I have a years worth of study under my belt right now, so I'll have to manage and figure out just where to start and where to go after starting, but it seems logical to start with the most common question I receive: "How in the world do you keep your roosters from crowing?!"
I hear many responses in defence of the crowing rooster on this one. Things such as "Isn't that what just roosters DO?" or "Roosters crow, dogs bark, it's natural, isn't it?" or even "I never thought that was even possible... it's not possible, is it?" All of the statements have some truth in them, but it's a common truth that's been convoluted by lack of education.
When my house mate dropped a fully grown Welsummer ( she comments that it was likely a poorly bred Welsummer ) rooster on my lap and asked if I wanted to work with him I gladly accepted, albeit I had the same hesitations as those mentioned above... but I didn't let that deter me. I had so much success with my chickens, albeit still quite young at this point, that I felt confident that I could tame this very skittish rooster into a calm lap-pet.
The very first thing I did was give myself a question to research: "Why do roosters crow?"
What I found was that in a nutshell, roosters crow for the same reasons that dogs bark. Boredom, frustration, fear, dominance, communication... but dogs barking isn't exactly natural. Wolves and foxes ( the two most commonly regarded possibilities for ancestry of the modern-day dog - foxes came into the debate in the 1800s after a domestication experiment proved that domestic foxes began showing many characteristics surprisingly similar to dogs ) either don't bark at all, or will only make one or two barks to alert the rest of the pack. These "barks" aren't even very similar to the bark of a dog, but in ancient history when dogs were first domesticated, one or two barks wasn't enough to alert a whole village of humans to danger. Due to this fact, dogs who barked more were bred more, and thus barking was bred into dogs - but a dog would only bark when necessary, unlike the perception of the barking dogs today. Most people see a barking dog as a dog doing what a dog does, but little do most people know that dogs DO bark for very specific reasons - most common in modern day is that the dog is upset and unbalanced and is looking up to its owners for help in becoming a balanced dog so that it can, at last, be quiet and content.
Just as the quiet dog is a content dog, a quiet chicken is a content chicken. This is not to say that there is no sound a dog or chicken can make that will denote anything but discontent, but as a general rule, silence is happiness - the same can be said of humans, too. Chickens have plenty of "happy noises", but crowing is not one of them.
In my research I found that crowing takes place in one of two occasions, both occasions follow the natural habits of chickens and their ancestral variant, the jungle fowl. Chickens have a natural patriarchy, meaning that males tend to be in charge. A flock of chickens without human interaction will develop tiers of order - generally there are only two.
First thing to note is that chickens have amazing memories - they can remember over 100 different chickens, their faces, and their voices. Second to note is that chicken hierarchies tend to be in only two tiers - the rooster that is dominant over all the flock, and then each rooster who is dominant over a small group of hens. The sub-roosters will generally watch over flocks of between five and ten hens, and the dominant rooster communicates with the sub-roosters to find out how the whole flock is doing.
Using their superb memory, and their micromanaging skills, roosters crow for two reasons: First, the head-rooster will crow in the morning and the evening to receive a head-count of all the sub-roosters and find out who made it through the day and who made it through the night. Second, any rooster can crow to denote danger or need of help. An interesting aspect of this second type of crowing is that whichever rooster crows to indicate danger is also responsible for crowing when the danger has passed. Each rooster in turn crows to relay the message of either "danger" or "danger gone".
By first communicating to your chickens that you are dominant, and in turn they are safe, comfortable, and happy, you eliminate one form of crowing. By making certain your chickens actually DO feel safe, comfortable, and happy, you eliminate the other form of crowing. I say "chickens" because sometimes, in the absence of a male, a female will take the place of the dominant rooster and yes, even start crowing.
My roosters only crow for two very specific reasons. They are either out of food or water, or I'm gone and they wonder where I am. I am okay with them crowing when they are out of food or water because they are regarding me as dominant and asking for my help. Unlike dogs, chickens need a constant supply of food and water since they are foraging animals, so letting me know that they are out is very important. I'm almost certain the reason they crow when I'm gone is the same reason why dogs go wild when their owners leave. Simply, it is unnatural for the leader to leave their followers. An individual needs to leave their pack-mentality pets with a very, very specific energy in order for the animals to feel comfortable being left by their leader.
Cesar Millan addressed this issue in one episode of his show where two dogs would go absolutely wild when their owners would leave. He taught the owners how to make sure their dogs felt safe and comfortable with their leaders gone, and I have been trying to implement this same technique with my chickens. It's not perfect quite yet, but I do have a whole lot less crowing when I'm gone since I started trying to address this issue.
My roosters will also sometimes crow when I take them outside with me - this is the same issue at its base. They hatched during winter, so outside was not part of their growing-up experience. They are simply crowing to ask me what they are supposed to do.
