I have recently been asked to write an article that focuses even more on how to keep a rooster from crowing. Out of everything I have trained my chickens to do, this feat seems to be the most impressive and most difficult to achieve for others. I have only spoken to one other person who has had success training roosters not to crow, and to them, it was as much common sense as it is to me, but not everyone is gifted in the ways of animal communication which is what this blog is for.
First and foremost, I can't stress enough that lack of crowing is the same reason why my chickens run to me when they sense danger, why they greet me happily every morning when I open up their curtains, why they let me pick them up and handle them in even the oddest of fashions ( I regularly carry my chickens upside-down for short distances, and toss and catch them ), and why they seek out my company whenever possible. In short, I am dominant, fair, loving, entertaining, stern, and strict, and in that my chickens know they are safe, comfortable, and happy. They know they have no reason to try and fill in gaps with their own dominance under any circumstance. I am dominant to them 100% of the time, and in exchange they are protected, fed, watered, housed, and loved.
The first thing to exercise is boundaries. It is NEVER too young to exercise boundaries - ALL boundaries. From day one, mother hen will teach her chicks what is descent behaviour and what is not, and be VERY firm and strict about it. Chicks don't get any leeway because they are young. They are taught how to eat, how to drink, and how not to die. This means from day one you should set up your boundaries for your chick - where are okay places to walk and play, and where the chicken isn't allowed; what things they can peck at and what things are not okay to peck at; what is appropriate to cry for and what is not; when and where it is okay to perform mating rituals and when and where it is not; and so on.
For example, I NEVER allow a chicken to touch my electronics, but they're welcome to wander my room otherwise. You would be surprised, I'm sure, to see just how well chickens can come to identify such things as "electronics" when appropriate boundaries are set into place. I also teach my chickens that they are allowed to peck at food, dirt, water, and even clothing and hair, but they must mind the intensity of their pecks of clothing, hair, and skin, and they are NEVER allowed to peck at eyes, moles, nose, fingers, etc. My chicks are allowed four days to cry about anything, so that I can gauge their personalities and needs, but after that they may not cry excessively when out of food or water ( this leads to crowing later on - it is okay for them to crow or cry once or twice to let me know they're out, but no more than that ), when unhappy with the way they're being handled, when unhappy with lack of your presence, etc. Last example, my eldest rooster has just begun mating my eldest hen, but sometimes he is rough with her. I have disciplined him when the hen is unwilling, not because of ethical issues pertaining to rape, because those are very human concepts, but because it leads to better socailization overall for everyone, tamer birds, a clear level of dominance on my part to dictate when mating is and is not appropriate, and it also helps teach everyone that they need to be aware of their levels of energy and be calm and controlled about what they do and how they do it. This does not mean lack of fun, it just means that instead of running wildly, knocking things over, and being a general menace, they are aware of their surroundings and respect them as well as themselves and those around them.
That being said, how do I do it? It's easy enough to note desired outcomes, and levels of general behaviour, but how do we get there? Long story short, dominance, but there's also a lot more in it than that. I'm currently working with a chick who has NOT had too much human contact growing up, and is thus not the most well-behaved chicken ever. She cries when I wave my hand over her or walk past her, then screams when I leave her alone, and is constantly "talking" when I have her with me. Her energy level is off the charts, as she goes bonkers over nearly any little thing - a change of food or water, when it's time to treat her wound, when I put her down for the night, and so forth.
First, we take into account that she's a chick, and chicks are naturally more "talkative" than adults. However, that does not condone the behaviour of being excessively talkative or whiny Thus, I started teaching her when it is and is not appropriate to whine, cry, and talk by exposing her to very small stimuli and either agreeing with gentle coos, pets, scratches, and praise, or disciplining with a stern bat on the beak or back of her head ( or feet, if I'm focusing on the lesson "don't kick, flail, and scratch" ). I start by picking her up in a way that is NOT harmful, but she might take as alarming, and let her work her crying out. Sometimes she stops right away, and if that's the case, I give her praise - lots and lots of praise, but if she continues to cry more than a few seconds, I begin batting her beak the way her mother would tell her to knock it off.
