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Working with the Cock(s) in the Flock

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By Harvey Ussery

February 7, 2013

It is not necessary to have a male in your flock of laying hens. If you live cheek by jowl with neighbors who might object to the crowing of a cock, you can keep a flock of much quieter hens without problems. Of course, the eggs will not be fertile absent the “attentions” of the male; however, the hens will lay just as many eggs. And they will form their own hierarchical social structure without a male.

If you want fertile eggs, of course, you must have a cock in the flock. In which case, what is the ratio between cocks and hens for fertility? The answers to the question range from 8-12 hens per cock, up to 25 or even more. Clearly the answer depends somewhat on how certain we need to be of 100% fertility in the eggs.

Behavior

Two young Cuckoo Maran cocks, just before the start of the breeding season. Harvey  has never had two roosters less inclined to fight
Two young Cuckoo Maran cocks, just before the start of the breeding season. Harvey has never had two roosters less inclined to fight

I prefer having at least one cock in the flock. I enjoy the way he completes the social pattern in the flock, and how he looks out for his ladies. The cock has the reputation of being something of a bully, based on his typically pretty crass manner with the ladies: He approaches the hen without much apparent by-your-leave and mounts her in a way that seems almost violent. We sympathize with the hen, shaking herself off as if to say, “Well! Glad that’s over!” But the cock is actually quite solicitous of his flock. Alert to the sky, he gives the alarm if a hawk swoops over, setting off a dash for cover. I have heard stories of cocks attacking dogs or foxes in defense of the flock.

And if you want to see the true colors of the cock, throw some special tidbit-a cricket or grasshopper you’ve just caught-into the flock, near the cock. Does he shove the hens out of his way like the bully we thought he was, and gobble this special treat for himself? Not at all! He calls the hens with a special deep-throated burble used at no other time. It is especially endearing to see him pick up the cricket and “beak” it to one of his favorite hens! Clearly, he has the instinctual wisdom to know that the hen needs this nutritional boost to produce the nutrient-dense egg that will carry on their species.

One behavior on the part of the cock you might look for in particular is “dancing.” Temple Grandin, well known for her work with domesticated animals, has remarked on this “dancing” behavior: The cock performs a strutting dance for the hen, which convinces her to squat and welcome his advances. The mating is accomplished without the violence referred to above, and the hen is never injured, even when the cock’s spurs are long and sharp. Grandin believes that we have not paid attention to this dancing behavior when breeding our chickens, and that modern cocks have “forgotten” how to dance, with the result that mating is carried on with more violence, and sometimes results in injury to the hen.

I have begun looking for dancing on the part of the cocks in my flocks. Unfortunately, I suspect that the more cocks in the flock, the greater the tendency for a cock to “make his move” in a hurry, before being challenged by another male! In the coming breeding season, when all the cocks are in separate pens with the hens I’ve chosen, I’ll take note of dancing behavior. I may even make dancing a factor when selecting cocks to keep for further breeding.

If the cock in your flock is not a dancer, be on the lookout for spur injuries to the hen. I have occasionally seen hens whose sides were seriously injured in mating. Indeed, in extreme cases the internal organs were visible through the gaping rents in the hen’s side! Isolating such hens immediately is imperative. (When protected from further injury, their recuperative powers are astounding. Still, I have lost a hen or two to spur wounds, as have others of my acquaintance.)

I have started routinely trimming the spurs of all my older breeding cocks-the ones with the long, sharp spurs-using an ordinary pruning shears. Please note that you must not make the cut too close to the shank-or the bird may bleed to death! Shear the spur off no closer than half its length. There will be bleeding, and you can use a styptic if you like, but bleeding will not be serious if the cut is properly made.

Jokerman, a young Old English Game cock, ready for the breeding season.
Jokerman, a young Old English Game cock, ready for the breeding season.

I had an elderly neighbor who kept chickens for many years. Sitting by his chicken pen, he would observe the flock’s behavior four or five hours at a time. I think he knew more about chicken mating behavior than any expert in any ag college in the country.

“So if you got two roosters,” he told me, “the top guy is gonna have his pick of the hens-he’ll have his own special group that are his. He’ll look out for ‘em, and he’ll tread ‘em. The other rooster can tread the other hens, but the top guy will keep him away from the hens he’s picked. Well sir, after about four hours there’ll be a change! Suddenly the top guy will be treading a different group of hens!”

If my friend was accurate in his description of natural flock behavior, think of the implications: The dominant male gets his pick of the hens-that is, priority when it comes to passing on his genes. But the flock has the instinctual wisdom to know that the subordinate cock also has his role to play in ensuring genetic diversity-in keeping some “wild cards” in the hand-and affords him the opportunity as well to pass his genes on to the future flock.

In most ways our management of the cock is no different from that for the hens-his needs for feed, water, opportunity to dust-bathe, etc. are the same. In one way, however, dealing with the males presents a unique challenge: the cock’s natural aggression. (Actually, hens can be seriously aggressive toward each other as well, but in most cases only when they are mothering a clutch of chicks.) Let us consider the problems of aggression-first toward people, then toward each other.

