The reader needs to be aware that these observations and conclusions are taken from a particular chicken keeping arrangement which was conceived to be as close as practicable to the living arrangements of the chickens ancestors, the jungle fowl, in order to study the chickens natural behaviour when unrestricted as far as being able to make observations permitted.
There are some keeping conditions that are difficult to avoid without resorting to a completely feral population. The chickens have coops and I try to encourage them to use these at night. The bantams and hybrids will happily roost in the trees at night and for a period, I let this behaviour continue. The heavier Marans prefer coops and have voluntarily roosted in coops over the entire eight years of my observations.
The chickens get fed three times a day. This has an enormous impact on both their behaviour and their health.
I limit sitting and hatching. Every hen here, even those that have never laid an egg, have at some point shown broody behaviour. Even with predation, the population would have grown at an exponential rate and economics make such growth impracticable.
I treat the injured and sick where appropriate and occasionally eat a chicken.
All the hatchings here are done by a broody hen, usually at her chosen nest site, if I’m going to let her sit.
I do collect eggs but a considerable number don’t get found because the hens make nest outside the coops which I don't always find.
During the day the chickens have unrestricted access to 12.5 acres of mixed woodland and fields which are surrounded by a National Park.
This unrestricted access includes my house and various outbuildings.
It’s my belief that over the eight year period these observations were taken and given my virtually constant presence, the chickens behaviour is altered only to the extent of direct interactions with me. I am seen as a normal part of their environment.
Initially there were two groups of chickens. One group comprised a mixture of French Marans (3 roosters and 2 hens) and Old English Game bantams (One rooster and one hen) which were kept free range.
The second group comprised two Old English Game roosters and two hens of the same breed. These were permanently confined to a small run and coop.
The free range area is virtually unlimited, but normally about 4 acres is used by the various groups.
A matting between a bantam hen and a Marans rooster in year 1 of my observations led to the first hybrids and it was at this point that all the chickens in this article were allowed to free range (Open an hour after sun up and when possible closed in coops at dusk). In some circumstances the chickens roosted in trees until a coop was provided.
As the groups changed I built coops to accommodate them. From that point onwards the chickens chose to live with either with their own breed, or groups where genetically related individual/s were already established.
In the event that a hen, or rooster, was rejected by an established group, they eventually formed a new group at which point I would build another coop.
The chickens here are kept in closed flock arrangement. There have been occasions when a rescue group, or individual has been kept here. In all these cases the rescue chickens have stayed as single individuals living apart from the other groups, or when more than one, stayed as a separate group with little interaction with other groups. All the rescue chickens were kept free range and had the choice to mix with any other group.
I refer to these groups as tribes because this best describes their chosen living arrangements and behaviour.
There has been a maximum of 5 tribes here and a minimum of 3, from the point when all the chickens free ranged. At certain points there were tribes without roosters and roosters without hens.
The maximum number of roosters kept at any one time was 9 and the minimum was 5; all free range.
The maximum tribe size has been 8 individuals (excluding chicks) and the minimum size has been 2.
The primary goal of a rooster is to further his genes. this goal underpins all rooster behaviour.
In order to further his genes a rooster needs a ‘co-operative’ hen. A hen has the ability to prevent a roosters sperm from reaching her infundibulum
where it can stay viable for up to three weeks. A rooster cannot force a hen to sit and hatch eggs.
While rogue roosters can and will force a hen to mate in some circumstances, a roosters chances of successfully furthering his genes are improved greatly by regularly mating with a hen.
In order for a rooster to get his sperm on target the hen has to crouch. I’ve seen numerous occasions when hens would not only not crouch for a rooster, but would fight the rooster off, or run away, often taking flight to a branch off the ground which makes it virtually impossible for the rooster to make the behind the neck grab that helps to ensure his balance during mating. Some of the stronger hens here will just keep walking with a rooster desperately trying to maintain his balance and force the hen to crouch. While this looks very funny, the important point is it is extremely difficult for a rooster to mate successfully with an uncooperative hen.
Most cockerels here have tried the force hens to mate.
Under laboratory conditions certain characteristics have been what determined a hens willingness to mate with a particular rooster; comb size is one often quoted, position in the flock is another. My observations suggest that while these may be contributing factors attracting hens is far more complex.
In order to maximize his mating opportunities a rooster must persuade a hen to be ‘his’ hen. This usually means they will cohabit and range as a group if more than one hen is involved.
How a rooster attracts hens.
