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Urban chicken keepers need to be aware of chickens’ sex when getting new chicks and have a back-up plan if a rooster is in the mix. It’s illegal to keep roosters in many cities.
There is nothing feminine about roosters. They strut, pick fights, are vigilant in their duties to protect their hen-folk and, of course, there is the legendary rooster libido. In fact, Ray Charles used to joke that because roosters took care of 15 hens, why shouldn’t he?
Contrary to this belief that a harem-like paradise awaits each rooster, the life of your average rooster is not a happy one. Given that equal numbers of hens and roosters hatch out of eggs in any given year, the 15-to-1 hen-to-rooster ratio means that 14 out of every 15 roosters are born without a hope for the future.
What becomes of this unlucky majority?
One might reasonably assume that roosters born to laying hens would be raised to maturity and eaten. Throughout most of human and chicken history, there were many different types of chickens, but all were dual-purpose breeds, making them suitable for eating and egg laying. This is no longer so.
Backing Up: Some Rooster History
In the early 1800s, some chicken breeds were prized as layer chickens and some were prized as meat chickens, but all could serve as both. Roosters, once they began crowing, would be quickly butchered as broilers, raised eight months to be roasters or caponized (castrated) and fattened for a full year before ending up, plump and succulent, on the table.
Sometimes, roosters were allowed to live the life alluded to by Ray Charles. These lucky fellows were put in charge of keeping up to 15 hens and protecting them from predators.
On Sept. 24, 1903, The New York Times reported a rooster belonging to James Clark of East Orange, N.J., had ”gotten into enough scraps with neighboring boys and lost that he soon formed a high opinion of the prowess of the surrounding boys in knee breeches and gradually gave them a wide berth. The smaller chaps who had not yet graduated from kilt skirts were easier victims, and he turned to them for ‘satisfaction.’ He never spied a little fellow in dresses but what, with pointed beak and flapping wings, he put with.”
Yet, most roosters today have little chance to act out, service a harem or crow. On modern commercial egg farms, which produce 98 percent of the eggs Americans consume, roosters are killed at birth. If a chick is male, it’s immediately dispatched.
Chicken or Rooster?
Killing roosters at birth, rather than raising them to eat, didn’t occur until the early 1900s, when we developed the ability to tell whether a young chick was male or female. In 1919, a crossbreed was developed that could be sexed by the color of its down. However, only the first generation of crossbreeds could be sexed, and their own offspring didn’t carry the sex-linked color differences.
A Japanese poultry specialist at the World Poultry Congress in Ottawa, Canada, changed the chicken industry forever in 1927 when he unveiled the vent method. The vent method enabled practitioners to sex one-day-old chicks with 95 percent accuracy. Chick-sexing schools popped up across America, and chick sexing became a viable and well-compensated profession.
The vent method was a tricky one.
“It was a tough job, and very hard to learn—maybe one in 30 folks who tried it got the hang of it, and maybe one in 100 was good enough to be a professional,” says Hugh Grove, a legendary chicken sexer who spent 62-years plying his craft.
The discovery of the vent method dealt a serious blow to the fortunes of roosters. Farmers no longer had to feed cockerels (rooster chicks) until they could be identified as male. It freed the egg industry to develop single-purpose chickens. Chicks no longer needed to be fed for several weeks until they could be sexed. The future for chicken farmers now lay in svelte egg-laying chickens and muscle-laden meat chickens, which could grow to butchering age in six weeks.
Roosters Roaming the City
For today’s backyard-chicken keepers, accidental roosters that slip into the flock because of improper sexing pose a predicament. While keepers care for the well-being of the rooster, they must comply with city ordinances and surrounding neighbors. Some urbanites have been known to take great care in hand-delivering the rooster to a home in the country, but there have been stories of roosters being set free in city bike paths, recycling centers or zoos.
The owners of a vineyard an hour outside Portland, Ore., keep a small flock of chickens. Every few months, they find that a mysterious someone has left them a rooster in the night. About once a year, at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, security officer Trinidad Alcarez must capture a rooster that has inexplicably appeared in the night. And according Gary Kranig, sergeant at King County Animal Care and Control in Washington, “roosters on the loose” calls are not uncommon.
“Roosters are very, very, very, very hard to catch, and when we do catch them, it’s pure luck,” Kranig says. (He recommends people trying to catch a rooster leave a trail of feed leading into a garage where it can be cornered and caught.)
Seattle Animal Control faces similar problems with catching roosters. Don Baxter, an enforcement supervisor with the agency, recalls one rooster living in the south end of town that, like all roosters, did a lot of crowing.
“At first, the neighbors liked the rooster, but after a week or two, they gave us a call,” he says. “This rooster turned out to be very fast and definitely faster than us. But we had more endurance. After 15 minutes of chase, he got tired, and we were able to catch him.”
The roosters caught by Seattle Animal Control, King County Animal Control and the Woodland Park Zoo lucked out. All three organizations go to great lengths to find homes for the roosters they catch.
Rooster’s Point of View
Any way you look at it, the rooster’s future prospects are bleak. While some roosters are still used to breed with 15 hens, for many, even this normally plum job and life get frustrating. Several years back, when commercial broiler chickens were submitted to multiple generations of a single-trait breeding program to make them more muscular and faster growing, one-third of the resulting roosters were born without knowing the rooster courtship dance.
Roosters naturally do a brief mating dance to entice hens. They approach a hen, drop one wing, and dance around in a circle. When hens see this dance, they generally squat down to mate. The mating dance is supposed to be instinctual. These clueless roosters were shunned by their hen folk. Such a rooster would go mad with mortification.
If Ray Charles were alive today, he would be wise to stop using his “a rooster’s life” analogy. For certainly, there could be few fates worse than that faced by the modern-day rooster about to peck out from his shell.
About the Author: Jennie Grant is a writer in Seattle who tends to her vegetable garden, bees, chickens, farm pug and growing farm boy. She founded the Goat Justice League and helped win the battle for goat legalization in Seattle and organized Seattle’s first Pug Gala, the largest gathering of pug dogs in America.