The Cockerel Conundrum: Nobody Wants a Rooster

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CC BY 2.0. David Goehring -- Wasabi, the rooster

Male chickens are unwanted by industrial farmers and backyard hen-keepers alike.

When I got a small flock of backyard chickens last summer, two of the five birds turned out to be roosters. The first one started crowing within a few weeks. I had to return him to the farmer, since roosters are not allowed in town. The second one, whom my kids had named Princess, didn't reveal himself for another two months. Then all of a sudden he hit a growth spurt, sprouted shaggier feathers, and started uttering strange croaking sounds that differed from the hens' cheery clucking. As the sounds gained strength and persistence, I had to give Princess back to the farmer. She gave me two hens in exchange.

I was sad to see the roosters go because I loved their crowing. Sure, there were some days when it sounded like a busy little farmyard in the back, and I could see people's heads turn in curiosity as they walked past the house, but it reminded me of my days living in northeastern Brazil, where chickens wander the streets and roosters are everyone's alarm clock. In a world where we're connected to the source of our food, we should be hearing chickens. I'd also argue that their cock-a-doodle-dooing was much less obnoxious than my neighbors' yappy dogs.

Apparently, being unable to identify roosters is a real problem for many backyard chicken owners. Karin Brulliard, writing for the Washington Post (paywall), calls it "a clash between urban and suburban flock-keepers’ bucolic ideals — a touch of rural charm, the promise of fresh eggs — and the hard realities of local ordinances."

She explains that most egg suppliers employ professional 'sexers' to examine chicks' downy feathers and nether regions in order to identify their gender, but that suppliers say they're right only 90 percent of the time. Male chicks are usually killed as soon as they're identified, often ground up alive, because they are not viewed as a particularly useful animal -- unable to lay eggs or not the right breed for eating.

The farmer to whom I returned my two roosters had at least a dozen gorgeous roosters strutting around her farm. She raises a heritage breed called Chantecler, which is dual-purpose, meaning the birds are good for both laying and eating. The roosters, she told me, would hang out on the farm until eventually they went into a stewpot.

chantecler chicken

© Anna Acheson (used with permission) -- One of my pure white Chantecler chickens, who do not have combs on their head to make them more resistant to the cold, although this makes it harder to identify males.

Had I known about it at the time, I might have tried a No-Crow Collar before contacting the farmer. It is an interesting invention made by a Michigan couple who found themselves with a rooster they didn't want to get rid of. Brulliard describes it:

"It’s made of nylon and mesh — bow tie accessory optional — and it restrains crowing by preventing a rooster from filling a sac in its throat with the air it expels to call out. [Inventor] Kusmierski said they’ve sold more than 50,000 in about five years."

Needless to say, it's a tough situation for everyone. Animal shelters are at full capacity when it comes to roosters because nobody wants them on their own; they're not really one's idea of an ideal rescue pet. Chicken owners, even if they are allowed to have roosters, usually don't want more than a few, since they don't serve any practical purpose beyond defending the hens and fertilizing eggs.

I don't know what a solution would look like, but I do wish that the societal attitude toward roosters would shift. There's no need for them to be as vilified as they are, nor to have them banned from small urban flocks. They are magnificent, humorous, and energetic birds, worthy of our attention and respect.