Below is an example of how a junior rooster established his own harem
Rip and Notch were brothers. They were the sons of a hen called Dink from Tribe 3. While they were cockerels they lived together in one of the tribe coops. Tribe 3 occupied two coops at that time. When they got old enough to attract hens Notch drove Rip out of the tribe coop and Rip perched up a tree outside my house at night for a while. The place he chose to perch was reasonable safe and he was too high for me to easily get him down.
During the day he would follow his tribe, but at a safe distance from Notch. When Rip got too close, Notch would drive him away. This went on for a few weeks.
One of the maternity coops became free and I managed to get Rip out of the tree at night and put him in this maternity coop. After a couple of nights Rip would roost in this coop voluntarily.
Notch had seven hens and when the hens went to lay an egg Rip would follow the hen and Notch and wait close to where this hen was laying. Notch would return to his tribe to guard the remaining hens.
Once an egg laying site is established the senior roosters don’t always escort the hens to the site, or escort them part of the way and then return to the tribe.
When the junior hen came out of the coop, or laying site, Rip would already be there. The senior hens and Notch’s favourites would make the escort call and Notch would arrive to collect them and drive Rip away. When it came to the junior hens, Notch didn’t always answer their calls and Rip would already be there waiting. Rip would escort the hen back to the outskirts of the tribe without trying to mate with her and remained on the fringe until another hen went to lay an egg. Rip did this with the three junior hens in Notch’s tribe for a couple of weeks.
Eventually the junior hens stopped making the escort call and would follow Rip rather than return to their tribe and Notch. Notch kept an attentive attitude towards his favourite hens, but seemed largely unconcerned about the junior hens staying with Rip throughout the day. After a couple of weeks three junior hens were spending their days with Rip.
The three junior hens lived in a separate coop to Notch due to space restrictions. One evening Rip didn't return ti his coop and climbed the ramp to the coop of the three junior hens making coo cooing sounds and nodding his head repeatedly outside the coop door occasionally poking his head into the coop. The hens, or a hen, made an acceptance call which I’ve heard on a few occasions and Rip went into the coop. Rip and these three hens formed a new tribe and stayed together until Rip died.
This has been the most common way that junior roosters have acquired their own hens in tribes where there has been a senior rooster. This has also been the primary method a cockerel has sought out mating opportunities.
The junior roosters strategy here has been to be at the nest site location when the hen makes the escort call either by staying in the locality, or by responding more quickly than the senior rooster. It seems from my observations that escort duty, or at least attendance at the nest site after the call, is accepted by the senior rooster. In a tribe of 5 or 6 hens, it is often not possible for the senior rooster to get his hens to a place of safety at the time of the hens escort call and response duties fall to the junior rooster. Often it is not until a hen stops making the escort call that a junior rooster may attempt to mate with that hen. Sometimes a hen will make the escort call, a junior rooster will respond, and they will move away from the nest site with the hen will still calling for the senior rooster. If and when the senior rooster responds he will drive the junior rooster away and often mate with the hen.
The most commonly reported method of a rooster trying to attract hens is through the ‘I’ve found food’ calls and postures. The rooster nods his head at the ground and makes a particular set of sounds. This combination of sounds and body language attract the hens to the roosters location.
If a hen takes the food offered by a rooster the rooster takes this as a sign she may be willing to mate with him. Mating does not necessarily take place but the rooster gains credit depending on the quality of the treat he finds. The next time he makes the ‘I’ve found food’ call the hen that investigated the first call is likely to investigate again and the rooster builds a level of confidence with that hen.
In a tribe with a senior rooster this strategy has it’s problems. If the senior rooster notices a junior rooster making these calls he usually attacks the junior rooster and drives him away and then he calls the hens for the food.
In order not to attract the senior rooster, the junior rooster will often just carry out the head nodding and postures but wont make any call hoping a hen will notice but the senior rooster wont. Senior hens rarely investigate junior roosters food calls.
Once a relationship between a rooster and his hens is established this bond is very strong. One might assume for example, that in the fights between roosters kept under the conditions above a rooster who continually loses fights to another rooster, stands the risk of his hens deserting him for the victor. This has never happened during the period of my observations.
It is also worth noting that the size of the rooster hasn’t been a major factor in winning fights.
The largest rooster I’ve had here (Major, Marans Tribe 1) who also had the biggest comb and virtually unrestricted access to all of the territories didn’t have his own harem in his lifetime here. He did mate with the Marans hens, but the mixed breeds and the bantam hens would do their utmost to elude him. Given they were smaller and more agile, Major, despite having the requisites often described in chicken literature as best genetic prospects and highest level of attraction wasn’t as successful at furthering his genes as many of the other roosters with less desirable characteristics.
It seems that what is often touted as the criteria for successful mating is an extremely limited view of a hens investment strategy for furthering her genes and many other factors come into play.