Aggression: Toward People

Make no mistake, an attack from a feisty cock can be a painful and stunning experience! He uses both shank and wing pinion to “flog” leg or torso with a force surprising for an animal so small, and shocking in the sheer violence of an attack that holds nothing back. When a sharp, well-aimed spur strikes home, the result can be a scar that lasts a lifetime, both physical and mental. A “playing for keeps” attack from a determined cock is no casual matter.

I have listened in amazement to far too many horror stories about “mean roosters” who terrorized the family for years! I can never believe such behavior was tolerated-at my place, any rooster who doesn’t understand that I am the top cock in the flock gets a short trip to the stewpot!

However, it is my belief that examples of serious aggression toward people are almost always the result of mismanagement on the part of the humans involved. It is possible to avoid the development of aggression problems, foremost through respect for the bird, and by understanding the instinctual basis for his behavior.

We call unwelcome attacks by the cock “aggression,” but truly the behavior is defensive in nature: The cock is acting out of a deeply felt duty to defend the flock. Once he has concluded you are a threat, he will fight you without hesitation-and believe me, he doesn’t care that you are 20 times bigger than he is. The key to good relations, then, is to convince him you are not a threat to his flock.

Making friends: A special treat ensures Harvey remains 'good buddies' with Caesar, one of his experimental cross-bred cocks.
Making friends: A special treat ensures Harvey remains “good buddies” with Caesar, one of his experimental cross-bred cocks.

When you are working with the flock, especially in close quarters, keep your movements quiet and gentle, allowing the cocks (and indeed all the birds) plenty of space so they don’t feel “pushed” or crowded by you. Avoid sudden movements. Don’t carry large flat objects (an empty feed bag, a piece of plywood)-apparently the birds see it as a flying predator. Avoid having to catch one of the hens in the cock’s care, especially in close quarters-perform such chores as examining or banding at night if at all possible.

I like to offer my “boys” special treats by hand from time to time, just to encourage a more accepting bond between us. If they are with the hens, they will usually approach with the hens to get the offered treat. If isolated in the breeding pens, they may hang back, uncertain, at first, but eventually will come to get the tidbits from my hand. A crushed hard-boiled egg is a good choice, or a handful of sprouted grain. The more often I take the time to “be friendly” in this fashion, the more “mellow” my boys become.

It is especially important that children be taught how to behave around the cock of the flock. We once had visitors whose three-year-old son I allowed into the chicken pen. In his excitement, he began running back and forth among the chickens, when suddenly the cock-who had never shown the slightest aggression toward me-jumped up and attacked the boy from behind. I have a neighbor who suspects that his daughter teased one of his cocks by rattling a stick on the fence of the pen. The resulting tendency to go on the attack whenever a person entered the pen was resolved only when the cock was accorded the place of honor at dinner.

I once had a closed 10′ x 12′ mobile pasture pen. Though designed for broilers, I began using it for a laying flock of New Hampshire Reds with a cock. Since I had made no provision for collecting the eggs from outside, I got down into the confined space to collect. Naturally the poor cock felt his flock was threatened, and reacted accordingly. So intense were his attacks that I had to carry a trash can lid to ward him off as I frantically collected the eggs-an embattled gladiator just barely holding his own in the coliseum. By the time I returned that flock to the poultry house for the winter, the cock’s defensive behavior toward me was thoroughly set, and I regretfully took him to the chopping block-I am not going to be looking over my shoulder around my birds! Still, I felt terrible slaughtering the poor guy, fully aware that his behavior resulted solely from my mismanagement. Having never forgotten that lesson, I now try to anticipate and avoid potential showdowns.

For example, one of my Old English Game cocks attacked my hand while I was filling the feeder in his breeding pen. My first inclination was to jerk him up by the neck and “teach him who’s boss!” Instead, I closed the door to the pen and thought about what had happened. The cock had been no problem whatsoever as I serviced the pen for a couple of weeks. But I had just moved a couple of breeding hens in with him the day before. Now he had a different sense of what was at stake when I entered that space. I changed the way I serviced the pen-it was as simple as removing the feeder from the pen before filling it-and had no more conflicts with the cock.

Please be on guard against an intensely emotional reaction when challenged by one of your cocks. True, if it comes to a showdown, you will doubtless “win.” I have even heard people claim that they actually did beat a cock into submission. To me, that is more admission of defeat than wise management.

Remember, you have more options than he does. Act like it.

Aggression: Toward Each Other

Usually, respectful treatment of the cock in your flock will result in amicable relations. If you have multiple cocks in the flock, however, you must also learn to deal with issues of aggression among themselves.

Cocks have a natural urge to establish their dominance over other males in the flock. How do you respect the expression of that urge and at the same time avoid mayhem? The answer is-it all depends! On the total number of cocks, especially in relation to the size of the flock as a whole; the breed(s) of the cocks; how confined they are; and most especially, the point in the breeding season.

