Part One – Chick to 3 Months
It’s that time of year when your spring hatches and lovely, fluffy “pullets” begin to grow sickle feathers and crow?! Wait a minute…yup. Put back the pink cigars and break out the blue, you have sons. Oddly, this purely natural circumstance (animals tend to come in male and female) creates great stirrings amongst chicken folk. There really is nothing to fret over. Boys will be boys – but man are they fun AND they STAY that way! I love my cockerels, and I want you to love yours too. Trust me, hens grow up and tend to business but the guys will always be your best buds.
Little Allessandro, the ancona/RIR, will be our model for this. Now that he is 3 months and 2 weeks old (many of your guys are probably at or near this stage), he is beginning to transition from chick-hood to cockerel. Many people are surprised when their fuzzy Silkies start crowing, sparring and raising havoc in the hens. Silkies, Cochins, Belgian d’uccles, Brahma, English Game, New Hampshire, Polish – a rooster is a rooster and each one is an individual (my silkie, Henri, beat up a standard English game). All cockerels need to be trained and they need to learn how to integrate into “civilization”. I find the roosters are often much more prone to be affectionate than hens. Nothing instructs us in animal behavior better than doing field research with our own birds. The flock is the teacher and we are the student.
Why does he do that?
The maturity date of male chickens varies with breed – some begin displaying secondary behavioral and sex characteristics earlier or later than others. The first surprise entails the growth of wattles and comb (in breeds that have both) and the emergence of sickle and hackle feathers – Silkies usually sprout streamers in their crest. Male behaviors involve mock sparring and hen mounting. Some keepers notice extra “picking” in the males – but I have actually seen the “picking” relative to personality rather than sex. In fact, due to the inherent social decorum and strict ranking in male animals, I have always found the hens more amenable to assertively picking.
You will see rudimentary “mating” grabs from your cockerel. I call this “collecting” behavior as the rooster is trying to grab you as he would when asking a hen to mate. Chickens use their beak to hold things – ain’t got hands, as they say! This is NOT aggression (even tough these picks can be quite strong, involving enough force to hold onto you – which is the goal). I repeat this is NOT aggression – it is the rooster showing you he wants to be with you. Encourage the behavior and turn it into a little game, but make sure to wear long sleeves or gloves.
How to direct behavior
At this stage in your cockerel’s maturity he is trying out “independence” (like any teenager) and testing ideas and impulses. He will begin to mate the hens and will initiate play sparring with them. The hens will deal with this. Watch to make sure he does not get hurt by rampaging hens (this is rare but does happen). If he mounts a hen in front of you gently remove him, pet him and release him. This shows him that you are in control. Mating is a status display in chickens – you need to be the “lead” rooster.
Discipline must never be done in anger or violence. It is always calm and done without emotion.
Cockerels and pullets will begin testing your direction. Use “negative reinforcement” to show that it is easier to comply than resist. Negative reinforcement is creative and it gives the animal control over his or her choices like a TV remote. A commercial or a show that you hate comes on… you change the channel – negative reinforcement in action!
Example: Allessandro doesn’t want to go in the pen and coop. I put the other birds in and leave home out alone. The first time he ran away. I had to chase him, using a pole to guide him (poles extend the reach of your arm and allow you to guide the birds more efficiently). We had a great run around!
But it never happened again.
What Allessandro learned: Running around isn’t fun. It is easier to go in the coop, and he also learned that being alone is not good.
Young chickens, because they are babies, do not understand “picking” and how hard or when/what to pick. Never trust a young pullet or cockerel to not pick you in the face, teeth or eye – as eyes are alarmingly shiny and attractive. Simply and gently move their head away every time they consider picking your face. As their brains mature, they begin to understand complex social concepts – such as impulse control and consequence to actions – and magically outgrow “picking”.
Safety note: Chickens are strong enough and fast enough to blind you. Never allow children to train young (or unpredictable) birds. If you are unsure, wear sunglasses or eye protection. Children should not be allowed to train young chickens as they are at risk of accidental (possibly permanent) injury.
Children and Chickens: This can be a fantastic combination, but as with any interaction between children and non-humans, it is important to use common sense. Because of their size and unusual movement/loud high-pitched sounds, children are considered predators by chickens. This is why the old “kid chased by the rooster” story is so prevalent in folk stories. Desensitize your chickens to children by having the kids love on the birds and bring them goodies. The bond and love cultivated between chickens and children is unconditional and beautiful. We never forget it, and it is one of the best learning experiences for everyone.
- Play with your rooster. Pick them up daily and cuddle them. Support the cockerel and tuck his head under your chin. Rub your face on his neck and watch him lick and smack his beak with delight. Chickens love to be near your face – they just do (this is my foolproof method to calm and bond with birds). With the bird firmly tucked under your chin, he cannot pick you.
- Snuggle with the cockerel (best in the evening). Let them ride around on your shoulder like a pirate’s parrot. You will notice them getting as close as they can to you and “peeping” sweetly. They will engage in grooming your hair and clothes and some curious picking. Do this with each cockerel. They will not get jealous.
- Hold them and do chores with them. This teaches trust and that doing things with you is interesting.
- Before roosting time, mimic the brooding of the hen. Place the young bird on your lap and bend over them. They LOVE this and will fall asleep.
Engage in quiet play and tell the roo he is a wonderful boy, coo to him and have a great time. He is just a baby, even though he has a strong beak. In these very critical days you are cementing a very deep connection. A rooster will bond to you and protect you like a guard dog.
- Allow the older birds to instruct him. They will temper his impulse behaviors and teach him what is acceptable. Hens, in particular, will be doing the early teaching as young males instinctively avoid the dominant rooster. Male chickens can and do form close and mutually beneficial bonds. Remember, there is no such thing as one rooster to a flock in wild or feral chicken groups.
The Sequel: 4 months and after. Understanding the mating display, the wing flap and rooster “gift giving”.