If you find yourself with too many young cockerels, it can be tough choosing the best rooster to keep for your flock. I hope these criteria might help simplify the decision-making process!
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When you hatch out your own chicks, or buy them straight-run from a local breeder, you're bound to end up with more roosters than you can practically keep. If, like we do, you keep a self-perpetuating flock with lots of chicks being hatched out every spring - extra roosters become a yearly fact of farm life.
Every summer we end up with at least an extra dozen or so young cockerels, which means that about the time they all start crowing, some tough decisions need to be made.
For us, that stage of things usually creeps up sometime around August. One morning I'll hear the first awkward, adolescent crow from one of the youngsters. Within a week or two, things start to get noisy as all of the spring cockerels find their voices. Eek! Time for the annual chicken bachelor pageant!
Choosing which animals to give away or cull for meat is never an easy decision. I find, though, that taking a few criteria into consideration helps me come at it a bit more objectively. Over the years, I've come up with a list of things I look for in our roosters, and it really simplifies the decision making process for me. I hope it might be useful to you as well.
Here are the criteria I use when selecting which young rooster becomes part of the permanent flock:
How we choose which rooster to keep
This is the first, and most important criteria in our flock. Above all, I want a rooster that's going to be well-tempered and gentle with my family, including my two small children. I watch the behavior of the young cockerels carefully as they start coming into their own, and the most aggressive ones don't make the cut. While it's very normal rooster behavior do a little jousting over who gets the "favorite" hens in their posse - those who constantly seem to be at the center of more heated disputes end up in freezer camp. Given plenty of food and space, it's perfectly normal and peaceful to keep multiple roosters in one flock.
While aggression is a not a trait we want, I DO however, want my roosters to be confident, and help guard the flock against predators. So timid fraidy-cats are out.
It's also important to me that my roosters have a very clear sense of "home territory". Over the years I've noticed that some cockerels seem a bit more prone to wanderlust, and want to take a few of the young pullets away to explore the woods or the neighbor's yard. I choose roosters that consistently stay close to our home and coop. It could honestly be coincidence, but I feel I've noticed that since I've been selecting for this trait for several years now, my last several hatches have had a much lower percentage of cockerels that want to wander far from home.
I also watch how they treat the hens. Are they gentle with "my girls"? That's important to me too!
And CROWING. Crowing is a big enough factor I almost should call it a category of its own. Some roosters crow so much more than others. From what I've noticed in my flock, the very first roosters from any hatch to start crowing, usually grow up to be ones that also crow most often as adults. Again - this is purely anecdotal, just what I feel I've noticed in my own flock. While I love the sound of a rooster crowing, I don't love it to be an incessant soundtrack to the day. So for my own happiness, and that of the neighbors, I choose roosters that crow less frequently.
Close adherence to breed standard
Because I raise a landrace (Icelandic chickens) - rather than a breed, I don't have a set "breed standard" that I'm shooting for. However, if I were raising a pure breed chicken with a standard recognized by the American Poultry Association, this would be the second most important criteria that I'd select for. These are the kind of things I'd be looking for:
Coloring - does the color and pattern hold to the breed standard?
Weight - I'd also weigh them, and make sure to choose those that (for their age) are correct for the standard.
Conformation - is the shape of the rooster correct, as well as the way he holds himself?
Character traits linked to the breed - if there are any behaviors associated with the breed, does he display these?
Now, while I might not be looking to win any ribbons for adhering a breed standard, I do have some personal preferences when it comes to appearance, and you might also. For my flock I tend to favor:
Rose or Pea Combs - these are less prone to frostbite in our cold Maine winters.
Color - I like a colorful flock, so I choose roosters likely to sire a good variety of colors in their offspring.
Weight - I like roosters with a slightly larger build, since I raise extra cockerels for meat, and this is a trait I want to encourage in my dual-purpose flock.
When keeping a self-perpetuating flock, I like to bring in new bloodlines every several generations, to help maintain genetic strength within the flock. It's possible for a closed flock to lose fertility over time, and for resistance to disease to become weakened. Negative traits (like fray feathering) can also be more likely to pop up when maintaining a closed flock and never introducing new genetics.
