Even though eggs, and therefore chicken, are such a big part of everyday life, most people do not know a lot about them. We encounter them scrambled on our breakfast toast and in countless sweet and savory baked goods, but where do eggs actually come from? Can all chickens lay eggs? Do roosters lay eggs?
No. Only female chickens, which are called hens, lay eggs. Roosters are adult male chickens and therefore cannot lay eggs. Some people think that the word “chicken” only refers to the female, egg-producing ones, but that is a misconception.
There are so many terms for different chickens that it is hard to keep in mind who can do what. Male chickens are either cockerels or roosters, and neither of them lays eggs. Cockerels are less than a year old, on their first birthday, they become roosters. There is also the term “capon” for castrated male chickens – because of the position of their genitals, castrating roosters is very painful and dangerous for them, though, and therefore illegal in parts of the world.
Previously, people thought that roosters lay eggs because of a phenomenon called cock-eggs: these are eggs without a yolk, consisting only of what we call egg white. Sometimes, these are also called “dwarf eggs” or “witch eggs”, which shows how mystified people used to be as to how this could possibly have happened.
Today, we know that eggs like these are often the result of a pullet – a young female chicken that is less than a year old – laying her first egg. At this time, the reproductive system has not fully matured yet and her eggs are not perfect.
Many people also wonder whether roosters are necessary for making hens lay eggs. They are not, though. Hens lay eggs anyway, even when there is no rooster on the farm. Roosters are needed to fertilize eggs. This means that without mating with a rooster, hens will only lay unfertilized eggs which cannot hatch. If someone just keeps hens for the purpose of having fresh eggs for breakfast, they do not need a rooster, only when they want to breed more chicken, maybe to sell or to consume.
The fact that they lay eggs whether they have been fertilized or not, also means that hens do not really get “pregnant” in the traditional sense.
How Do Roosters Fertilize Eggs?
One of the strangest things about roosters is that their genitals are inside their body. Roosters have testicles inside their body, but instead of a penis, they have a small bump called a papilla. This makes the chicken mating process much different from how mammals do it.
Before it comes to mating, a rooster shows his interest in his chosen hen by tid-bitting. This means that he will look for a delicious treat and then call the hen to his find by bobbing his head, clucking, and pecking at the tasty treat. While this does not necessarily lead directly to copulating, it is a way for the rooster to create a good impression and make his intentions clear.
When there are several roosters in a flock, hens might accept tidbits from all of them but still be selective with whom they want to mate – after all, who can say no to treats?
After the rooster has impressed a hen with a mating dance that includes circling her and scratching the ground with his feet, the hen crouches down and flattens her back so that the rooster can mount. She holds still and he bites the feathers around her head and neck to keep his balance. In this balancing act on the back of his mate, he will also start to tread with his feet.
This treading and biting can lead to feather loss, scratches, and irritated skin. When a rooster has a favorite hen with whom he likes to mate often, you can often recognize her by a bald spot on her neck where he keeps biting her. Poultry supply shops sometimes even offer little vests or saddles that hens can wear to be protected from the feet and beak of overeager roosters.
Once the rooster has found a relatively stable position, the hen lifts her tail feathers so that the two can let their cloacas touch in what is called the cloacal kiss. The cloaca is the only entrance or exit hole birds have down there, and they urinate, defecate, lay eggs, and exchange sperm via this very same hole.
For chickens, mating only takes a few seconds. This also means that a rooster can mate more than ten times a day!
Why Do Chicken Eggs Have Different Colors?
Do you sometimes feel especially healthy when making cracking a brown egg into your pan instead of a white one? This is something many people believe in – maybe we subconsciously make a whole wheat toast versus white toast analogy. In reality, there is no difference in nutrients between chicken eggs with different colored shells.
Differently colored eggs come from different breeds of chicken. Leghorn chickens lay white eggs, while Orpington chickens lay brown ones. Ameraucana chickens even lay blue eggs. If you cross a breed that lays blue eggs with a breed that lays brown eggs, it can result in olive green colored eggs.
All these colors aside, every egg starts out white when it is first formed. The color pigments are added in the circa 26 hours it takes for an egg to travel through the hen’s oviduct, which leads from the ovaries through the vagina until the eggs come out of the cloaca.
Therefore, the parts of the egg that are eaten are formed before the color is added to the shell, so the color of an egg does not make any difference to its flavor or nutritional value.
Can Roosters Live Together?
The common image of what a flock of chickens looks like is one rooster surrounded by a group of hens. Can you keep multiple roosters or are they too aggressive and territorial?
It is possible to keep roosters together, but there are some things that should be kept in mind. For one, you will need a lot of space – it is recommended that in a flock that has several roosters you should double or triple the amount of space per bird, which is usually about four square feet. In a flock with multiple roosters, this makes eight to twelve square feet per bird, which means you need to have a lot of space available. If kept in a space that is too small, roosters will fight, for example over hens, and could get seriously hurt.
Speaking of fighting over hens: you should also have about ten, ideally more, hens per rooster. If you do not have enough hens, not only will the intense rivalry over mating rights lead to fighting between your roosters, the hens will also get hurt when too many roosters get on their backs and scratch and bite to breed with them.
If you do not have enough space for this, there is also the possibility to keep roosters without hens. When they do not have to fight over hens, roosters can live together relatively peacefully. While a flock that consists only of roosters will not give you eggs, roosters can be bred for show, and, of course, simply for fun.
Which Breed of Rooster is the Quietest?
Something that keeps many people from adding a rooster to their flock is that with a rooster you basically invest in a very loud alarm clock that you cannot turn off.
No chickens, neither male nor female, will ever be completely quiet. These are social creatures that have a lot to say to one another. Nevertheless, there are some breeds that are less noisy than others.
Orpington chickens are relatively laid back and the roosters, especially those of the Lavender Orpington breed, are known to crow less frequently than other breeds. They are also very friendly and even good with children, which is why Orpingtons are sometimes called the Golden Retrievers of the chicken world.
Other friendly and comparatively quiet breeds are Faverolles and Silkies.
However, it always depends on the individual rooster as well on the environment. Roosters take their role as protectors of their flock seriously and will crow whenever they feel that a threat – which can be any unexpected sound, person, or animal – is nearing their enclosure.
This means that if your chickens live somewhere where they are often approached by people talking walks, dogs, or wild animals, they will consider it their duty to alert the world to any perceived threat, no matter how harmless it might be in reality.
Make sure that your flock always has enough
While roosters are the noisiest chickens, hens can get quite loud, too. It is always important to have enough nesting boxes for all hens, otherwise, they will argue over them noisily.