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    Introduction to Rooster Behavior Part I: Dismantling Rooster Stigma

    Seven roosters perch together on a branch in a natural enclosure.
    Groucho, Chico, Zeppo, Harpo, Karl, Leo, and Gummo, a rooster flock, relax together in a predator proofed environment. These roosters coexist beautifully in an environment designed to meet their natural needs for enrichment and which protects them as domesticated prey animals. Photo courtesy of Triangle Chicken Advocates.

    Resource Goals

    • To identify commonly made statements and stereotypes about roosters that support rooster stigma;
    • To learn facts about chickens generally and roosters specifically that help in dismantling these false statements and stereotypes;
    • And to develop a new and more nuanced understanding of roosters that can aid in active positive advocacy on their behalf.

    Introduction

    Farmed animal sanctuaries are all too familiar with the plight of the rooster. They know that countless roosters are killed en masse in their first day of life at hatcheries, simply for being male. They get constant calls about loose chickens and know they are very likely roosters who were purposely dumped. Sanctuaries and rescues are constantly contacted with respect to roosters in need of homes for a myriad of reasons: because the neighbors complained, because the kids are scared of him, because he was supposed to be a hen, because of municipal laws banning roosters – basically, because he is a rooster. This problem often leads to deadly results for roosters.

    Consider one dumped rooster “tail,” the story of Loki, who was dumped in a Chicago park. On rescue he had a necrotic toe, was infested with lice, was emaciated and had a serious upper respiratory infection. That infection ended up being antibiotic resistant and potentially zoonotic, so Loki required forty one days of hospitalization in isolation, with multiple cultures and medication changes until he finally recovered. Loki still awaits adoption.

    • A white rooster hides in a clump of grass, but his tail sticks out.
    • A white rooster slumps by a tree.
    • A picture of rooster feet. One foot has a necrotic toe.
    • A woman with glasses holds a white rooster.
    • Two pictures of a white rooster. One shows him from the side. The other is a close up of his face and comb.

    This mistreatment of roosters arises from what many rescuers and sanctuaries call “rooster stigma.” Stigma is generally defined as “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.” Sadly, possibly more than any other non-human land animal, roosters suffer significant stigma, just…for being themselves. Protecting the most oppressed among us helps to uplift all work involved in collective liberation, and so addressing rooster stigma is a critical factor for all those interested in this work. Let’s start by breaking rooster stigma down into its component parts.

    Many factors contribute to the fundamental misunderstanding around roosters. These include:

    • Generalized bird stigma. Even in the sanctuary world at times birds can get a bad rap, and can be seen, even just subconsciously, as “less than” mammals, and specifically, “less intelligent” than mammals, and thus less deserving of care and protection;
    • Lack of knowledge surrounding chickens’ sensory and cognitive abilities, and how chickens exist socially as flock animals, and how that intertwines with their natures as “prey animals:”
    • Misunderstanding the nature of a rooster’s role within that social dynamic, and how his individual personality may reflect that role; 
    • Misperceptions of roosters stemming from human cruelty and abuse, specifically cockfighting. 

    For farmed animal advocates, rooster stigma is a very serious and heavy topic. As with all kinds of stigma and stereotyping, it is important to dismantle each misperception piece by piece with actual knowledge. If we recognize the impact rooster stigma has on the sheer number of roosters in need, either dumped or seeking homes because they are not valued or wanted, as well as the unknown numbers of infant birds killed within days of their hatch, then dismantling these stigmas should be a high priority for sanctuaries and caregivers of rescued roosters.

    Understanding basics about birds generally, like where chickens came from, how flock dynamics work for chickens, and also how human cruelty, colonizing and anthropomorphizing lenses have impacted our perceptions of these birds are all fundamental steps to being able to work with roosters in mutually beneficial ways, and being able to effectively advocate on their behalf.

    A person wearing glasses holds three roosters in their arms.
    Bird, a rooster advocate, with an armful of their rescued rooster friends! Photo courtesy of Rooster Haus Rescue.

    General public understandings about birds and chickens specifically however are often forged in problematic ways. This is unsurprising. Estimates of chickens killed each year for human consumption range up to 50 billion. There are complicated cognitive dissonances that come into play when it comes to addressing that dynamic. It becomes even more strange when you consider the question of why humans value parrot companions highly, both monetarily and as status symbols, but relegate roosters often literally to the trash or worse fates.

    The question of rooster stigma becomes even more complicated when we consider that a hen is a beloved archetype of motherhood, and sought after as a “producer of a valued object,” the egg. In contrast, a rooster is either commodified as a body to be outright killed immediately after his hatch, due to the misguided human stigmas assigned to him due to his “uselessness” as an egg producer, or he is stigmatized and simultaneously exploited for his fundamental nature as a protector of his family.

    Because compassionate works on valuing the personality, intelligence, and unique attributes of roosters are rare, in this resource we will draw from existing work which may be non-compassionate in nature, but which may all the same be used to address and combat stereotypes about roosters. Specifically because compassionate quantitative analysis of the nature of roosters is sparse, we need to draw on some sources which are based on experimental behavioral analysis of birds in controlled settings, although we at OSP fundamentally disavow animal experimentation and any “use” of animals for human purposes.

    Further, we must note that while it’s sad that relationality to human experience is often a necessary component to convincing humans that the lives of animals matter, it is a reality. Sometimes, expanding one’s circle of compassion involves identifying points of empathy and relation. Therefore we will cite qualitative data with regards to how the abilities of chickens relate to those of humans, but we will also balance this lens with qualitative data coming from the lives of humans who live with, and compassionately care for their beloved rooster companions. This kind of information about the lives of roosters living in safety and sanctuary is also critical, and we weigh it heavily here.

    Finally, because the aim of this resource is to identify some of the most common misperceptions about roosters and provide caregivers and advocates with fact based knowledge, so they can better understand and dismantle rooster stigma, we wish to arm our readers with as much information as possible to accomplish this goal. Please be forewarned that we will discuss the practice of cockfighting, specifically in the section addressing the stereotype of “rooster aggression to other roosters.”

    Myth #1: Birds Are Stupid (Especially Chickens). FACT: Chickens are Highly Sensitive and Intelligent Beings

    All creatures, regardless of their “intelligence,” are worthy of protection!
    We need to emphasize that a being’s right to be free from exploitation is not related to their intelligence. In our view, all sentient beings are deserving of consideration and free from unnecessary suffering, and direct or indirect harm from humans.

    For most people who don’t have any familiarity with birds, the stereotype that “chickens are dumb” seems to be a woefully commonly held view. Perhaps it is because birds are not mammals, and thus are possibly less relatable than, for example, animals who are more similar to humans, such as great apes, or animals who are iconic species such as lions and elephants, who seem to command a fairly universal respect from humans. It is certainly a component of the cognitive dissonance that accompanies humanity’s wholesale exploitation and abuse of these birds on a massive scale.

    It is lamentable that animals have to illustrate “relatability” to be valued by humans. As beings, all animals have inherent value and have interests in their own lives that deserve to be honored, regardless of how their particular sets of abilities and cognition compare to those of humans. But sometimes, in combating stereotypes and stigma, it can be useful to point out facts that humans can relate to and understand when it comes to understanding another species.

    To that end, when it comes to chickens, it is worth considering some facts about their abilities, their cognition, and their social lives, so you can help dismantle the general misconception that “chickens are dumb.” 

    Two roosters, one white and black, and one red, look into the camera, looking for treats from their caregivers.
    Salem and Oliver, two rooster friends, approach to see if treats may be a possibility! Photo courtesy of Triangle Chicken Advocates.

    Birds generally, and chickens specifically are highly intelligent and emotional beings. When it comes to chickens (Gallus gallus domesticus), they are descended from Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) although they are still the same species and interbreed when able. While over the many years that chickens have been domesticated they may have lost some of their physical resemblance to their Junglefowl ancestors, chickens still share the extremely sophisticated behaviors and cognitive skills that they evolved and which aided them in their survival and success. So as problematic as defining an animal’s “worth” or “deservingness of rights” in relation to human abilities can be, when starting to develop arguments in dismantling bird stigma generally (and rooster stigma in particular) it can help to educate people with established facts about chickens’ long history of having well-developed visual, auditory, olfactory and tactile senses and complex cognitive capacities.