There have been a few extraordinary relationships established between roosters and hens during the period of my observations that conventional explanations of attraction between the sexes fail to explain.
One such relationship was between a bantam rooster (Random) and a bantam hen (Mini Minx ).
Both Mini Minx and Random lived with the Marans of Tribe 1. When Mini Minx became broody she was moved to a broody coop kept in the car port, midway between the territory of Tribe 1 and Tribe 2 and 3. I didn’t see Random mate with Mini Minx and the father of the chicks was most likely Major, the most senior rooster of Tribe 1.
None of the Marans visited Mini Minx while she sat and hatched, but Random would arrive every day. Once Mini Minx’s chicks hatched, she and her chicks were moved to a maternity coop kept in Tribe 2 and 3‘s territory. For the first couple of days in the maternity coop Mini Minx and her chicks would be out in the small attached run and every day Random would be there watching Mini Minx and her chicks through the wire. He would dig around the coop finding treats and making I’ve found food calls, sit and rest on the top of the run structure and only move away when the other bantam roosters came close. It was apparent very early on that Mini Minx’s chicks had Marans genes.
Mini Minx took her chicks out of the safety of the run on day five and Random was there waiting for her. I had expected Mini Minx to show some hostility towards Random. He wasn’t the chicks father and out of all the roosters that lived in the coop of Tribe 1 he was the most junior.
I had never seen Mini Minx show any interest in Random before she hatched her chicks. Random, Mini minx and the chicks went everywhere together. I never saw Random mate with Mini Minx and when Mini Minx started to lay eggs again, Random would be out and about with the chicks, digging for treats and keeping any inquisitive hens and roosters away. One afternoon I found Random lying dead on the track that leads to the house. He had wounds on his head and chest and his neck was broken. I found Mini Minx with all her chicks alive and unharmed hiding in some large shrubs close by.
a) Hens choose their roosters.
b) It can take months of escorting hens, finding treats and avoiding the wrath of a senior rooster for a junior rooster to attract his own hens.
c) While physical characteristics play a role in what attracts hens it seem a minor factor and factors like attentiveness, responsiveness, persistence and treat finding abilities are more important.
d) Given a choice, hens will choose a rooster of their own breed, or one that is genetically related to them.
Roosters as fathers.
Conventional wisdom has it that roosters do not play a role in rearing chicks. The story above suggests that while it may be unusual to see a rooster rearing chicks in a domestic setting, particularly where the chickens are contained, given a particular set of circumstances, roosters will assist mothers in chick rearing. I have read reliable reports of roosters sitting and hatching eggs in free range settings and here, roosters assisting in the care of chicks is not uncommon.
For broody hens that sit and hatch in their tribe coop, the roosters here have all played a role to a greater or lesser extent in raising the chicks.
With hens that lay and hatch away form the tribe coops, the rooster will still respond to any distress calls given by the broody hen. While he may not be sitting on the eggs, he is still carrying out his role as protector.
In my experience it has been the hen that has determined the extent of the fathers involvement with the chicks. In some instances the imprinting by the rooster of the chicks is done very early and the entire tribe move together, the mother tending to steer the chicks away from the other hens rather than the rooster.
As soon as the mother hen allows the rooster to imprint the chicks, the chicks come under that roosters protection. Some rooster will dig and let the chicks take any food found. It’s not possible to state that on such occasions the rooster is digging for the chicks, but I’ve not seen a rooster drive a chick away. Another common occurrence here is to see a chicks that may have got on the wrong side of a hen in the tribe and received a peck, to run and stand under the senior rooster.
An interesting observation would be should the father of the chick not be the senior rooster, but be in the same tribe. So far, this hasn’t been the case. All the chicks that have hatched here have been the progeny of the senior rooster of that tribe.
I have never seen a rooster attack or otherwise hurt a chick; not one of his own, nor one from another tribe.
Without wishing to get embroiled in gender politics it seems that roosters do participate in rearing chicks, but the role of the rooster is usually different to that of the hen. Conversely, there are instances when a hen will take on the role of a rooster in single sex flocks. The circumstances would seem to determine to some extent who adopts which role.
(Parental and Courtship Feeding in Red Jungle Fowl, by Allen W. Stokes.)
The Rooster As Provider And Protector.
In order for the rooster to further his genes he may have to compete with other roosters.
The roosters claws, beak and spurs have evolved to be effective when fighting other roosters, but are not particularly effective against predators. Predators are not competing with the rooster for mating opportunities. There may be instances where chickens compete with predators for resources, but direct conflict for the chickens in such cases is rare in my experience.