Now usually a chicken disagrees with another chicken by pecking their head, right on the top and a little to the back, but this chick has a head injury that I'm tending, so I have to modify it to her beak. An injury does not, however, mean that you should be any "gentler" except in the area of the injury itself - be creative and find another way to disagree with unwanted behaviours, but in the animal world, injured animals don't get a break and they don't UNDERSTAND breaks, either. The only exception I make is immediately after an injury during the "resting" period, I strictly interact with them only to tend the wound, and otherwise have them in a dark, isolated area where they just sleep to help hyper-accelerate the healing process.
Also note that I DO NOT condone the use of provoking an injured area to "add umph" to your disagreement - pain is NOT the goal here, merely distraction. A mother hen does NOT intentionally peck her chicks hard enough to make them cry, it's more of a gesture to say "Hey, knock it off!" When chicks DO cry from being pecked, it is seldom a cry of pain so much as a cry of discomfort - a temper tantrum, if you will.
Understanding this, that the chicks cries are temper tantrums ( you will KNOW if a chicken is in pain as opposed to throwing a tantrum - the pain cry is a much more desperate pitch, and their movements tend to be much more panicked than the "just trying to get away" flailing of a tantrum-throwing chicken ), pain is not to goal of discipline, and that discipline and disagreement is necessary, let's look at a specific situation. The chick I am training cries when I pick her up. She is not in pain nor does she feel she's in danger - she simply doesn't like it and throws a tantrum because of it. She makes an unhappy trill, flaps her wings wildly, cries and screams, and claws at my hand. First step is to grip her in a way that her claws cannot get to my hand, then I flick her feet every time she makes to try and flail them, and once she can no longer do damage to my hand, I move on to batting her beak EVERY TIME she cries or screams until she is silent. I give her a few seconds before I make to set her down - generally, she cries again and the process of batting for screams happens again. Again she's silent and I go to set her down - this usually happens a few times until she's quiet to the point that her feet hit the ground. At this point, she usually tries to stand on her tip-toes, as she is still nervous. Nervous is NOT the right response, and if she cries, I pick her up again and begin batting her beak until she calms, then I set her down and I hold her until she relaxes, then I set her down all the way and scratch her breast ( she REALLY likes having her breast scratched ), and coo at her about what a good girl she is.
The more I do this, the less she cries and struggles and starts to trust my judgement of what will and will not be scary or painful interactions. She begins to learn that by being calm when I handle her or interact with her, she will be perfectly safe and comfortable, and be well rewarded for good behaviour, thus making good behaviour worth whatever odd thing I put her through. After only two days of starting her training ( she's been under my care for only about a week, and the first several days have been strictly medical - ideally, I should have been exercising her behaviours from day one but they did not become intolerable until recently ), she has calmed considerably and no longer screams when I pick her up in an odd way. Albeit, she still does cry to some extent.
That is one very, very specific example, though. An example of how even a crippled chick can learn to behave, and if she were male, or even a female prone to crowing, these exercises would help her understand that crowing is not a behaviour that would result in what she wanted to happen. These exercises are how I have trained my two adult roosters who only crow when out of food or water, or for an extremely short period of time ( less than ten minutes for an entire day ) after I have left them alone.
However, let's look at some topics in further detail, how it works in their heads, and how it can be exercised.
I will always, always, always refer to dominance as a core issue with ANY misbehaving animal. I seldom even have to experience the situation first-hand - I'm yet to find a situation in which dominance is NOT an issue. In the animal world, the dominant animal is the one responsible for other animals happiness, safety, comfort, and general well-being. In the case with chickens, a rooster is usually dominant over a flock, and he crows to communicate with his flock. It's his job to keep everyone up-to-date about what's going on, and keep an eye on what all is going on with the flock. Roosters submissive to him are less likely to crow, but will crow to let him and others around them know what's going on in their neck of the neighbourhood. Often when one rooster crows, others will echo, as a form of long-distance conversation.