    Chickens’ Senses

    In terms of their visual abilities, chickens see two very distinct ways at once! With one eye, they discern small details in their environments. With the other, they look for novel stimuli such as predators. Therefore they also see well both in terms of short and long distance. Chickens also have four types of cones that let them see red, blue, and green light as well as in the UV spectrum. So they see many more colors and shades than humans. Additionally, they have a double-cone structure in their eyes that helps them to track movement. Further, their visual field covers 330 degrees! They can also sense the presence or absence of light through the pineal gland in their head. What this means is that even an entirely blind bird can sense daylight or seasonal changes. So as a matter of fact, chickens’ visual ability surpasses that of humans. Because they have such sensitive eyes, chickens can notice fluctuations in light that humans cannot, so they can be irritated by fluorescent lighting, which is akin to strobe lighting to humans.

    Two white and black roosters and two red and black roosters strike poses for the camera while also surveilling their environment.
    .A group of rooster friends pose for the camera while they also “keep an eye” on surrounding activity! Photo courtesy of Rooster Haus Rescue.

    Generally, chickens are considered to neither taste nor smell well. However they can use both senses well. For instance, they have been documented to respond to the smell of predators, and there is also indirect evidence that they use their sense of smell to recognize other individuals in their flock, possibly even to the extent that they can recognize related individuals. Indirect evidence that points to this is the fact that chickens possess individual body odors and respond to familiar ones. Further, in some documented observations of chickens in social situations, related males are often less aggressive towards one another than unrelated males.

    When it comes to chicken hearing, they can detect sound frequencies (or pitches) from a range of 20Hz to as high as 4000Hz. What does this translate to, in human terms? A sound at the frequency of 20Hz is about an octave lower than the lowest note on a bass guitar, or the lowest pedal on a pipe organ. 4000Hz is about the pitch range of consonants in human speech, such as the letters f, s, and th, or in the natural world, the range in which small birds chirp at high pitches. So whatever pitch you happen to be speaking in, don’t talk trash about chickens, because they’ll hear it!

    Another really unique aspect related to chicken hearing has to do with communication between hens and chicks, even before chicks are hatched. In their shells, chick embryos are capable of emitting distress calls when they are cold, for example, and hens will respond by carefully shifting their eggs around as they sit upon them. A disgustingly adorable fact…chicks will then respond from their eggs with sounds of pleasure. 

    A Note on Breeding!
    Please note that another way that generalized bird stigma can manifest itself is in not recognizing that “allowing chickens to hatch babies” is the same exact thing as breeding animals. Just because they come from eggs does not mean that chicken babies have not been “bred.” An important point of note for sanctuaries when it comes to educating others can be that pointing out that not monitoring and removing eggs every day, and that allowing them to hatch IS breeding, which is a really problematic thing to endorse given how many chickens are in need of homes. And of course, domestication of chickens has led to significant harm for hens when it comes to egg laying

    In terms of their sense of touch, any chicken caregiver can tell you about the skills that chickens have with their feet. They use their feet to dig up tasty treats, for self defense, for finding and balancing on the very best perch, and you might even get the occasional rush of love that comes when a chicken holds your hand in theirs in a gesture of friendship. But feet aren’t where chickens’ tactile senses stop. 

    Chicken beaks also have numerous nerve endings and have a great tactile sense. Chickens use their beaks to manipulate items and use them in similar ways to how humans use their hands. In addition to having neural receptors for touch and taste, chickens may potentially possess yet another special sense in their beaks as well: the sense of magnetoreception! Chickens’ beaks contain iron-containing sensory dendrites that are similar to those found in homing pigeons. Magnetoreception is a sense which allows the detection of magnetic fields to perceive direction, altitude and location, and allows animals to develop regional maps. How’s that for GPS?

    Chickens’ Cognition

    Flapjack, a large breed rooster resident at Farm Bird Sanctuary, plays his piano for treats. Video courtesy of Farm Bird Sanctuary.

    So now that we’ve established that chickens have some pretty remarkable senses, another useful set of facts to consider when it comes to combating the stereotype that “birds/chickens/roosters are dumb” have to do with their cognitive abilities. Cognition is the process whereby beings acquire knowledge and understanding through the consolidation of their thoughts, experiences, and their senses.

    Let’s talk about “bird brains.” This term is a common pejorative used to insult people for being “flaky,” or to denigrate their intelligence. As it turns out, having a bird brain is probably a compliment! Chickens have lateralized brains. What this means is that the left and right hemispheres of their brains are specialized for different purposes. Guess what other species has lateralized brains? That’s right! Humans! What lateralized brains enable both chickens and humans to do is use different portions of the brain at the same time, for different purposes, which enhances brain efficiency. This helps chickens for instance, when they use their specialized vision (referenced above) to simultaneously locate food on the ground and spot a predator overhead.  

    Generally speaking, chickens have pretty remarkable cognitive abilities, learning both socially and in non-social contexts. In social contexts, chickens learn things to avoid by observing the experiences of others. For instance, in a study on chicks, researchers observed that chicks who had observed the responses of other chicks pecking a noxious stimulus avoided pecking it themselves. Their learning in social contexts is also impacted by who is doing the teaching. For instance, they tend to learn better from birds with whom they are familiar, and from birds who are higher up in the chicken social structure. In another study, hens who watched a hen who had learned to peck a particular key to receive a treat, learned to do this task better than those who had not watched the task done before. Hens also learned best when they watched a known and dominant hen perform the task. This is interesting, because the way chickens’ social life is linked to their learning is another similarity that they share with humans. We’ll talk more about the social lives of chickens below, where you’ll see that they share many more traits with humans that are deeply relatable.

    In non-social contexts (probably more accurately phrased as in “controlled studies conducted by humans”) chickens have also shown a lot of abilities. For instance, they will wait for a larger, delayed reward versus taking an immediate small reward – in other words: chickens understand the concept of self-control. In “Sophisticated Fowl: The Complex Behaviour and Cognitive Skills of Chickens and Red Junglefowl,” author Laura Garnham notes that in humans, “self-control positively correlates with cognitive ability. Being able to show self-control suggests the possession of episodic memory which indicates that fowl experience life autobiographically and can mentally place themselves in the past or future, or alternate situations. This, in turn, suggests that they possess self-awareness. Fowl also appear to use sophisticated trade off calculations between time and reward size, which humans can only manage past four years of age, to decide whether it is worthwhile to wait.” 

    Again, while we disagree with subjecting birds to these kinds of controlled situations and experiments to “verify” observations that anyone who lives with birds on a day to day basis already knows, it can be helpful to combat ingrained stereotypes with “documented facts.” In some cases, it may be the only way to talk people out of their preconceived stereotypes about birds, and changing minds about stigma is a critical way to protect and advocate for chickens, and roosters in particular.

    So to balance things out, let’s offer a qualitative lens on bird cognition, as those of us who live with them can fully attest to their complex cognitive abilities. One fact to which any bird caregiver can attest, is that birds have a very good sense of time and routine. They know when caregivers come to tend to them in the morning, and when it is time to go to sleep. Oversleeping is not allowed when you live with birds! Should you commit the cardinal offense of delaying the start of their day, or god forbid, omit offering them a treat at the time they have come to expect it, you will pay for your offense in the form of having to placate loud vocal protestations and complaints. Chickens, and roosters in particular, thrive on routine and clear expectations, and meeting their needs in these regards are critical parts of engaging with them in mutually beneficial ways. 

    Myth #2: Birds Have No Personality (And Especially Chickens) FACT: Every Chicken Has a Distinct Unique Personality, Including Roosters!