What the rooster may do is increase the risk for a predator, in some cases even inflict an injury, but what a rooster can provide is a distraction and warning which may allow other tribe members to escape the predator. Assuming the rooster has mated with the hens he is protecting, and those hens heed the rosters warning call and escape the predator, the rooster will have increased the chances of his genes being passed on to the next generation.
Warning calls are quiet and are meant to be heard by the roosters flock, or tribe. Alarm calls are loud and their purpose may be to frighten, or distract predators. There is no obvious advantage for the rooster of one tribe in alerting another flock, or tribe of chickens that are not in the immediate vicinity of the predator strike. In fact the opposite would seem more likely. A predator strike diverted to another flock, or tribe means the rooster that initiates the warning has a better chance of survival.
Ariel Predator Warning Calls
The rooster acts as a lookout for his flock or tribe. When he spots anything he considers a threat he makes the warning call. The other chickens look to locate the threat and depending on the type of threat, and the proximity of the threat, take appropriate action. The younger less experienced tribe members tend to seek cover every time the rooster gives the warning call. The more experienced tribe members make an individual risk assessment and act accordingly.
Sometimes the rooster doesn’t see the threat until the last few seconds of an attack. The rooster gives the appropriate warning call and the rest of the tribe scatter. Those hens that can’t find cover in time crouch where they are. The rooster doesn’t crouch so even if the hawk intended another target on its approach, a standing rooster presents an easier strike than a crouching hen in the open.
If the hawk strike is on a hen, some roosters may attack the hawk at this point. In such cases the outcome depends on the size of the rooster compared to the hawk and the aggressiveness of the rooster. The hawk is hunting for food, while the rooster is protecting his genetic investment.
It seems that the rooster is more likely to exhibit aggressive, or protective behaviour if his hens are under threat than he is if his own life is.
I’ve had young roosters that gave the warning call for almost anything that flew. While the more experienced hens look, they don’t always seek cover. As these roosters matured they became more selective in what they gave warning calls for.
It seems that the rooster learns to grade threats in relation to his environment and experience and the experience of other members of his tribe.
There also seems to be a variation in loudness and pitch of the roosters warning call. I believe these variations may represent the proximity of the perceived threat.
I have not seen any behaviour that leads me to believe that a rooster is able to differntiate between say a gos hawk or a buzzard.
Roosters use the warning call for other things apart from predators. I’ve seen a group of chickens of mixed tribes eating and a rooster will give the close proximity warning call. What happens is the majority of the other roosters and hens run for cover, the rooster that gave the call carries on eating and consequently gets a larger portion or the most appetizing pieces. Usually it is that roosters tribe that returns to the food first and benefit from the lack of competition from members of other tribes.
Ground Predator Warning calls.
This is also a quiet call and is different to the aerial predator call.
The problem roosters have with ground predators is they tend to hunt by stealth. Often the rooster doesn’t even see the ground predator until it’s too late to give a warning call. Some will hawks sit in trees or on the ground waiting for the group to approach and if unnoticed by the rooster, or hens, attacks.
I’ve seen a weasel attack a hen when the rooster was about 15 metres away. In this instance the weasel attacked a hen that hadn’t kept tight to the tribe. Fortunately the weasel only managed to grab a mouthful of feathers and the hen ran for cover with the weasel trying to hang on to the hens rear end. The rest of the tribe ran for cover, including the rooster who didn’t give a warning call. The hen managed to shake the weasel off by flying down a bank.
Quite often its a hen that spots the predator first and then the rooster gives the warning call. In the common case of a predator up a tree, Instead of running for cover the tribe gather at the base of the tree and give the general alarm call. The predator up the tree no longer has the element of surprise and gives up the attack. However, it can’t risk coming down the tree while there is a group of chickens at the bottom, it risks getting mobbed by the entire tribe. Eventually the chickens move on and the ground predator slips away.
The majority of the ground predators where I live hunt by night so the opportunities to see how the rooster reacts in the event of an attack are very limited.
In the normal course of events the hens stay close to the senior rooster as they move around as a group. Initially I thought being able to see the rooster was the most important factor, but further observations made me realise that what was more important was being able to hear the rooster; line of sight made no difference. Because the roosters warning call is relatively quiet the hens need to be close enough to hear it. Further, what one might expect to happen is the hens run towards the rooster for protection after he has given the warning call, but they don’t, they either all seek cover together, or disperse away from the rooster. The possible implication of this is the hens are not expecting the rooster to protect them against a predator but they are only expecting the rooster to give warning of a possible threat.