We keep two roosters at all times, and sometimes three. Until he gets too old to do his job, our Ragnar will always be our primary rooster. So with an eye to maximizing genetic diversity, I try to make sure that our secondary rooster(s) are from a different bloodline, or at least sired by rooster that wasn't closely related to Ragnar.
What do the girls think
Yes. I ask my hens who they like best, and I take their opinion VERY strongly into consideration. When in doubt, I trust my girls. If you spend any amount of time in the chicken yard, you'll very quickly see which young fella the girls favor. When I see established hens wanting to be part of a young cockerel's posse - that tends to be a good sign. You want a rooster that the girls trust and follow. My girls have great instincts, and many times cockerels they liked but that I'd not put much stock in, have turned out to be very fine roosters and good protectors.
This last year, I let a few extra roosters winter out in the flock. The one the girls loved (but had been on my freezer list!) has turned out to be my finest young rooster. The one I'd originally thought was going to be great turned out to be a total pansy who's afraid of his own shadow.
Sometimes, especially when you're a farming family with young kids - young cockerels get named. Next thing you know, they're a FAVORITE chicken. You find them perching on your daughter's head, getting rides in the wagon, and sitting on your shovel handle while you garden.
Sometimes, at least in our family, sentiment wins out. And that's not always a bad thing.
Well, that's a little window into the inner workings of my decision-making process, when selecting a new rooster to add to our flock. If you have any other criteria you keep in mind when choosing which roosters to keep, I'd sure love to hear your tips. I hope this helps as you make your own decisions!
Hi! I’m a first-time chicken keeper and I have 7 pullets and 2 cockerels (as far as I can tell) that are about 6 weeks old. I plan to keep 1 of the 2 cockerels. Your article was EXCELLENT and very thorough info on determining who to keep and who to boot, but between only 2 choices I’m guessing there is a significant chance that neither one will fulfill the whole list of desired characteristics. So my question is this: which two or three deciding characteristics would be prioritized at the top of your list in the event that no one rooster was the perfect candidate? Thanks!
First of all, thanks a lot for this post which is the first one to really answer my questions on the subject (and I have been searching the net in 3 different languages 😊).
But choosing the right rooster remains difficult.
We started with 34 chicks, hatched in 2 batches, one month apart: 20 hens, 14 cockerels. All from the same local (Swedish) landrace Hedemora.
We are now down to 13 hens (2 more hens are meant to move to a new ‘home’, our plan is to have a total of 10-12 chicken) but we also still have 9 cockerels (6 youngsters (15 weeks old) and the 3 last from the first batch (now 19 weeks old)). The 6 youngsters are probably going soon to get down to the freezer (as pullets between 90-120 days give the best juicy meat 😊). Now we have to choose the right rooster among the 3 remaining older ones.
Getting rid of the first 5 cockerels was no big questioning. They were all aggressive and crowing a lot.
It became sooo much quieter in the run after the last 'cleaning'. One of the last one to go was Posh, who once was high on our favorite list (he even got a name) (colorful, independent, keen to explore his environment, effective forager, he seemed to mind his own business, not too interested into starting a fight, and he was the only one with slightly feathered legs). But then suddenly he became quite aggressive toward specific hens and cockerels, never leaving them in peace so he too went down to the freezer.
We knew the quiet period wouldn’t last. The youngster would grow up, start crowing and challenge the authority of their older siblings.
Now, 2-3 weeks later, the one that once was Posh’s main target has become the bully ☹. So, my first question is: is it meant to be so that once the dominant roosters are gone another rooster, who first seemed to be kind and gentle, takes over and become a bully? (because that exactly what happened with Posh too).
Now I have to say that our situation is not quite the same as yours, since we don’t have an elder rooster to keep/put back those teenagers in their place. The throne is free to whoever wants to take the lead. And, of course, if the throne is freed every now and then, new frictions occur and a new leader seize the chance. That much I can understand. But in my world "take the lead" does not rhyme with "be a bully". But I’m no expert in chicks’ politics, nor chicks’ psychology, so I might be wrong.