    Chickens’ Personalities

    Again, because qualitative information about animal lives is also relevant and important in furthering human understanding, let’s step away from quantitative animal studies for a moment and talk more personally about some specific, real life, named and well loved individuals who live in sanctuary. Anyone who lives with and compassionately cares for chickens can tell you (and probably will delightedly do so at great length if you allow them!) about each individual resident’s quirks and foibles. Often the best stories involve roosters. Consider these anecdotes about three roosters who live in the same microsanctuary

    • Fuego doesn’t like to be caught, but once he has been caught he really enjoys being cuddled and having his wattles rubbed. He will rest his head against his caregiver and beak smack his contentment when his wattles are rubbed. Fuego also seems to instinctively understand when one of his hen friends, Ember, needs special care for her rapid growing spurs, and does not object to his caregivers handling and health checking his hen friends. 
    • Galileo strongly objects to any human handling of his hen family (and of himself!) However, he very much enjoys being given treats by hand that he can then offer and dole out individually to each of his family members and he is extremely displeased if he is not given a treat for every single family member. Galileo also will neither consume food nor a single treat himself until he is satisfied that each of his family members have gotten enough for themselves. 
    • Méli is an exuberant juvenile rooster in his first spring, who loves to sing his new song. He is so excited by the prospects of treats that he just can’t help digging in right alongside his hen friends. His favorite activity seems to be dancing above all things, and he spends a great deal of time perfecting his dance moves in elaborate displays for his hen friends, Hilde and Jean Grey.
    Fuego, a game rooster, snuggles and enjoys being petted. Galileo refuses to take a chicken muffin cooked for his family, instead “tidbitting” for hens, Calla, Domenica, Anna and Katya, to ensure they get enough for themselves. Méli, a baby game rooster, shows off his song in his living room and pays a “wing tip” dance visit to hen friend Ember, who is digging up a nest in her pack and play. Please note that birds are confined in screened runs or indoors due to the threat of avian influenza, and Fuego is being carried into his indoor enclosure after a day in a secured run. Video edit courtesy of Christine Fox.

    It should go without saying, but every single living being is a unique individual, and this holds true for chickens as well despite the stigma and stereotypes that have wrongfully been assigned to them by humans. The above anecdotes about real life companion roosters demonstrate that each rooster has a unique approach in how they deal with human intervention both with regards to their own bodies, their families, their boundaries around them, and even basic day to day aspects of their lives like how they enjoy food the most. This uniqueness extends to all aspects of their lives, like their willingness to explore, activity levels, fearfulness, and so called “aggression” levels. 

    Many things can influence an individual’s personality. Just as with humans, factors can include things like genetics, social status within a flock, and life experience. Awareness of all these factors can help us in understanding any given individual. Garnham (cited above) notes that “Individuals may also differ individually in what they require to experience good welfare. Therefore, designing their set up so that fowl can make choices about what they experience, and so have increased control over their situation, may help reduce stress and provide better welfare.”

    For those who work with chickens and specifically roosters on a daily basis, the question of whether they have a personality is an absurdity. However, for those who are unfamiliar with them, sometimes the most powerful tool for them to change their minds about stereotypes about “personality” is to actually meet, or learn about an individual chicken or rooster. Welcoming visitors to your sanctuary, with careful considerations around boundaries and consent) or sharing narratives about the lives of your residents and their unique individual personalities can be a massive help in combating ignorance around chicken intelligence and personality, and changing hearts and minds about roosters.

    MYTH #3: Roosters Are LOUD, Inherently Aggressive To Each Other, To Hens And To Humans. FACT: A Rooster Is The Hero His Family Deserves: A Watchful Protector

    Rooster rescuers and sanctuaries are sadly all too familiar with rooster surrender requests, and several extremely common reasons people give when it comes to wanting to surrender their roosters. 

    • My rooster is “too loud!” 
    • I hatched babies/bought chicks and now I have too many roosters! They’re aggressive and fighting with each other! I can’t have more than one rooster!
    • My rooster is so aggressive to my hens! I don’t like this!
    • My rooster is aggressive to me and my human children! He’s a threat to our safety!

    Every single time a sanctuary or rescue receives one of these requests, they facepalm. When it comes to working in chicken rescue and in providing sanctuary to chickens, rooster surrender requests are an unavoidable, endless and potentially personally devastating travesty when you understand both the wonderful nature of roosters, and their terrible plight. It’s heartbreaking.

    So, as a quick side note, rooster caregivers, here’s a shout out for you. We send you our love and empathy. We want to remind you, YES YOU, that it’s really important for you to consider your own self care, particularly with respect to compassion fatigue and burnout, and for sanctuary administrators to remember to offer support to caregivers, who arguably have the most important job in the sanctuary. The crisis of rooster placement becomes especially difficult when those of us who love them find ourselves saying no, over and over. However, saying no is a point that we all must inevitably reach, particularly if we recognize the importance of maintaining responsible limits on our capacity.

    With that said, when we return to the reasoning behind most rooster surrender requests, what is most deeply frustrating is that most issues raised by would be rooster surrenderers are generally a function of not understanding two fundamental aspects of chicken lives. 

    First, and this cannot be reiterated enough: chickens are prey animals. Let’s say it again, all together now, really loudly. CHICKENS ARE PREY ANIMALS! In other words, they are actively sought, hunted and consumed by predators. Lots and lots of beings want to eat chickens – aerial predators like raptors, ground predators like foxes and coyotes, and of course, humans. A huge part of chickens’ lives revolves around this fact – and as noted above – their vision and brains have evolved specifically to allow them to constantly think about potential predators as they go about their day to day activities. Why is this important to consider in the context of aggression? Because, if we keep in mind that chickens must always have a part of their awareness focused on potential predation, we can reframe language around their behaviors. For example, instead of calling a specific behavior “aggressive,” when we really try and understand chickens, it makes much more sense to frame it as an action taken in “self-defense.” If you really wrap your brain around this, the whole false narrative of “rooster aggression” begins to melt away pretty quickly.

    The second misunderstanding that fuels stereotypes of rooster aggression stems from a general lack of knowledge around chicken social dynamics and specifically, the role that roosters play therein. Again, while it is true that typically in natural conditions, flocks of chickens will live in a defined territory that tends to be defended by a dominant male, this is not actually the only social structure in which they can be naturally found. As a matter of fact, both the wild Red Junglefowl ancestors of domesticated chickens, and domesticated chickens can and do happily exist in rooster only flocks. 

    Once one has an understanding of the complex sensory and cognitive abilities of chickens, as well as the fact that every individual will have a unique personality, the next step to dismantling these particular rooster myths and combating them with knowledge is learning how chicken social dynamics work.

    The Social Lives of Chickens

    We have touched on this somewhat above in talking about chickens’ unique sensory abilities and cognition, but let’s now delve deeper into understanding the social lives of chickens, and in particular, the special role that roosters play in that context. Comprehending this is integral to understanding rooster behavior, and dismantling stigma around them.

    Chickens lead complex social lives, and roosters play a critical role in administering to the needs and wants of the members of their flocks. Using their repertoire of around 24 distinct vocalizations, as well as their impressive visual displays, roosters help to establish the social hierarchy of their flocks, and help to maintain peace between flock members. Males and females tend to form separate dominance hierarchies, and communication between chickens tends to reflect these hierarchies. 


    In terms of numbers, in natural conditions chickens generally tend to gravitate towards forming social groups of around 2 to 15 individuals, with a higher female to male sex ratio. Such a group will tend to live within a specific territory that is defended by the dominant male. However, because every chicken is an individual, every social arrangement is going to be different.

    Seven roosters and one guinea fowl arrange themselves on a ladder style perch as they prepare to roost and sleep for the night.
    Roosters at Chicago Chicken Rescue arrange themselves on perches for the night, with a guinea fowl sneaking in at the bottom! Photo courtesy of Chicago Chicken Rescue.