Crowing tends to happen for two reasons: dominance, and personal safety. The dominant rooster crows, and receives crows in response so that he can gain head-counts on everyone to know how his flock is doing - he is even able to discern differences in tone of crowing and whether it means "All is well", "I lost a hen", or any number of different messages. The other reason crowing tends to happen is when a submissive rooster spots some sort of danger, and needs to alert the whole flock - a crow is easily the loudest sound a chicken can produce, and therefore the fastest and most reliable form of communicating with an entire flock, possibly of hundreds of chickens. The rooster who called the danger is then responsible for giving the "all clear" and crows again when the danger is gone.
Submissive roosters can also crow if they are in need of help - I once took care of a rooster who slept in a cat carrier at the foot of my bed. He was happiest under a box inside of the carrier - the box being barely big enough to slip over him completely. One night at about three in the morning, he began crowing and crowing and crowing. I sat up to find what was the matter, and I had accidentally kicked the carrier off the bed so that he was on his side and unable to right himself. As soon as I picked the carrier up, and put it back on the foot of my bed, he was silent, and that was the only time he crowed at night after I gave him his box. His crow in that context was essentially saying, "Help me, help me, I've fallen and I can't get up!"
However, even in cases where a rooster is in need of help, it is perfectly justifiable to disagree and discipline if they crow excessively. My roosters know they are only allowed to crow once to denote an issue in their environment. Twice if I've ignored them for several minutes. I disagree by asserting my dominance to them by holding their backs down with one hand, and gently pinching the back of their neck and pushing the head down with the other hand while making certain they are facing me. Most roosters will not go for the precaution of holding the back down, as the head down is the only real necessary goal, but you do not want your chicken to panic and hurt themselves, so holding the back down merely prevents them from flailing and working up a panic. Generally, if they cannot flail after a few seconds, they calm down and submit. I do not consider their submission absolute until I can release them and they stay sitting with their head down until I give them a release command, though.
When an animal tries to dominate a situation, even if they are generally submissive, it usually means that you're handling a specific situation inadequately, and they think they can do a better job. Make sure to not ever give your animals the option of thinking this by dictating when they're let out, when they're fed and watered, when they're given affection, and so forth.
I personally find it perfectly acceptable for an animal to ask for affection, but before gaining affection, they are asked to do something. When my eldest hen and rooster were making a fuss one day, a couple weeks after school started and I had ignored them, I knew they were complaining that I had not taken them out and played with them recently. However, instead of taking them out and playing with them right away, I asked them to sit, stay, and then released them to stand up. I picked them up, one at a time, and tossed them up and down, and worked on their landing on my arm, and several other exercises. After about an hour of working them, we went for a bike ride out to a park where they were allowed to play in the park for several hours until the sun set.
That is a way of allowing your animals to still communicate to you their wants and needs, but not letting them dictate when they get exactly what they want. They looked up to me, and asked for attention. They knew they would work before receiving their affection, and enjoy their work because of it, but never did they TELL me what to do or dictate the situation even if they did get what they wanted in the end.
Nothing says that you can NOT give your animals affection when they ask, but you DO have to be very strict about the conditions of what THEY have to do in order to receive your affection. Otherwise, in that situation you are no longer dominant. For roosters, if they can dictate when and where they get affection, they will start crowing. Think of it ask the rooster saying, "Hey, slave, get over here and pet me already!" This is impolite, and generally volatile behaviour and can even manifest into aggression.
You know the rooster that attacks anyone on sight when they approach the property, or when a stranger tries to get eggs from the hen house? That is a rooster who feels that he is dominant to the humans involved, and thus needn't be polite and ask for what he wants so much as just take it. This is inappropriate and unacceptable in a docile, tame bird, and it is perfectly within our control to teach the bird to be submissive to ALL humans no matter if they are strangers, young, or old by reinforcing that ALL humans have the ability to give and take as they please, and that the rooster ( or even an aggressive hen ) has no place in dictating any of this.
