Baby chicks are all so fluffy and cute, but to the untrained eye, it’s difficult to tell the boys from the girls. Knowing the gender of chicks is essential but how to sex chickens is a question not easily answered. If you are raising them in a suburban area, your local council may have imposed a girls-only rule because of the noise nuisance the boys can create. Also, in most suburban flocks, roosters are mostly an option and generally not required.
Understanding the milestones of a chick as it ages is essential to helping you know what you are looking for when sexing a chicken. Here are the characteristics of each:
* Week 1 – You will see the first signs of feathers, with all signs of down disappearing by week 5.
* Weeks 7 – 9 – Chicks will partially moult while developing new feathers. The pecking order is also worked out.
* Weeks 5 – 15 – Teenage time for chickens as well as character development.
* Week 13 – You will see the adult feathers emerging.
* Week 16 – 20 – the chickens are almost fully grown. If you have cockerels, then this is the time they will start to find their voice.
Now that you will have a good idea of what you are looking at when sexing your chickens, it’s time to figure how to tell the roosters from the hens.
How to Sex Chickens
If you have just arrived home after purchasing a fresh batch of chicks, you might be wondering how you can tell if they are all pullets, or whether you may have scored a rooster or two.
Sexing a chick is a hit or miss affair, but at least you have a 50/50 chance of getting it right. Here are some tips which may help to stack the odds in your favour.
1. Checking the Vent
Without extensive prior training, you might be wasting your time with this one. Plus, it’s also a little gross.
To check the vent of a chick, you first need to squeeze out any manure and then scan the vent for signs of bits which might indicate one way or another whether you have a rooster or a hen.
The main problems with this method are that it is quite an invasive procedure, and the inexperienced can easily kill the chick. Experts with experienced hands and eyes are the best people for the job, as it is over and done within a second or two, with no harm done.
2. Keep an Eye on Feather Growth
You will need an experienced eye for this trick as well, but at least the chicks won’t come to any harm. Pullets will grow feathers faster than males, but only for the first three days of their lives; after that, it evens out for both sexes.
Sexing by feather growth is also breed specific, so if you can’t see any differences, there’s no cause for concern.
Roosters will start to develop saddle feathers when they reach 12 to 16 weeks; hens won’t.
3. Down Colour
Another breed specific tip is to examine the colour of the down. Some breeds will have different coloured down between the sexes. However, crossing breeds can produce inconsistencies in the colour scheme.
Black Sex Link roosters will have different markings to the pullets. Sex Link chickens are cross-bred chickens whose down colour is different for each sex. The Black Sex Link is a cross between a Rhode Island Red Rooster and a Barred Rock Hen. The reason why many chicken breeders choose to go this route is so they can determine the sex immediately after hatching.
4. Early Crowing
Some chicks who are roosters like to test their voices early in life, and you may hear some young roosters exercising their lungs as soon as they reach 4-weeks old. It’s not a foolproof method as some young pullets like to work the vocal chords as well, but this is somewhat unusual.
Sexing Older Birds
Older birds are a lot easier to sex than newly hatched chicks. A lot of the physical characteristics of a rooster are built-in to impress the ladies. The extra plumage on some breeds of roosters is easily noticed, as is their confident stance, and of course, their attention-seeking crowing is also a sure sign of their undeniable maleness.
Combs and Wattles
Roosters in most breeds will have larger combs than the females. Their colour will also be a deeper, more vibrant red. The comb is a biological accessory designed to catch a chicken’s attention because a larger comb is usually indicative of good health and vigour.
The same characteristics found in the comb can also be seen in the wattle, another indicator that the rooster is an excellent candidate as a mate.
The hackle feathers are the plumage which runs down the neck and onto the shoulders, and they are differently shaped between the genders.
Hens’ hackle feathers are long with a rounded end, but roosters have longer hackle feathers which taper to more of a point. The hackle feathers will also be more colourful in most breeds of roosters.
A hen’s muted colour scheme helps them blend into the foliage and prevents them from standing out and attracting attention from predators. The roosters colour scheme is all about showing off his potential as a mate.
Legs and Feet
Roosters oversee the flock’s defence, so their legs are built a little sturdier than the average chickens so they can fight and quickly move towards the danger. In some breeds, you will see spur buds forming on the young roosters while they are still maturing, but they will also grow on older hens as well.
The extravagant tail feathers of some species of chicken will leave you in no doubt as to the gender. Hens will have tails that stand upright and are rounded at the tip. Roosters will sport longer feathers, called “sickle” feathers, because of the farm tool they resemble.
Sickle feathers will grow and curve over the tail to create extravagant plumage. Once again, this extra plumage is all for show to attract hens to an obviously healthy and virile male.
Sexing your chicks is a worthwhile endeavour, but it’s not always easy and can be frustrating when you don’t know for sure. If you buy from a hatchery, you can be almost sure that you have the gender you asked for but be aware that chicken hatcheries have a 10% failure rate.
Also, see Keeping Chickens FAQ