Working with the Cock(s) in the Flock
I wrote this article for the April/May 2006 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine, a great resource for the homestead flock owner.
It is not necessary to have a male in your flock of laying hens. If you live cheek by jowl with neighbors who might object to the crowing of a cock, you can keep a flock of much quieter hens without problems. Of course, the eggs will not be fertile absent the “attentions" of the male; however, the hens will lay just as many eggs. And they will form their own hierarchical social structure without a male.
If you want fertile eggs, of course, you must have a cock in the flock. In which case, what is the ratio between cocks and hens for fertility? The answers to the question range from 8-12 hens per cock, up to 25 or even more. Clearly the answer depends somewhat on how certain we need to be of 100 percent fertility in the eggs.
I prefer having at least one cock in the flock. I enjoy the way he completes the social pattern in the flock, and how he looks out for his ladies. The cock has the reputation of being something of a bully, based on his typically pretty crass manner with the ladies: He approaches the hen without much apparent by-your-leave and mounts her in a way that seems almost violent. We sympathize with the hen, shaking herself off as if to say, “Well! Glad that’s over!" But the cock is actually quite solicitous of his flock. Alert to the sky, he gives the alarm if a hawk swoops over, setting off a dash for cover. I have heard stories of cocks attacking dogs or foxes in defense of the flock. And if you want to see the true colors of the cock, throw some special tidbit—a cricket or grasshopper you’ve just caught—into the flock, near the cock. Does he shove the hens out of his way like the bully we thought he was, and gobble this special treat for himself? Not at all! He calls the hens with a special deep-throated burble used at no other time. It is especially endearing to see him pick up the cricket and “beak" it to one of his favorite hens. Clearly, he has the instinctual wisdom to know that the hen needs this nutritional boost to produce the nutrient-dense egg that will carry on their species.
One behavior on the part of the cock you might look for in particular is “dancing." Temple Grandin, well known for her work with domesticated animals, has remarked on this “dancing" behavior: The cock performs a strutting dance for the hen, which convinces her to squat and welcome his advances. The mating is accomplished without the violence referred to above, and the hen is never injured, even when the cock’s spurs are long and sharp. Grandin believes that we have not paid attention to this dancing behavior when breeding our chickens, and that modern cocks have “forgotten" how to dance, with the result that mating is carried on with more violence, and sometimes results in injury to the hen.
I have begun looking for dancing on the part of the cocks in my flocks. Unfortunately, I suspect that the more cocks in the flock, the greater the tendency for a cock to “make his move" in a hurry, before being challenged by another male! In the coming breeding season, when all the cocks are in separate pens with the hens I’ve chosen, I’ll take note of dancing behavior. I may even make dancing a factor when selecting cocks to keep for further breeding.
If the cock in your flock is not a dancer, be on the lookout for spur injuries to the hen. I have occasionally seen hens whose sides were seriously injured in mating. Indeed, in extreme cases the internal organs were visible through the gaping rents in the hen’s side. Isolating such hens immediately is imperative. (When protected from further injury, their recuperative powers are astounding. Still, I have lost a hen or two to spur wounds, as have others of my acquaintance.)
I have started routinely trimming the spurs of all my older breeding cocks—the ones with the long, sharp spurs—using an ordinary pruning shears. Please note that you must not make the cut too close to the shank—or the bird may bleed to death! Shear the spur off no closer than half its length. There will be bleeding, and you can use a styptic if you like, but bleeding will not be serious if the cut is properly made.
I had an elderly neighbor who kept chickens for many years. Sitting by his chicken pen, he would observe the flock’s behavior four or five hours at a time. I think he knew more about chicken mating behavior than any expert in any ag college in the country. “So if you got two roosters," he told me, “the top guy is gonna have his pick of the hens—he’ll have his own special group that are his. He’ll look out for ’em, and he’ll tread ’em. The other rooster can tread the other hens, but the top guy will keep him away from the hens he’s picked. Well sir, after about four hours there’ll be a change! Suddenly the top guy will be treading a different group of hens!" If my friend was accurate in his description of natural flock behavior, think of the implications: The dominant male gets his pick of the hens—that is, priority when it comes to passing on his genes. But the flock has the instinctual wisdom to know that the subordinate cock also has his role to play in ensuring genetic diversity—in keeping some “wild cards" in the hand—and affords him the opportunity as well to pass his genes on to the future flock.