The only time the hen seems to expect the rooster to protect her is when another rooster is making mating advances towards her, or from aggressive attentions of other hens. This would seem to make sense because the hen chooses which rooster she thinks makes the best investment when fertilizing her eggs and the rooster has an obvious interest in making sure the hen only mates with him in order to further his genes.
There is a third easily identified warning call given by roosters that is relatively easy to hear and this seems to cover such things as humans and other known animals.
If it was left to the roosters here to provide for their hens the chickens here would have died of starvation many years ago. The hens find their own food when free ranging and occasionally a rooster will dig up something tasty and call his hens.
What the rooster does do, is by standing guard he enables the hens to concentrate on foraging and not on keeping an eye out for predators, or often overlooked, pestering from other roosters.
Watching the roosters from the various tribes here it has always struck me that a rooster gets an inordinate amount of credit for the few treats he finds. Those roosters that find the most treats seem to be able to attract more hens.
I believe from watching the most stable couples here that it is not the quality, or even quantity of the treats that attracts the hens, its for want of a better description, the generosity. I would assume that in times of poor foraging a rooster that is prepared to go hungry in order to feed his hens is a great asset and with regard to furthering his genes, makes good sense. Sick, or malnourished hens tend not to lay eggs and no eggs means no future generations.
The ‘best’ rooster here check the coops at roost time, they will show more patience when hens dust bath, they are more responsive to the hens escort calls, be it when going to and from a nest site, or when the hen has encountered some kind of problem such as getting separated from the tribe, or coming across something she considers hostile. As a rooster matures, he gets more adept at mating and feather damage to the hens is reduced. They also tend to be less easily distracted than cockerels and better at keeping the tribe in close proximity.
The behaviours reported in laboratory studies I believe reflect the experiment conditions rather than the chickens natural behaviour and this may account for the reported preferences of hens for particular rooster attributes.
Once a rooster has managed to attract two or three hens in my he doesn’t actively seek any more. He will happily accept more hens if they choose to follow him but it’s the core favourites that get most of his attention. A rooster can’t force a hen to follow him. Even if a cockerel wins a fight with a senior rooster who had more than three hens, the hens don’t automatically leave the rooster that loses the fight. The fights seem to be over resources and freedom of movement. The rooster that can provide more interesting, or more regular food for his hens tends to keep them. Furthermore, being able to move around the best foraging areas without conflict is far more desirable for the hens. When the roosters do fight in general the hens stand to one side looking bored and wander off. There is also the thorny matter of chickens forming bonds through affection, or whatever non human quality one cares to use. I have absolutely no doubt that chickens do form emotional bonds that cannot be explained by the normal ‘scientific’ explanations of attractiveness or successfulness.
All the roosters here show greater interest in laying hens.
Rooster Body Language.
The Herding Shuffle.
Roosters herd their hens. I’ve had countless hours of amusement watching a tribes’ rooster try and move his hens in a group from point A to point B. A few years ago the best show in town was Major trying to get Fat Bird to the coop at roost time. The pair would set off from the car parking area up the track to the top of the sheep field. They looked like any ordinary couple out for an evening stroll. They would progress a few metres and then Fat Bird would suddenly veer off course to investigate a promising looking patch of grass on the bank for bugs. Major would have marched on another couple of metres before he noticed Fat Bird was no longer following. He would stop and turn to watch Fat Bird. You could almost see him tapping a foot with impatience. Fat Bird would be oblivious, head buried in the grass, just an over sized bum on view. Major, running out of patience would walk back to Fat Bird and do the leg kicking herding move and Fat Bird would reluctantly make forward motion. Some evenings this performance would take 10 minutes to cover the 50 metres of track. The track isn’t the safest place to dawdle; there isn’t any easy cover and any chicken is in plain view from the vantage points in the woods leading to the West ridge. I often imagined Major asking Fat Bird when they finally got onto the roost in the tribe coop if she had to eat everything on the track before going to bed.
Moving a group of hens is liable to have a rooster tearing his feathers out. The rooster gets a few to a point of safety only to hear one of his hens who has disappeared into a patch of undergrowth and lost sight of the rest of the tribe giving the escort call and looking most upset that she’s been deserted. Back the rooster goes to pick up the straggler and with a few herding shuffles and kicks the pair move off to join the rest of the tribe. Of course, by the time the pair return another hen has wandered off and the whole performance get repeated. You can almost see the sigh of relief from the rooster when he final gets all his hens closely grouped at the chosen safe destination point.
The body language that so often gets called the mating dance (rooster hopping around the subject kicking his offside leg out) has absolutely nothing to do with mating; It’s a herding and possession movement. Roosters will use this movement on other roosters in their tribe and to move hens from other tribes back to their rooster and tribe. They use it to get hens out of dust baths and places the rooster considers unsafe. They will also use it on humans if that human is viewed as a flock member and this is often mistaken as aggression.
