One Rooster Too Many?
Keeping Peace in a Flock With More Than One Rooster Takes Strategy and Patience
By Gail Damerow
Some chicken keepers have more than one rooster by design, others by accident. If you hatch your own chicks, or you purchase straight-run chicks from a hatchery, at least half of them will grow up to be roosters. Even when you purchase sexed pullets, some of them may turn out to be roosters.
Of course, if you live where roosters are not allowed, that’s the end of the story. Any that accidentally come your way must be either rehomed or relegated to the freezer. Your hens can get along just fine with no roosters at all.
On the other hand, where roosters are allowed, having one or more in the flock is half the fun of keeping chickens. And if you intend to hatch your own chicks, you absolutely need a rooster — at least until the fertilized eggs are in an incubator or under a hen.
Roosters can be tough on hens. And when a flock has more than one, aggression between them can be a problem. The following peace-keeping tips pertain to the typical backyard flock. Chicken keepers who breed for conservation or exhibition purposes follow more rigorous mating systems.
Mind Your Hen-To-Rooster Ratio
When too many cocks are present, fertility may be low because the cocks spend too much time competing with each other. If cocks are too few, fertility may be low because the cocks can’t get around to all the hens, or perhaps they favor certain hens and ignore others. A cock with too few hens, or that favors certain hens, may cause wounds from frequent treading.
The hen-to-rooster ratio refers to the ideal number of hens per cock. On average, the optimal ratio for heavier breeds is eight hens per cock, although a rooster in peak form can handle 12 (or maybe more). The optimal ratio for bantams and lightweight laying breeds is 12 hens per cock, yet an agile rooster may accommodate as many as 20. An older cock or an immature cockerel can manage only half the number of hens that a virile yearling can accommodate.
These ratios are not hard and fast rules. For example, my small flock of bantam Silkies began with five hens and one rooster. After a predator attack, I had three hens and one rooster. One of the hens hatched a brood, from which I kept a pullet and a cockerel. Today, my Silkie flock consists of four mature hens and two mature roosters, all of which get along as one happy family.
Select Roosters That Mind Their Manners
The ideal rooster is one that is friendly toward other roosters, toward hens, and toward his human handlers. Some roosters will tolerate the presence of other roosters, some will not. Some roosters aggressively chase down hens for mating, others prefer to woo each hen with a nice little song and dance. Some roosters are friendly toward people, or at least cautiously tolerant, others are quick to defend their territory from all comers, including you. Being selective about the roosters you allow into your flock makes chicken keeping more fun, and if you intend to hatch your hens’ eggs, you certainly don’t want to perpetuate aggression into future generations.
Although aggressive roosters can appear in nearly any breed, some breeds are more likely to be aggressive than others. Breeds that tend toward the aggressive side include Cubalaya, Modern Game and Old English Game. Breeds that commonly have aggressive individuals include Aseel, Buckeye, Cornish, Faverolle, Rhode Island Red, Shamo, Sumatra and Wyandotte. All sorts of methods have been suggested for taming an ornery rooster, but the safest bet is to get rid of it before you or someone else is seriously injured.
As for aggression toward each other, some breeds tend to be more tolerant. For example, Brahma, Faverolle, Marans, Plymouth Rock, Orpington and Silkie roosters are commonly more tolerant toward each other than Cubalayas, Rhode Island Reds or any of the game breeds.
Three Is Better Than Two
Roosters of a breed that tend to be less tolerant of each other may get along better in groups of three or more. Two roosters kept together are more likely to focus on each other as competition. When a third rooster is present, he may help level the playing field by interfering when the other two quarrel.
Years ago I raised a flock of Rhode Island Reds that included two roosters. They got along splendidly until they were about a year and a half old, whereupon they began fighting incessantly. We divided off a corner of the coop so we could separate them, but they persisted in fighting each other through the wire barrier. When it became obvious they weren’t going to quit until one was dead, we decided the better part of valor was to get rid of one of them.
In subsequent years we have kept at least three roosters, and often as many as five, and have seen no more bloody battles. We typically start each new flock of 50 to 60 laying hens with 10 or 12 roosters, culling down as they mature to the four or five with the best combination of conformation and temperament. Over the years this system has worked out well not only with Rhode Island Reds, but also with New Hampshires and Barred Plymouth Rocks.
Raise ’Em Together And Keep ’Em Together
One of the best ways to ensure that multiple roosters get along with one another is to raise them together as chicks and keep them together as they grow. Another possibility that can also work is letting a hen raise young ones within the flock, so the established rooster(s) get used to the little ones as they grow.
If, however, an established rooster is getting on in years, a younger cock may mount a challenge as soon as his testosterone starts raging. The older cock may still be strong enough to prevail, but if not, battles could become deadly. In such a case, you will have to decide whether you want to keep the beloved older rooster and rehome the younger one, or let go of the older fellow in favor of the younger, more virile one. As an alternative, you could keep both by scheduling their hen time, as I’ll describe shortly.
