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PHOTO: Kathy Shea Mormino
Have you ever thought about how chickens mate? I mean really thought about it: the logistics, the mechanics, the specific parts involved? Most of us probably haven’t, but if you are a chicken keeper, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with this fascinating process.
Regardless of what you know now, by the time the end credits of this article roll, you’ll soon be able to impress friends, colleagues and complete strangers with a startling amount of detail about how chickens do the deed. Be prepared, however, to disregard much of what you know about how most other animals engage in the act because chicken mating is quite different.
The Laws Of Attraction
Many theories abound about why roosters and males of many species are so much more colorful than their female counterparts. Put simply, in order to shore up his chances of mating with the fittest and most productive hens, a rooster has to prove that he is the healthiest, strongest and most dominant male in the flock.
And while he doesn’t have a wardrobe department to gussy him up, the rooster relies on his big, bright-red comb and fancy plumage! High testosterone levels are responsible for that sizable, bright-red comb and serve as evidence of a rooster’s virility, fertility and overall health, making him more attractive to a hen and making her more receptive to his advances.
Picking Up Chicks
Roosters don’t rely solely on their good looks to get a date, but they don’t get carried away with courtship or foreplay either. Forget about dinner and a movie. However, the most romantic roosters will invest a bit of effort into a few fancy moves to impress the ladies. This flirting can include any of the following—with or without sending flowers the next day.
This maneuver is a grand display of feather finery commonly referred to in literature as the wing drag, wing drop or wing flicking. I call it The Matador! The rooster fans his wings flamboyantly while dancing around the hen in the same way a matador fans his cape to attract the bull. This move is clearly intended to attract a hen’s attention and mesmerize her with his size and stunning plumage.
In conjunction with The Matador, a rooster may walk around the hen in a circle, positioning himself behind her to assume the mating position, which closely resembles a piggyback ride.
Sometimes roosters don’t bother trying to woo their mates with flashy plumage displays or fancy footwork, which is often the case when he is lower in the pecking order than other roosters and his boyish charm isn’t enough to impress. Not the most respectable move in a rooster’s handbook, tidbitting is essentially a deceptive act: He picks up and drops real or feigned food morsels with his beak while vocalizing an invitation to the hens to eat it. When she hustles over to investigate his offering, he pulls the ol’ bait-and-switch, rapidly assuming the mating position.
Chicken mating behavior is not entirely one-sided, however; hens pay attention to dominance and fitness indicators among roosters the flock. What the roosters don’t know is that the ladies have a degree of control over the survival of the species themselves.
If a hen views a rooster as unworthy or undesirably low in the pecking order, she can fail to cooperate with the copulation, bucking him off or otherwise physically frustrating efforts to close the deal. More impressively and discreetly, she may reject his sperm, expelling it from her body after the mating.
Challenges In Doing The Deed
Roosters have a significant physical challenge in the romance department because their reproductive equipment is stored inside their bodies, unlike most other species in the animal kingdom.
Most chicken keepers have a general familiarity with the location of the orifice chickens use to expel waste, which is known as the cloaca. The cloaca serves as the common corridor through which a chicken’s digestive, urinary and reproductive tracts empty. In other words, solid waste, liquid waste, eggs and semen all exit the body through the same tunnel. Thankfully, the egg gets a special escort through the hen’s cloaca, enveloped by the shell gland, which protects it from contaminants.
The rooster’s copulatory gadgetry is nothing at all like a penis. He relies on several small folds of lymph-filled tissue to guide semen out of his cloaca towards the hen’s. The male member is much less like a fire hose and more like a tiny, inflatable waterslide, making the logistical challenges of mating formidable indeed.
For Adult Eyes Only
So how do chickens actually mate then? You might mistake it for a piggyback ride, as many an adult has conveniently allowed a small child to assume is occurring upon witnessing the chicken reproductive dance.
Blink and you’ll miss it: The entire encounter happens in a matter of seconds, and it’s remarkable that it works at all given the absence of a conventional male appendage.
After any courting displays, the rooster scurries into position behind the hen, holding onto her head or neck feathers with his beak. He then steps onto her back, adjusting his balance as necessary in an awkward maneuver known as treading. A degree of cooperation by the hen is required in order for the union to succeed.
Treading that is too aggressive or frequent can cause feather damage, bald spots and skin injuries to the hen. A protective piece of cloth known as a hen saddle or apron can be strapped to a hen’s back with the aid of elastic cording around her wings to hold it in place until feathers regrow.
For the hen’s part, she spreads her wings slightly away from her body for balance, and lowers her tail slightly to the side in a position I call the submissive squat. This position is a sign of submission by a hen, which will often squat even when approached by a person, causing many humans to suffer the false impression that she wishes to be picked up or petted.
Next comes the main event, referred to as the cloacal kiss, wherein the rooster lowers his tail, causing his cloaca to touch hers fleetingly while the semen is transferred along the slide folds into her cloaca. The spermatozoa are then stored in “sperm nests” located along the hen’s oviduct and are capable of fertilizing eggs for up to 30 days after mating.
That’s all there is to it. He hops off, she shakes out her feathers, and they both go about their business. The sex act is quick, unromantic and lacks variety. There is no Kama Sutra for chickens; one position fits all. However, what he lacks in romance and originality, a rooster more than makes up for in quantity; an especially active rooster with a plentiful supply of partners can mate upward of 40 times a day.
A great deal of physical agility and flexibility is required to get everything where it needs to go for a successful insemination, and it can be incredibly awkward-looking, particularly when a rooster is inexperienced, the hen is uncooperative, or bodies don’t balance or synchronize as they should. With as many times as I have seen my chickens mate, I still marvel that this species is at all capable of procreation.
Remarkably, bantam roosters are often able to mate successfully with large-fowl hens. I know this because I have hatched chicks from matings between bantam roosters and large-fowl hens in my own flock, but the logistics of it boggle the mind.
A Rooster’s Role In The Flock
A hen doesn’t need a rooster to produce eggs; she will not lay any more or less frequently and is no more or less happy as a result of the presence or absence of a rooster. Roosters, however, can be beneficial to a flock in many regards.
In addition to ensuring perpetuation of the flock, they are strikingly beautiful and serve as selfless flock guardians, protecting the flock from external threats by predators and keeping the peace between hens. Although not permitted in every neighborhood and not appreciated by everyone, their melodious, intermittent crowing can be a welcome contrast to louder, more persistent noises—think traffic, lawn mowers and incessant dog barking—inviting listeners to consider what we value as a society and reminding those within earshot of simpler times.