Roosters play many important roles in the flock — Do you know them all?
It’s 3 am. The clear crisp call of a rooster breaks the moonlit night. Once — twice — three times — loud and strong.
And then it comes, the sleepy reply of another rooster. And then another. Then six more. And yes, still more calls answer the first. They answer in quieter tones, but the noise still builds for a moment before the calls fade away in the darkness. It’s still hours until dawn when the real chorus begins.
This is life with roosters.
For every dozen eggs that get hatched, six will be roosters. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but on average 50% of every hatch will be male.
While hens are lauded for their eggs, roosters are maligned because they crow.
That one trait seems to be all that anyone ever talks about when it comes to roosters. The beginning and the end of the rooster’s story.
Somehow roosters have gotten the short end of the stick in our modern back-to-the-land romance where backyard chickens are flourishing and local food is the best meal in town. Their role has been reduced to that of “nuisance”. Many jurisdictions have banned them outright. And don’t even get me started on the commercial egg industry where roosters are seen as by-products and waste! That just makes me crazy.
There would be no hens without roosters somewhere in the game. . . . . Someone has to own roosters.
As fewer and fewer people experience rooster ownership, we lose the knowledge of what makes a rooster great. They are colorful characters that bring a sense of wholeness to the farm. Living with more than a dozen roosters at a time has been a learning experience for me, and an adventure I would not trade. Roosters were once a common symbol of farming, and reached icon status on weather vanes and farm logos. There was a reason for that.
How many of the following rooster roles do you recognize?
1. Time Keeper
Yes – roosters crow – and crow a lot!
Visitors to Rose Hill Farm often seem surprised to hear the roosters crowing in the afternoon. It’s a common misconception that roosters only crow at daybreak.
Although infamous for their 5 am wake-up calls, roosters actually crow throughout the day and sometimes throughout the night as well. Any time can be a good time to crow:
10 am, 12 pm, 3pm and 3 am.
These are all fair game for the rooster.
But while we humans focus on how crowing affects our sleep, roosters see the world differently. They crow an “all clear” and announce that all is right in the world.
As a small-scale farmer I have come to appreciate that audible confirmation that the world is good. If the roosters are crowing, things are fine. It works for me. And taken in this light, I can tolerate the occasional 3 am disturbance.
The flocks check in with one another by calling, much the way we now check in with each other using texts on our phones. We like regular assurances our loved ones are safe, and so do the chickens. It is endearing, and not some malicious attempt to disrupt your sleep.
Crowing plays into the rooster’s role as the time keeper of the flock. In addition to the ‘all clear’ crowing, the rooster signals to the hens when it is time to wake up and start foraging. After all, the early bird gets the worm, or bug, or first pick of the fallen apples. Later after their morning feeding, the flock usually settles down — sunning, dust bathing, napping and laying eggs all follow. But it is the rooster who often decides when rest time is over, and he will call the hens to get them up and foraging again.
To crow or not to crow ? It’s always the question
If a rooster’s crow signals that all is well, then his alarm call is the polar opposite.
Shrill and loud, the alarm call puts terror in the hens and they instantly hide or freeze. My roosters are diligent about this job. They are the first out the door in the morning to check for hawks and owls, and only crow if the coast is clear. Otherwise the wild ruckus begins!
The screeching alarm call is unmistakably different from crowing. All the hens stay on lock down until the rooster deems it’s safe (and that would be by crowing the all clear). Birds that ignore the rooster’s alarm are the targets of predators and rarely get a second chance if they are up against a local (chicken hungry) hawk or eagle. In the death-match game of chicken vs hawk, the rooster is a hen’s best advantage and tips the scale in favor of the flock. The most vigilant roosters continue to screech even when the hawk tries subterfuge and hides immobile in a tree hoping that the rooster will forget about it.
Once I went out to see why the roosters would just NOT stop alarm calling. It was early in the morning and I looked about expecting to see a hawk flying. But I could not see anything.
And then suddenly a massive eagle launched out of a tree near the chicken yard and swooped down right at me! I had been looking right at him, but had not seen him hiding there. He scared me half to death and was he mad about being disturbed! Score one for the roosters for keeping up the noise! The eagle didn’t get chicken for breakfast.
I have also witnessed half a dozen hens literally disappear before my eyes into some tall grass when their rooster screamed ‘danger-danger’. It was mind blowing. Even though I was standing right there among the birds when a hawk soared in overhead and set the rooster off, I had to look several times to see where the hens had hidden. I could not believe it was possible for such large birds to fade into the greenery! But eventually my eyes could make them out in the tall grass near the fence line. They had effectively vanished in under 30 seconds.
Sometimes roosters are not sure if what they see is dangerous or not. Then they utter a warning churr sound that is something like a slurred “wwwhhaaat?” — complete with a rising inflection at the end like the question that it is — “WHAT is that?”