I quite understand that our new ‘Alpha’ wants his competitors to understand that HE is the ‘Alpha male’. But why chase restlessly the weakest hens who have long understood and accepted that they are in the lowest ranking order? (Pursuing them merciless while they are desperately fleeing to safety, only satisfied when he finally got a good grip on them and pinned them to the ground). So my second set of questions is: Is this normal behavior? Is this going to settle down with time? And if yes, how long will we have to endure the screams of lament and distress of his victims before it all settles down?
We are strongly considering him facing the same fate as his siblings who displayed earlier the same kind of behavior that eventually led them to the gallows. But we are also starting wondering: If we keep getting rid of the dominant roosters one after the other (as soon as they turn into what we consider as bullies), are we not going to end up with the rooster with the weakest temperament? Is that what we really want?
Should we therefor keep him anyway? If yes, would the slaughter of all his competitors lessen the problem?
I’m aware that space might be a problem. The chickens have a 25 sq.meter run which is probably too small for 22 chicks even if they are still young and not up to their full size yet. They are free to forage outside the run in the late afternoon though (about 3 hours per day) when we are at home (this is an area with predators (fox, buzzard, mink) that’s why free-range is not an all-time option). But the bullying behavior seems to continue even when they are left ‘free-range’.
So getting down the number of chicken to the intended 12 would probably be better for their general welfare. But I want to be sure I made the right choice of rooster before I slaughter all the others.
We would like to involve the ladies in our choice, as you suggested. My third question to you is: if we want to "listen to the girls and let them choose" how long do we have wait until they show signs of preferences (they are now 15 and 19 weeks old)?
Right now, they are clearly ALL afraid of Alpha, keeping safe distance from him, running away, hiding in the apple trees. (Today I saw him calling the girls (he had found paprika seeds), only one brave (curious? greedy?) young hen barely dared approaching him very very very carefully but fled at his first move forward).
Another rooster is actually our favorite and we would like to know if the girls agree with us.
He was the first one to start displaying a gentleman’s behavior towards the girls (calling them when he had found food, dancing) though not very successfully 😉. As a chick, he never initiated a ‘fight ‘, didn’t seem to need to dominate the others, but he never avoided a challenge either and was hardy enough to win, so the others would leave him alone. He had a kind of ‘natural authority’. He even started intervene when another rooster would attack a hen and make the attacker run away only by showing himself and his self-confidence. He never bothered chasing his opponent any further though, pleased to have succeeded in making him flee. A perfect candidate for the job wouldn’t you say?
Unfortunately, he lost his authority recently when Alpha took over. (Alpha does not let him doing his flirting dance or calling song anymore, attacking him directly). We noticed that he is making a wheezing sound (mainly when breathing deeply (e.g. when under stress)) (Posh had actually developed the same wheezing sound about a week or two before he met his fate). The sound seems to come from his beak/nostrils when breathing in. Could it be a malformation in their beak/nostrils they both got? Has he been contaminated after Posh? He does not seem to be in respiratory distress though. It does not affect his crowing. He seems otherwise healthy (apart from the fact that he is now dominated and always on the look-out for Alpha). His wheezing started before Alpha took the lead. So, we have a lot of questioning. Chicks are good at pretending all is fine but is he really healthy? Is it because he is weakened / sick that Alpha could take over? Is he going to get better? Is it worth keeping a rooster that is potentially sick? Should we give him a chance (even if he only lasts a year)?
While he was quite social before, he has recently become a loner. Resting alone high in the apple tree (this seems to be more his choice than the girls avoiding him) (moaning over his situation? gathering his energy?)
As for the third rooster. He has shown aggressiveness towards the girls (the same way Alpha does and started at about the same time) but since he is now dominated by Alpha, he is playing low profile and therefore sharing the perch/branch with the girls. Does it mean that he is the girls’ favorite? I’m not too sure. Or is it too early to say? Is it going to change if we get rid of the 2 other roosters (i.e. will he take the chance and become the bully?)
