Aggression should only be handled with calmness. Violence begets violence. Second rule is to respect his job, or what he perceives as his job. He's never read a single book on chickens and chicken behavior, in HIS eyes he's doing everything right.
Interrupting a rooster mid-mating because you think he's being disrespectful to the ladies, or making you uncomfortable, will confuse the both of them. Chickens have no prudence when it comes to sexuality. For them, sexual behavior is the most natural thing in the world, and they're not going to hide behind a bush. Mating may looks violent as the roo climbs on the hen's back, but really, how else would they do it...? Handling over-mating should involve separation and tools like hen aprons, not actively throwing roosters off hens' backs.
Orpulf showing how rooster courtship should work by dancing to ask for permission. Alas, no luck this time as the hen goes away instead of squatting.
Roosters are not supposed to be overly aggressive, over-mating or crowing all the time. An aggressive individual can be helped to calm down, but if he's mated, he'll pass those malfunctioning genes to the next generation. The only way to truly get calm and naturally behaving roos are to breed them and only them. On a final note: The hens' temperament also matters. They can also be aggressive and high strong (it's not just a man-thing), and that will transfer to her male offspring as well.
Naturally behaving, good roosters are a joy to have and watch, and I hope more people get to experience the wonderful sides of this 50% of the chicken population.