I hear the warning call most often when a crow flies over, but sometimes even for smaller birds too. Because hawks are wickedly fast aerial predators, roosters remain vigilant for the slightest movement in the sky that might mean approaching danger. That sometimes results in a false alarm.
The warning calls are used adaptively as well. When a camera crew was at my farm shooting some aerial footage with a drone, the roosters first called a warning and then sent the hens running for cover as soon as the drone went into the sky! So the roosters’ interpreted the foreign flying object as a potential predator and reacted accordingly. The film crew was disappointed because they had assumed they would get aerial footage of the birds in their pens. But the roosters were certain that drone was a weapon of mass destruction. The chances of getting them to pose for that camera was nil.
So crowing is the release button that turns off the alarm call’s danger signal. . . . but because we only talk about the crowing, we forget that the alarm call (and warning calls, and other vocalizations) even exists.
What about some of the other rooster roles?
2. Dance partner
Roosters are 50% of the next generation of birds on the farm. Anyone raising birds themselves has to consider what traits the rooster carries and how these traits will affect future farm operations and productivity. Not all roosters are Don Juan when it comes to romancing the hens, but did you know that the best roosters dance? Many folks think they are just part of the chorus, but roosters can bust a move with the best of them.
The ritual dance of a rooster as he tries to woo his hens is marvelous to watch. They drop their wings, flutter and strut, and circle their hen with great aplomb. Only then do they gain permission of the breathless hen who cooperatively mates.
The alternative rooster behavior is brutal. Non-dancing roosters usually run their screaming hens down and jump on them. Not a pretty sight!
Selecting for dancing roosters is a simple step in a breeding program that improves flock cohesion and therefore productivity. Happy hens lay more eggs than stressed out hens who are constantly worried about what the rooster might do next. Including dancing as part of the criteria for selecting a flock rooster is a smart plan.
3. Nest keeper
Did you know that rooster’s help build the nest and encourage the hens to lay?
Not all roosters are created equal when it comes to doing the chores, but roosters who actively tend the nest are an asset. I have several awesome guys who, when fresh bedding is added to the nest, go in and muss, stir and bend the materials into a comfortable design for their hens. Then they call seductively to lure a hen over to admire their handiwork. Once again, happy hens lay more eggs so house-keeping roosters are preferable. And it makes my job easier because I don’t waste a lot of time trying to create a nice nest. I can just toss the materials in rather loosely and the rooster will clean up accordingly.
One time my silver Americana rooster Captain was so determined to get the nest right that he was blocking a hen who desperately needed to lay her egg right now. He was standing in the nest fussing and preening and madly clucking away while the poor dear hen had her legs crossed and was trying to get in around him. She eventually succeeded by crawling in under him to lay the egg!
There are many occasions when we find the rooster is cuddled in the nest with a hen, and we have simply missed the nest primping part that proceeded the scene we have come upon. While it is absolutely true that hens do not need roosters to build nests or to lay eggs, having a rooster on the scene completes the flock in my opinion. It is not the same as keeping a hens-only flock.
Another time I found that a ritual escapee rooster had dug a den, not a nest, but an actual hole in the ground! It was a round cave excavation in the soft dirt beneath a pile of discarded weeds. I discovered the den only because he started dancing, swirling and calling me to come over to him, even though I was shaking a grain bucket trying to call him over to me. When I finally gave in and went to see why he was in such a tailspin, there was his den! He was so proud of himself when I looked in, that he was strutting and cooing to me as if I were a hen. I had never seen anything like that den before (or since)! Who would have guessed a rooster might choose to dig a hole? It made me wonder what other behaviors our modern version of chicken keeping has hidden or eliminated. We have created our own chicken keeping rituals, and selected for birds that fit our ideas, but there is a whole lexicon of chicken behaviors we rarely see as a result.
4. Snack master
When roosters aren’t scanning the skies for danger or practicing their dance moves, they are out searching for the tastiest treats for their hens.
A rooster that finds a bit of fruit or a great bug rarely eats it himself. Instead he starts to twitter and bob to let the hens know he’s on to something good. He might pick up and drop the treat repeatedly to show the hens that he has an actual treat and it is not just a trick.
The hens know to run FAST if they want to snag a bit of the treat. The competition for whatever the rooster has found is usually intense. The rooster shares out the prize, often making sure his favorite hens gets the best part. There is no question that roosters play favorites with the hens, and the favored bird gets the rooster’s share of the prize.
5. Stranger danger defense-man
Roosters fight ruthlessly with each other. It can be next to impossible to keep some dominant males anywhere near each other because of the all out war they wage against any intruder, real or imagined. For me, keeping 12 roosters means having an array of separate pens where the small flocks can live happily without conflict. But if a rooster gets loose, watch out!
I once found my tiny Silkie rooster literally throwing himself against the pen containing my Marans rooster over and over again. It didn’t matter that the Marans towered over that Silkie by at least two to one! Tiger (aptly named) was determined he could take Rusty Blue in a fight. Spring can bring out the fight in all the roosters, big and small. I was not about to see who would win that match-up and scooped the little nipper up and put him back with his own girls.
