Stepping up to the Plate: Learning to Manage the Flock

Well, we did it.  No, not quite what you’re thinking; there are no tasty fresh roosters now tucked away in the freezer (yet).  But we toook a deep breath, understood our role as flock managers/parents/alpha hens, and did what needed to be done.

We’ve raised all of our chickens from cute, 3-day old bundles of fluff.  I didn’t think we’d become overly attached; they never felt like pets, never had names.  As the birds grew and it became clear that we had 4 roosters, we expected to eat them eventually.  We had to cull one early because he wasn’t well and we knew he was suffering.  We didn’t want to, and when the day came it wasn’t a good experience, but we knew it was the right thing to do.

Our oldest hens are now 20 weeks and are on the verge of laying.  The nest boxes are open and have their beds of straw; the golf ball is tucked into one of the nests to signal that this is a safe place to lay an egg.  The Buff Orpingtons and Australorps are 18 weeks and just coming into maturity.  Including our 3 Buff roosters.

We always knew we wouldn’t be able to keep 3 roos in our small flock, but I worried about the lone Buff hen, who is our sweetest, most docile bird.  I didn’t want her to be without a Buff companion!  And the roos were so sweet, and so fun to watch running towards me as I brought them their kitchen scrap treats.  They were the lively, curious personalities of the flock, and they looked so handsome as their deep golden feathers started to grow in.

About a week ago, the biggest, proudest roo began to crow.  We knew their time needed to come sooner rather than later.  We considered our “processing” options and talked to the experienced folks around here for advice.  We quickly decided we weren’t up to the whole process ourselves in the backyard just yet, and narrowed the list of other processors available.   Skipper wondered about whether finding them another home (other than the freezer!) might be a possibility.

When I came home from work on Thursday afternoon, my neighbour met me in the driveway.  “Don’t cull your roos, yet,” she pleaded; “our rooster is sick!”

They have a beautiful flock of 16 Buff laying hens that free-range their large pastures and go home to a roomy coop.  They have the room to have broody hens hatch out chicks and need a rooster around for all the important roosterly duties: protection of the flock from eagles, fertilizing eggs, and keeping order among the hens.  With the size of the flock and the recent death of their lone rooster, they were thinking of getting two to keep up with the jobs.  We loved the idea of watching two of our beautiful birds grow to full maturity next door.

So over the last couple of days we’ve been back and forth between the 2 flocks, making decisions.  Then suddenly, yesterday afternoon, the rooster hormones kicked in the and the feathers started to fly.  Roo #1 was taking control and mounting the two oldest Silver Laced Wyandottes (we call them Patti and Selma, after the chain-smoking, wise-cracking spinster sisters on The Simpsons whom they resemble closely 🙂 ).  Again.  And then again.  And then again!  He must have chased them down a dozen times in just a few hours!  Poor girls were appalled at what had happened to their companions, and they were also not happy about suddenly not being at the top of the flock anymore!  Our soft hearts hardened–their normal roosterly urges were just not going to fit in this small flock, and they had to go.

This morning, after hearing the tell-tale squawking starting up again, Skipper had the brilliant idea to keep Patti and Selma in the closed run with our 12 week-old Blue-Laced Red Wyandottes and keep everyone else in the larger range area.  This gave everyone a much-needed break, and gave us time to get organized.

This afternoon, we managed to catch the two most mature roosters and brought them next door.  As we carried them over, I talked to them about the fields of fresh grass, the many laying hens, the bugs in the cow patties, and all the happy adventures to come.  We placed them in the new coop in their cage and the hens all came to check out the visitors.  The roos gradually settled, jumped out of the carrying cage and started exploring.  We were all expecting some aggression, a necessary period of adjustment for all.  But nothing happened.  Everyone explored together, ate and drank together, looked for bugs and scratched in the dirt.  Then Roo #1 tried his luck with one of the dust bathing hens, and she wasn’t the slightest bit perturbed!  Off everyone went about their business.  An unimaginably peaceful transition so far!

Meanwhile, back at the home roost, the rest of the birds seem a little on edge.  I tried to bring them some treats and gather everyone around, but without their fearless leader, they were reluctant to come running.  I went to them instead.

I’m sure it will take a few days to adjust to the new order, but I’m hopeful.  Roo#3, who is skinnier and less mature than the other 2, will hopefully now be able to come into his own, and we’ll keep him for a few more weeks.  We’ll see if things stay peaceful next door!  Hopefully, Patti and Selma will settle into laying, and our 12-week olds will relax a bit with their major threat of protective, testerone-laden roos out of the way.  And Skipper and I will get used to the feeling of knowing that when we are the top birds, with the responsibility for the health of the whole flock in our hands, we will do what needs to be done.

Which is good, because we have another 3 roosters in the batch of 12-week olds!

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2 thoughts on “Stepping up to the Plate: Learning to Manage the Flock

  1. We have a little experience with the rooster issue, having sent 4 of ours at about 24 weeks to the chicken processing plant. (Yes, a bit late, and they were a bit tough, but there you go.) Our two batches of chicks this year have more than their fair share of roosters, and we’ll do the same, but share the proceeds with friends – because we’ve got too many to fit in our freezer! It’s tough, because the young cockerels are so darn friendly, and have so much personality. And I can’t help but ponder gender politics and feel the injustice of it all. But that’s life on the farm.

  2. Miriam, I have to admit that a part of me really wants to taste this active free-range chicken that everyone gushes about! I’ve had pastured meat birds before, but those are..ahem…a breed apart. And this process might already be worth it for the look on a student’s face when I made a comment about eating roosters and he (not a young man) asked incredulously, “you can eat roosters?!” For all that we are (?) prepared to eat them, I must say it’s lovely to see them settling into being kings of the roost next door. But you’re right, this is the cycle of the farm that we wanted into, which means dealing with the consequences that are less comfortable to us raised-off-the-farm newbies.

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