    The role of the dominant rooster as protector is most easily observed in flocks consisting of one rooster with multiple hens, where the rooster almost always serves as the leader and protector, but it can also be seen in other flock arrangements (such as in rooster flocks), as well as in some interspecies relationships. Because dominant males in a flock reinforce a stable hierarchy, the resultant stable social system allows individuals who exist within to have less interpersonal conflict, and have more success in enjoying resources such as food, enrichment, and shared space. A perfect example of this can be seen when flocks engage in shared behaviors such as foraging, resting, and preening. In these situations, you will often be able to spot the dominant rooster right away, as he looks out for every single other member! A rooster knows little to no rest in this regard.

    A white rooster oversees two golden hens who are foraging for food.
    Orion diligently keeps his eyes out as his hen friends Clementine and Amandine forage for tasty treats. Photo courtesy of Triangle Chicken Advocates.

    These are also values that humans hold dear and can empathize with when it comes to roosters. Some of our most highly valued companion animals, dogs, are commended for these qualities as well. And let’s make a special note here that in the case of roosters it is particularly commendable given the fact that chickens are prey animals who are vulnerable to such a wide variety of predators. Because chickens are so vulnerable to predation, roosters often take their job as protector very seriously – after all, it’s a matter of life or death. Again, while hens and other roosters lower in the pecking order forage and dust bathe, the dominant rooster is always on the lookout. This is where their incredible vision (referenced above) comes into play. If a rooster sees signs of trouble, he will alert the rest of the flock using one of many unique calls to communicate the type of threat and will either usher the flock to safety or face down the threat himself.

    This wonderful quality of roosters is one which sadly, has not won them the regard and respect that they truly deserve. Ironically, while in backyard chicken keeping contexts, roosters are highly valued for their protectiveness, this tendency is also pejoratized when birds act in self defense against their keepers. This even happens in sanctuary contexts. It’s important to take a minute to consider how we (as individual sanctuary caregivers, as well as the broader sanctuary community) think and talk about roosters and how we might be perpetuating harmful stereotypes without even realizing it. 

    Consider this: folks in the sanctuary community might celebrate roosters for their protective nature and acts of heroism, but when those same behaviors are directed at us humans, we sometimes view the rooster very differently. What was heroic is now problematic. What was protection is now unprovoked aggression. We know we aren’t a threat and somehow feel that our intentions should be obvious. While sanctuary caregivers would never take the overtly harmful actions that may be commonly accepted by those who view chickens as commodities, we may be causing indirect harm by contributing to or reinforcing other people’s misconceptions about roosters. We will discuss this further below, but let’s carefully consider all we know and love about roosters, and reconsider common rooster stigmas while keeping this carefully in mind. Meanwhile, we got something else to crow about!

    The Rooster Crow

    As noted above, chicken communication is complex, sophisticated, and used for a variety of different purposes to help ensure the survival of the flock. Perhaps the best known chicken vocalization (and the best loved one to those of us who care for them) is the rooster’s exuberant crow. Caregivers of multiple roosters can tell you that no two roosters crow alike. As juveniles start to crow, they sample and mimic the crows of surrounding roosters until they come up with their own personal song. Each rooster has a distinct style, volume, and crow pattern which is uniquely his own. Studies have shown that in natural settings the characteristics of a particular rooster’s crow is correlated with comb length, a physical indicator of dominance. Roosters listen to other roosters to assess each other’s status within the social hierarchy. As a fun side note – while it isn’t common there are also hens who crow!

    In terms of timing, while roosters are best known for greeting the day with their song, they will also crow in other contexts. If they perceive a threat, see a caregiver approaching with a special treat, or have successfully courted a hen they may sound their crow as warning, greeting, or celebration, for example. Again, the frequency of a rooster’s crow will vary depending on his context and personality.

    One common misperception is that bigger roosters are louder than smaller ones. This an important misperception for sanctuaries with adoption programs to be particularly aware of, because it can at times lead to a bias in terms of potential adopters preferring smaller roosters based upon it. In fact, since every rooster is an individual, the frequency and volume of their crow varies and cannot be predicted by their size. Sometimes, little bantam roosters are the most exuberant and frequent crowers, and larger roosters are more reserved. In one anecdote, when miniature silkie showgirl rooster Dave visited large Freedom Ranger (a large breed rooster “brand” or “breed”) Leonard Crowen’s territory, Dave felt compelled to crow constantly to announce his presence, while Leonard found this tiny interloper to be beneath his notice and never bothered to respond to him once.

    In terms of volume, a rooster crow can reach approximately 100 dB measured at a distance of 1 meter. When measured at the entrance of the outer ear canal of the crowing rooster, sound levels can reach up to 142.3 dB. Again, it is important to remember that every rooster’s crow is unique, and many roosters do not come close to approaching this volume level. Interestingly, roosters have developed a physiological mechanism to protect their own ears. When their beaks open to crow, their auditory canal closes. In hens, this does not happen – the auditory canal will narrow when their beaks open, but not close entirely. Apparently hens have evolved in a way that they can fully enjoy the songs of their rooster friends. 

    As a side note, hens too can be very vocal. They vocalize frequently (sometimes much more than roosters do) to reaffirm their place in the social hierarchy, when they perceive threats, and when they lay eggs. New chicken caregivers are often surprised at the volumes hens can reach, particularly when they join together in a chorus – however it is sadly the rooster who often suffers from the stigma of “being too loud,” again because of human stereotypes which value hens as useful “producers,” and roosters as being largely “useless” at best.

    Sadly, these stereotypes often play out in local lawmaking in a way that is deeply harmful to roosters. For instance, even if a county allows roosters generally, nearly all cities and towns who have “backyard chicken allowances” typically include a rooster ban, or a “hens only” policy. Even in situations where roosters might be allowed, they can face threats in the form of noise complaints from neighbors, or from homeowners’ associations which can lead to their keepers seeking to rehome them, or dumping them.

    So let’s engage in some comparison again for the sake of education. What does the range of rooster volume levels relate to? Other sounds in this volume range include the sounds of a driving motorcycle, an ATV, or a snowmobile, or using a lawnmower, or a car horn from 5 meters away. Other beings who can emit sounds at this volume level include the white bellbird, who can reach 125 dB, elephants and bats, and even insects, amphibians and alligators can reach over 100 dB. Other animals who commonly live with humans can also meet or well exceed the volume levels of a rooster. For example, a dog barking can reach 120 dB, and parrots like Moluccan cockatoos can reach between 120-135 dB. A human baby crying can reach up to 110 dB! However, these volume levels are commonly accepted by humans as known background noises, and while they can be annoyances, they don’t seem to be viewed in the same negative manner that a rooster’s crow can be. This may in part be due to the generalized stigma associated with roosters, and a general lack of familiarity with the sound of a crow. 

    Because not everyone appreciates the song of roosters, and not all caregivers are willing to do the outreach and engagement with their neighbors to address any potential concerns they may have with their rooster friends, roosters face potentially terrible outcomes such as inhumane control measures like crow collars, being displaced from their families by dumping or rehoming, and even worse. The stigma around rooster crowing has led to deadly results for roosters who find themselves, through no fault of their own, in areas with rooster bans. If sanctuaries and rescuers had a nickel for every “take my rooster – I bought chicks and they were supposed to be hens and one started to crow,” or “take my roosters, I hatched chicks and half of them are roosters and we aren’t allowed to have them!” request that they got…well, let’s just say that our rooster friends would have their treats paid for, for life. 

    Chicken Run Rescue in Minnesota has been fielding surrender inquiries from local shelters and private individuals since it was founded in 2001. They developed a detailed database for the over 3,450 birds for which they received inquiries, which listed the reasons for desired surrender. Fifty percent of these fell into the “oops, he’s a rooster,” or the “dumped rooster” categories. 

    Four roosters explore a garden area.
    A flock of rescued rooster friends enjoy exploring their garden. Photo courtesy of Chicken Run Rescue.

    Therefore, we urge sanctuaries and rescuers receiving these requests to educate those requesting to surrender against hatching birds at home, or purchasing chicks, unless they are able to keep roosters and provide them with compassionate care. When it comes to responding to claims that chick hatching is educational for children, sanctuaries can also offer alternatives that do not involve the use of animals. Also, sanctuaries can emphasize to those who find themselves in this situation the critical importance of checking zoning regulations before taking in animals, which can never be emphasized enough.

