It’s five o’clock and it’s dark outside. You are perched atop your roost within the safety of your coop surrounded by your flock. Even though you can’t see in the dark and you don’t plan to get down from your roost for another two hours, your biological clock signals it's time to let potential predators know you are awake, alert, and ready to defend your territory. So you let out periodic and ear piercing crows. Good morning rooster!
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a rooster for a free-range flock of hens? I enjoy watching our chickens adventuring around the farm looking for food and I often admire the tough job that our lone rooster has in keeping his ladies safe from the various predators that frequent our farm.
As a farmer I try to understand as best I can the natural living conditions that allow our livestock to thrive. We want our animals to be able to exhibit their natural behaviors outdoors on pasture while at the same time harnessing those behaviors to do valuable work on our regenerative farm.
We were very lucky to have ended up with Nigel our Barred Rock rooster. I like to think we are friends, but he doesn’t share that sentiment and either pretends to ignore me (while keeping a close eye on my movements) or more often he sees me as competition for the attention of his 16 hens.
Roosters have a reputation for being aggressive and for good reason – if they are to be any good at protecting their flock they need to be. Not all roosters are aggressive, but on the scale of rooster aggression, we wanted one somewhere in the middle between docile and can’t turn your back without getting attacked.
All In a Day’s Work – A Working Rooster
Nigel has his work cut out for him. He has 16 hens to keep an eye on and they don’t always forage in a group. It isn’t uncommon to see Nigel making the rounds in between groups to confirm where the hens are and make sure everyone is safe.
Unlike the hens that primarily concern themselves with scratching around looking for tasty bits to eat, Nigel is constantly scanning the sky and woods for potential predators. I often feel bad for Nigel on rainy days when he can be seen hunkered down keeping a watchful eye on the hens while they scratch away oblivious to the rain. He has this resigned look about him that makes you think he would rather be relaxing in the safe and dry chicken coop.
For the most part Nigel understands that I am a source of food. Yet there are days when he isn’t a fan of humans being around his ladies. He also doesn’t like when his flock follow me around instead of him, so that tends to lead to a confrontation. Despite our sometimes strained relationship, I am incredibly grateful for his tireless vigilance that has kept our free-range flock safe despite some close calls.
Dancing, Treats, and Keeping the Peace
Aside from the important role as protector of the flock, Nigel offers several other benefits to our free-range flock. When he first matured into a full-grown rooster, I kept my eye out for a couple of things.
One of those was the rooster dance. During this short dance Nigel drops a wing to the ground and shuffles around the hen that he wishes to mate with. Every day you can see him doing this dance for multiple hens. I have yet to see a hen be impressed by the dance, but I appreciate that Nigel tries. He still manages to mate with most of the hens every day and compared to our other rooster who was far more aggressive with the hens, Nigel seems like quite the gentleman.
Along with the dancing, I enjoy watching Nigel finding and sharing treats with his ladies. He particularly likes to give them treats to distract them away from me, but since I’m not in competition with him for the hens’ attention I don’t mind! Sometimes Nigel makes up treats (this was more common during the winter when there wasn’t much to find outside), but when he does actually have a treat he makes a very distinctive noise to alert the hens. He will then pick up the treat and drop it repeatedly until he gets their attention.
Lastly, roosters can help maintain a good pecking order, which is very important for enjoying our flock. We definitely have some bossy hens that on occasion can be vicious to those lower down. We saw a little of this with one of our hens (affectionately called Baby Chicken) that was slower to mature. Having a rooster helps prevent the hierarchy from being easily disrupted.
Ensuring Future Generations of Chickens
From an egg production perspective, it is not necessary to have a rooster in the flock. Our hens will lay eggs with or without a rooster and may even appreciate having a little less attention from Nigel who does his best to fertilize as many eggs as possible! However, we would not feel as comfortable free-ranging our flock without a good rooster and this would defeat some of the benefits chickens can provide on the farm.
As we get closer to spring, I am keeping an eye out for signs of broodiness in our hens, especially our Buff Orpington. I would be ecstatic if one or two hens decided to incubate, hatch, and raise a clutch of chicks to keep our small flock going. My experience last year with mail-order chicks was a little traumatic thanks to a late season snow storm and the start of the Pandemic that delayed their shipment. This delay resulted in the loss of half the chicks in the first two days. In general those first two weeks were stressful and I would be happy to turn the raising of chicks over to our more knowledgeable hens.
I also hope that chicks raised by our flock will provide us with a succession plan for future roosters. It seems reasonable that Nigel would show his offspring how to be a good rooster and carry on the tradition of keeping him flock safe. From a resiliency standpoint, it makes sense to maintain a breeding flock of chickens that can reproduce on their own and pass along their genetics that have survived in our free-range environment.
So while Nigel doesn’t always love the presence of humans, he is a hard working rooster who ensures that his ladies can safely free-range. This more than makes up for his sometimes ornery behavior!