Hen or Rooster? (The Trouble with Urban Roosters)

Hen or Rooster? (The Trouble with Urban Roosters)

Many new and experienced chicken owners will at some point find themselves asking the question… Do I have a hen or a rooster? Unfortunately it can be hard to tell for a long time with most chicks. Remember back when I expressed my own concerns about Joy possibly being a boy? Sadly, it turns out that I was correct – she was, in fact, a he. Our backyard chick had grown up to be an urban rooster!

7 week old Production Red cockerel
“Did you just assume my gender?”

Our Experience

It started when the chicks were about four weeks old. I had made a trampoline chicken tractor so they could spend more time outdoors. Whenever they were outside, Joy would run toward the other chicks and peck at them! She also did this when there was any perceived danger, like when our dog was nearby. On the contrast, when they were all safe inside the brooder, she acted perfectly calm. She would even settle down low in our hands and drift off to sleep!

Around this same age, we noticed that her comb (the fleshy thing on top of a chicken’s head) was growing a lot larger and faster than the other chicks’. It was hard to tell, though; they all had different comb styles, and of course they’re all different breeds, so I couldn’t compare their development very easily. The store where I bought my chicks had Joy labeled as a Rhode Island Red; I later figured out that she was actually a Production Red. Both RI and Production Reds are bred to develop at a faster rate, in an effort to optimize egg production. This also made it hard to determine if she was growing a bigger comb because of her breed, or because of her gender!

6 week old production red cockerel
6 weeks old – small feet and beak, no dark wing feathers, but her comb and wattles are pink and fairly big.

Possible Rooster Traits

The wondering consumed many hours of my time. Everyone said to just wait a few weeks and see, but that’s much easier said than done! I did a lot of internet searching on young roosters, called cockerels, and found that they tend to exhibit these physical or behavioral traits:

  • Large feet
  • Long tail feathers
  • Dark coloring on wings
  • Large, red combs and wattles
  • Upright posture
  • Slower to grow real feathers in
  • Aggressive toward other chickens
  • Hackle feathers (feathers on the back of the neck that stand straight up when threatened)

Well… Joy never had larger feet than her sisters; her comb was slightly more pink than two of my other chicks but less pink than the other; hackle and tail feathers don’t grow in until later; she feathered in nicely on her back and wings; and she was only aggressive outdoors – which could also just mean she was working her way to the top of the pecking order. As you can see, it is far from easy to tell at such a young age!

6 week old pullets and cockerel
Left to Right: Bijou, Joy, Pepper, Gypsy. You can see here that Joy’s comb is larger than the other chicks’, but only more pink than one of them.

Becoming More Obvious

The chicks doubled in size again around 7 weeks, and it was then that I really started to believe that Joy was, in fact, Joey. The kids and I even started calling him that! He finally began exhibiting some of the traits mentioned above: a very large, pink comb; hackle feathers; an upright posture; head feathers still looking shabby when the other chicks had theirs fully in; and aggressiveness towards the others (chasing and pecking at them even when there was no threat of danger). He was still sweet as can be with me and the kids, though. I still held out hope that “she” was just a dominant early-developer, but it became harder and harder to fool myself!

7 week old production red cockerel
7 weeks old. Notice the large comb and very upright posture!
8 week old production red cockerel
8 weeks old. What a difference in one week! His feathers are in nicely now, and he has plumped up. His comb is much more red, and tail & neck feathers are growing long.

By 9 weeks I stopped being in denial and started to think about our options going forward. If Joey turned out to be a very quiet rooster, he could remain with us. He was still very friendly towards me, and was obviously a good guardian for the young hens – even if I did think he was a little overprotective sometimes. However, living in the middle of town, I knew that he could not stay if he was loud. I hoped that it wouldn’t come to that, but made plans for him to live at a nearby farm if need be.

Suspicions Confirmed!

It wasn’t until he was 15 weeks old that we knew without a doubt that Joey was a rooster. Here’s the video I took:

The first few times it was really cute! He was finding his voice, and it was all very new and funny. Well, the novelty lasted about three days. It turns out that roosters do not just crow at sunrise; they crow at sunrise, breakfast, lunch, dinner, bedtime, and about every ten minutes in between. We went out of town for a wedding just when he learned this new skill, and while I didn’t get any complaints from the neighbors when we got back, I’m sure they weren’t thrilled! (You can see in the video just how close they are to the coop!) Three days after we got home, Joey went to live with friends of ours who own an acreage just outside of town. They needed a new rooster to protect their hens, and we knew Joey would do a good job!

Why You Don’t Want An Urban Rooster

Contrary to popular belief, you do NOT need a rooster for your hens to lay eggs! Your girls will still lay an average of an egg a day (depending on breed and age) whether or not there’s a rooster around to entice them. In a backyard setting, most people prefer not to have one at all.

