When I moved to this two-acre croft in Iowa, just outside Iowa City, I was pleased to become part of the management of a flock of chickens. Mostly Leghorns and Red Star hens, they have a nice little coop with tiers of nesting boxes, a fenced chook-yard (Brit-speak for chicken yard) that must be a half-acre, lots of trees, and a Great Pyrenees guard dog. Egg customers stop by for a couple dozen very fresh eggs, a loaf of oatmeal bread or an apple pie, and a chat about the weather and the crops.
The one drawback is that the Boss has a soft spot in his big heart for roosters. There was a rooster for every three hens. For chickens, this is not a happy situation.
The roosters were beautiful: fancies in their buccaneers’ pantaloons of white feathers with bright red combs, Cochins in black and grey, Bantam crosses with their regal coloring, like ancient Asian potentates. They were proud and loud, and didn’t care who knew it.
Half an acre is not enough territory for nine roosters to share. Chickens—gallus domesticus—were once gallus gallus, the red jungle fowl—a species of bird that lived in the forests of Asia. There is a trait most bird species share in the natural forest canopy: they are territorial. The male will drive out other males, and keep his own little harem together, zealously guarding their roosting and feeding ground. Some breeds of gallus domesticus are more territorial than others, and certainly, some males, especially if they have been used to being, well, “cock of the walk,” will readily attack other birds and any human who tries to interfere.
While classical era agricultural writers advocated keeping as many as one rooster for each three hens, this was in the context of producing butchering birds. Our little egg empire doesn’t require hatching, or fertilized eggs. The roosters are for two purposes: to guard the hens and to provide a vigorous morning wake-up call.
Roosters should show a little courtesy to the hens. They have a brief mating dance to which the hen responds, but under competition stress, the roosters are very aggressive and just attack the hen, even if she runs. We found roosters trapping hens in the nesting boxes, spurring them, and even clubbing them down with their beaks. The poor hens, except for the Leghorns and a few Red Stars who could fly over the fence, were bald across their backs and missing tail feathers.
The escapees—which were not really a problem, as the little estate here sits at the end of a dirt lane, naturally fenced with thick hedges and a seasonal creek (“the moat”)—were lorded over by one of the bantam cross roosters, a good-natured fellow who is a pet. As long as they stayed under the pergola by the fountain, and ate the slugs out of the hosta, they were welcome to roam a bit. They got themselves back into the chicken coop at night, before the door was shut. And all that was good in the order of things on a smallholding croft until the garden was planted.
They devastated the seedlings. They did it again after replanting. The cruciferous vegetables were hard hit as they tore the new growth away. The seedlings were put under floating row covers. The hens ripped through the covers and feasted.
A low electric fence went up, but chickens, like sheep, have both good body insulation and a small footprint for grounding. They ran through the fence or fluttered over it. Wires were re-adjusted, and a stronger charger added. Then the rabbits, who had been intimidated by the roosters, found the weaknesses of the fence and got through. More adjustments were made. One sage friend asked, “Isn’t that what chicken wire is for?” Chicken wire, though, doesn’t go for chicken feed these days. A big garden is more effectively and more cheaply fenced with the low wire and the electric charger. Of course, that means that the Big People who tend the garden have to remember to turn off the charger before dragging hose and metal tools over, through or under the electric fence. Even at chicken level voltages, the “zap” is unpleasant.
Except for the African marigolds, the chickens took out all the flowers in pots, venturing up onto the door-stoops. While it was a colorful sight to see a couple of pretty red hens basking in the sun on the wooden steps, it was infuriating to find the begonias in tatters. They went after every flower bud they could find, strewed the cedar mulch through the lawn, and bathed in the koi pond. They perched on the edge of the pool for half an hour at a time, eying the poor fish, which huddled abjectly in shady underwater nooks. I have never seen a chicken catch a fish, but my explanations as I chased away the chickens were not reassuring to the koi.