Curious to hear what your think about all this. And where would your choice be?
Have a great day.
Isabelle, WOW! What a beautifully written description of the social dynamics in your young flock. You sound like a kindred spirit! I wish I could spend an afternoon with you watching your flock, and just chatting chickens.
So - just to quickly address the wheezing issue first: if you do have a respiratory ailment in your flock, I think it's far more likely to be an illness rather than a deformity. I would keep a close eye on the whole flock, since most respiratory ailments can be contagious, and may require treating the flock. I would not at this stage cull a favorite rooster based on it, but would keep a close eye and try to boost immune systems if possible (a dash of apple cider vinegar in the water and garlic added to their feed can help.)
That said, it sounds to me like there's a significant stress level in your flock from having a sizeable flock with multiple roosters in a relatively small area. I think that once you're able to slim down the flock a bit and have just one rooster, you're going to see an unbelievable boost in the flock demeanor and morale, which in turn will also help strengthen their immune systems.
If it were me, I think I'd really try to give your favorite fellow a chance. His behavior as a chick sounds very promising - all my best boys have been the same way. Not rabble-rousing instigators, but able and willing to hold their own. He sounds like a good boy!
If you happen to have a way that you could house your two other roosters separately for a week (a large crate, small grow-out pen, or something like that), I'd love to see how your favorite fellow behaves himself as the only rooster. I'd also be curious to see if the wheezing disappears. My instinct is that in your particular situation, where free-range time must (very understandably!) be limited, there's an extra burden on all fellows trying out for "head-honcho" status. In an enclosed space, there seems to be more pressure to establish authority.
I've noticed that when full-time free-ranging, a head rooster generally has his "posse" of favorite girls, and is fairly happy for secondary roosters to divvy up the other ladies. Put that same flock in a smaller, enclosed space, and the dynamics seem to drastically change. The head rooster is suddenly intolerant of other roosters mounting or courting ANY hen, now that it's in "his" space. If a "lesser rooster" does succeed in mounting a hen, the Alpha often feels the need to also immediately mount that same hen. The girls end up in the middle, being relentlessly chased as object lessons to demonstrate the Alpha's "top dog" status - not so much to the humble hen, but for the benefit of the other roosters. When social dynamics are established within a confined area, they do seem to continue to play out even when free ranging for windows of time. During early spring, I have found it necessary to keep my flock confined because of weasels, and during that time the social structure really adjusts. It seems to take a few weeks of full-time free-ranging for the dynamics to return to their "free range equilibrium." My instinct is that since the safety of your flock depends on them staying penned for a majority of the time, whatever social dynamic gets established in the pen will carry out even when free ranging.
Whew - SO sorry to be so long winded. I should say that these are all just things I've noticed from a lifetime of watching chickens, so take them with a grain of salt - I do not have a chicken sociology degree (though that would be amazing if there were such a thing! Sign me up!)
My honest instinct is that right now the worst is being brought out in each successive alpha that tries out for the job. Probably any of them would calm down and be far less of a bully within a few weeks (or even days) of being the only rooster in the coop. From your description, if it were me, I would probably give your favorite fellow a try, keeping a close eye on him and the rest of the flock in case treatment seems warranted. Without stress, you may find that the wheezing disappears. It may not be a popular opinion, but I do feel that depression can occur in chickens, and just by the sound of it, your favorite rooster is probably in a pretty much constant state of low-level stress.
I do hope this helps a bit! Again, sorry to go on so long! If I've forgotten anything, please don't hesitate to reply. I'd love to hear how things go for you! You sound like a GREAT chicken mama. Wishing you and your flock all the best!!!
I’ll keep you updated. Just for fun. 😊
We decided to keep the Wheezing Gentleman despite all and made a meal of Alpha and the third rooster. As soon as they were gone, the whole dynamic changed. No more fight, no screams, no laments.
There was a scared hen who spent her days in the coop (hiding in a corner as soon as someone (feathered or not) would come in) or perched in the apple tree (if we would try to encourage her to get out she would flee to that branch and remain there until we would fetch her in the evening when it was time to get in). She joined the flock as soon as the bully disappeared and has since become an active forager.