APPROPRIATE SOCIAL BEHAVIOURS AND SOCAILIZATION
After you make yourself head of the chicken coop, your chickens will look up to you to teach them how to behave appropriately, and it's up to you to warp their behaviours to your desires. All chickens will still have personalities, some will be shier than others, and some will be more confrontational, but you can ALWAYS teach them what is and is not appropriate behaviours. It is inappropriate for the shy chicken to run away from people, scream, or otherwise be fearful ( "shy" is NOT indicative of "fearful" ), and it is inappropriate for the confrontational chicken to pick fights with children, peck at eyes, or try to dictate the way the coop is run if it does not coincide with the way you want it to ( and even then, the chicken cannot think that the coop is being run that way because IT wants it to ).
For every negative behaviour, disagree the way a chicken would, and for every positive behaviour, agree the way a chicken would. Chickens disagree by disciplining one other with pecks or pinning behaviours, and agree with nuzzling, cooing, and feeding one another. A disciplining peck is generally a quick, sharp, and harsh action. It can take others by surprise if they are not totally aware of their poor behaviour, but is a method of putting everyone in line to behave in harmony with everyone else. A praising coo or nuzzle can be simulated by gently scratching the chicken's breast with your fingertips, or even massaging the back of their neck, while saying praise in a low, calm voice. And of course, there is always food as a wonderful praise for these birds - chickens tend to be VERY food-oriented.
One thing to keep in mind, however, is that contrary to popular belief, a pecking order is NOT necessary for social harmony! Rather, allowing the chickens to decide who is where on the order is allowing them to overrule you as dominant. You are dominant, and therefore and dictate what behaviours you do and do not want in your flock. For me, my eldest rooster is top of the pecking order because he is the most well behaved and well trained. His place in the pecking order is not maintained by pecking the other chickens, but rather by the amount of attention and praise he gets, and that he is first choice for any special events such as feeding treats, going on walks ( or bike rides in my case ), doing exercises, and so forth. This makes the other chickens see a role model for their own behaviour, quickly understanding that the better they behave, the better they are treated.
This has almost totally eliminated any need I have to monitor introductions between my flock members, because they know that their place in the pecking order is ENTIRELY my choice. Just the other day, when my bantam sizzle ( silkie crossed with a frizzled cochin ) was acting up, I tossed it into the top cage with three standard-sized hens and a rooster for a few minutes while I cleaned up a mess it made. I only had to break up one minor scuffle, and then left them to their own devices for several minutes afterwards in total peace. Any other time I have heard about introducing chickens to existing flocks ( my bantams are separate from my standards ), precautions have to be taken lest a chicken end up injured or even dead. Keep in mind, however, that these ARE flocks that are generally just "birds out there that I feed, water, and get food from" and NOT generally refereed to as pets, as mine are.
You may want to exercise within your flock some general boundaries of what they are and are not allowed to do, and help them figure out what appropriate and inappropriate behaviours are. Without a very, very strict social structure, most animals deteriorate, and very quickly at that. They need someone there to help them learn what an appropriate level of energy is for play and other activities, and how to appropriately outlet their energies as well. Giving your animals tasks ( in the case of my chickens, just general exercises and simple commands ) greatly helps them learn boundaries and appropriate outlets for energy. I plan to build small "obstacle courses" with food at the end so that when my chickens want to eat, they have to accomplish a small exercise beforehand so that they have something to do to outlet their energy instead of just walking in circles all day, which brings us to our next subject..
So now you are dominant in your chicken's eyes, and they understand what their boundaries are, but what about when you're not around? What about when you are? What do they do all day that helps them feel fulfilled and happy? Chickens are intelligent animals and require mental stimulation to be happy. Like parrots, chickens need toys that they can play with to be smarter, happier, more well-behaved birds. I give my chickens waded up pieces of newspaper that I've torn into about four-by-four inch squares or a little larger, and let them throw the balls around, chase them, and otherwise play. Sometimes I will tear paper into strips and hang the strips of paper from the ceiling of their cage, or wave it through the bars and let them figure out how to pull it out, or toss it around.
I try to entice my chickens pray drives, too. This is an essential part of being a chicken, and needs to be exercised for a good quality of life. Chickens are natural predators to bugs, small snakes, lizards, and even mice and shrews. Heck, if a chicken goes down, other chickens will eat it - meat is an essential part of a chicken's diet, albeit a relatively small part compared to the amount of grass they should be eating. If I catch a spider, beetle, fly, or ant in my room, I hold them over my chickens and entice them to go after the bugs. Once they're good enough at pecking the bug from my hand, I let the bug go in their cage.