    Preemptive education can also be critical in mitigating these issues. To this end, sanctuaries and rescuers can also offer coaching to help with:

    • Neighbor outreach and engagement;
    • Working with would be rooster surrenderers to help them understand rooster behavior, socialization and environmental modification to avoid conflicts with their roosters;
    • And educating local governmental officials, including city councils and municipal animal control organizations. 

    The participation of sanctuaries, microsanctuaries and rescuers in shaping municipal ordinances related to chickens and other backyard “farmed animals” presents a significant and unique opportunity to raise questions around who is food and who is friend in public discussion and critical thinking. Such a discussion can have a direct impact on things like preventing rooster bans, and also the kind of care permit holders will be required to give those animals.

    A baby rooster stands in front of a picture of a chalk board which reads, "chicks are not disposible teaching tools."
    Mighty Feet, a young rooster survivor of a chick hatching project. Photo courtesy of Chicken Run Rescue.

    For those of us who “already get it,” and who care for roosters in our homes, the sound of a rooster crowing often quickly becomes a background noise, or a humorous reminder from our rooster friends of their glorious presence in our lives. It quickly becomes quite easy to sleep right through a rooster’s morning song, (or multiple rooster songs!) In urban or more populated settings where roosters can be kept, good communication with neighbors is critical when it comes to navigating rooster keeping, as well as taking into consideration options such as waiting to let birds out from their coops at an hour in the morning when neighbors are awake, to mitigate any concerns. Roosters’ songs can even serve as an entry point for education when it comes to neighbors who might have ever met, or know anything about roosters, and are intrigued. 

    In their original location in a dense inner city neighborhood in North Minneapolis, Chicken Run Rescue often sheltered as many as twenty roosters at a time. Chicken Run Rescue conscientiously kept them indoors to sleep, not allowing them out until the neighborhood was active. In their sixteen years in this location they never received a single neighbor complaint. In fact, passersby would often stop by to talk about how much they enjoyed the songs, which reminded them of their homes in other places. While roosters have always been allowed in Minneapolis, when a rooster ban was proposed, Chicken Run Rescue worked hard to successfully prevent it, although the city did increase the neighbor consent requirement and required higher permit fees for roosters. 

    A woman sits on a chair with a rooster perching on her legs, and another rooster standing next to her.
    Wee Jack, Grampy, and Mary Britton Clouse. Photo Courtesy of Chicken Run Rescue.

    In Chicago, there are no permits or limitations on roosters or most “farmed animals” generally. There, microsanctuary caregivers with Chicago Roo Crew and urban sanctuary Chicago Chicken Rescue often have multiple roosters (often twenty or more at Chicago Chicken Rescue!) and also find that neighbors tend to appreciate their birds’ calls as a respite from the urban landscape. In some cases (such as in the case of Leonard Crowen, mentioned above, and in the case of his successors, Fuego, Galileo and Méli), these roosters have become beloved neighborhood ambassadors and receive offerings from their community neighbors, who enjoy their presence. When a rooster ban was proposed in Chicago, these groups along with others successfully educated and worked with city officials to prevent it. From scenarios like these, we can see that roosters can often become their own best advocates, with their songs providing an entry point for advocates to conduct outreach and education on their behalf.

    The Stereotype of “Rooster Aggression” to Other Roosters

    Content Warning
    This portion of the resource will discuss cockfighting, and include some descriptions of the abuse that accompanies it, and thus may be upsetting or triggering to some readers.

    When we think of human exploitation of chickens, the most common kind of exploitation that comes to mind is the consumption of their flesh or eggs, or the use of their feathers for various human purposes. However this is not the only way that humans abuse chickens. In fact, “game birds” are specific types of chickens who are selectively bred for a whole other form of human exploitation and abuse, which is largely responsible for many of the stereotypes around rooster aggression. This is cockfighting. Game birds are lean and muscular birds, typically with very beautiful plumage. Roosters have long and elegant tails, and the hens also tend to have longer tails than non game breed chickens. Both tend to be longer legged, and more closely resemble their Red Jungle Fowl ancestors than other breeds of domesticated chickens.

    Before we get into the question of cockfighting, let’s revisit the social lives of chickens and delve a little deeper. Regarding roosters’ purported “inherent aggression” when it comes to other roosters, it is really important again to remember that as noted above, chicken social structures are hierarchical. In natural conditions, males who explore faster and are more vigilant after being startled tend to become dominant in a flock. Keep in mind, again, that chickens are prey animals. (We cannot stress this enough!) From a survival standpoint, these facts are important within the flock hierarchy because dominant males (i.e. those who can identify threats fastest) tend to have more reproductive success, ensuring that their flock will persist and live on, even if they die in the process of defending them. 

    Another point of note is that both male and female chickens will mate with multiple other chickens, but female chickens tend to prefer mating with males who are dominant and not related to them. (Remember when we talked about chickens’ unique olfactory ability to “smell out” their relatives?) During breeding seasons, dominant roosters can become very territorial and will guard their areas vigilantly. Yet still, they will often allow subordinate roosters into their territory, even roosting with them at night, but they may not allow them to mate with their hen family. Subordinate roosters then may move in and out of different social groups, and also sometimes form their own social groups comprised only of roosters, who coexist peacefully and form close bonds with each other.

    When it comes to “aggression” between roosters in natural settings, or sanctuary settings that mimic them (always keeping in mind that compassionate care includes providing predator protection) behaviors that humans interpret as aggressive are not in fact a matter of a fundamental or ingrained desire for conflict and combat. They are a matter of a rooster’s need to ensure the survival of his flock, and any behavior is directly linked to the larger and greater best interests of the flock as a whole. The most dominant rooster is directly responsible for the well being, safety, comfort and long term survival of his entire flock, and he takes the job very seriously. He is chosen as a leader and protector by his flock, and he honors them accordingly. His crows, alarm calls, and protective behaviors are all designed for the protection and defense of his family, not aggression. He engages in these behaviors in self defense, and often to his own detriment, exposing himself to detection and risk in order to save his family.

    A red rooster, a black and white rooster, and a black rooster wth feathered feet stand together on a perch in a natural enclosure.
    Hotspur, Salem and George, three rooster friends, enjoy time together in their predator proof enclosures, full of natural enrichment. Photo courtesy of Triangle Chicken Advocates.

    This begs a question. If roosters are not “naturally and inherently aggressive” towards one another, then where does this stereotype really come from? Unfortunately, we’re going to have to point the finger right back at ourselves, fellow humans. Yep. We did that. 

    The common misconception that roosters are aggressive towards one another and therefore cannot live together is actually a function of cockfighting: a particularly nefarious form of human interference with roosters. While cockfighting is commonly associated with Latinx cultures, that is a whole other false stereotype. Sadly, cockfighting is an ancient practice and is associated with many cultures all over the world, including predominantly white communities in the United States. Cockfighting is in short a form of rooster exploitation for human entertainment, in which humans manipulate rooster bodies and emotions in order to force them to fight one another, often to the death. 

    Even though it is illegal in all fifty states and all territories of the United States, cockfighting persists because it is often associated with high stakes gambling, with even high profile politicians in certain areas participating. In some states, wealthy gamblers on this disgusting practice will helicopter into known “cockfighting pits” to participate, and even law enforcement officials have been documented to have participated by watchdog groups. Sadly, the practice continues as the public level of concern for the roosters subjected to cockfighting is often much less than that afforded to other species of animals who have been abused. Simply put, this is because roosters are not valued in the same way that other animals are – in part due to the false narrative of them perpetuated by cockfighters themselves. Therefore, cockfighting contributes heavily to the vicious cycle of rooster stigma and rooster abuse.

    While it may be upsetting, it is important to realize what practices are associated with cockfighting in order to better understand the sources of rooster aggression stigma, and to also address how to provide survivors with the best lives possible after rescue. Many, even lots of advocates for roosters, do not realize the “work” that goes into preparing roosters to be “fighters.” First, domestication in the form of selective breeding practices plays a role. Sadly, cockfighters use selective breeding practices to “select for” behavioral traits that favor birds who will perceive other roosters as threatening and react defensively accordingly.

