GOOD MORNING WORLD! or in the words of our favourite cockerel ‘cock-a-doodle-doo!!’. It’s a crisp February morning, and as winter moves (hopefully) into its final month our Gold Brahma cockerel, ‘Solar’, belts it out like a ship coming into dock!, announcing the start of another new day.
After many years in poultry keeping it would be hard for me to pick a favourite breed, however if you were to pin me down, it would have to be the Brahma, though definitely not suitable for everyone mostly due to their huge size and lack of egg numbers, the almost guaranteed placid nature and beautiful markings makes them a very attractive pet bird. Over many years Solar has literally been a star at Mantel Farm, often being allowed to wander around in our shop, minding his own business, allowing children to stroke him, and often attending events and shows with us, creating quite a stir, many people saying ‘ they never knew that there was such a large chicken!’.
Even for his breed, Solar has proved to be an exceptional bird, but what of cockerels in general? What can you expect? What is their purpose? Do you even need one?
Firstly, to allay a few myths, it may depend on your reasons for keeping poultry and what you are trying to achieve, but in general, there is no need to keep a cock bird, unless you are intending to breed, but even then, fertile hatching eggs can be obtained from elsewhere. All female birds, unless they are born incapable, will lay eggs, with or without the presences of a cockerel.
That said, if you are able to keep a cockerel with your flock, what a stunning centre piece, and often very beneficial addition he will make. The cock bird of any breed, mostly without exception is usually fully loaded with fancy feathers and coloured markings and a character to match! (Just consider for a moment what I always consider to be an ‘ornamental chicken’ – the peafowl. We have them here at Mantel Farm, now there is a cock bird with something to shout about!)
I think it’s fair at this stage to warn all potential cockerel keepers it will be more likely than not, that those living in close quarters to yourselves may well not share my or your enthusiasm for you keeping a cockerel. We are of course talking largely about that (often) early morning announcement, the often loud (and offensive?) cock-a-doodle-doo! This noise is referred to as the cockerels ‘crow’. Mostly a problem in built up areas; towns definitely, villages mostly, light suburban often, light rural not so much, isolated rural usually fine! Let’s face it, trying to keep a cockerel in a proper built up area is never going to be a good plan, it’s an alien noise to most, a farm yard / countryside sound that should remain there?! A guaranteed way to fall out with the neighbours? And not just those immediately next door – that sound does carry! Although I can totally see the argument, and think that things are probably best left where they are, I often find myself smiling inside when I hear people raging about that ‘noise’, when I consider my own upbringing. I was born and bred in Tonbridge, Kent, myself originally a ‘townie’, only moving to the countryside in my early thirties. I remember sitting in my bedroom trying to concentrate on my homework, often studying for exams, being distracted by noise – dogs continually barking, motorbikes being revved up, horns, police sirens, and even kids playing up with parents shouting the law – there is always noise, I suppose some more acceptable than others.
It is also a bit of a myth that cockerels only crow a couple of times first thing in the morning. Some will, but mostly it’s a different story. First thing in the morning for some can be 3am in the morning! Some say that they will only crow at the first sign of early morning light, though again, true for some, we find that others just start when they wake up, whenever that is! Many try to prevent the cockerel crowing too early by keeping then in complete darkness until they are let out, or even restricting the height to which they can lift their heads, where the thought is that if they can’t stretch their necks up, then they can’t crow properly or at all. To be honest, these, and other methods are adding to the daily work load, and unless undertaken with the welfare of the bird in mind, can often just be a case of ‘clutching at straws’, most cockerels will still find a way to crow, to them it’s just like eating – they were born to do it!
Also, if there is more than one cockerel being kept in the same area, the frequency of ‘that noise’ will increase – they will talk to each other, it’s also a statement of authority and standing. Pronouncing with volume ‘I’m louder than you’, ‘I’m in charge’, ‘I’m king of the area’ or the worse one: ‘I can crow for longer than you – all day if need be!
So, what benefits do they bring, if the noise is not an issue, why would anyone want to keep a cockerel? Without a doubt, the man purpose of any male is to fertilise the eggs, to enable continuation of the species. Though in poultry keeping it is possible to still have chicks without actually having cockerel yourselves. Fertile hatching eggs can be purchased elsewhere, indeed, we sell them at Mantel Farm. A cockerel is a great protector of the hens, some willing to lose their own lives to the cause. I have experienced this first hand, and will close the article with my own story of a true ‘knight in shining armour’.
