Cockerels dancing and chasing the girls around the yard are a sure sign that the warmer months are here, the mating games are about to start and baby chicks are on the horizon.
Although some of the antics that go on may seem amusing to us, mating is a very serious occupation for your chickens.
In the wild, only the strong would survive so many of the behaviors are driven by this instinct.
So, what exactly is involved in getting that egg fertilized? It’s more complicated and devious that you might think – sit back and delve into ‘romancing the hen’.
Let’s start with common rooster and hen mating behaviors before looking at the actual mechanics of mating.
Rooster Mating Behavior
Roosters think about mating just about all year round – it’s their job. They have to carry on the breed so it is very important that he have as many chicks from his ladies as possible to continue the flock.
The behaviors associated with mating and breeding really ramp up in the spring-time and you will see ‘courtship’ behaviors much more frequently than in the cooler months.
He will become very attentive to the girls, ‘tid-bitting’ them to get them interested in what he has to offer in the way of food.
Tid-bitting involves finding a special tasty morsel for the chosen hen. He will call her over, indicating the special treat by bobbing his head, pecking at the treat and clucking much like a Mother Hen. This behavior may not lead directly to mating at the time, but the hen will remember his attentiveness, he is creating an impression.
Any other roosters that hang around in the hope of enticing some hens will be chased off and if necessary chest bumping and fighting may ensue. Usually the submissive rooster will back off and run away to fight another day.
The dominant roo will do everything he can to prevent the secondary males from mating with his flock, but at around three years old, a rooster is starting to feel his age and may be challenged by younger and stronger birds.
The secondary boys will resort to all sorts of tricks to lure a female into a tryst. Tid-bitting, however, is by far the favorite and seems to work well.
Another trick is the rooster ‘dance’.
The rooster dance entails dropping one wing to the ground and shuffling around the hen whom he has selected to mate with. The wing that is facing the hen will be dropped to the ground while he ‘dances’ around her showing his interest.
After reaching the rear of the hen he will try to hop aboard to mate with her. Some roosters don’t bother with the whole courtship thing and get straight down to business!
Once on top of the hen he will begin ‘treading’ – this helps him find his balance. He will also grab her comb or head and neck feathers to further steady himself.
Hen Mating Behavior
When the spring-time rolls around, the hens’ hormones go into top gear. In nature, this means the associated behaviors of finding a suitable mate, nest making, laying and sitting on her eggs until they hatch.
In many breeds of hen this natural instinct has almost been bred out of them so they don’t waste time and energy in being broody.
However, there are still many good breeds that will happily turn broody during the summer months.
Also, it’s worth mentioning here that not all hens run true to their expected broodiness.
Rhode Island Reds are not renowned for broodiness, but this is the second year that I have had two of them as mothers – and they do a fine job too.
The first part of mating is finding a suitable male. If there is only one rooster for the flock then he is a lucky boy! If there are more than a couple of roosters then the mating game can get devious and nasty on occasion.
However, the females aren’t easily fooled.
Research has shown that hens can compare roosters – who has the best comb and shiniest feathers? She will choose to mate with the fellow that fits the specifications she has in mind.
Apparently, a bright red comb and wattles really does it for the girls!
The ability of the suitors to find food, care for the flock and treat the hens well is also judged by the hens. Hens may express a preference to mates based on not only his looks but abilities.
Hens are fickle on occasion, accepting food and tid-bits from any rooster but will not necessarily mate with any of them!
Although one rooster may be the ‘alpha male’, if a hen does not like him she will not be compliant with the mating ritual and may never mate with him at all.
If she is compliant with mating she will squat or crouch dropping her head and body lower and spreading her wings slightly to indicate receptiveness. You can see this behavior sometimes if you reach out to touch a hen – she will squat for you.
Once the hen is sitting on her eggs, she will lose all interest in mating and will chase off the rooster if he makes any advances to her.
This behavior will continue until she releases her brood, anywhere from 6-10 weeks on average. Rooster advances will not be welcome and she will let him know in no uncertain way.
Our backyard hens are spoiled in that they already have nesting spots available – ready made and safe. Although taking over the nest-box may not be what you desire, it’s best to leave her there until she has hatched the chicks, then move them.
If you are able to move them to a broody box once they have hatched, she is unlikely to desert them. A broody box will ensure they aren’t trampled in the coop or attacked by the other hens. It also ensures they receive the correct protein intake for growth and development.
