Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Backyard Flock: When your Henrietta turns out to be a Henry

When the rooster crows at the break of dawn
Look out your window and I’ll be gone…
From “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” by Bob Dylan

Sexing chickens (determining whether they are male or female) is a difficult thing to do correctly when they are only day-old chicks. But that’s when it has to be done. Most people who are buying chicks from a hatchery want only females for a variety of reasons: They want chickens that are going to lay eggs; they don’t want to keep a rooster in a densely populated area; and roosters tend to be difficult to get along with.

This subject comes to mind because someone in my neighborhood has been hearing a rooster at 5:00 a.m. and asked me if I had one. It’s not me. I won’t keep one, not only out of deference to my neighbors, but I wouldn’t want to put up with the noise myself. Contrary to popular opinion, roosters don’t just crow at the break of dawn, they are liable to let go with a cocka-doodle-doo at any time of night or day. My girls make enough noise as it is.

When purchasing chicks from a hatchery, the buyer may ask for a mixed batch or a straight run of either pullets or cockerels. Pullet is the name for young hens (under one-year-old); cockerel is what they call young roosters. Hatcheries can only afford to keep chicks for one day. After that, they would have to feed them by the thousands. If you buy chicks from any place other than a hatchery, you stand a higher chance of getting a rooster. While hatcheries are pretty good at sexing, the folks who buy the chicks when they are two days old are not and usually don’t care. So if you by six chicks at a flea market, you stand a high probability of getting four roosters, no matter what the seller told you. But even hatcheries make mistakes. Once in awhile a cockerel slips through in a supposed straight run of pullets and the buyer is not likely to find out until he hears that first telltale crow, months later.

I was in denial the first time I suspected I had a rooster in my flock. I thought I heard something, but I wasn’t sure. They all looked the same. I was never able to catch anybody in the act. But wait, were those little nubs on the back of that one Rhode Island Red starting to grow into spurs? I finally had to admit it to myself when he started to come after me every time I went out to the chicken run. He was a crafty little bugger. He would sidle up to me, hoping I wouldn’t notice, and then try to attack my leg.

One precocious little Araucana started crowing at about four weeks of age. I couldn’t believe my ears; I had to see for myself. Again, it was hard to catch him in the act. But I spied on him till I finally caught him at it. He put his entire little body into it, stretching his neck as long as he could as he let go with a squeaky little cuck-ca-caw. Not only did it make me laugh, but it endeared me to the little guy. So I kept him around for as long as I could, hoping his crow would never get louder than that first squeaky little effort. I called him Scooter because of the way he half-ran, half-flew around chicken land as he chased the pullets. One day my next door neighbor asked me if I had a rooster. I promised him I would get rid of Scooter as soon as I could find a home for him. Fortunately, my friend Nick Ormes, who runs the Ranch Menagerie Animal Rescue, agreed to take him and he is living happily on a horse farm in Beavercreek, where he can crow to his heart’s content and has plenty of girlfriends.

It’s tough getting rid of roosters. Ormes always has too many and that is the case with most animal shelters. Fortunately, he owed me a favor and I was able to cash in on it. In his rescue efforts he has seen too many cases where people have just abandoned unwanted roosters. They assume that if they leave them at some farmer’s gate, they will be taken in. But that is not usually the case. Frequently, they become prey to a hawk, raccoon or the farmer’s dog, before anyone even knows they are there. In that case it would actually be less cruel to make dinner out of them.

People who have been raised around roosters often tell me that they would like to have one around. I have actually had a couple different neighbors lament the fact that I won’t keep one. The trick, if you have a Henrietta that turns out to be a Henry, is to find one of these kindhearted folks that lives outside of town and take advantage of their poultry longings. You can always throw in a hen to sweeten the deal.

Here's a link to a photo piece on Urban Chickens.


Anonymous said...

Or you can do what Grandma used to do, which is eat the males and keep the females.

Virgil Hervey said...


4 A.M. and
Somebody woke
The neighbor's rooster up
I stepped outside just now
To feed my death
And listened while he
Tried to conjure up
A bright
December sun

No word
From the coyote
Down the ridge

This time of day
He's curled up warm
Running loose and easy
As he tracks
His breakfast down

It's that middle part
Of the nightmare
Where the broken edges
Go grinding off
Between the disappearing
And a day too new for naming

The clocks have stopped and
Almost everyone's afraid
But they'll get up
To cheer that rooster on
And listen for better song.

Ben L. Hiatt
Mt Aukum

(Published in the Sept. 2005 issue of Poultry Broadside)