Megan Barrett started having suspicions about the yellow chick when it was 3 weeks old.
While the others she had purchased for her first flock of egg-laying hens were docile, this one was inquisitive and bold, and soon it developed a gorgeous, swooshing tail. Barrett’s three kids loved the bird, but she had a feeling that local officials and maybe neighbors would not. Roosters, as the chick was destined to become, are banned in her Maryland county.
“Now that she’s a he, she’s got to go,” Barrett said, before quickly correcting herself. “He’s got to go.”
The unexpected rooster is a conundrum many backyard chicken owners confront because of a simple fact: It is nearly impossible to tell a chicken’s sex until it is weeks, even months old. Hatcheries employ professional “sexers” who make the call after scrutinizing newborns’ downy wings and nether regions, but most companies guarantee that they’ll be right only 90 percent of the time. That means some owners who believe they bought hens end up with roosters. And problems.
The discovery can set up a clash between urban and suburban flock-keepers’ bucolic ideals — a touch of rural charm, the promise of fresh eggs — and the hard realities of local ordinances. It also can set off a hard scramble to find the rooster alternative accommodations.
Many jurisdictions and homeowners’ associations prohibit roosters because of their crowing, despite defenders’ counter-argument that the sound is no more disruptive than a dog barking. Those restrictions, unhappy neighbors and complex flock dynamics can make an unintended rooster a tough problem to solve. Animal shelters and sanctuaries, which are regularly at capacity for roosters, say the birds are often abandoned.
Laura Hall of Derwood, Md., hatched some chicks and bought two others from a petting zoo. She ended up with five roosters in a jurisdiction where only one is allowed, so she found special collars online that promised to stifle the cock-a-doodle-doo-ing. (Rusty, a silkie, had a particularly “ear-throttling crow.”)
The collars performed as advertised, and the birds roamed fairly quietly on what Hall’s children call their “Happyland Farm.” Even so, animal control officers showed up in April and gruffly informed her there’d been a noise complaint. They didn’t notice Hall had excess roosters and left after she assured them she was dealing with the volume.
Then a string from one collar wound up wrapped around Rusty’s tongue, so Hall ditched the collars. Then a neighbor contacted her directly.
“I think his words were, ‘Your rooster’s a pain in the a–,’ ” she said.
Realizing she needed to give away the birds, Hall quickly posted ads on online chicken forums. Only after several offers from people who wanted to butcher the birds did she find nearby farm owners who agreed to keep them as pets.
“I never knew there would be so much drama with owning chickens. I mean, goodness me,” she said.
Rooster re-homing, as it is known, is the subject of many desperate pleas on Facebook chicken group pages and backyard poultry websites. Only a few dedicated rooster rescues exist nationwide.
“I could go on and on and tell you so many stories about roosters, and how amazing they are, and their personalities,” said Sarah Forstner, whose rural Central California rescue, Save the Cocks, once sheltered as many as 30 roosters before an injury forced her to scale back. She now considers herself more of a rooster matchmaker and adviser, linking some owners with adopters and counseling others on how to manage crowing or keep multiple roosters — something she says is eminently possible given the right space and personalities.
But she and other advocates say the rooster shuffle reflects a dark side of the seemingly pure backyard chicken trend. Unbeknown to many people, hatcheries typically kill male chicks the day they hatch, usually by grinding them alive, because they do not grow into egg-laying hens and are not the breeds used for meat. Critics say that backyard flock owners’ demand for day-old pullets, or female chicks, leads to more cockerels, or male chicks, being culled or slipping through to eventually wind up in need of homes or dumped.
“It’s really tough, because most of the roosters out there are going to be put down,” Forstner said.
Some suppliers offer free returns for chicks that turn out to be roosters. Crystal Cahill of Great Meadows, N.J., twice took advantage of that sort of deal after buying what she was told were four 7-week-old pullets in November.
One morning in January, Cahill went out to feed her brood, and “I hear, ‘Er-er-er-er-er!’ ” she recalled, doing an admirable impression of the crowing that came from the beak of a lavender Orpington she had named Mary Jane. Cahill was legally allowed to have roosters but did not want them, so she called the chicken farm where she’d bought her birds, and the owner gave her two pullets in exchange for the rooster.
A month later, Cahill’s favorite pullet — Repecca, the one that followed her everywhere and sat on her lap — also began to crow. The farm owner again offered her two pullets in exchange, but Cahill couldn’t part with the bird. Instead, she took one free pullet, bought another as its companion and changed Repecca’s name to Roopecca.
“So I have gone from having four to now having seven,” said Cahill, a retired nurse. “And it was all because of roosters that were not supposed to be roosters.”
Those who want to keep their roosters but cannot risk angering the neighbors or alerting authorities might turn to a collar. The most prominent is the $17.95 No Crow collar, which Michigan resident Jim Kusmierski and his wife invented after acquiring a rooster and fearing the folks next door might not approve. It’s made of nylon and mesh — bow tie accessory optional — and it restrains crowing by preventing a rooster from filling a sac in its throat with the air it expels to call out. Kusmierski said they’ve sold more than 50,000 in about five years.
“Hide in plain sight,” the No Crow website proclaims. “No one will know.”
Those less attached to a rooster might make it a meal. Russ Gillespie tried that after he first mail-ordered chicks about five years ago. They were heritage breeds, which he had heard are flavorful. “It was okay,” said Gillespie, who lives in Smithsburg, Md. “But not overly worth the effort.”
These days, Gillespie owns a company, Marker 99, that supplies heritage breeds for backyard flocks, and he takes back customers’ unplanned roosters when asked. He said he can usually find new homes for them.
Barrett, who lives in Washington County, Md., bought her chicks from Gillespie. But local law aside, she’s not eager to return the rooster. Her children — ages 2, 3 and 13 — “all love that silly yellow bird,” which they alternately call Boneless or Apple. And the stay-at-home mom doesn’t want him to end up slaughtered or in a cockfighting ring.
Besides, the neighbors haven’t complained — yet. So recently, Barrett found herself in front of her laptop comparing crow suppression options. One theory holds that reducing stimuli at night might work, but she wasn’t sold on the idea of crating him in the dark for hours. Within days, she’d crafted a few do-it-yourself collars that the bird seemed to be tolerating.
“He’s our responsibility now, and I’m not about to trade him,” Barrett said. “I just ask him politely when I feed him every morning to please be quiet.”