When it comes to buying chicks, there is no such thing as a one hundred percent sure thing — especially when it comes to gender. Batches of chicks advertised as all female can have a male or two that have inadvertently gotten mixed in and could end up going home with you.
Unlike mammals, the gender of a newborn chick is not obvious just by looking at it. That’s because the reproductive organs of both the males and the female are internal. Even for experienced chicken handlers, sexing chicks at birth can be tricky and requires skill and familiarity with the breeds.
For some people, discovering a rooster is not necessarily bad news. Roosters have their place when it comes to defending flocks of hens or fertilizing eggs in a breeding program. For others, an aggressive and noisy bird is the last thing they want. It’s especially problematic for people keeping chickens in municipalities with ordinances that do not allow roosters.
Here’s what you need to know if you find an unexpected rooster in your flock.
Why roosters get suddenly aggressive
When a rooster reaches between four- and six-months of age they enter puberty and begin showing the behaviors associated with an adult male bird, according to Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner DVM, associate professor of animal and veterinary science and director of the University of Maine veterinary diagnostic laboratory with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and the School of Food and Agriculture. Those behaviors include, aggression, territoriality and a strong urge to mate with hens.
Rooster behavior is firmly rooted in evolution and biology, Lichtenwalner said. Roosters, she said, are at the mercy of their hormones. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“If you want to have your chickens ranging outside, a rooster will work to protect them from predators,” Lichtenwalner said. “It will also protect the hens inside a coop from smaller predators like rats or ermines that can get in so a rooster can be a significant help in keeping a flock safe.”
But it’s important to keep in mind that a diligent rooster may well perceive the human who feeds and cares for the flock as a threat.
Roosters are armed with sharp spurs on the back of their legs, slightly above their feet and with very strong wing muscles. A rooster in full attack mode will run at its victim and often leap into the air, spurs pointed forward and wings beating madly.
Even worse, the attacks often occur when a person’s back is turned.
“They will wait until you turn around because they want to drive you out of their territory,” Lichtenwalner said. “It’s scary, startling and it hurts, but they’d do the same thing to a coyote.”
Options for unwanted roosters
Wondering what to do about roosters in your flock? There are several options.
For people who believe in the good of all creatures, attempting to train a rooster to play well with others is an option, albeit one that is working against centuries of biological and hormonal evolution controlling the species. Lichtenwalner suggested that anyone wanting to try to train a rooster go online and look at the books or videos by Gail Demerow, a Colorado farmer who’s raised chickens for more than 50 years.
Melissa Andrews, director of development, humane education and outreach at Peace Ridge Animal Sanctuary in Brooks advocates rehoming an unwanted rooster. It can take some time and effort to find someone willing to adopt a rooster, but Andrews said a responsible owner will take that time. Putting out the word over social media, placing notices at farm supply stores and word of mouth are the best ways to let people know you are looking to rehome a rooster.
There are veterinarians in Maine, Lichtenwalner said, who will humanely euthanize a rooster in their animal hospitals. Euthanization, or “putting to sleep” as it is often called, is a quick, painless death by lethal injection for any animal when performed by a qualified vet. Lichtenwalner recommends that anyone pursuing this option should contact their veterinarian to see if they would be willing to euthanize a rooster, or if they could recommend a vet who would. This is a good option for anyone who can’t find a suitable home for an unwanted rooster as well as those who don’t want to or can’t keep the bird. If a bird is euthanized, though, the meat cannot be eaten.
Slaughter at home
Slaughtering a rooster at home is an option for anyone who can’t rehome the bird and is comfortable with the process of killing it, particularly if they want to eat the meat. The most common way to slaughter any poultry is by decapitation using a sharp axe or large sharp knife. When done properly, this is a quick death for a bird. But if attempted by someone lacking the experience or confidence to cut the head off a live rooster, it can result in suffering for the bird. Lichtenwalner suggests consulting the guidelines for slaughtering farm animals, including poultry, published by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Call a professional processor
Interested in the meat, but not processing the rooster yourself? If you know of someone raising poultry for meat, you can also ask if they would be willing to slaughter and butcher your rooster when they process their own birds and return the dressed out carcass to you, ready for the freezer.
If you choose to keep a rooster, it needs specific care
For those people who want to keep a rooster, even a surprise rooster, it’s important to be educated on rooster needs.
“Roosters don’t necessarily do well on laying rations because [roosters] don’t need the extra protein and high calcium in the feed you give egg laying hens.” Lichtenwalner said. “You need to manage their care differently from the hens and figure out the best way for you to do that.”
That management should also include taking steps to protect hens from a rooster that has a high drive to mate nonstop, even repeatedly with the same hen. In the mating process roosters will peck or scratch the back of a hen and, if this behavior is allowed to go on unchecked, the hen can be seriously hurt or even killed.
It’s easy to tell if a hen has been “over mated” as her back will be devoid of feathers.
To protect hens that will come into regular contact with roosters, you can use what are known as “chicken saddles.” These are pieces of cloth shaped like an apron that you put on the hens. It does not stop a rooster from mounting that hen, but it does protect her back from the pecking and scratching from the male.
You can also build separate living quarters for roosters apart from the hens and give them their own coop and outdoor space. While this option will protect the hens from aggressive mating behavior, the rooster won’t be much good at protecting them from predators if kept separate.
Like all farm animals, there is a time and place for roosters, even surprise ones.
“The best thing anyone can do is plan their flock before they get it,” Lichtenwalner said. “Think ahead if you are going to need a rooster at all or, if you end up with one, what you will do with it.”