Abruptly introducing a full-grown rooster into a flock that already has mature roosters is a surefire way to start a bloody turf war, and may possibly introduce some disease to which your established flock is not immune. If, however, you are determined to introduce a new rooster, start out by housing him where he can see his new flock, and they can see him, without having actual physical contact. After a few days, if none of the birds appears agitated, move the newcomer closer, but still with a barrier between him and the established rooster(s). If they do not attempt to fight through the barrier, let the newcomer into the flock, but continue to watch closely to make sure he doesn’t get badly beaten up.
Roosters Need Their Space
Multiple roosters in one flock are more likely to get along where they are not so crowded that they are always in each others’ faces. How much space they need will depend on the size of your flock and also, to a certain extent, on their breed. Active breeds need more space than placid breeds.
More important than square feet per chicken is the richness of the environment. A coop and run providing lots of variety is more conducive to peaceful coexistence. Our coop, for example, has a generous perching area and a large outdoor foraging area that includes a shade tree. Often we’ll see one rooster out in the pasture with a few hens, another taking a dust bath with his girls, still another preening under the shady tree with his harem, a third having a nap on the roost, and a fourth having a snack at the feeder — all too busy to bother fighting one another.
Add Feeder And Drinker Stations
Where the coop area is large enough to accommodate more than one rooster, it also must be large enough to accommodate more than one feeder and drinker. Furnish one station per rooster, so each can peacefully gather his hens around a different station.
Space the feeders and drinkers well apart to provide enough room for each rooster and his harem to eat or drink without bumping into the group eating at the next station. Position stations so each rooster can reach a station without having to pass through another rooster’s feeding territory.
If providing a sufficient number of feeders and drinkers requires more space than your coop can accommodate indoors, install some stations outdoors. To keep rain or snow from spoiling the feed, fit each feeder with an all-weather/rain hat (available from many poultry suppliers). Where rats and other night-roaming wildlife are likely to pilfer feed, you will need to construct feeder enclosures that can be closed at night, or else bring feeders indoors each evening and return them outdoors in the morning.
Watch for Missing Feathers
A cock intent on mating grabs feathers on the back of a hen’s head with his beak to help balance himself while he attempts to stand on her back. More often than not, his feet slide on her smooth feathers and he makes a few quick movements of his feet to get a good hold. This movement of the feet is called treading, and frequent treading results in the loss of feathers from the hen’s back.
Hens with missing feathers tend to be either a rooster’s favorites or low-ranking hens that are more easily wooed than hens that are higher up in the pecking order. A hen with missing feathers has little protection from the cock’s sharp claws during future matings and as a result may be seriously wounded. Bleeding wounds lead to pecking by other chickens, and deep wounds become infected, possibly resulting in the death of the hen.
Before the situation goes that far, take measures as soon as you notice hens are missing feathers because of treading — or even before feathers go missing. The first step is to keep the cock’s toenails properly trimmed, taking care to round off the corners. (See “A Guide To Chicken Trims Part II: Claws, Spurs & Beaks” in the June/July 2015 issue of Backyard Poultry.)
As a temporary measure, dress each hen — or at least those the cocks favor — in a mating saddle, also known as an apron. A variety of styles are readily available online, or may be homemade, but must be sized to properly fit the specific hen. A saddle that is too tight may chafe, rub off breast feathers, injure the wings, or strangle the bird. A too-loose saddle, or one constructed of droopy material, will flop to one side, making it useless.
To prevent skin wounds the saddle should be applied as soon as feathers start disappearing. At first, the hen will try to back out of the garment, but will soon get used to it. Although a saddle is not intended as permanent clothing, it must be left on as long as the hen is with other chickens, at least until her back is once again protected by a full set of feathers.
Schedule Alternating Hen Time
Another solution to the missing feathers issue is to house the roosters in a separate area and let them in with the hens for only a few hours each week. Or you might divide them into two groups and alternate which group runs with the hens. When rotating two groups, keep each group together as a unit so they maintain their pecking order. Interestingly, roosters housed together without hens are less apt to fight.
You could, if you prefer, let out only one rooster at a time. Since each cock has a different set of favorite hens, this plan offers the other hens some relief. But keep the visits short, such as a day or only an afternoon. A rooster that is away from his group for long will lose his place in the pecking order, and when he returns fighting will ensue.
Where two roosters persist in fighting, the problem easily may be solved by alternating which one stays in bachelor quarters and which one runs with the hens. Even if you have only one rooster, periodically removing him from the flock will give the hens a rest.
Keeping multiple roosters in a single flock need not result in bloody battles and injured hens. Maintaining peace requires only foresight and a measure of sound management.
Gail Damerow is the author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, The Chicken Encyclopedia, The Chicken Health Handbook, Hatching & Brooding Your Own Chicks and several other volumes.