So, just how do you determine the sex of those just-hatched fluff balls in your incubator? And how do you tell the adults apart too?
Sexing a chick can be easy (sex link chicks), or it can be a mysterious art form that takes years to perfect (vent sexing).
In this article we are going to give you some background behaviors and techniques to help you identify your chickens’ sex.
We hope this will be helpful to those new to chickens and perhaps some of you ‘old timers’ too! Once you’ve read this article we hope you too will be able to tell a rooster from a hen.
It is important to have a general idea of what happens when as far as plumage development goes, otherwise how do you know what you are looking at?
Here are a few milestones to refresh your memory:
- Week 1 – first feathers start to emerge. Down will be mostly gone by Week 5.
- Week 7-9 – partial molt and developing new feathers, establishing the pecking order
- Week 5-15 – gangly teenager stage – characteristic behaviors are starting to show
- Week 13 – adult feathers starting to come in
- Week 16-20 – growth is slowing down, maturity is approaching. Pullets may start squatting if you pet them. Cockerels will start crowing
This is not an all-inclusive list. It’s just to give you an idea of the stages of development in chicks.
For a more detailed overview read this article.
Now you know what to expect, let’s look at the various methods of sexing chicks before looking at how to tell a rooster from a hen.
Methods of Sexing Chicks
- Vent Sexing
Vent sexing is when the ‘chicken sexer’ expels the poop from the cloaca in order to see sexual characteristics of the bird.
People who are chicken sexers undergo special school training to do what they do. It sounds easy but in fact, it takes years of practice and is considered to be as much an innate art form as a taught skill.
There are many variables when vent sexing a chick – even the professionals only get it right about 90% of the time.
If done incorrectly it can cause serious injury or death to the chick – so please, unless you have been trained do not do this at home.
- Sex Links
Knowledgeable poultry people have been using the down color method of sexing their chicks long before the term ‘sex link’ became common.
It was first noticed and written about by Professor R.C. Punnett. He noted that certain combinations of rooster over hen gave the new hatchling a definite marker for boy or girl.
As an example for black sex links – a solid colored rooster over a barred female will give you cockerels with a white dot on their heads.
This method of sexing will only work on first generation sex links. If you mate a sex link to a sex link you will not be able to sex the chick so easily.
In breeds that have a barring or cuckoo pattern for example – Dominiques or Barred Rocks – breeding will result in boy chicks with a large white or yellow spot on their head.
Some breeds such as the Welsummer, exhibit dorsal stripes as chicks. In the females these lines are quite distinct and well defined with a triangular dark patch on the head; in the boys they are less distinct, a bit fuzzier and no head patch.
These breeds are known as autosexing breeds.
Needless to say, if you are mixing breeds you will have different results from the norm.
- Feather/Wing Sexing
You may hear folks saying that they can sex any chicken by looking at it’s wing feathers. While it is possible to sex some breeds by their wing feathers, it does not work on all breeds.
- Old Wives Tales
Some of the more arcane ways that folks used to predict the sex of a chick are a needle on a piece of string, a ring tied to a cotton thread, or the shape of the egg.
These methods do not work scientifically, they are simply guesswork – but they can be right 50% of the time!
Sexing Adult Birds (How to Tell a Rooster from a Hen)
Sexing adult birds is for the most part relatively easy – as long as you know what to look for!
Roosters are built and clothed to be noticed – the plumage, stance and crow all say ‘look at me, aren’t I something?’ This is all to attract the ladies to his side.
Hens are far more conservative in their dressing – less flash, quieter and more wary. This is self-preservation and works pretty well when predators are around looking for chicken dinner!
Comb and Wattles
A roosters comb will generally be much larger, more developed and vibrant red. The comb is part of his attraction to the ladies – they tend to choose roosters with large vibrant combs as it is a good indicator of health and vigor.
His wattles too, will be much larger and redder than hens’ wattles. Again, this is all part of his presenting appearance of being strong and a good male to mate with.
The feathers that flow down the neck onto the shoulders are referred to as hackles. The feathers will be differently shaped for a boy and girl.