When crowing arises before I have addressed the issue and can reliably convince them that they are fine, I sometimes use a sock over the head to calm them down. I used baby socks on my two Campines, a breed infamous for crowing between five and seven weeks of age ( to compare, most males don't start crowing until between five and seven MONTHS ). They would wake up bright and early, and not yet knowing just where they stood in the line of dominance, they would start crowing. I disciplined them the way a dominant rooster would discipline an out-of-line youngster ( pinch back of neck, push head down to the ground, hold until relaxed - I also use a hand or arm to hold down their bodies so that they don't flail and hurt themselves, as mentioned below ), and then when they were in a calm state I would slip a baby's sock over their heads to help them feel comfortable.
This works the same way hawks masks do. To minimize their ability to see, you minimize their stress levels. Using the sock method, most of my chickens just go right to sleep. I do make sure to use a light material sock so that they can still breathe and don't end up overheated. I usually only use a sock when I need to be gone for awhile, and need my boys to be calm and quiet for the house mates, or when youngsters don't know where they stand and start crowing first thing in the morning. I started using the sock method with my Campines, and by the time I re-homed them just this weekend I was using the sock less and less, and in no time they likely wouldn't have even needed the sock anymore. They were crowing much less than when they started and hadn't figured out where their place in the flock was.
In the long run, I was able to address the Welsummer and eliminate crowing at night and in the evening by finding out what made him comfortable. Chickens tend to be most comfortable in small, confined, warm, dark places. So it was with the Welsummer. I started by putting him in a small carrier - about the size of your average cat carrier. This was just a bit too big for him, even when I put him under blankets. One day, just because I thought it would be silly, I found a box that was exactly the size of him and slipped it over him. He didn't move at first, but then started making content noises. I couldn't help it, I laughed - I was shocked to see that he actually LIKED being in a box that was just barely the size of him. So every night I would fetch him from the coop, bring him inside, set him down, put the box on top of him, lift the box a little and gently nudge him into the carrier. Once in the carrier, he went into my room, on the foot of my bed, under a thick comforter. The only time he crowed at night was when I accidentally kicked him off the bed and he was on his side.
On a similar note, why roosters fight and how to minimize fighting. Again, roosters fight because they are unbalanced and unhappy. I had some issues arise for a short while between my two boys who live together in the same cage, Bo and Socrates. At first all I was noticing was that Socrates was being beat up more and more, and I would only catch Bo harassing Socrates, but I was also aware that I had to address both of them. Disciplining Bo while leaving Socrates afraid and anxious would only beget more aggression. All in all, Bo was trying to help Socrates, because Socrates was anxious and unbalanced.
At the time, my mistakes were showing favouritism towards Bo, and not looking at why Bo was fighting Socrates in the first place. Favouritism towards Bo created anxiety and unbalance in Socrates, which developed into neurotic behaviours in which Bo tried to discipline and remedy.
At the time I was researching the mating rituals of chickens, and in turn I ended up also researching fighting rituals - finding that both rituals were fairly similar. In both rituals, one chicken ( males when mating ) will grab the other chicken's feathers on the back of their neck and push their head down to the ground. During mating, the male will sometimes pull out feathers on the back of the neck just below the head - sometimes females will end up with bald patches or even sores on this area, and even on their back and shoulders due to where the male will mount her, his talons trying to grip her wings over the shoulders. Generally, the female will squat and push out her wings for balance if she accepts him, or she will scream, flail, and try to get away, sometimes even fight him if she disagrees.
In fighting, one chicken will grab the others neck and push the head down to the ground. The chicken being dominated will generally squat and relax, and the dominating chicken will let go and walk away. However, what is more common to be seen is that the chicken being dominated will struggle. They will scream and flail, and either run away or retaliate. Sometimes the chicken being dominated will even end up hurting themselves, even so far as breaking their neck. I had one chicken that slit his own throat open when another chicken tried to dominate him. He is still alive and well, even though the initial tussle was frightening.
When observing Bo and Socrates I noticed that Bo was actually trying to mate. Instead of coming in head-to-head, Bo would come up behind Socrates and try to lift his leg over Socrates' back to mount him. I believe the injuries Socrates received on his comb were entirely due to poor aim on Bo's part. I quickly sorted this out, but after awhile noticed that Socrates was fighting with Bo, and then Bo would quickly put Socrates in his place.
Out of the original flock of seventeen chicks, I chose Bo and Socrates because Bo was the largest and Socrates was the smallest - a fairly simple way to figure out who's who. That and Bo had a tiny growth on the side of his comb, even as a day-old chick ( the growth is called a "side sprig" by breeders ). Due to this, it is no wonder that Bo is dominant over Socrates and generally wins fights. However, when one day Socrates bit a big chunk out of Bo's comb that I subsequently spent two hours just staunching the bleeding, I knew I had to do something.
The first thing I did was study them. Why were they fighting? What was triggering it? Despite as many times as I had seen it, I was still surprised when I realized what was going on - Socrates was instigating. I had to accept, though, that this was fairly common. The first thing I did was alleviate the tension held by favouritism - luckily, animals live in the present so I didn't have to "make up" for anything, I just started treating them both equally. I can't fit both Bo and Socrates on my bike at the same time ( albeit, I have been working on one riding my shoulder while the other rides my handlebars - we're having difficulty with the shoulder, though ), but I CAN take turns with who goes with me where.