The Mating Hustle.
Cockerels and some young roosters will try the neck grab when interested in mating with a hen. Most of the time if the hen isn’t interested in mating she will pull away rather than crouch and try to escape. With more mature roosters with established favourites the mating technique is rather more civilized. The rooster walk up behind his hen (It has to be one of his hens) and gently bumps her bum with his chest. If she crouches they mate. If she doesn’t the rooster moves away and tries again some other time.
In established tribes the hens will often crouch and invite the rooster to mate when a rooster approaches them.
The Neck Grab.
The rooster makes an open beak peck to the back of the neck of a hen with the intention of mating.
The Hackle Flash.
This is when a rooster briefly raises his hackles as he would when fighting and takes a step towards a hen. It’s a herding tactic for stubborn hens. It’s the equivalent of move now! I’ve seen this used most often when hens are dust bathing when for some reason the rooster considers this unsafe. I’ve also seen a rooster do this when splitting up fighting hens.
The Discipline Peck
I’ve observed this most often at feeding times. Usually the rooster gives what he forages to his hens, but at regular meal times he eats with his hens. Junior hens who try to eat while the rooster is eating get this peck and junior roosters get driven away.
The rooster approaches a hen and attempts to place on foot on their back. This may be used to encourage a hen to crouch for mating but is also used to make a hen move. I’ve seen this used most often when hens are dust bathing and the rest of the tribe has moved away from the bath site and the rooster is trying to group the hens.
The Close Shuffle.
This has only been done by cockerels to me. Roosters do this to hens. It’s not aggressive and seems to be a reinforcement of tribe belonging. Roosters do this to each other as well as to hens.
The rooster stands close to the other rooster, or hen, and shuffles sideways with an upright stance. When this has been done to me the rooster usually does the shuffle and then cocks his head and looks at your face. The difference between this and the herding shuffle is the rooster doesn’t kick out his offside leg.
The I’ve Found Food Head Nod.
Most people who keep roosters will have seen this. It’s an invitation to take whatever the rooster has found.
The Mating Charge.
This can look intimidating. The rooster runs towards you with his head low and his wings spread out. Usually seen in response to a hens escort call after egg laying. It’s not aggression.
The rooster crouches very low and scratches at the ground making excited clucking noises. This is encouragement for the hen to lay an egg at this site.
None of the above are aggressive displays.
In my experience there are no ‘rules’ that will tell you an attack is imminent. The posturing seen with roosters about to fight another rooster do not necessarily apply to confrontations with humans. I’ve had roosters fly at me from a standing start with no prior warning and others that have walked right up to me and given me an open beak peck that has drawn blood.
Tribe care duties.
In tribes where there has been a senior rooster and adult male offspring, when the hens finished mothering the chicks, both male and female, it has been the junior rooster, rather than the father and senior rooster who has taken up the role of answering any distress calls from the chicks and often a ‘supervisory’ role, forming a sub flock. This sub tribe only fully integrated into the main tribe comprising the senior rooster and the adult hens when the pullets began to lay.
In the instances I’ve been able to observe, while before the senior rooster would chase the junior if any attempt to mate with hens was made by the junior rooster, once the new pullets and cockerels rejoined the main tribe, friction over mating between the senior rooster and the rooster who escorted the sub tribe became noticeably less.
Roosters are much like hens with respect to aggressive behaviour; more or less limited to an outright attack. What may be different is the posturing that goes before the attack.
Roosters are like any other creature, they avoid serious conflict if possible, it’s expensive and unproductive. The roosters from the tribes here fight every day, but rarely are they serious. The fights are about territory and food in general. They are over quickly and the injuries, if any, are minor.
There are breeds that will not tolerate another rooster and will, if that rooster doesn’t run away, kill the opponent. Often the keeping conditions of the roosters determines their death rather than the aggression of the assailant. If this were not the case jungle fowl would not have survived and managed to coexist in small units in what are relatively small densely populated areas.
The opportunities for conflict are virtually limitless here yet the various tribes manage to coexist, moving around each other as they move across each others territories. I’ve observed a level of cooperation between roosters that completely belies the common portrayal of rooster behaviour.
Causes aggressive behaviour towards humans.
The main causes of human aggressive behaviour in roosters is the misunderstanding of the terms ‘domesticated’ and ‘tame’ and the humans lack of understanding of roosters.
Understanding that as far as any rooster is concerned, the hens he depends on to further his genes are his hens. It doesn’t matter what you do to you will never make him believe otherwise. Not being able to accept this one simple premise is likely to result in an aggressive response, most probably directed at you and possibly his hens.