The hens’ hackle feathers will be long with rounded ends. The roosters’ feathers will be longer and pointed at the ends. It gives the appearance of a ‘mantle’ across the shoulders in some breeds.
You will also notice that roosters’ tend to have more vibrant colors in their plumage. Hens tend to have muted colors so they don’t stand out and may avoid the eye of a predator – this is a good survival strategy.
Saddle feathers are something that only the boys have. As the name implies, they start around the area where you would put a saddle on a horse, about mid-back.
These feathers are long, flowing and pointed. You will notice that they cascade either side of the tail leaving a very sleek appearance of coat tails.
The difference in tail feathers is usually very noticeable. The ladies will have upright tails, rounded at the tips and generally much the same length.
The boys will sport ‘sickle’ feathers at the tail end. They are so named because they resemble the shape of a sickle. The sickles will grow up and curve over the tail giving a plume-like appearance to the tail.
Legs and Feet
Roosters’ legs and feet are generally more robust than a hens’. They are thicker and you may see spur buds even in a young cockerel. Spurs do not indicate a male since older hens will grow them too.
So, in essence the rooster is all about his appearance and projecting strength. It is usually reflected in his attitude also.
Hens are dowdy by comparison. Most (not all) females need to blend in with their surroundings very well. They will sit on a nest for 3 weeks and then care for her chicks, so she does not need to be prominent or visible.
Problematic Breeds to Sex
There are several breeds out there that do not give up their identity easily. It can be several weeks or months before you can clearly state boy or girl.
One such breed is the Breda fowl. The bird does not have a comb, girls may or may not have wattles – the boys do. They are a slow growing bird taking their time to develop any sexual characteristics.
Until they start to develop hackle, saddle and sickle feathers, you simply cannot be sure, so you are looking at a timeline of 5-6 months before you can definitely sex your birds.
Observing their behavior is likely to give you clues before they start developing the physical characteristics. A breeder will certainly have some idea from the observation of the chicks, but it takes time and practice – and even they can be wrong on occasion!
Silkies too are notoriously difficult to sex. Again, it is mostly the behavior of the chicks that will give you clues as to what sex they are.
There is no quick way to tell the sexes of these breeds without a good deal of practice and observation.
If you are an astute ‘chicken watcher’ you will have noticed the typical behaviors of the different sexes. These observations can be applied to any breed and will give you a head start on sexing.
Typical Behaviors of the Different Sexes
Hens and roosters do have definite behaviors which can help you sex them. If you have a ‘barnyard mix’ as I do for my layers, the more traditional methods of sexing often don’t work so well.
Roosters will be more assertive and bolder – they are usually up front with the pullets behind them. They will stand more upright and if startled will stand their ground and chirp. They are more curious and more likely to investigate something new in the coop/brooder.
Hens tend to keep a lower profile – literally, they try to remain unnoticed. If they are startled they will usually crouch down and remain silent.
When feathering out, roosters tend to become ‘patchy’ while the girls feather-in more evenly. With most breeds the saddle and hackle feathers will start to develop around week 8 on the boys – this does not hold true for all breeds.
If you have the time to sit and quietly observe the chicks without them knowing, you will get a good sense of boys and girls in the pen from their interactions together.
Sexing your chicks can be fun – it can also be frustrating too. I like to watch the chicks interacting with each other. I have found that this gives me a much better idea of not only which is boy or girl, but what the pecking order is going to be for this particular group.
If you have first generation sex link chicks you don’t even have to break a sweat to tell the sexes apart – the birds make it easy for you.
If you buy from a hatchery and have specified what sex birds you want, in general that is what you will get. Remember though, chicken sexers’ do have a 10% fail rate – hopefully it’s not your batch!
Personally, I have never even tried wing sexing. Some folks do it with consummate ease but many do struggle with it, especially if it’s the first time.
Sexing adults is all about the appearance. Roosters tend to exude confidence and fearlessness while the hens’ are usually more submissive and quiet.
Well, we have given you the basics of sexing your chicks and chickens. Please don’t be disappointed if a particular method doesn’t work for you. Sometimes you need to try another method, or simply keep practicing the one you want to use until you get it right.
Let us know in the comments below how you got on sexing your chicks…