Roosters! That’s what we need.
We did our research after Goldie’s Close Encounter, the last in a string of hawk attacks this winter. There just aren’t that many options to keep your hens safe from hawks, apart from keeping them in an enclosed space, which defeats the entire purpose of free-ranging. We want happy birds. That means freedom to roam, but also means not getting their heads torn off by predators (it’s an awful and frightening thing when it happens). Another suggestion was to clear all trees (so the hawks have no place to land) and then enclose a couple acres in aviary netting. Um, no.
But roosters – now we’re talking. Everyone told us they’d make a big difference, constantly scanning the skies and alerting the girls to any threat. We’re in the country without any close neighbors, and we actually love the sound of roosters crowing, and they can be really beautiful, so this seemed like the perfect answer. Bonus: it’s the Chinese Year of the Rooster.
We put some “Rooster Wanted” ads up in our local Agway and Tractor Supply, and called some people we’d seen exhibiting nice birds at the Wayne County Fair. Then, Brian found a guy on Craig’s List who had a little backyard chick hatching business a couple hours away. He had heritage Barred Rocks, Cream Legbars, and Swedish Flower Hens. Brian drove out to see them and wound up selecting two roosters to bring home to our farm – a gorgeous Cream Legbar we named Marcus Aurelius and another pretty boy, a Swedish Flower Hen rooster we named Sven. He rounded things out with two hens, a Black Wyandotte we named Winnie and a Barred Rock we named Bari.
You have to quarantine new chickens, ideally for a month, before introducing them to your flock, because there are tons of avian diseases they can give each other. So we made a horse stall into a deluxe coop and moved the newbies in there. At first we kept the two roosters on opposite sides of some fencing, then let them together once they’d bloodlessly worked a few things out via body language across the barrier. It was immediately clear Marcus was the dominant rooster, so there was really no struggle. Sven didn’t love losing the ladies to the big guy, but he didn’t bother trying to fight about it.
The quarantine month went by. The newbies, who honestly had arrived looking a little bit shaggy, actually got better looking, happier, and healthier, living in our spacious stall with high end organic feed and treats of fresh greens. Little did they dream how amazing life was about to get. They had never lived with free access to the outdoors before.
But first, they’d have to meet the existing flock. Our hens had been pretty much ignoring the crowing sounds coming through the barn window as they walked by. We wanted to give everyone the chance to check each other out without conflict. We fenced a little area adjacent to the chicken tractor, where the girls live, and put the four newbies in there. The girls, led by Sal (of course), immediately came to check them out, with much noisy clucking and trilling. But they pretty soon lost interest and went back off to the far corners of the yard. The newbies, meanwhile, just seemed thrilled to be experiencing sunshine and the breeze in their feathers.
We had planned to do this slow intro for a couple days, but it all seemed so calm, we decided to go for it. We’d been told it was best to introduce new chickens into the coop at night when everyone was sleeping. As evening fell, the girls took their places on the roosting bars. I decided to start with Sven. I picked him up, opened the coop roof, placed him on a roosting bar, and closed the roof. There was some loud clucking some thumps, a squawk…and out came Sven, through the coop door, followed by a couple scolding hens. I picked Sven back up, opened the roof, and put him back inside. A few more squawks and thumps, then it settled down into some noisy chatter for a while – but everyone stayed in. Good. One down.
Next, the two hens. I placed each of them on the lowest roosting bar. There was a little clucking and a few pecks-and-dodges, but everyone quickly settled back down. Excellent.
Now I did the same with Marcus. But this time, when I closed the roof, an explosion went off inside. Our toughest and most dominant hens, Lucia (the giant Andalusian Blue) and Sal (our flock leader Rooster-Hen), were not happy with this big intruder. They attacked him, and all three came flying out the door, fighting with beaks and claws. Their combs were already bloody. But while the hens had been able to easily shove Sven to a lower place in the pecking order, not so with Marcus. Lucia realized it quickly and retreated back into the coop. Sal was used to leading the flock, and she fought with all her pluck. But Marcus was easily 3x her size, and he basically beat her up and scared the daylights out of her. Then he left her in the run and went back into the coop himself. Sal wasn’t physically injured, but she was very freaked out. She stood in the run screaming for a while. I adore Sal – I love her spirit and her curious and contrary personality – so I hated to see her upset. I went in the coop and held her and petted her until she calmed down. Marcus had parked himself on the floor of the coop facing the door, so to get in, Sal would have to walk past him. There was no way she was going to do that – she was still scared. So I opened the roof again and placed her on her usual spot, on the topmost roosting bar. She immediately settled in. Everyone was still, heads tucked down, ready to sleep I closed the roof. Quiet.
The next morning we came out early to check on everyone. We’d blocked the ‘eye’ of the solar door sensor so the run would stay closed, so the newbies could learn what home was before being set free in the yard, and so the whole flock would have time to gel together. They were all out in the run, mingling fine, no fighting. Just Sal was not happy. She is a very vocal bird, and she was going on and on and on – clearly complaining about what had just transpired and this most unwelcome addition to the collective. I came into the run with a bag of crack to cheer everyone up. That helped. And I picked up Sal and held her high above everyone’s heads to they could see, and proclaimed, “You see Sal here? She is King! Let it be known.” Then I put her high on a bar and fed her a private handful of crack.
Brian explained, “Sal, you’ve been doing your best to lead the flock, and we thank you. But other hens have been getting killed by hawks. Now the roosters are here to watch out for you all. You don’t have to be the rooster anymore.”
Did she understand? She did quiet down.
That afternoon, we opened the door. The original hens could not wait and took off into the yard in palpable relief. The four newbies seemed shocked and bewildered, unsure of what to do with this vast expanse of freedom. But they stood in the sun, feet in the grass, and one after the other Marcus and Sven crowed, longer and louder than they ever had in the barn. Crowing at the dawn of a new chapter, perhaps.