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Dealing with aggression in chickens

I have had a few rounds with aggressive poultry over the years. Really makes for some funny stories because the outcomes are always a bit one-sided. There are theories about why some become aggressive when a brother or son is sweet as can be. I do believe there is a genetic component, and that the tendency to be aggressive can be mostly bred out of a line of birds. But there is also very clearly a husbandry component as well. You can’t very well change the genetics of a bird in your care, but you can change how you interact, and that is what I want to talk about.

Males of most types of poultry have a role as protectors of their female(s). In many cases they must demonstrate their prowess in order to keep their family together. But they are also prey animals, and any prey animal that is too bold in the face of danger will not survive to pass his genes to the next generation. They must balance these 2 factors and the intersection of these is the place in the social network that humans occupy. Any birds that view you strictly as a predator will never act aggressively, they will seek to flee. But that is not fun for us or them, so we try to maintain a friendlier relationship. This is where familiarity can breed contempt. If a male does not fear you, perhaps because you raised him as a pet, or have always acted gently toward him, he can see you more as a rival. This is the principle source of aggression from male birds.

Chickens have a group social order. When allowed to roam and form their own flocks, they tend to be small and dominated by a single male. Sometimes a second or third male will join the group, but they must give way to the primary male at all times. They can gain the protection and socialization of the flock, and also provide additional guard duty. I think of them as a “wing man” for the primary male. This is not the place for a human, you cannot act submissive to the primary male, that is where he wants you, but only increased aggression from him will result. You must assume the role of primary male whenever you are in contact with a flock that contains a rooster. Most roosters are aware that this can work for them and will readily allow it, as you are soon gone and they are back in charge. And you do provide some benefits for the flock (food, water, treats, etc). But if they refuse to relinquish their position, you have 2 choices – allow yourself to become lower than the rooster, or dominate him by force to establish who is in charge when you are present. Choose the later always.

When roosters fight, they seek to push the other down or chase them from the flock. Your path is to force him low. Grab him and push him to the ground, then pin his neck all the way to the ground and hold it there. Don’t be angry (I think they can tell) and don’t hurt him, you are just demonstrating your superior speed, strength and height advantage. Make sure his hens can see you do this. I usually talk to him and the hens when doing this, in a loud but gentle voice. I want them to realize I can do this anytime, not only when I am upset. After a minute or so, I release the rooster and stare at him. Few roosters with come back at you, most will run away, back to their flock. If you get a mean one that just keeps coming, he may just be incorrigible and will need to be removed.

I maintain the stare for a bit and make sure to have eye contact with the now subservient rooster. The smart ones remember this encounter for weeks and will not challenge you for a long time, all you need to do is make eye contact with him each time you enter his space, essentially telling him – I’m in charge for now and I can see you clearly over there.

This will not always work, but it often does. I try to avoid breeding from any rooster with aggressive tendencies, but as flock protectors, there is something to be said for a rooster that is a bit “cocky”.