    Behavioral and environmental conditioning also play a heavy role in this terrible practice. When it comes to birds who are groomed for cockfighting, they are often housed within close proximity to, but just out of reach of other roosters. For instance, a common set up when it comes to facilities grooming fighters involves tethering roosters to large barrels that serve as their “shelters” just out of reach of other roosters. They may also be kept in kennel situations, next to each other but unable to directly interact. Generally roosters who are groomed for fighting are not allowed to have friends or interaction with other birds, which, for a highly social species of animal, is devastatingly cruel. Possibly the only interaction a rooster from this scenario may have with another bird is in the context of a fight, or if he is a “winner” a chance to breed with similarly confined hens. Clearly any social being in this context is quickly going to become frustrated and angry with their situation.

    In terms of what happens leading up to cockfights, roosters are often subjected to a grisly practice known as “dubbing.” Both Huey and Turkeyboy, photographed above, survived being dubbed. What “dubbing” means is that a rooster’s comb and wattles are summarily sliced off. The “reasoning” (if you can call it that) is that these body parts can easily be cut in a fight situation, and bleed heavily. To prolong the “entertainment,” therefore, they are simply removed in advance, with no anesthesia, and to the detriment of the rooster. Because combs and wattles are an important part of rooster temperature regulation, losing them means that ex-fighters require special attention when it comes to hot temperatures to make sure that they can stay cool.

    Further, to prepare them to fight, roosters are often drugged with amphetamines and steroids. Their spurs are bluntly cut, in order to accommodate the attachment of “gaffes,” which are long curved and sharpened blades. The intention behind this is to increase the damage a rooster can do to his opponent in a fight far beyond what he is naturally capable of doing. 

    Therefore the behaviors seen in cockfighting pits, and in the survivors of cockfighting are severe exaggerations and human manipulations of natural rooster behaviors, and are in fact trauma responses by roosters who have been conditioned to see other roosters as constant threats. Being physically restrained from addressing other birds in natural interaction, being abused and tortured by humans, and being manipulated with drugs is a horrific state of existence, and no one can fault a rooster for the trauma he experiences as a function of this. 

    Though in natural situations, roosters may scuffle to establish a social hierarchy, fighting to the death is not a natural behavior or desire. Yet somehow, the prevalence of cockfighting across all cultures has caused many people to believe that roosters are naturally aggressive and “hard-wired” to fight other roosters. Even people who were raised around roosters may have misconceptions of who they are as a function of this. The false narratives propounded by cockfighters are often used by many, even outside of the “cockfighting community” to justify rooster commodification and exploitation, as evidenced by the general consensus held by many people: namely, that all roosters are aggressive or that there are “good” roosters who interact with humans in a certain way and “bad” roosters who don’t. 

    This kind of thinking even comes up in sanctuary and rescue contexts, especially when it comes to housing ex fighters safely, and also with regard to the challenges that some ex fighters may have in interacting with humans. The stereotype of rooster “aggression” to humans will be further addressed below, but one point is important to make here with respect to ex fighters in particular. 

    We cannot reiterate enough here that every rooster is an individual with their own personality and their own history, which sadly often includes severe trauma.  Some roosters may be more confrontational than others, but that does not mean they cannot live happily at your sanctuary. While delving into the ways that your sanctuary or rescue can appropriately address the needs and well being of ex fighters is beyond the scope of this resource, please look forward to an upcoming resource specifically treating this critical subject.

    For now, we must point out that while survivors of cockfighting may exhibit defensive behaviors and aversion to humans and other birds – experienced rescuers and rehabilitators of ex-fighters can attest that many birds from this background can nonetheless become the most loving and friendly birds that they have ever encountered.

    Consider the story of Beethoven. Beethoven was a small game rooster who was rescued from a cockfighting bust in Chicago. Beethoven had been fully dubbed by his captors, and he was missing significant parts of all of his toes. He bore many scars from his mistreatment. However, when rescuers pulled him from the shelter and brought him home, what they quickly learned was that Beethoven’s very favorite thing in the world was to be held, cuddled, and petted. Anytime his caregivers approached his enclosure, he would hop up and down with excitement until he was picked up and given affection. When he went for his veterinary assessment, Beethoven stunned his vets and their staff with his warm and loving nature, bouncing from person to person to get stroked and cuddled.

    A small black and red rooster, missing his comb and wattles as well as parts of his toes, stands on an exam table at the veterinarian's office.
    Beethoven, a survivor of a cockfighting bust in Chicago, waits for his veterinary exam. Note that while Beethoven was missing the ends of all his toes and was dubbed and scarred from being forced to fight, he had an inherently sweet and loving nature. Photo courtesy of Chicago Roo Crew.

    While not every ex fighter is a Beethoven, sanctuaries and rescuers need to be very mindful of the narratives that they hold and share when it comes to ex fighters, as well as accept that it is perfectly understandable for ex fighters to have emotional reactions and responses as a function of the trauma that they have endured. We must make sure to remember that none of these birds deserved what happened to them, and that they, like any other survivor, deserve kindness, acceptance, and understanding, with caregiving aimed to maximize their comfort and well being. 

    While due to their trauma, it is generally safest and most considerate to never to house ex fighters with other roosters, many are wonderful with humans, and many often enjoy and benefit from the companionship of even a single hen (especially a game hen.) Their special regard and care for hen companions can be a wonderful thing to behold, and anyone who has seen these kinds of special relationships develop will be hard pressed to accept the contention that ex fighters are irretrievably and inherently aggressive. Please avoid contributing to the vicious cycle of rooster stigma that has been created by cockfighters, and be particularly mindful of language and narratives used around survivors of this terrible practice.

    The Stereotype of “Rooster Aggression” To Hens: Let’s Talk About Sex

    Speaking of the relations between roosters, and hens, let’s move on to a lighter subject, and talk about chicken sex! Let’s be honest and get this out there. Generally speaking, sex isn’t always pretty to an outside observer. It can in fact look downright weird, especially to an observer who doesn’t know what’s happening or how it works, and chicken sex is no exception. 

    Sadly what this means for roosters is that rescuers and sanctuaries often receive alarmed calls and messages to the effect of “My rooster is so aggressive to my hens! I’m afraid of him hurting them! Can you take him?” These calls and messages pour in often during the spring, and particularly during the rooster in question’s first spring. Often this is because caregivers don’t really understand how chickens “get it on.” However at times these concerns about perceived rooster “aggressions” towards hens can have a basis (although also one derived from human misunderstandings) due to mismatches usually relating to the relative sizes of the flock members involved, or the ratio of hens and roosters, or the personalities of the birds in question.

    Let’s address part one first. Here’s how chicken sex works typically. Roosters typically “court” a hen of their choosing. This can involve lots of really interesting behavioral displays. Of course, because food is the way to anyone’s heart, courtship feeding is a thing for roosters. There is a commonly known behavior in roosters called “tidbitting.” What this means is that roosters will find a particularly choice bit of food, and then “TUK TUK TUK TUK” to call hens to investigate and accept the treat. The rooster will typically not consume this treat, but will continue to “TUK TUK TUK TUK” until one of his family comes to see what the fuss is about, at which point he will drop it before them for their enjoyment. This is courtship feeding. Unsurprisingly in natural conditions, the rooster who is recognized and accepted as the most dominant member of the flock is usually the very best at finding delicious items and giving them to his family. As an adorable side note, roosters will often “tidbit” for human caretakers of whom they are particularly fond, a fact that instantly melts the hearts of those humans privileged enough to benefit from this display.

    Upon retrieving a banana peel that was wrongfully put in trash instead of compost, Leonard Crowen offered it as a treat to his caregiver, tidbitting it and tossing it to tempt her with this tasty treat.