My view is, if you want to be the boss then you need to be able to do what the boss does.
Can you fertilise the eggs of all the hens each day?
Will you be there every day and every night?
Will you escort the hens to and from their nesting and egg laying sites?
What about giving them the best bits of your dinner?
Can you get the hens to follow you?
Are you prepared to die for them?
Of course, you won’t get bored and wander off when they have a long dust bath.
Are you going to dig for treats and give them to the hens?
How about breaking up their fights?
Can you see that hawk in the trees?
What about that weasel over there in the bushes?
Can you get the hens to accept you as boss?
Yes I know you can kill the rooster….
He’s still the boss, he’s just the dead boss.
It’s important to understand that chickens are territorial by nature.
When you define a roosters territory, by containing him in a coop and run for example, that coop and run becomes his territory.
One of the behavioural advantages of keeping chickens with roosters free range is territory becomes less well defined and less easily defended. Here the various tribes do move about through each others territory, but they don’t occupy it and tend not to venture into another tribes territory if the rooster of that tribe’s territory is present.
What tends to happen when two tribes meet, is the roosters posture and if the invading rooster does not back away, they fight. Usually the invading rooster backs away taking his tribe with him. However, should the roles be reversed the rooster that backed away when invading the others territory will not back away when another rooster invades his territory.
Usually these fights are brief and there are no serious injuries; one rooster giving way to the other.
In the event that a particular tribe has a fight seasoned rooster that other roosters cannot defend their territory from, that rooster has full access to all the territories until such a time comes when another rooster becomes confident and able enough to challenge him. In my experience this set of circumstances can lead to fights to the death.
Over familiarity can lead the rooster to believe that you are one of his tribe. I’ve had a couple of roosters that believed this and I got the I’ve found food calls and the herding dance and when I’ve picked them up, it’s quite apparent that the cockerels in particular believe this is mating.
Once they are mature and established with a tribe of their own this behaviour fades away. Personally I find their you’re one of my hens behaviour rather endearing, but for keepers with little knowledge and/or interest in chicken behaviour some of these possessive antics can be construed as aggressive behaviour. One particular rooster who used to hurtle towards me with his wings outstretched as he might to a hen, also did the you’re one of my tribe herding shuffle when I let him out in the morning. I was a bit upset when he grew out of it.
Feeding his hens. Given the rooster attracts hens primarily by finding food for them it’s hardly surprising the rooster will consider you as competition if you attempt to give his hens treats. As far as the rooster is concerned you are trying to entice his hens away from him much like another rooster might. The solution is easy in theory at least, you make it look like the rooster has found the food for his hens. I’ve calmed a few roosters with this tactic. As a rule now when giving treats and for at least one daily meal for the less confident roosters I offer them the food first; the hens have to wait. I have a rooster now who leaves his tribe and comes to look for me at usual meal times. We both walk back to the hens with the food which I hold in front of him first. He usually takes one peck and then I put the food down for the hens and as far as he and his hens are concerned he got the food. Everybody is happy. I don’t have a challenging rooster, he keeps his position as provider and I haven’t undermined his confidence and the hens get to eat.
Lack of hens can lead a rooster to adopt you as his hen. Naturally he will expect to mate with you. If he titbits for you and as far as he’s concerned protects you, then eventually if you won’t mate he will become aggressive. Particularly with cockerels, picking them up is as far as they are concerned is how you mate and while this does help inhibit the aggressive behaviour, you could find yourself with a permanent ‘friend’.
Picking up his hens for roosters that you have handled a lot especially if you’ve picked them up as cockerels to reduce aggressive behaviour, is as far as the rooster is concerned, you mating his hens. It’s hardly surprising this can produce an aggressive response.
An easy test for this is if you observe mating you will see that once the act is completed the hen will shake herself. This shaking is to help the sperm travel to her infundibulum where it can survive for up to a month.
If when you pick up a hen the hen shakes herself then it would seem reasonable to assume she thinks mating has taken place. A rooster is aware of this reaction and reasonably enough will come to the same conclusion.
Tribe less roosters and cockerels will in my experience all become aggressive eventually. Like males from many other species (wild boar are a prime example where I live) they go rogue. While they may not immediately become aggressive towards humans they cause so much disruption to the other tribes by stalking unescorted hens, flash fighting with established roosters, competing for food and resources, that unless one is prepared to become a substitute hen there are only two realistic solutions. You either cull them, or build them a coop and get them some hens.
In the chicken keeping arrangement I have here, tribe-less roosters hens are fortunately uncommon.