Most cockerels are true gentlemen, at feeding time, or when treats are given you will see them calling in the hens, by lowering their head in the direction of the feed, uttering a series of fast higher pitched clucking noises, then standing back, allowing the girls to feed, often eating none themselves. If free ranging in the garden is possible, the cockerel will be on guard, often standing back from the hens, or in a larger space standing in the middle of the group, head up and totally alert, always aware of danger, ready to shout a warning to retreat if necessary. Included in the watch is the danger from above – birds of prey. Considering most have never even seen a bird of prey, what a fantastic display of instinct, just intuitively knowing that there could be a threat from above! This sense has become of more importance here as over the past five years or so we have seen a definite increase in the numbers of Buzzards overhead. When they fly over the cockerels utter a piercing screech as a warning, the hens stop scratching, lift their heads, more aware, watch and wait for the danger to pass before continuing with their most important work!
In the November ’17 issue I wrote in detail regarding the introduction of new birds. As an additional plus for having a cockerel it is worth mentioning again here, and as a reminder, that introductions when there is an established cockerel, in charge of the flock, will normally be easier as he should stop some, if not all of the ‘get out of my pen hen bickering’. It is also possible to introduce a cockerel with a new batch of birds, hopefully having a similar effect. Though please remember all other aspects of the November article apply, as there is no guarantee. A lone cockerel can be introduced to a flock at any point in time as his entrance will normally overrule the hen in charge and he will take control. That said he must be of suitable breed, size and standing in comparison to the hens to have a strong presence. I have seen weak and wrong size cockerels badly henpecked and literally beaten up! Please seek advice if unsure of what cockerel will suit your flock.
I have said that the cockerel is a great protector of the hens, and indeed he is, unfortunately this can often include protecting them from everything, even things that pose no threat – us! I would never sell a lively or vicious cockerel to any customer unless they truly understood what that could mean. However, I would sell them a calm friendly cockerel, but with the well described understanding that any cockerel can change in character, at any point in their life, for a varied and undefined array of reasons! If you find yourself with a cockerel who becomes intent on attack at every opportunity, it may well be of little consolation, but please remember that he is only acting on his instinct to protect! My handy tip for your protection is a dustbin lid as a shield and a broom as your sword! These are my trusted tools, they do the job and I have many large cockerels, many with attitude! Though, if they become too much or present a danger, especially to children, it is probably worth seeking to remove / replace the bird, there are various options, we are always happy to give advice. If you start with a tame friendly bird, either bought or bred, the best advice I could give to keep it that way would be to handle and ‘pet’ it as much as possible, treat it as you would the hens, never show aggression towards it (it will quickly reciprocate) and never show fear (it will know)!
Now, as promised, to finish with my story of true gallantry… Our hero is a Mantel Farm home bred tough guy, a cross between a stocky game bird and a chunky Blue Haze (Bluebell) hybrid hen. This cross had produced some solid well marked hens and stunningly different cockerels in silver through lavender and blue with canary yellow hackles and tail feathers. The male in question being the most handsome I had kept back for the farm. Such a character and proven protector, years on ended up in charge of what we refer to as our ‘retirement flock’ (birds generally over the age of three, producing some large eggs for our shop, living out their years in a large pen, largely paying for their own keep).
It was a fine late spring day and I was working on the land towards the lower end of the farm in close proximity to the retirement pen, so had let the birds out to free range. Although we have very little trouble with daytime foxes we still only let the birds out to free range when someone is working nearby, just in case. I had been working hard for several hours and decided to fly up to the house to grab a drink, I’d only be gone a few mins!, this is a chance I just wouldn’t take now, over ten years ago I did – we all learn by experience. Typically someone spoke to me, I got chatting and forgot where I was supposed to be. Suddenly, the sound that no poultry keeper wants to hear, a huge commotion coming from the direction of where I had been. Though 2pm it was, Mr Fox was paying a visit. Weirdly though it might seem, I was aware that I had been listening to the beginnings of this noise whilst still chatting away, until my brain had shouted at me to do something! I was now running down the track towards the lower pen, but one minute can be a long time when Mr Fox is in with the birds, I was definitely expecting bodies. Skidding to a halt on the grass I couldn’t quite believe the site that greeted me. All of the hens (a later count revealed all 29 were present), were back inside the pen, and standing in front of the open door was the bravest cockerel that I’ve ever had. Smothered in blood and some serious injuries, with tufts of fox fur on claws and spurs and around the ground this solid guy let out a victory ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’, looked at me and then just sat down. I’d liked to have been there to see the battle, but then, never would have, as I would have intervened. Somehow, he had ushered the hens to safety, then stood firm at the entrance and fought off the fox, who, although had inflicted serious injury to my guy, had no doubt himself taken a serious battering around the head (the cockerels instinctive target), enough in fact to give up and retreat. I bent down to the cockerel, who now was no longer moving, picked him up and held him close, he passed away in my arms. I have to admit I did shed a tear for a very brave bird.
With no fear for his own life, he had saved the lives of 29 hens, and had proved beyond doubt that the cockerel really can be the protector of your hens!
I have never forgotten him, told the story to many and although the fault was mine, have openly used the example to stress time and time again about the importance of guarding against Mr Fox.