We think about rooster spurs from the moment we get baby chicks. It’s not unusual to watch our unsexed chicks as they grow and see if chicken spurs develop. Although spurs are not an accurate indicator of sex, they can sometimes be seen at three months of age, but more likely you’ll start to see them develop around seven to eight months of age.
Many people think that spurs are only present on roosters, but that’s not always the case. Some breeds of hens, especially Mediterranean breeds such as the Leghorn, Minorca, Sicilian Buttercup as well as Ancona and Polish, are more likely to develop spurs. Also as hens age, they can develop spurs. Sometimes hens can develop spurs that are quite long. In my flock, my five-year-old Brown Leghorn hen and New Hampshire hen both have a spur on one leg.
What Is a Spur?
Rooster spurs are actually part of the leg bone, and they’re covered with keratin which is the hard material found in a chicken’s beak and even in exotic places like rhino horns.
Rooster spurs start from a spur bud on the leg located just above the back claw. They grow, harden and even curl developing a sharp tip as the rooster matures. Rooster spurs become effective weapons for protecting a flock from predators and defending territory. When a rooster attacks, he will often lead with his rooster spurs. He’ll flap his wings allowing him the room to lift his feet off the ground and aim them at a predator. For many, that’s exactly why they keep roosters, they act as a watchdog for the hens. If a rooster is good, he will always keep an eye on the sky and the perimeter leaving his hens with the ability to graze with no worries. If the rooster sees or senses danger, he’ll vocally warn the hens and may gather them together for protection as he stands guard. Roosters have been known to fight to the death against a predator. In fact, some chicken owners will keep more than one rooster just in case the lead rooster is lost during a scuffle with a predator.
Rooster Spurs Can Cause Damage
As a rooster defends his flock it can lead to aggressive rooster behavior toward human caretakers. Rooster spurs used against a human can cause major damage, especially if the aggression is aimed at a young child. It’s important that if you keep roosters, you have a plan for how to handle aggressive birds. Some send their birds to “freezer camp.” Others send them to a rooster rescue, while others use taming techniques such as carrying an aggressive rooster in their arms to show him who’s boss when humans are in the yard.
Rooster mating behavior can also cause damage to a hen. As a rooster mates with a hen, he will climb onto her back and hang on using his feet and grabbing her head and neck feathers with his beak. In trying to climb on and remain steady, a rooster’s feet and ultimately his spurs can damage a hen’s feathers and cause deep gashes. To help prevent over-mating, it’s important to keep a hen to rooster ratio of 10 to 12 hens for each rooster. Even in the best scenario, roosters have their favorites and accidents do happen. If you have a rooster in your flock and start to find damage to your hens, you may want to consider outfitting your hens with saddles. These are made of breathable fabric and act as a barrier between a rooster’s feet and spurs and a hen’s back.
How to Maintain Rooster Spurs
For many roosters spurs, there is no maintenance required. But for others, they grow too long and start to affect a rooster’s gait as he tries to walk and keep his own spurs from cutting his legs. Rooster spurs often curl as a rooster ages. If the spurs curl too much they can actually curl back into the leg causing damage.
There are some different techniques to get spur growth under control. Each chicken keeper has to make his or her own decision about the best technique to use.
- Clipping – Rooster spurs can be clipped just as you would clip a pet’s toenails. You have to avoid hitting the bone when you clip. It’s important to do the clipping in good light so you can see that inner bone which has a darker white appearance. It’s similar to finding the quick as you clip toenails. It’s also important to use a sharp tool to make the cut. I use guillotine style pet clippers. Some use Dremel tools. It’s a matter of preference.
- Filing – This is my preferred method of rooster spur maintenance since the chance of hitting the bone is reduced and you can finish the filing with a nice blunt end. I will sometimes combine clipping and filing by using a clipper to remove the longest piece and then filing further. My rooster is very tame, so he’ll sit quietly as I file. I use a metal file from the hardware store and finish by rounding the tip.
- Remove the Outer Growth – Since the rooster spur is just a keratin sheath around the bone, you can remove the outer keratin growth leaving a soft inner core. This can be done by gently twisting the spur until it pops off. You can soften the spur by rubbing it with oil or by heating a potato and then applying it to the spur. If you use the potato method, remember to be careful to not touch the potato to the rooster’s leg. This will cause a painful burn.
Below is a helpful chart to compare the pros and cons of the different techniques and make an informed decision. No matter what method you use, it’s important to have corn starch or styptic powder on hand in case you make a mistake and the rooster starts to bleed. It’s also good to have an emergency kit on hand to treat any accidents. And, don’t forget that not all roosters react well to having their rooster spurs maintained. So be sure to wear protective gloves and clothing.
|Methods for Maintaining Rooster Spurs||How To||Pros||Cons|
|Clipping Rooster Spurs||Use sharp guillotine style pet clippers or Dremel tool.||Can remove large amount quickly.||Can hit bone. Should have styptic powder or corn starch on hand. Spur will grow back.|
|Filing Rooster Spurs||Use a good nail file or Dremel file. Nail file can be metal as found in hardware store||Less likely to hit bone and cause bleeding or damage. Can round edge of spur so it causes less damage.||Takes longer to complete job, rooster must be compliant or secured well. Spur will grow back.|
|Uncapping Rooster Spurs (Removal of Outer Covering)||Loosen spur cap by gently twisting with pliers. Can soften by rubbing in oil or by heating a potato and then holding it on the spur, without touching main leg, and let potato cool.||Complete spur cap removal leaves only softer bone making rooster spurs far less damaging.||Can cause pain and bleeding. Spur cap will grow back.|
What’s your favorite method of dealing with rooster spurs? Let us know in the comments below.