The most obvious reason that many people don’t want a rooster is the noise. Like I said, roosters are very, very vocal! Now some of this is to alert for danger, and some perhaps for communicating with a potential mate… but mostly I think roos (that’s an affectionate term for roosters) just like to hear themselves talk. This isn’t much of an issue on a farm, but when you have neighbors just twenty feet away, it can be a real problem!

There are other concerns, too. If you have a rooster, odds are a lot of your eggs are going to end up fertilized. You can still eat a fertilized egg, provided you removed it from the nest promptly – and assuming you’re not bothered by it! There is always a chance a fertilized egg could go unnoticed until hatching, although unlikely. (It takes 21 days for a chicken egg to hatch.) I also believe that keeping a rooster makes hens more likely to “go broody” – this is when a hen decides that she would like to be a mother, and refuses to leave her eggs or let you take them away! Roosters also tend to eat a lot more than hens; they can be aggressive toward your other chickens; and they can end up being aggressive toward YOU or your family as well.

Benefits of Keeping A Rooster

Now all that said, roosters are by no means all bad! They are very protective, and will usually do a good job keeping your flock safe from predators. If I had a large flock on an acreage, rather than three chickens in my backyard, I wouldn’t hesitate to keep a rooster! Not all roosters are aggressive, either; in fact, they can be very sweet. And of course if you ever want your chickens to have babies, you’ll need a rooster for that, too. They are also just beautiful creatures to look at!

Alert young rooster watching over his hens
Joey was always on guard for potential danger, even in the basement!
Long green tail feathers on rooster
Before he went to his new farm, Joey began growing gorgeous green feathers on his tail and neck.

How To Avoid Getting A Rooster in the First Place

The chicks you buy from farm stores are supposed to be all female, but it’s far from an exact science. A friend of mine purchased 25 chicks from a local store, and 7 of them ended up being roosters! So how can you avoid accidentally getting a rooster of your own? The main things you’re supposed to watch out for when choosing your chicks are upright posture and large feet. That’s it. Not much to go off, is it? I used these guidelines, but obviously it didn’t work out very well for me! Joey did not have large feet or an upright posture until he was much older. There are a few extra things you can do to increase the likelihood of getting hens, though:

  1. Do NOT buy any chicks labeled “pan fry”! These chicks are not even supposed to be all female, because they are raised for meat, not eggs.
  2. Buy “sex-linked” chicks. This term means that these chicks were bred to have gender-specific differences in color or pattern right from the start.
  3. Buy from a reputable hatchery rather than a local farm or feed store. The downside of this is that usually you have to purchase at least 25 chicks at a time, and often pay for shipping. Hatcheries use vent sexing or feather sexing to determine gender, and they tend to have a higher rate of accuracy than stores. [Vent sexing is looking inside a chicken’s vent (egg hole) to see if it has boy parts or girl parts. Do not try this at home!! For feather sexing, chicks are bred so that one gender has longer wing feathers on day 1.]

What To Do With An Unwanted Rooster

If you do end up with an unwanted urban rooster, you have several options. If your roo wasn’t much of a pet and you can handle the thought, you could always butcher and eat him; you could learn to live with the noise and keep him; you could do what we did and find him a nice farm to live on; or you could try out a No-Crow Rooster Collar. A collar prevents a rooster from filling the air sack in his neck all the way, which reduces the volume of his crowing, and possibly the frequency. Please do not simply abandon a young rooster, though. I have seen it happen right here in my town. They are not prepared to care for themselves or protect themselves well from predators out in the open.

16 week old rooster
Goodbye, Joey! We will miss you!

So there you have it. Roosters serve a good purpose in the right setting! However, on an urban homestead you’re probably better off not keeping one. We were very sad to see Joey go, but it was a relief to not have to worry about him anymore. I know that he is happy in his new home, and able to do the job God intended him for!

Update: We got to visit Joey at his new farm a couple months after rehoming him. He is doing very well! Joey has turned into an absolutely gorgeous rooster, and has a lovely harem of ladies – with babies on the way! He definitely seemed to remember me, as he came right up to me when I started talking to him. I was able to hold him for a long time and he was still sweet as can be. I do miss my handsome boy, but I know he’s in the best place!

Beautiful Production Red Rooster!


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2 thoughts on “Hen or Rooster? (The Trouble with Urban Roosters)

  1. I had 46 chicks arrive at my door this April. I ordered all female, and was in denial for quite a long time that 8 of them were in fact roos. I just kept hoping that the large combs were a breed trait (since I did have a breed where even the females get wattles and could get large combs). 6 of the roos ended up in the freezer, one of them I loved but he was way to aggressive to the hens. One hen would not come out of the coop while we had him, and an adult brahma had to be separated till the extra roos where gone. She was the fav hen, and they harassed her so bad I though she was dead one day.

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