    Another unique courtship display employed by roosters is dancing. Roosters are very good dancers. Typically what this looks like is the rooster tipping a wing down to the ground, towards the hen in whom he is interested, and then dancing around her in a circle. If a hen finds this interesting or engaging, she will usually stop what she is doing to admire the rooster. If she is not, she usually makes a beeline for another location to avoid him. 

    If the hen is very interested, she may squat to the ground as an indicator that she accepts his dominance and welcomes his attention. At this point, the rooster will “mount” the hen, which means that he jumps onto her back, and will sometimes grip onto her comb for balance, and mating will commence. The process is generally very quick, and the rooster will navigate his cloaca so that it touches the hen’s cloaca, and deposit sperm into it. At which point, he will dismount, and may do an additional dance of joy or crow in celebration, while the hen moves on with her business.

    Because of the speed at which this process can take place, it can often seem unexpected or even violent to uninformed observers. However, if you know what is happening, then this becomes a very normal part of chicken lives. It is also worth noting that mounting behaviors can occur in other contexts – and can even be done by hens to other hens. Mounting behaviors can both be a function of hormones, or a part of the social dynamics that determine chicken hierarchies within the flock.

    All this said, it can be possible for birds to harm each other during this process. Specifically, a rooster’s claws and spurs can cause damage to a hen’s feathers, and to the skin on her back, and at times he can bruise her comb or pull feathers from her head as he balances while mating with her. There are a few ways to prevent and address these issues.

    First, regularly monitoring and clipping or trimming a roosters’ spurs and claws can go a long way to prevent him from causing any inadvertent harm to his flock mates. A rooster’s spurs and claws will grow naturally over time, but you can find guidance on how to safely trim them here. You also should regularly do health examinations of each of your flock members to ensure that they remain injury free, or if an injury has occurred, you can promptly address it. Particularly in the spring, taking a little extra time to visually check hens for signs of feather damage is critical, as well as checking the skin of anyone with damaged feathers. This can also help to alert you if a particular rooster might be in need of a nail or spur trim or filing.

    Second, making sure that your flock is comprised of birds who are physically compatible with each other is important. For general information on the question of safe cohabitation practices with chickens, please review this resource. When it comes to the specific question of so called “rooster to hen aggression,” consider the following general examples. A large breed rooster may not be a great companion for small silkie hens, as his weight may be overwhelming to them, and their unique feathering and potential issues such as vaulted skulls can make them particularly vulnerable to injury. Similarly, large breed hens who may have joint or mobility issues may do best with a small rooster whose mounting will not add too much weight to their backs and joints. Younger roosters will tend to be much more active when it comes to courtship and mounting behaviors, so a rooster in his first spring is best placed with hens who are capable of handling his enthusiastic displays of affection. 

    Ratios of hens to roosters can also be important in navigating flock dynamics. A younger rooster with very active hormones may need more hens in his flock than an older rooster who has matured more. Certain types of roosters, such as game roosters for instance, do very well in monogamous pairs with a single hen. Ex fighters often thrive in this kind of arrangement as mentioned above.  

    Three juvenile roosters guard a hen who enjoys eating some treats on the ground.
    This small flock of juvenile roosters and one hen were rescued together and all three roosters vigilantly protected the hen. Over time as the roosters matured they branched out to befriend other hens at Chicago Chicken Rescue. Photo courtesy of Chicago Chicken Rescue.

    In order to ensure optimal flock dynamics for individual well being and safety, observation is critical. Relationships between roosters and hens must be monitored, particularly during springtime when hormones and breeding urges come to a height. Developing your observation skills can really help you to identify any potential issues, and stave them off. Examples of things you might notice if you practice careful observation include things like finding that a rooster has decided he has a favorite hen, and that as a function of that, she is mounted much more often and is showing some “wear and tear” from this. You may also find that a particular hen in a flock is not partial to her rooster companion, for example, if you notice that she always runs from his approach, or remains inside a coop when he is outside, or vice versa. In this case she may do better in another flock or living situation. 

    Designing chicken living spaces in a thoughtful way is also critical to ensuring that any member of the flock, rooster or hen, who needs a space to “get away” from their flockmates has the space and opportunity to do so. Creating a good home for chickens and providing chicken residents with good enrichment activities can be immensely helpful in preventing and mitigating any issues that may arise 

    When you observe all of the above measures, it is wonderful to see how roosters and hens mutually appreciate one another. For example, Galileo, referenced above, is so well loved by his hen family that they gather around him and preen him when he takes his rare moments for himself to dust and sun bathe. As sanctuaries and rescues, we can and should help help would be surrenderers to retain their roosters and keep their chicken families together by offering educational guidance and assistance on hen and rooster relations, and the best way to set a flock up for success so that they too can witness moments like these for themselves, and spread the word further.

    The Stereotype of “Rooster Aggression” to Humans

    Sadly, many people advocate for keeping roosters solely because they are such ardent protectors of their flocks, but they do so in the context of commodification. For example, in backyard chicken keeping contexts, rather than creating predator-proof living spaces, roosters are used as a disposable security system – after all, they don’t produce eggs, so losing a rooster is preferred to losing a hen if one views these beings solely as objects. 

    It may sound silly to point out, but it again bears repeating that chickens are prey animals. Just because a rooster is a flock protector does not mean he is not also vulnerable to the threats from which he defends his family. When flocks are targeted by predators, it is not uncommon for the dominant rooster to be killed or severely injured while protecting his flock. Because in these contexts, roosters are not recognized as the intelligent and wonderful individuals that they are, they are often not well socialized with their human caregivers, which can mean at times that the rooster can potentially view his human caregivers as threats. When he sees flock members’ eggs taken from them, and when he sees other kinds of interference with their activities, it is entirely possible for him to feel he needs to defend his family from humans.

    While in a backyard chicken keeping context a human may want the rooster to protect their hens, if the rooster feels the need to defend their flock from the human, his actions are often labeled as “aggressive.” The rooster is then labeled “problematic” and sanctuaries and rescuers are called and messaged with surrender requests to take him. Usually the rooster in this situation is forcibly separated from his family, rehomed if he’s “lucky,” or either killed or abandoned if he isn’t. He may well then be replaced with a new rooster, so the tragic cycle continues. Though certainly at a sanctuary, a rooster, regardless of how challenging he may be to work with, would never be killed because of self-defense behaviors, even in the sanctuary context it is not uncommon for his actions to be misunderstood and for them to be mislabeled as “aggressive” or “mean.” It is incumbent upon us as rescuers and sanctuaries not to mirror the exploitative language of backyard chicken keepers.

    While we discussed above the fundamental importance of reframing rooster “aggression” as self-defense due to their inherent nature as prey animals, it bears repeating here AGAIN. (And again, and again, and again….) Unfortunately, numerous recommendations consistently circulate regarding how to “deal” with rooster aggression, sometimes even in sanctuary contexts. While some of them are touted as humane and may appear benign, they are in fact, anything but. While the problematic nature of such control measures are beyond the scope of this resource, and will be specifically addressed in a future resource dedicated specifically to the subject, we wish to reiterate here that any measure which disables a bird for the sake of human comfort levels is both inhumane, and also in fact does the opposite of what sanctuaries should be doing. Instead of dismantling rooster stigma, labeling roosters as aggressive and mean, and disabling or harming them with control measures actually affirms stigma in a very nefarious way.

    Four roosters perch together on a branch and look into the camera.
    “Who are you calling mean?” Rooster Haus residents peacefully enjoy each others’ company and a nice perching session. Photo courtesy of Rooster Haus Rescue.

    It is critically important that rescuers and sanctuaries take the lead in actively using language and compassionate care to dismantle stigma, and that they care for roosters in ways that honor them for being the special individuals that they are. One way to do this is again, through education of would be surrenderers urging rooster retention, and promoting humane socialization methods, which we will also address at more depth in upcoming resources. In many cases, the backyard chicken owner whose rooster “suddenly became aggressive” never considered that the rooster might well come to recognize his human as friend, not foe, if only a little effort was expended to befriend the rooster. Simple practices, like hand feeding roosters special treats, can go a long way towards helping a rooster recognize that a particular human is his friend, not a threat against which he must defend his family.

