The Roving Rototiller

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Those darn boys

One of the biggest problems with keeping chickens is dealing with the roosters.  Of course you can have a flock of hens that lay faithfully without ever seeing a rooster.  Chickens have been selectively bred for centuries, and one of the traits that has been universally encouraged is the hen's propensity to lay eggs whether or not she has a rooster.  The eggs aren't fertile without a rooster, of course, but tell that to the hen.  For that matter, if she's not genetically inclined to broodiness, she will not give a solitary darn about fertility of the eggs she works so hard to produce. 

The trouble is, it's so easy to end up with a rooster.  Although there are a few breeds of chicken that have color-coded chicks, making it easy to ensure that you are buying only the gender you want, most of them aren't nearly so accomodating.  To help their customers out, many hatcheries offer chicks that have been inspected and sexed.  These judgements are accurate between 90 and 95% of the time . . . and believe me, that five to ten percent rate of "oopsy" will crop up.  Some hatcheries also will throw in a free chick or two, and even though they may be pulled from the box of unsexed chicks, darn if they don't tend to be roosters.  There's also the phenomenon of the itinerant rooster who one day hops over your fence and makes himself at home in your flock.  Often he is wily, refusing to perch with the others at night and bolting from the yard the minute he sees a net.  In short, roosters happen.

Our first roosters were, in a word, legion.  When starting out with chickens, we placed an order with a well-known hatchery.  To meet the minimum order size of 25 chicks--the hatchery's way of guarding against the chicks getting chilled while in transit--we split the order with a co-worker.  The hatchery then made a kind-hearted effort to maximize customer service.  To keep the two groups of chicks distinct, they shipped them in a two-chambered box and "filled in the gaps" on each side with carefully-marked Red Star rooster chicks.  Instead of twenty-five chicks, we received fifty.  That was one noisy box, let me tell you, and a very lively one with one hundred little four-toed feet stampeding around in there.  The local USPS sorting center phoned us at half-past midnight when it reached them; the man was laughing so hard he could barely articulate.

It was a gesture of great generosity by the hatchery, but when those little Red Stars started growing by leaps and bounds, we quickly learned that roosters are not all sweetness and light.  Even when immature, chickens compete with one another for dominance in many unkind ways:  pecks, shoving, sneak attacks, and sparring.  Roosters take all of these behaviors and amp them up by a factor of two to ten; the losers may then go and take it out on lower-ranking birds, including the hens.  In two brief months, we had a serious problem on our hands, one that was ultimately solved by first separating the Red Stars into another pen, and then giving them away to a neighbor who promised to be quiet about turning them into chicken dinners.

But we still had too many roosters:  five, to be exact.  Only one of these was due to an error on the part of the sexing inspector.  One, an Andalusian, was a bird we had ordered.  The second Andalusian and the Easter Egger were "bonus chicks."  The last was the lone Red Star that had had too decent a personality to send off with the rest.  After putting word out among the local chicken fanciers, we found homes for three of them.  At this point I breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that the matter was settled.  The remaining pair--Blue the splash Andalusian and Conrad ("The Terrible") Sussex--seemed to have reached an agreement that they would share the twenty-three hens between them.  We decided that we rather liked having roosters around.  They keep order within the flock, they guard the hens, and they are very pretty to look at.  And the recommended rooster-to-hen ratio is one rooster per ten or eleven hens.  We had the perfect balance.

But on Valentine's Day we went out to discover both birds dyed in holiday scarlet, rolling across the sand in a tangle of angry feathers.  The sad truth was, even having an abundance of hens wasn't good enough to smooth things over between these two.  Since then, I have observed that situations like this one seem to depend largely upon personality.  Some roosters are more territorial than others.  When neither rooster is willing to back down, you get an ugly fight.  But if one bird eventually turns tail, then it's all down to the winner.  If he's smart, he'll let the matter go, and permit the loser to remain within the flock.  In my flock, if the winner decides he wants to kill his opponent, he will be summarily removed from the gene pool, one way or another. 

I dealt with the matter that day by separating the two permanently.  Blue went on to become the flock patriarch, and when we lost him to dogs I incubated a set of eggs and ended up with four daughters and two sons of his.  The sons are Jake and Elwood, both sporting the blue coloration and handsome carriage of the Andalusian breed.  Unfortunately they hate each other with a fine old passion and had to be separated, creating a need for yet another pen. 

You would think that I would have learned my lesson, but no.  The following summer I took a wild hair and bought a wide variety of chicks from the local feed store.  Some of these were of famously broody breeds, like Mahogany, who I mentioned in the last post.  That led to home-grown chicks the following year, and naturally chicks always come in either male or female.  I re-homed most of the resulting roosters, but somehow there always seemed to be one or two extras that I really didn't want to get rid of.  Maybe they were prettier than the rest, or had good personalities, or sported some other trait that I liked.  But sooner or later it would come down to a decision:  either get rid of the extras, or build another pen.

So how's that working out?  Umm . . . yeah.  Currently we have eight extra pens, each with its own rooster, plus the main flock.  Of the pens, two house bantams, one contains Polish and other crested breeds, three contain "interesting mix" birds, and one is for Quercus the Eternally Confused.   Jake reigns supreme over a small flock in the south pasture, definitely the plushest accomodations in the place.  And poor old Elwood is living in the nursery, having recently been ousted from the alpha spot in the main flock by a younger rooster.  In his place I installed his son Baron, who has been patiently awaiting this day for some time.  He rules the flock with an iron claw but tolerates the presence of the two junior roosters.  That's . . . let me see . . . one dozen roosters.  Plus Hoppy, in his wheelchair.

And no, roosters don't crow only at sunrise.  I sure hope our neighbors continue to be good-natured about all this.

1 comment:

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