Stranger danger isn’t limited to interloping roosters though. Introducing a “strange” (new) hen to the flock can be a frustrating exercise with a dominant rooster. He will try to drive the stranger away to protect his own, especially if the new hen is molting, showing any signs of weakness, or sometimes even if she is a different color than the other hens. I’ve devised a number of strategies for introducing hens, with varying degrees of success.
This stranger danger response is also why roosters sometimes start to attack people. If your behavior even remotely hints at danger, or you disrupt and scare the hens, a vigilant rooster can decide YOU are not welcome. They can become extremely hostile. Their attacks may range from the off-putting, such as stern glaring or a warning growl, to outright attacks with wings, claws and beaks. I was once double-barred in the butt by a rooster when I accidentally spooked a hen so baldy that she screamed wildly. And what followed was instantaneous retribution! I nearly fell over from the unexpected blow from an otherwise docile and friendly rooster. There was NO mistaking what his message was: How DARE you upset MY hen! Message received!
Unfortunately though, once a rooster decides you are a danger it can be extremely difficult to convince him otherwise. Roosters can sometimes become savage opponents and hold impossible grudges. My rule on the farm is to always treat roosters with the utmost respect and deference. If I have to handle the hens, I capture and contain the rooster away from them first. This prevents the rooster from escalating into bad behavior. If, however, I end up with an overtly aggressive rooster, he is pulled from service and replaced. It simply makes no sense to perpetuate aggressive birds on the farm when better alternatives exist.
6. Full time dad
Believe it or not, roosters can sometimes make terrific fathers. Despite all kinds of common lore about how chicks should and should not be raised on today’s farm, involving roosters in raising chicks can be very rewarding.
Again not all roosters are created equal on this front, and some are not suited to parenting. But for others, adding chicks to their flocks is an easy way to make sure the youngsters get the best care and attention. Some of my roosters will tolerate (new) chicks as young as 6 or 8 weeks being added. In some cases I can park an entire “chick flock” with a rooster who is not currently with hens and have him step in as leader. Roosters that will foster chicks are an asset to the farm.
The trick to using a rooster with a set of chicks is to test with one or two chicks first to see how the rooster reacts. There is always some pecking that goes on at first, but tolerant roosters quickly just move on to other things. If a rooster (or even a surrogate hen for that matter) takes serious jabs at a chick, or starts to chase a chick around, then the match is not likely to work. The rooster will not get over it, and he will continue to terrorize the chicks as time goes on, even if he doesn’t actually injure them. So the rule of thumb I use is around the first hour to half a day of introduction. It’s either going to start to gel and everyone is eating, drinking and moving freely, or it’s not.
At times life in the flock can be chaotic. Hens have their own pecking order to maintain, and from time to time there is a dust-up over what that order should be. Roosters don’t often interfere with the chick-chat, until they do. If a hen fight gets out of hand, roosters will step in to select the winner by ending the fray. This usually restores peace to the flock, despite some ruffled feathers and sulking.
However, sometimes roosters side with a favorite hen and decide they just don’t like that other hen either. Then this poor girl is in for a rough ride. She may be chased, harassed or beaten by the rooster, and denied access to food. I have not found a cure for this, and if a rooster decides that a hen is not part of the pecking order, then it is usually best to remove the hen before any real damage to her ensues. Roosters sometimes express very strong opinions about who should stay in the flock.
8. Comfort Animal
Few things thrill visitors to my farm more than being invited to hold a rooster. I have several well socialized roosters that tolerate being held. One of my large part-Marans roosters, Flare, usually comes over to get picked up even if I have several people with me. He is big and dramatically colored and has changed the minds of a few skeptics in terms of what roosters are actually like, or can be like.
But the farm favorites our my Silkie roosters. Nothing makes people grin like children more than being able to hold and pet a Silkie rooster in all their fluffy glory. They excel at this customer relations function and I consider them ambassadors of the farm. I think there is an opportunity to use such roosters as pets and companions.
10. Cultural Icon
Nothing really epitomizes small farm life more than a rooster. Roosters appear in branding all around the world. They symbolize power, vibrancy, beauty and intelligence.
They conjure images of being ONE with the land, down to earth, wholesome.
They are often associated with day break, and rising early to greet the day. Roosters have an undeniable energy about them that draws you in and holds your focus.
And yet despite this iconic status, roosters are banished from modern life? It just seems odd.
Not a one-trick pony
Beyond crowing, roosters play an important role in chicken culture. They crow, dance, do the chores, make dinner, mind the kids, socialize and represent power, status and values.
If you are lucky enough to hear a rooster crow, and get to watch him strut his stuff around the barnyard, I hope you will think about what that crowing means, and the role he plays for his flock.
He is so much more than a pretty face and a loud call. He is a true and fearless leader.
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