Every Thursday I go down town to a street gospel program held by a charity organization to try and help bring religion and happiness into the lives and hearts of homeless street folk. They also give out free supplies to those who ask - being down on my luck and without a job for two years, yet raising a pile of chickens, I have taken part in the charity many times. That, and many of the people there find my chickens to be quite endearing and love spending time with them. The Thursday that I made my decision for things to change with my boys, I brought Socrates instead of Bo and introduced everyone to their favourite rooster's brother. Socrates was a hit, and he rather enjoyed it as well.
On top of battling the favouritism that I unintentionally placed on my boys, I also eliminated their need to enforce a pecking order. Again, on an episode of The Dog Whisperer, Millan explains that dogs look up to us for everything - that includes managing every relationship within a pack so that they don't have to fight to figure it out. So long as you treat EVERYONE as an equal, and make it clear that everyone gets the same amount of food, same amount of water ( relative to their size ), same amount of affection, same amount of discipline, no one will feel the need to step into YOUR place to enforce discipline. Discipline in the dog sense ( and chicken ) generally ends up as fighting.
A dog, or chicken, will quickly try to fill in holes with your management if they can see any. All animals crave balance, and when their person is unable to give them balance, they will try to step in and compensate for their person's lack of balance. In Bo and Socrates' case, Socrates was trying to fight Bo to balance the fact that Bo was being spoiled. When a fight would break out, I would first break it up by shaking the cage a little ( just picking up one end or rocking it to snap them out of fight-mode by trying to balance on the shifting ground ), and then I would open the cage and first go for Socrates since he was generally at a much higher energy level than Bo, tell him to Sit, then Stay, and hold him there while my other hand went for Bo, telling him to do the same thing. When I first grab the chicken, I splay my hand across their whole back and put just a little pressure on their back to encourage them to sit down. Then, with my arm still on their back ( so they can't flail and hurt themselves - this also helps calm them and minimizes energy outbursts ), my hand would go to their neck where I would gently pinch the loose skin on the back of their neck and push their head down. Sometimes the chicken will squirm and flail a bit - the trick is to let them get their energy out in a safe manner, so continue to support their back and head, but let them flap their wings and scrabble with their feet ( the arm appropriately placed on the body should make it so that their talons cannot hurt you or themselves ). Expending the energy helps them calm down, and it also helps them to realize that they are NOT being hurt, but rather they are quite safe. During all of this the person MUST keep a calm demeanour - the animal ( chicken, dog, or otherwise ) picks up on the energies and emotions around it and channel those feelings. In that case, you can use your pet as a sort of "emotional barometer" - if your pet is misbehaving, sit back and ask yourself what YOU are doing that might be contributing to their upset.
After holding Bo and Socrates down, and making sure their heads and tails are down against the ground WITHOUT me holding them there ( I will let go as soon as they calm down and no longer struggle - if they try to pick up their heads, I gently tap them or push them back down ), I will sit back and have them stay in a submissive pose for a few moments - asking them to stay put helps them learn patience among other things. Once they are breathing normally, and look fairly content I pet them, scratch behind their heads ( they tend to enjoy massages in the same place you hold for dominance ), stroke their combs and wattles, and coo at them, giving them affection for being in a calm submissive state. This encourages them to want to be in a calm submissive state of mind, because calm submissive comes with praise and affection.
Once I began addressing the issues directly, addressing Socrates' anxious behaviours, addressing the favouritism, making certain they have strict boundaries and feel comfortable, safe, and happy with their lives, I have had no fights, and minimal crowing. By "minimal" I mean I can go for days without a single crow if I keep up with their feeding, watering, clean cages, and taking them out for walks or bike rides.
Adding to the structure of their lives I have also trained them to have release commands before they are allowed to get up from sitting down, or other tricks, or before they are allowed to approach their food or water. I started this because it was getting to the point that I was being maimed just trying to set their food dish in their cage ( at that point, Bo and Socrates also lived with their siblings Jules and Cassiopeia - Cassi for short - their siblings now live with my house mates other chickens while I kept Bo and Socrates ). This has helped them all learn restraint and boundaries, and I have had no issues feeding or watering them since.
Bo is actually tame enough that I am able to take him out with other chickens he has never met ( even other males ), and I even had him help me raise a small brood of chicks. It has been very cold this year, so I occasionally had him sit on the chicks while under my supervision. He was a little confused at first, but played the role of Papa quite well.
Bo and Socrates are 3/4 Rhode Island Red, 1/4 Barred Plymouth Rock. My understanding is that Rhode Island Red males are known to be aggressive, especially towards other males. I have had no such issue.
I think that about covers how I keep my boys from crowing and fighting. Any questions, comments, concerns, requests on what I should write about in the future, please Email me or leave a comment ( I will likely respond to an Email much quicker than a comment ).
On that note, next update should be "What is My Chick Trying to Say to Me?"