Wheezing Gentleman is still wheezing when heavily breathing (i.e. under stress, even if it’s only a minor threat, something he perceives as a threat, or simply after running to have a look at what food I may have brought with me) but no one else has shown similar signs.
We still have the 13 hens (the 2 that were planned to leave us never left) and apart from the 2 roosters we slaughtered and one young cockerel who found a new home, we still have all the other roosters: Wheezing Gentleman and 5 youngsters to be exact.
I have been really surprised but even if Wheezing Gentleman was only 4 weeks older than the others, that was enough for them to accept his authority as eldest. They haven’t challenged him. They have fought for their own ranking but we haven’t seen the same chaos as when there was no elder rooster. It went smoothly. So that was for me the biggest conclusion. No more chick rearing without elder(ly) chicken.
Now that they have become older, bigger and, we hope, wiser, we dare to open the gates earlier and let them forage outside the ren most of the day. We enjoy very much the sight of them wandering around. And your description of that ‘top dog’-status behavior in a closed environment is so accurate…
The reason why we haven’t slaughtered the other roosters is because … well… they were no reason to do so. No bullying. No reason to intervene. Besides, the garden provided plenty of vegetables for each meal and we needed space in the freezer for the harvest. There was simply no space for 5 more whole chicken. So, we postponed, week after week.
But we will slaughter them eventually. And we may not keep Wheezing Gentleman as (sole) main rooster after all, since another young rooster seems to be taking the lead and the girls seem to like him… As you said, left free-range, there is space for more than one rooster in a flock, each with his favorites, without much troubles.
Hi there I have five young under a year old boys I’m going to sell this weekend I also live in Maine and I don’t know who to keep.
Also interested in maybe some female call ducks. I have too many boys.
Hi Leslie! Always fun to connect with a fellow Maine homesteader! If you're not already a member of the Maine Poultry Connection facebook group, I find that's my favorite place for buying and selling poultry in Maine. It's a wonderful group. Best of luck!!
Kelly Boivin says
Hi Anna, I messaged you a few days ago on FB, but it has gone unseen, so perhaps you are taking a break from that particular corner of the social media universe, or for whatever reason did not see it. Anyway, last year I bought a trio of ducks from you, and due to the drake's over-amorous attention to the non-broody hen, she has sustained an injury. I have had to seclude her for rest and treatment, and now I'm afraid he will injure the other girl. I'm desperately seeking another female or two to keep him occupied for the remainder of breeding season. I would be deeply appreciative if you could email and let me know if you have a spare girl or two for sale? I apologize for crashing your rooster post with an off topic comment. Thanks, Kelly
Aw, Kelly! I'm so sorry to hear about your girl - I would be totally happy to hook you up with some additional ladies! Let me send you an email and we can get you some extra company for Mr. Cassanova. Oh, Springtime...
I’m new to chickens. I have 10 who are 8 weeks old. Two have been practicing crowing for one week and another silent one has a lot of red on his face and a large comb and wattle.
If I’m unable to rehome at least 2 of the cockerels can everyone coexist peacefully?
Thanks for your time,
Hi Chantal! Great question, and I'm sorry I don't have a solid answer for you. I would say that it's entirely POSSIBLE, though not very likely, that three roos could co-exist peaceably with just seven hens between them. A lot of factors come into play, like breed and temperament, as well as how much space they have, and whether there's food continually available or they're fed at set times. I find that situations where space and food are in plentiful supply, make for the most peaceable conditions when it comes to an extra heavy concentration of roosters. You may find that everyone establishes their "pecking order" and manages to live fairly contentedly over the winter, but come spring those surging hormones may come into play and can create some new tensions. As you spend time with your flock, it will probably become pretty evident whether things are working out comfortably for a happy coop. If things continually feel angsty, even re-homing one rooster can make a big difference in bringing down the level of anxiety in the coop. Sorry for the long-winded answer, and I hope things work out well for you and your flock!! Best wishes to all of you!!