These renegades took a liking to perching on the vehicles, especially if the sliding door on the work van was open, or someone left a window down. Visitors were warned to roll up windows and close tailgates, or they might find themselves with an angry and confused chicken in the car on the way home. While chicken droppings are a fact of life on a farm, their long spurs and claws can ruin a car’s paint job in a matter of minutes.
The Maine coon cat would about go mad as she perched in a screened window, and plump, tender hens paraded with impunity before her eyes. She made frequent and hopeless dashes to escape so she could help herself to a chicken dinner.
Periodic fights would erupt in the chicken coop or under the favorite spruce tree, hens yelling at the roosters and each other, feathers flying, culminating in mad races around the coop and trees. The Leghorn hens would crouch in hiding under bushes and in dense grass, and when they got desperate for food or water, would hightail to the coop like roadrunners. The Leghorns stop walking at all, employing a brisk trot for all events. One poor hen, bullied without the possibility of a ceasefire, started laying in secret at the far end of the yard, where an old wheel barrow leaning against the chain link fence gave her some protection. We found her secret nest later, with about three dozen eggs in it.
Then there was the crowing. In the case of some of the more masculine roosters, especially the feathered fancies, it was more like angry bellowing, One would stand under the kitchen window and scream for hours. I started yelling at it through the window, “Shut up! Will, you just shut up now? Go away and shut up!” Members of the golf club that backs our eastern fence, looking for lost balls in the hedge, must have wondered if I was addressing them.
And while it was wrong and illegal for golfers to cross our fence-line, which is tall and topped with two strands of barbed wire, it was also entirely possible that one of the larger, more aggressive roosters might attack, flying at them without warning, with spurs forward. At first, the Boss was reluctant to let me enter the chook-yard alone because of the roosters. But he was gone one day, and I went to collect eggs. A white feathered fancy stalked me to the coop door, and suddenly leaped into the air, feet aimed at my back. I caught sight of him in my peripheral vision, and swung the plastic egg collecting bowl into him. He somersaulted backward through the air, landed, and came at me again. I gave him the sole of my boot, and he finally relented and backed off. I had punched a good sized hole in the bottom of the bowl, and had to return to the house for an intact one. White fancy watched me narrowly, with a look that said, “I’ve got an eye on you, woman.” I hissed at him like a big cat, and flapped my apron in his face. He scurried just out of range, but kept a sullen glare aimed at me.
A bag of feed lasted about two days. The roosters drove off the hens, who would timidly peck at the leavings after the males had finished eating. The price of eggs and the cost of producing them were beginning to close up. Then we found a dead hen, and a few days later, a dead rooster, obviously beaten by other birds. A second dead hen confirmed that skirmishing had become all-out war.
We decided to keep two roosters and get rid of the rest, so after a few days of discussing how to get rid of roosters, none of them more than two years old, we rejected butchering ourselves and placed an ad online to give them away. Butchering wasn’t practical to do humanely with what equipment we had. Within a few hours, we received several calls. I rejected without further discussion the woman who wanted one rooster for bug duty in the garden, but couldn’t guarantee a companion, a safe perch, or that it wouldn’t end up as a hunting lure for their black Labrador retriever.
Our top two choices for re-homing the roosters were a local hobby farmer who wanted to improve his stock, and a hobby farm equipped to do rescues. Within three days, the farmer came by after work in his button-down shirt, his black slacks, and driving a pick-up truck with narrow crates in the back. He had a chicken catch, sort of like a shepherd’s crook made from heavy gauge metal wire, but the roosters were quickly caught in the coop, grabbed by their feet and unceremoniously held upside down until they were stowed in crates in his truck, and after a few minutes of furiously clucking and crowing, we said a happy goodbye.
The benefits were immediate. The remaining roosters stopped being dangerously competitive and aggressive, the hens started producing better with less stress and more access to feed, and I no longer threatened to wring anything’s neck on a daily basis. The chickens are staying in the chook-yard, instead of marauding through the croft. Flowers and broccoli may recover, and we no longer have as much chicken manure to wash off the steps and walkways. The feed bill dropped noticeably.
As I said in my online ad: “Come get these birds! We are in the egg business, not the rooster business!”