Some may say that this is cruel, but the chicken needs to have its pray drive stimulated, and they need that part of their diet, too. I am not pulling legs or wings off the bugs before they go into the chicken cage, and the chickens tend to snap them up relatively quickly so there is little trauma on the bug's behalf - besides, bug psychology is much different from that of mammals such as feeder mice, which I do NOT feed my chickens. Like snakes who eat mice or crickets, we have to understand that chickens are omnivorous, and actual actively hunt amongst eating leaves, fruits, and seeds amongst other foods. We have various toys to stimulate cat and dog pray drives, and if you can find a toy to stimulate your chicken's pray drive and have issues feeding them live insects, do that instead - but one way or another, their pray drive needs to be stimulated from time to time.
Chickens LOVE spending time together, as well. Often, the best entertainment you can give them is another chicken to play with. They will walk around together, eat together, and do all sorts of things together just because they love interacting with one another. Some will even argue that a chicken cannot adequately exist without another chicken, but I think this philosophy is the same as with dogs - two or more dogs definitely benefits everyone's thoughts and feelings, but if the owner is oriented enough towards spending time with their pets, it is not totally necessary. I have a flock of seven chickens because I personally believe they feed off each other, and I enjoy their company enough to keep many, but if worse came to worst, I would keep only one to be my personal companion.
Another way to entertain your chickens is by giving them new and interesting foods from time to time. I occasionally spice up their diet by giving them a spoonful of cat food every now and again. They always become quite excited when I crack open a can of cat food, or even tuna, and suddenly all the tricks I've been working with them on that were so difficult days prior seem a cakewalk when treats come into play!
Tricks and exercises are another great way to keep your chickens entertained. An hour a day asking them to sit, stand, come, wait, roll over, up on your arm, and all those other tricks will keep them mentally engaged and feeling fulfilled, especially if you show great joy over their accomplishments and cooperation with you. You can also exercise them by handling them in unusual ways ( holding their wings, playing with toes, comb, or wattles, picking them up under their wings like you'd pick up a small child, raising them in the air and tipping them to face you, and nuzzling their breast, tossing them gently, and encouraging them to land on your arm or be caught by you ). These exercises and tricks helps keep them engaged, and helps reinforce your position as a benevolent leader.
On top of these past subjects, there's some miscellaneous things you can try to keep your chickens feeling submissive, safe, comfortable, entertained, and generally happy. Go out and pick fresh grass, even if you allow them to graze the fresh grass, and put it in their enclosure. I'm not entirely sure what it is about fresh grass simply BEING there, but my roosters consistently crow considerably less whenever they are exposed to fresh grass.
A good, well-rounded, healthy diet also adds to chicken happiness and considerably affects how much chickens are prone to whine, cry, scream, and crow. This is where feeding them bugs, and allowing them to graze in a field or supplement with meat ( cooked or raw ), raw vegetables and fruits, compost, and even some forms of yard waste ( look up what you're giving them and whether or not it's poisonous first ) can help make your chicken happier. Things that are high in grease, fat, or sugar should be avoided at all costs ( except good fats, especially for underweight chickens - but there ARE bad fats to be aware of ), but most compost consisting of vegetable, fruit, and meat matter tends to supplement chickens quite well if you take your compost out every day - but let it sit much longer, and it can harm your chickens, so be aware of how fresh your compost is!
Chickens love being paid attention to, so always make sure that you're at least vaguely aware of what they're doing. I always coo at my chickens when they make excited noises, and bark at them when they're doing something they shouldn't.
