As a professional photographer, my husband, Jae, has tried for years to get quality photos of our flocks. He waits patiently for them to become active in spring, then waits a little longer until their feathers look full and lustrous. Just when he’s about to have his photoshoot with the girls, one of the boys gets hormonal and there go the back feathers.
It never fails. This is why the best photos of our chickens have been taken with my phone.
It’s Only Natural
It’s not that roosters intend on injuring their hens’ backs. It’s more of a physiological thing than a malice thing. In order to mate, a rooster has to climb onto the hen’s back, then line up his reproductive parts with hers. All of this without opposable thumbs.
In order to not continually slip off in the midst of mating, the rooster has to hold on to his partner’s neck with his beak. That’s only enough to keep his head and torso steady, however. His lower half—the half with the boy parts—is in peril of falling off to the side, thus preventing the alignment necessary to fertilize eggs and satisfy male libido. In order to keep steady, a rooster uses his spurs to “tread” the hen’s back.
It’s similar to treading water. We continually cycle our legs in order to keep our heads out of the pool. A rooster continually steps on a hen’s back in order to keep himself from falling off.
The result, unfortunately, is that the rooster’s spurs break or yank out the poor hen’s back feathers. By mid-summer, the “popular” girl looks like she’s been through the wringer. The extent of the damage to a hen’s plumage constantly varies. I’ve had gentle giants who very politely mount a hen, quickly do their business, then leave as the hen stands and shakes herself out with nary a feather out of place. I’ve had young guns who are so intent in getting their jollies that they fail to realize they’re practically flaying the female.
Attempted (& Ineffective) Remedies
I’ve tried various remedies to the bare-back situation over the years. One of the worst approaches was suggested by a well-meaning friend who kept only hens: Keep the roosters separate from the girls and only put them together to mate.
That didn’t work out at all.
Not only did they boys continually fight (darned hormones!), they practically all-out assaulted the hens when they were reunited to mate (darned hormones!). Keeping the boys in a separate coop also didn’t help protect the girls from predators.
Another friend—this one actually in the poultry industry—recommended increasing the ratio of roosters to hens in order to share the love more evenly. That was the year we went up to almost 200 birds. No, having more females only meant having more female backs to contend with, because more females to the roosters was like spreading a smorgasbord in front of them.
2 Things That Worked
The two methods that actually did help my hens were far less expensive and far less stressful—for me and for the birds—than any other solution.
The first was buying hen aprons. These are little outfits of sorts consisting of a back piece that completely covers the affected area, plus elastic loops that cross in front of the hen’s neck and loop around each wing. The aprons fit snugly and stay on securely, protecting the damaged area by placing fabric between the rooster and the hen.
I’ve yet to have a hen remove her apron.
Some seem to like their aprons so much that I leave them on even after the feathers have all grown back (better safe than sorry!). It does take a hen a bit of adjusting time to become accustomed to the apron. This usually manifests by a hen walking awkwardly backwards and sitting down unintentionally.
These antics only last a couple of days, however.
Desheath the Rooster Spurs
The other solution to a spur-raked back is to remove the rooster’s spurs. Or rather, the outer sheath that covers the spur.
A rooster’s spur is actually skeletal. It’s part of the leg bone. Cutting off the entire spurs would be cruel, not to mention crippling, to your rooster. The sheath, however, is made up of keratin—the same protein found in a chicken’s beak, claws and feathers.
This sheath can be easily removed by the potato method:
- Bake a medium-sized potato (in a conventional, toaster or microwave oven)
- While the potato is hot, firmly hold your rooster, then wrap a small rag or towel around his leg under the spur. Impale the potato on the spur to within a half inch of the rooster’s leg. Do not let the potato touch his leg, as this can cause a painful burn.
- Wait for approximately five minutes. Remove the potato and set it aside.
- With a pair of pliers, take hold of the outer spur and gently twist in one direction. The sheath should pop right off. If if doesn’t, apply the potato for a few more minutes, then try again.
- Repeat on the other leg (you may need to warm the potato up again before doing the other leg). Feel free to chop up the potato and give it to your rooster as a treat afterward.
Without his pointy spurs, a romantic rooster will not tear up hens’ backs to the degree that he did with spurs on. However, the one downside is that he will also not be able to face off against a predator as efficiently, since you’ve in effect removed his chief weapons.
Should you live in an area frequented by raccoons, weasels or other carnivorous creatures, a bare-backed hen might be the trade off for your rooster keeping your flock safe.