I now have a rooster. This is a surprise to the hens (heck, it was a surprise for me!) and it will take a few days for them to adjust, so there’s a bit more noise coming from the flock this morning.
Hens don’t need a rooster around to produce eggs. The rooster’s “job” is to watch over the flock, keep the hens safe from predators, and fertilize the eggs. (Some people think that fertile eggs are healthier for you, but that’s not true.) Since we backyard chicken keepers have taken over the job of keeping our hens safe from predators, the only reason to keep a rooster these days is if you want to breed chickens or if you really fancy roosters. I don’t want to try breeding and hatching eggs, and while I do find some roosters quite good-looking, their crowing has always made me avoid them.
But yesterday afternoon when one of my neighbors stopped by and asked me to help a stray chicken he saw in the nearby forest preserve I told him I would check the situation out. This neighbor is a bit of a pain at times, but he recently had to euthanize one of his dogs and he’s still raw and upset about it. He walks around the neighborhood everyday for his health and he noted that he’d recently seen a coyote in the same area where he saw this chicken. He couldn’t bear the thought of this poor chicken being killed by a coyote. He also thought the chicken may belong to a guy who lived closer to the woods and kept pet chickens, too.
Since I was planning to take the dog for a walk anyway, I decided to see what was going on. I put a small bag of chicken treats in my pocket (cracked corn, bread, and dried mealworms) and B and I headed out a few minutes later. On the way to the spot where I was told I’d find the bird, we stopped to talk with the other chicken owner my neighbor had mentioned. Luckily he was home and in the yard, so we chatted for at least 30 minutes about his chickens, my chickens, and the fact that it is not uncommon to find roosters loose in the woods around here.
The typical explanation for this phenomenon is that it is due to practitioners of Santeria leaving them them there. If that’s the case then these chickens must be escapees because everything I’ve found online about Santeria says that the chickens are sacrificed/killed and that the bodies are usually eaten. I suppose it could be that people are just trying to get rid of roosters (since these loose birds are typically male) they don’t want or need, but that doesn’t fit well with the model of most chicken folks I’ve met who either keep chickens as pets and would try hard to find a home for a rooster or who see roosters as something to take to the butcher and put in the stewpot. If any reader can fill me in on why chickens (and mostly roosters at that) are let loose like this I’d love to hear it.
Talking with this fellow chicken owner did establish the fact that he wasn’t missing a bird so the chicken in the woods wasn’t his. I continued on my walk towards where the neighbor had reported seeing the chicken and found it right away. It’s pretty easy to spot a white chicken in the springtime woods, after all. Not everything has grown in yet and he stands out pretty well against the soft greens of the early growth and the browns of the fall leaf detritus and bark of shrubs and trees. I tossed some cracked corn his way and he came readily to eat it, but he was wary of me and wasn’t going to get close enough for me to grab him. I wasn’t prepared to do so anyway; I just wanted to find the chicken, see what condition it was in, and figure out if it was a rooster or a hen. This was definitely a rooster and quite a good-looking one, too. He’s a bantam: smaller than a full-sized rooster, but otherwise a fully functioning rooster.
We walked the dog home and then started prepping for the rooster-catching operation. First I prepped the spare Eglu coop that I keep next to the main coop where the hens live. It’s never a good idea to immediately mix a new bird in with an established flock because it could bring in parasites or diseases, and it really messes up the flock dynamics in a big way. Putting a new flock member into a quarantine coop is the way to go, and if the coop is near enough to the main coop for the birds to see each other its even better because they have time to check each other out before introductions are made. Once I established that the Eglu was stocked with water and had the feed container in place, I went back into the house and pulled out an old sheet and a box big enough to put the chicken in. Then I changed into my gardening/chore clothes and shoes and B and I headed out to wrangle a rooster.
The neighbor happened to stop by the location, too, so he tried to help. My plan was to lure the rooster close enough with cracked corn and treats, then toss a sheet over him to make him easier to grab. Let me cut to the punchline and say we were not successful. Chickens are very hard to catch and this guy had a big area to run around in to avoid us. While the woods weren’t fully grown in, there still was a lot of brush we had to maneuver around, too. To top it off the ground was muddy and it was hard to find good traction at times. B actually slipped and fell at one point, getting mud all down one leg. Our shoes were a mess and I had twigs in my hair, too. I called a strategic retreat. The neighbor thanked us for trying and I told him we may try a bit later when it was dark enough for the chicken to roost.
Chickens are much easier to catch when the sun is down. They have very poor night vision and their natural tendencies are to find a place off the ground to perch or roost at night. If attacked at night they’ll do their best to save themselves, but since they can’t see very well they’re pretty vulnerable. (This is one reason why raccoons are a much bigger threat to chickens than coyotes or foxes; raccoons can climb, so even if a chicken roosts fairly high in a tree, it can’t escape easily from a raccoon.)
We went back out after the sun had set and my own hens were well settled for the night. Finding a white chicken in the dark woods shouldn’t be too hard, I thought, but if we had scared him enough to push deeper into the woods we would be out of luck. It was B who spotted the rooster sitting on a shrub branch just a few feet in from the road. There was a bit of chasing involved, but he was much easier to corner and when he tried returning to his roosting spot I just managed to grab one of his legs, then the other, and to pull him in close enough to tuck the sheet around him. He was fairly subdued, so it was easy to pop him in the box. B sat with the box in his lap as I drove the few blocks home.
Transferring the rooster into the Eglu went pretty well, and then I filled up the feed bowl and slipped it inside. He paced around a bit making soft noises. After a few minutes we left him and went inside so he could settle down on his own.
First thing this morning I went out to check on him. He’s already trying to impress the girls next door, flapping his wings, dragging them across the ground dramatically, and crowing. The hens aren’t sure what to do. The ones higher in the pecking order are making more noise this morning, and are eyeing him up; the ones lower in the pecking order are checking him out the most, though. They seem fascinated by his display and are spending a lot of time hanging out in the area of the coop where they can see him.
I haven’t decided if I’m keeping the rooster or not. He’s quite a good looking rooster, but his crowing could make some of my neighbors pretty unhappy. For the next week or so he’ll stay in the spare coop to make sure he isn’t going to make my hens sick, at least. And since I’ll be out of town at a conference and B is taking care of the household by himself, I’ll be relying on his reports as to how the little guy is getting on.