When cocks fight, the intensity of their aggression is strictly a function of how closely matched they are. Understand, however, that by “matched” I refer not only to size but to fighting spirit as well-the will to best the other guy at whatever cost. The outcome of a showdown can never be predicted, certainly not with reference to size alone. If the two cocks are not closely matched, their fighting will not become serious: After some vigorous sparring, one of them will conclude that he is no match for his opponent, and will submit. After that, if the dominant rooster “flares” at him, he will run away shamelessly, and that will be the end of the encounter-the top guy will usually not pursue. If the two are evenly matched, however, they will not back down until one of them is either dead, or beaten so near death he must accept defeat. We have seen such cocks, utterly humiliated, retreat to a corner, back to the flock and head down; and stay in that position for two days before returning to activity with the flock-the very picture of abject, broken-hearted shame. It is a wrenching sight.

Early on, we tried to intervene-to separate the combatants to help them “get over it.” Forget it-if interrupted, they simply pick up the contest where it left off, however long they’ve been separated. They must follow the instinctual imperative either to dominate or submit. Our practice after that realization was to monitor fighting; and, when it became obvious we had a deadly serious fight on our hands, simply to pick the rooster we wanted to keep and slaughter the other-it was just too traumatic allowing the fight to go to its unforgiving conclusion.

We found that the easiest way to have two or three cocks in the flock without serious fighting was to add one cock per season. That is, in year two keep a younger cock from the previous year’s hatch, in addition to the original cock of the flock. The younger cock is almost certain to “grow into” a position of subordination to the older, without the necessity of a serious contest to settle the issue. A third can be added the next season, and generally by the next season it’s time to cull the oldest guy anyway-most likely before he has to meet a serious challenge as he ages.

The more cocks you have in the flock, of course, the more likelihood that two or more will decide it’s a good idea to “duke it out.” Since I breed two breeds, and make some experimental crosses, I currently have nine cocks in the flock. Preventing serious fighting can be a challenge. I have found that the more space cocks have, the lower the level of aggression; and conversely, the more confined, the more likelihood of fighting. In the summer, there are usually no serious problems when several cocks are in the flock on large pasture plots (defined by electric net fencing). When I confine the flock to winter quarters, things get a bit more intense, and I monitor daily for serious aggression. One strategy I use is to provide “baffles” in the corners of the chicken house as a refuge for a subordinate cock who wants to retreat from the attack of a more aggressive one. Fair-sized pieces of scrap plywood, for example, make good baffles-just stand them in a corner, so that the corner itself becomes a hidden retreat with narrow access on either side. Once the retreating guy gets out of sight of the dominant one, the aggressor will usually not pursue.

Harvey with Titmouse, one of his young Cuckoo Maran cocks, on his way into a new pen in one end of the greenhouse.
Harvey with Titmouse, one of his young Cuckoo Maran cocks, on his way into a new pen in one end of the greenhouse.

But that is not always the case. I can’t stress enough the need to monitor constantly, and be prepared to take action when required. For instance, a few weeks after confining the flock to winter housing this year, I noticed one of the Old English Game cocks was a little “beat up.” I set up the baffles, assuming that would solve the problem. It didn’t. The next day the beaten cock was in much worse shape. I prepared the “Breeders Annex” (where I isolate my breeding pairs and groups) for moving all the cocks, but by the time I had it ready, the beaten cock was in such bad shape that, after a couple days isolation, he died. I should have been ready for fighting by having already prepared the Annex. Had I done so, I would not have lost one of my breeding cocks.

In any case, the move of “the boys” to the Annex stopped the fighting within the day-with “the ladies” out of the equation, what was there to fight about? For a couple of weeks, it was the Peaceable Kingdom. Then one day I found two cocks with bloodied combs. This time my response was more timely: I immediately isolated the cocks in separate pens. I prefer to avoid doing that until I’m ready to make up my breeding pairs and groups (to avoid the extra work of servicing individual pens), but in this case that was the only solution to serious fighting.

An interesting thing to note about the separation, however: Because of limitations on the number of available pens, I had to place two of my Cuckoo Marans cocks in the same space. Fortunately, the two have gotten along quite amicably-they have never evidenced the slightest degree of aggression toward each other, and indeed seem to be great buddies! Clearly a cock’s breed has a great influence on his inclination to fight. My Old English Game and OEG cross cocks are-not surprisingly-a good deal more “feisty” than a typical “barnyard” breed such as the Marans.

My current strategy seeks both to include a wider genetic mix (by breeding multiple cocks), and avoid some of the problems of having many adult cocks in the flock year round. As said, I have nine breeding cocks at present-more than I want to keep through the pasture season. After the breeding season ends-say around mid-May-I plan to slaughter all but one cock (or at most two-from separate generations) for each breed, then turn the remaining few out with the general flock on pasture. The cockerels from this year’s hatch will not fight the older guys as they grow; and are not likely to start seriously challenging each other, either, until we approach the breeding season in late winter. Then I can again isolate all the males in the Breeders Annex and, when necessary, in their separate pens as I prepare for the breeding season. Such a plan should allow me as many young cockerels as I want, while minimizing serious conflict between older cocks.

As always, of course, I have to monitor constantly and, if there are problems, adjust. That’s the name of the game when dealing with the cocks in the flock.