Should you keep a rooster with your hens? (and how to deal with a problem rooster)

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I prefer to keep my animals as naturally as possible to allow them to express their natural behaviour and reduce stress, so I have always kept a rooster with my hens. It is true that you do not need a cockerel or a rooster in your flock for your hens to lay eggs. So why would you want this noisy addition who needs just as much food but doesn’t lay any eggs?

A flock of hens with a rooster

A flock of hens with a rooster.

5 reasons to keep a rooster

  1. You can breed your own hens: The most obvious reason for having a rooster is to breed your own hens, hatching and raising chicks is not difficult to do and is a part of chicken keeping many people love. Perhaps you want to grow your flock, breed a few replacement layers, or produce some birds for meat each year. You can also earn some income from selling fertile eggs, chicks or pullets (young hens). It is perfectly legal to sell eggs for consumption that may be fertile.
  2. Reduced aggression: A rooster will break up fights between hens and prevent bullying. Studies such as this one have found reduced aggression in flocks of hens in the presence of a rooster.
  3. Sharing food: A rooster will look for food for his hens, when he finds some he will call them over and draw their attention to it by repeatedly picking it up in his beak and dropping it on the ground.
  4. Protection from predators: A rooster will remain vigilant for predators and make an alarm call when he senses a threat from the air or the ground. He may even provide some physical protection from smaller predators, though I don’t fancy any rooster’s chances again a fox!
  5. Reduced stress: The biggest effect of the previous 3 points is reduced stress in your flock. Chickens naturally live in a flock of several hens with one rooster. This rooster’s job is to look after them; keeping the peace, sharing food and protecting them from predators. Studies, including the one mentioned above, have also found a significant reduction in fear reactions of chickens in flocks with a rooster.
A white Leghorn rooster.

A white Leghorn rooster.

5 reasons NOT to keep a rooster

  1. He doesn’t lay but still eats. If you are not using your rooster to produce more chickens it may feel like he is eating your money and providing you with very little. If you keep a small flock in a small space keeping a rooster can mean one less egg-laying hen.
  2. The noise: For some folk the crowing of a rooster is a delightful sound, but it can be a big downside if you have neighbours or you are not a morning person. I have had great success light proofing the chicken house and not letting my flock out until a civilized time. A more enthusiastic rooster may be undeterred, crowing at 4am no matter how dark it is. In this case you could try sound proofing, or a different rooster.
  3. Not all roosters are nice: Some roosters do become aggressive towards people, this is especially problematic if you have small children. You can reduce the chances of this problem by choosing a docile breed. Most people say the solution to an aggressive rooster is CHICKEN SOUP, there are, however, other ways to deal with it, see below.
  4. The overly amorous rooster: This is more likely to be a problem if you have less than 5 hens, sometimes a rooster will mate with hens so often he injures them, or cause them to develop bald patches on their backs. You can buy protective ‘saddles’ for your hens to wear during the breeding season if this becomes a problem. Again this is less likely with docile breeds.
  5. It is not easy to find a rooster a new home and you can’t (usually) keep more than one. Sometimes brothers will live together happily, but if you hatch a young cockerel as soon as he is sexually mature the rooster will begin to bully him and exclude him from the flock. If you kept your rooster in the first place because you couldn’t find him a home and couldn’t bear to eat him this will leave you with something of a problem.
9 week chickens

The young cockerel in this photo had to be removed from the flock when he matured and the rooster started to bully him.

Choosing your rooster and dealing with an aggressive rooster

If you want to avoid and aggressive or overly amorous rooster go for breeds described as ‘docile’ such as the Austrolorp. This is especially important if you have young children. A docile breed is no guarantee though, you should always assess the temperament of a rooster before you buy. If, however, being a guard animal is a big part of your rooster’s role you may not want a docile bird. In this case you will have to be prepared to put some work into your relationship with your rooster.

Austrolorp rooster and hen

Astralorps are considered a docile breed. This rooster lived happily with a single hen for several months.

If you have a rooster who is getting a bit too big for his boots there are a few things you should do:

  1.  Act confident even if you are not. Never run away, throw stuff, shout or fight back. When you are working in the pen ignore him and do not make eye contact with him, treat him as if he is not worthy of your attention.
  2. As soon as you sense him squaring up to you, or perhaps as soon as you walk into the pen pick him up and clamp him tightly to your side. Carry him around with you while you work and only put him down once he stops struggling. This is the strategy I use for a drake I have who pecks my legs. An aggressive duck is a mild annoyance and far more humorous than an aggressive rooster, but the strategy works just as well.
  3. If your rooster is still intent on ripping holes in your jeans there are other things you can do to assert your dominance. Never allowing him to eat or mate in front of you for example. Use this strategy as a last resort; you are firmly placing yourself in the role of dominant rooster, and the dominant rooster can be challenged.
rhode island red

Rhode Island Red roosters can sometimes be aggressive, this can make them good flock guards however.

In some circumstances it may be apparent that your rooster is attacking you largely out of fear. He may run away from you then attack when your back is turned. In this case it may help to tame him, while still showing him who is boss. Combine feeding him tasty treats with steps 1 and 2. You can also raise a rooster yourself, this gives you the chance to tame him, avoiding aggression arising from fear, and to assert your dominance while he is young.

The chances are, if you pick a docile breed, you will never have to deal with a problematic rooster. Personally I have always kept a rooster with my hens and never had any trouble. Given the reduced stress and aggression in flocks with suitably gentlemanly roosters it is well worth considering if you have more than a few hens.

A pile of chickens

This small flock would always doze together in the sunshine in a big heap.

 


 

Lesley Anderson holds the diploma in Applied Permaculture Design and is on the Permaculture Scotland working group. She studied animal behaviour at university and has an interest in how animals can be ethically integrated into our sustainable systems.  For several years she worked with horses and volunteered on organic farms through WWOOF. Now Lesley lives in Fife with her husband, son and ducks.