    It is also important to consider the fear of roosters rationally, and in the context of what damage roosters are in fact capable of inflicting on humans. There have been rare occasions where humans have been seriously injured, or even killed by a rooster but the common thread in almost all these scenarios was cockfighting, where razor sharp gaffes had been affixed to the rooster by humans. This is far cry from any normal situation in which a human who is experienced in the proper ways to handle a chicken might encounter serious harm or risk from a rooster engaging in self or flock defensive behavior. 

    Though some roosters can grow to quite a substantial size, and they can be quite strong, they are still significantly smaller and more vulnerable than a human. Many of chickens’ bones are hollow, and one blow from a human can seriously disable or kill a chicken. While no one enjoys being kicked by a rooster, humans can easily take measures to protect themselves (i.e. wearing pants and boots) when they interact with them to prevent any serious injury. It is deeply ironic to consider the disparity of treatment between roosters and parrots. While a rooster is far less capable of causing harm to a human than a parrot, who is generally revered as a paradigm of beauty and intelligence, many kinds of parrots can cause grievous harm, including biting through flesh and bone with their powerful beaks and jaws. Yet parrots are widely admired and not feared and abused in the same ways that roosters are, another sad manifestation of rooster stigma.

    We do want to focus special attention on one area of human and rooster interaction, which is the question of interactions between roosters and children. Sanctuaries and rescues get so many requests that say something like, “Our rooster started attacking our children! We need him out for the safety of our family!” We fully understand humans’ innate and hardwired protective instincts when it comes to their human children. We just wish they also considered that roosters feel that same exact way about their own families. The problem here is fundamentally one of similar instincts colliding. However, this clash of instincts does not have to end in separating roosters from their families. Children and roosters can peacefully coexist, and can in fact form loving familial bonds with each other. Consider rooster Cantaloupe, and his human child friend Annabelle for example, who have happily coexisted in the same home for two and a half years.  In the below photos, Cantaloupe demonstrates his peaceful coexistence in, and enjoyment of the space that he shares with his friend Annabelle. From story time to overseeing playtime, Cantaloupe enjoys house rooster life with his family thoroughly.

    When Annabelle was about four years old, her parents adopted Cantaloupe, a very large, older and arthritic rooster in need. As Annabelle’s parents got to know Cantaloupe, they learned that he does not move particularly quickly, and that he isn’t much of a jumper. As a matter of fact, his feet only leave the ground when he is lifted to the couch, or held by his caregivers. However, out of concern for keeping both Cantaloupe and Annabelle safe and avoiding any possible incident where either could be injured, his caregivers closely supervised any interaction in which they shared space. While Cantaloupe will occasionally bite his caregivers, particularly in springtime, he has never had the opportunity to bite Annabelle, as when they do share space, they do so with close supervision and some degree of separation. This separation and supervision also helps to protect Cantaloupe by ensuring that he cannot access and eat any of Annabelle’s toys with small parts or be otherwise injured. The amount and type of separation depends on various things including the activities everyone is engaged in, their mood (Cantaloupe’s and Annabelle’s), and also the time of year as spring time typically warrants a bit more space between the two. Sometimes this involves a physical barrier such as a baby gate or even a stack of pillows, other times it simply involves being away from each other in a shared space (with adults closely supervising), and other times it involves being all snuggled up together, but with a parent as a buffer between the two of them.

    Despite the fact that they are often technically physically separated from one another, they are very much a part of one another’s lives. Before touching Cantaloupe, Annabelle will ask her parents for permission to touch his wattles or feathers, and their answer will depend on their observation and assessment of Cantaloupe’s mood and behavior. Annabelle also feeds Cantaloupe blueberries with supervision, draws pictures for him as decoration for his living space, and will lie near him (separated by a baby gate) and lovingly watch him, while he watches bird videos on his iPad for enrichment.

    Relationships between children and animals can be difficult to navigate, however if set up for success (i.e. with careful boundary setting and supervision) they can be very mutually beneficial and rewarding. It is the primary responsibility of the adults in these contexts to ensure that everyone feels and remains safe, but when properly conducted, children can learn valuable lessons about having empathy for animals and questions of consent and boundaries, and roosters can benefit from positive and loving human attention. Cantaloupe and Annabelle serve as a manifestation of what kind of beautiful relationships can potentially exist between roosters, one of the most vulnerable and abused land animals, and children, some of the most vulnerable humans. Annabelle and Cantaloupe model a very special possibility, which we should all consider carefully as an example.

    Conclusion

    While sanctuaries and rescues are all too aware of how rooster stigma has contributed to the sheer numbers of roosters in need, the problem can seem so overwhelming that it’s hard to know even how to begin to address it. We must begin to do so by improving our own understanding of the nature, cognitive abilities and personalities of the roosters in our care, and the history of both where they came from, as well as at some of the exploitative practices (particularly cockfighting) that feed and promote rooster stigma for human purposes. 

    We must then take stock of our own language use and practices around roosters, and assess whether there are ways that we can improve how we talk about and treat these special birds. When addressing surrender requests for roosters, we should (keeping in mind both our capacities as rescuers and sanctuaries, as well as our personal capacities and needs for boundaries and self care) consider whether we can potentially change a surrender request into a retention situation, by offering insight, knowledge, experience and education so that roosters can be safely kept, and perhaps viewed from a new and more understanding lens.

    Rooster stigma is so longstanding and deep rooted, that it cannot be dismantled overnight. However, we hope that by considering this resource and implementing rooster centered thinking and narratives, which do these incredible beings the honor they deserve, the stigma that unfairly impacts so many roosters will begin to crumble, and the world can be a safer and kinder place for them. 

    A rooster stands on a branch that was carved with the words "good boy."
    Theo stands for the proposition that he is a very good boy! Photo courtesy of Chicken Run Rescue

    Action Steps

    • When working with roosters and considering their compassionate care, build in careful considerations of their nature as social, flock animals and their nature as prey animals, as well as any experiences that an individual may have had (i.e. trauma) that might affect their behaviors.
    • Reframe narratives around roosters generally. Instead of using the term “aggression” when it comes to certain rooster behaviors, use the term “self defense.” 
    • Avoid labeling individuals. If a rooster has kicked you, it suffices to say, he kicked me. There is no need to call him “mean” or “aggressive.”
    • When sharing narratives about rooster residents with sanctuary visitors, volunteers, and staff, integrate the above. 
    • When you receive rooster surrender requests, or requests for assistance in “managing an aggressive rooster,” integrate the above and also consider this as an opportunity to educate, and a chance to promote greater rooster retention and understanding. 
    • Consider outreach and educational programming aimed at addressing the rooster dumping crisis preemptively, including discoursing with local officials, animal control agencies, and neighbors and community members.

    Acknowledgements
    We are endlessly grateful to rooster rescuers, advocates and caregivers for their contributions to this resource. We extend our deepest appreciation to Triangle Chicken Advocates, Chicken Run Rescue, Farm Bird Sanctuary, Rooster Haus Rescue, Chicago Chicken Rescue, and Chicago Roo Crew.

    SOURCES:

    Chickens: How We Got Here | The Open Sanctuary Project 

    Chickens are Foragers, Not Fighters | United Poultry Concerns, Karen Davis

    About Chickens | The Humane Society of the United States

    10 Interesting Facts About Chicken Vision | Valco Industries, Inc. (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Sophisticated Fowl: The Complex Behaviour and Cognitive Skills of Chickens and Red Junglefowl | Behavioral Sciences: January 2018 (Non-Compassionate Source)

    How the Chicken Conquered the World | Smithsonian Magazine (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Do High Sound Pressure Levels of Crowing in Roosters Necessitate Passive Mechanisms for Protection Against Self-Vocalization? | Zoology Volume 126, February 2018 (Non-Compassionate Source)

    How Loud Can you go? Physical and Physiological Constraints to Producing High Sound Pressures in Animal Vocalizations | Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution (Non-Compassionate Source)

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