There have been two reasons why cockerels here have become tribe-less.
a) they were hatched away from their tribes coop and their mother and any other living relatives except their father have died before the mother had integrated them into the tribe by returning to the tribe coop with her offspring. In my experience unless the mother makes this introduction the father will not tolerate any of the offspring be they male or female and the neither will the tribe hens,
b) a chicken has been rescued and is not related to any of the current population.
There have only been two occasions where a cockerel has been hatched and there have been no surviving relatives, or spare hens for him to bond with. One got predated and the other I spent considerable effort in introducing him to a tribe of hens that had had their rooster killed by a predator some months earlier.
Satellite, or junior roosters are not the same as tribe-less roosters.
Taking his hens eggs. Roosters and some mature cockerels know about eggs and nests. I had one rooster in particular who got very upset if he caught me taking eggs from one of his hens nests. I’ve had others who are completely fascinated by piles of eggs. They strut and cluck around the nest and even sit on the eggs for short periods of time. Both hens and roosters will defend a nest containing eggs.
Stress. Chickens don’t cope with stress very well. With hens they are more likely to having egg laying problems initially and extreme stress can send a hen into paralysis. Roosters tend to react to stress with aggressive behaviour. Like many other creatures, roosters can gauge the confidence and mental state of other creatures. Highly strung, nervous erratic people tend to provoke adverse behaviour in roosters.
I’ve found that coop cleaning particularity when there are eggs in the nest boxes can illicit early signs of stress in roosters that if ignored could lead to aggression.
Dealing With Aggressive Roosters.
The best way to deal with aggression is not to get to the point where it happens. An important step in this direction is to recognise the difference between a domesticated rooster and a tame rooster. I’ve never kept a tame rooster, I don’t think I’ve ever met one. The people I know who keep mixed free range flocks all work with roosters on the same principle; they are essentially feral creatures and need to be treated with the same respect as any other feral creature. I and other chicken keepers I know can handle their roosters, but that ability has little to do with trust, or tameness, or being the one that provides them with food and shelter. It’s about understanding your position in the tribe and knowing what is likely to produce reactive aggressive behaviour.
There are seemingly endless suggestions on what to do if it all goes wrong and a rooster attacks you from beating him to death to picking him up a cuddling him.
The first thing I suggest to anyone keeping a mixed flock is wear the appropriate clothing; boots or substantial shoes and heavy duty cloth to cover the lower parts of your body and decent strength gloves.
Try not to use your feet. Foot aggression is fighting talk to a rooster.
Learn the back of the neck grab. Senior roosters use this to discipline juniors. You grab the top hackle feathers behind his head between your thumb and forefinger and shake the rooster with enough force to unbalance him and let him go.
A peck to the head using your forefinger can work if you’re fast enough.
You can sweep a rooster out of your way with one hand. You catch him under his chest and with a firm sweep take him off his feet so he has to use his wings to make a safe landing.
There is one method of showing friendly intent and making a bond with roosters that has never failed, provided you can get the rooster calm enough to do it, and that is grooming him. Rooster love it. The roosters here get most upset if their hens won’t groom them. Many other creatures use grooming as a method of showing friendly intent.
This is best done with the rooster standing. Lower your head until you are about a foot away from his and stare intently at his comb and the back of his neck. Very slowly move your hand to touch his comb or high up on the back of his neck and make a pinching movement as if you were pulling a loose feather off. Do the same for his comb and wattles and around his eyes. The art is is not to make any other fast movements apart from the final pinch. If you can watch a hen do it. You should find that in time you will be able to inspect a rooster for skin and mite problem easily in daylight once he is used to you grooming him. It can with some roosters get to the point that you only need to lower your head and stare intently and he will stand dead still.
Some will say that aggressive behaviour is genetically inherited. Every rooster inherits this; it’s an essential part of being a rooster.
I have yet to find any evidence that a particular breed of rooster is any more human aggressive than another.
Like most other creatures there is no incentive for a rooster to be aggressive towards a human unless the rooster considers himself, or his hens under threat.
I’ve had 5 different breeds of rooster here over eight years and there has not yet come a point where I felt I had to cull a rooster because of his behaviour towards me. I’ve been flogged, spurred and pecked as I’ve learnt. The most important thing I’ve learnt is let the rooster be what he is.
I would like to thank
Frank Hammond (Australia)
Aleksie Takala (Finland)
who also keep chickens in a multi-coop environment who have helped me confirm some of my observations from their own studies.
Article edited 21/06.
Thank you @BigBlueHen53 for commenting on the grammar problems in places. I've rectified some of the mistakes. I hope the article reads better now.