METHODS FOR DEALING WITH CROWING
When all else fails, your rooster crows and there's nothing you can do about it, you can always try some of these tricks:
That's right, socks. When all else fails, put a sock on their head. When dealing with roosters, and especially cockerels who are just learning how to crow, and learning when and where crowing is appropriate, I use socks that are breathable, but still fit snugly over their heads. I don't like using socks that warp the comb in any way, and short socks are generally a no-no since they can kick the socks off really easily, but a sock that goes all the way down the neck to their breast ( as far down as you can get it, in other words ), tends to do the trick. I have only once had a rooster crow when a sock was on his head, and that was a rather particular circumstance.
I use socks primarily when I have a new rooster and will be gone for just a few hours, or when a rooster decides to crow in the morning when I still want to sleep and it can damn well wait until I'm ready to get up to start complaining about whatever it's complaining about. I use baby socks for bantams and chicks, and I use adult-sized fuzzy, ankle socks for adult standard-sized chickens. Tighter fitting socks work better for chickens with smaller combs ( especially such as rose, pea, or walnut combs ), but looser socks are required for chickens with larger combs to keep from deforming the comb, and possibly creating a painful condition, but whatever sock you use make sure that it is breathable and doesn't hurt the chicken in any way.
When applying the sock, I take the crowing chicken out of the cage and then sit on my knees, pressing their rear end against my knees. Then I roll up the sock, and with my pinky and ring finger on one hand, I grab the head, place the sock on their beak, and unroll the sock over their head. It's usually at this point that they'll squirm and freak out if they are prone to, so I let them wiggle a little bit, and reassure them that everything is fine, then I pull the sock down over their neck and down to their breast. Then I pet and scratch them to make the sock a HAPPY experience, and leave them until it's time to come back and take the sock off.
The sock is in relation to masks used on other animals. It's a general rule that noise is distress, and covering the eyes diminishes stress. Alligators and crocodiles have their eyes taped shut, hawks and owls get little leather masks, dogs and cats get full-face muzzles, and so forth. The idea struck me when I asked myself what falconers do to calm their birds. Ideally, I would have actual chicken-masks for my noise-makers ( I used a sock on a hen that was making a fuss the other day and it worked wonderfully, so roosters crowing is not the only use of socks ), but in the interim, socks work fine.
Towels work very similarly to how socks work, except this is for the chicken that's either too skilled at getting a sock off, too small for a sock, or maybe you don't have any socks to spare for your chickens or ran out of chicken-socks. Instead, you can wrap your chicken in a towel, set him in a box, then put a blanket and / or pillow over the box. Confining the chicken to a soft, warm environment calms them down to the point that they happily just go to sleep, and will happily snooze until you decide it's time for them to wake up.
String or twine on the leg
I've used this method only a few times for VERY insistent crowers. I DO NOT leave the twine or string on the legs for very long, and DO NOT tie it very tight, either. Every time they crowed, I would tug the twine, just to enforce that crowing is undesirable, and something vaguely unpleasant will happen when they crow. These two were masters at escaping the socks ( granted, I didn't have any that fit them properly ), and weren't always privy to sleeping in a box. They were very high-energy and needy, like the border collies of the chicken world - they were campines. For them a much more direct approach was appropriate. I pinned them for crowing whenever they did, or tugged on a string when they crowed, disrupting the crow and giving them a small incentive at a time to knock it off.
That being said, I do NOT condone the use of any of these tools as life-long remedies. Your chickens are NOT well-balanced enough if you have to rely on these methods, but often times they can be used to work towards your goal. Nowadays I use ALL of very, very seldom compared to when I started. When I started I would have multiple chickens in socks, towels, and / or boxes at a time, sometimes multiple times a day. Now I MIGHT use one or the other techniques twice a week, if that, and sometimes we go a month or more without a crow.
All in all, chickens need a dominant person to look up to, who will teach them boundaries and appropriate socailization techniques, they need an environment which is stable, strict, and loving, they need entertainment and to have their senses and minds stimulated every day, they need good diets, and some methods can be used to mediate crowing from time to time. All in all, crowing is an issue that is entirely up to the owner whether or not it exists, and to what degree.
Any other questions, comments, or critiques on this subject I would be more than willing to discuss in the comments, so please feel free to leave a comment if I did not answer your questions in adequate detail! In the mean time, I'm going to crash right here and now and hope I'll find internet in the morning so I can post this.