The Mechanics of Mating
Once the rooster has hopped aboard and he has himself well situated, he will dip his tail down and to the side of the hens’ tail and deliver a ‘cloacal kiss’.
Once the mating is done, he will usually just move away while she shakes her feathers out and resumes normal business.
So, what is a ‘cloacal kiss’ I hear you asking?
A rooster doesn’t have a penis, just a very small ‘bump’ called a papilla inside his cloaca. It is via this papilla that the sperm are delivered to the hen.
A rooster may mate between 10-30 times per day depending on his ability and enthusiasm. His ‘sperm load’ is greater in the morning when he can deliver anywhere between 100 million – 5 billion sperm! That’s an awful lot of little swimmers, but the mechanics of getting the sperm into the hens’ cloaca are tricky.
At the same time that the rooster delivers the sperm in the ‘kiss’, she must evert her cloaca/vent so that the sperm are directed up to the waiting eggs.
Once inside the oviduct, the sperm will go on to fertilize the ‘egg of the day’.
Sperm will also be collected in ‘sperm pockets’ located within the walls of the oviduct, this stored sperm is viable for four to five days and is quite capable of fertilizing successive eggs.
Common Problems with Mating
Sometimes roosters can be a little rough on the ladies. The usual array of damage is thankfully minor, such as feather loss and breakage.
Loss of feathers and red irritated bald spots are a good indication that the hen is a ‘favorite’. Often she will have a small bald area on the top of her head just behind the comb. This is where he will grab her feathers in his beak.
The area that usually suffers the worst is the back where his claws can rake over the feathers and skin, sometimes causing skin abrasions.
Usually these are fairly superficial and can be easily treated but sometimes his claws can do significant damage to the skin ripping it open and causing problems.
I use a salve containing comfrey and plantain to soothe and heal reddened areas, but if there are open areas the skin should be treated with antibiotic ointment as needed.
If you notice your hens starting to get a little ragged over their backs, you can fit them with a ‘saddle’. These items certainly do save the hen some ‘wear and tear’ on her exposed skin.
A saddle is simply a barrier between the feathers and the rooster’s talons. It is fitted under the wings to keep it in place. It certainly cuts down on damage to the hens’ back from overly amorous roosters.
The skin under the saddles should be checked and treated daily. It does get hot and moist under the saddle – a perfect environment for bacteria, lice and mites to thrive in.
If the damage is more severe with open wounds and bleeding, you will have to remove the hen from the flock for a while and treat the wounds with soap, water and antibiotic ointment.
Deeper wounds may need to be stitched and in these cases you should consult your veterinarian.
If you are unable to afford a vet, you can sometimes get the wound to close together by using ‘butterfly’ type Band Aids. Be very diligent about checking the wound for infection.
With a rooster that is causing these types of injury on several hens, it may be best to lock him up until the girls heal. When he is released monitor his behavior – if he is consistently rough and causing damage it might be time to think about another rooster.
Occasionally, if there are competing roosters, there may be some significant wounds inflicted among them. Combs can be ripped and will bleed profusely.
You will need to catch and treat the victim.
Usually pressure applied to the comb will stop the bleeding after several minutes. Using a small pad or tissue, pinch the damaged comb between your fingers firmly. You can also apply a styptic powder to slow down the bleeding.
Some folks use baking powder or corn starch to do this.
Needless to say the damaged rooster will need to be separated until the damage has healed.
Another problem with mating that can occur is actually getting your chickens’ eggs fertilized!
One quick and simple solution is to trim away much of the ‘bum fluff’ so her cloaca is more accessible to the male.
It doesn’t look particularly pretty and if she’s a show bird she won’t be on the stage anytime soon, but if you want baby chicks this is the easy way to go.
As you can see, the trials and tribulations of barnyard mating are similar to the problems we all had as teenagers….
Generally, the whole process goes smoothly without any interference from a keeper, but every now and then an overly amorous rooster can damage hens quite badly. Usually it’s the younger roosters and due to inexperience on their part.
Some roosters will actually take a turn at sitting on the eggs while Mama takes a bath and snack. Of course, he will still guard and care for the rest of his girls. If you have such a rooster – keep him!
Good roosters are hard to find.
Do you have any rooster tales that you would like to share with us? Let us know in the comments below, you know we love to hear from you.