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Today’s post is about how to sex chickens. Some of you might not have ever had to do that. Especially if you order from a reputable hatchery. But even then sometimes you might get a cockerel you didn’t order. Or you might order a straight run. Also, if you ever incubate your own eggs, or get a broody hen who hatches chicks, then knowing how to sex chickens is a great piece of wisdom to have.
So how do you sex chickens? And is it the same for chicks as it is for juvenile birds? Well, the answer to the second question is . . . kind of. It just depends on the bird. However I’ll get to that soon enough. But first, we’ll cover how to sex baby chickens or chicks.
How to Sex Baby Chickens
So, with chickens, a cockerel is a male chicken. And he will become a rooster. Additionally, a pullet is a female chicken, who will be referred to as a hen when an adult. And now let’s discuss how you can determine if the chicks you ordered are in fact pullets. The first method is
- Vent sexing
Vent sexing is manually examining the reproductive organs of poultry. It’s also the most precise way to determine gender of all domesticated birds. However it is NOT recommended for people unfamiliar and untrained in it. Vent sexing chicks can hurt the chick if done incorrectly. That said, we definitely do not attempt it at our property. Not to mention, it’s quite invasive to the chicks. Although if you’re getting chicks from a recognized hatchery, chances are good that they’re vent sexing.
- Feather sexing
Feather sexing is a technique to identify the gender of a chick based on the rate of feather growth. However it’s a sex-linked trait, which means the chick’s father has to be bred to grow feathers fast. While the chick’s mother has to be bred to grow feathers slowly. Otherwise trying to feather sex a chick won’t work, because not all chickens can be sexed this way.
I’ve never tried to determine the gender of our chicks using this method. And usually it’s because I’m too caught up with all of the chicks to even think about it.
Another option using a bird’s feathers is by looking at their wings. A pullet will have different lengths while a rooster will have all one length. If you try this method, just remember to be careful with the day old chicks. Also, this practice isn’t foolproof like vent sexing.
- Sex link chickens
Sex link chickens are hybrids that show differences in the colors of their plumage. Or a spot will be present on one sex and not on another, between cockerels and pullets. Which makes sexing them a lot easier. Although you would have to order sex link birds in order for this to happen. But sometimes you can sex link your own birds, if you have a mixed flock, like I’ve done with mine.
How NOT to Sex Juvenile Chickens
In a moment we’re going to go over how to sex juvenile chickens. Because there are some differences. A juvenile backyard bird is considered a teenager anywhere from 4-17 weeks old. Whereas chickens from ~16-24 weeks of age are regarded as adults, because they hit sexual maturity, and hens can start laying eggs.
Some of the most common ways people predict chicken gender are also some of the most erroneous ways. And these aren’t limited to backyard chicken owners only. Additionally, they continue to use these flawed methods over and over again. They include determining sex by:
- Large combs and wattles
The thinking is if the bird in question has a large comb and wattles, they must be a rooster. But I’m here to tell you that is simply wrong. Especially if you have a mixed flock. I have 2 hens that have massive combs that put my rooster to shame. So judging a bird by the size of its comb and wattles is totally unreliable.
Roosters start crowing generally around 5 months of age. But some crow sooner, while others crow later. Some of the hybrids we’ve had crowed a lot sooner. However crowing alone isn’t the best indicator, since hens also can crow.
When chickens are developing, people think that if there’s a bigger bird, it must be a cockerel. And this is a reasonable expectation if the lineages and ages of the birds are the same. When backyard chickens are mature (16-24 weeks), they will be bigger than females of the same breed.
If you have a mixed flock, then your chickens will come in a variety of sizes. So determining gender is more complicated, because you’re no longer comparing apples to apples.
It’s true, roosters can be aggressive, authoritative, and protective of what they consider ‘theirs.’ And a lot of times you can see them demonstrating this behavior as chicks. However it’s faulty to assume, that if you’re witnessing these mannerisms, that you have a cockerel.
Because hens that aspire to reach the top of the pecking order will also display these temperaments. Furthermore, you might notice this behavior with the chicks. There will be one chick that is more aggressive. It could be a cockerel. However it could also be a pullet.
Ok, so how do we sex chickens? Juvenile or otherwise?
The Best Way to Sex Chickens
The first method for determining the gender on your own backyard birds is
- Be patient
First, give your birds some time. Unless you have birds that can be sex linked, just give it a few weeks till you can do some real investigating.
- Then look at their feathers
You’re NOT determining gender by the rate of growth of feathers. You are looking at specific feathers. Around 8-12 weeks old, cockerels will start getting saddle feathers, which are close to their tail feathers. And they’re long, narrow, draping, and pointed. So, if you start seeing those, then you have a cockerel. And that is the absolute best way for backyard chicken owners to sex chickens.
The hackle and sickle feathers won’t come in till the roosters are fully adults. Which by then you will see the tell-tell rooster tail that curves up and down. There definitely won’t be any mistaking that.
And since the saddle feathers are the clearest distinction between hens and roos, and also start to fill out first, this is the preferential point of reference.
On some of my images I’ve mentioned how my hens have tail feathers that resemble sails. Not all hens from every breed will be like that. Hence not all of my hens have sail-shaped tails. But a lot of them do.
The more chickens and chicks you have, the more you will be able to recognize features of a cockerel and pullet. And gain more confidence along the way. I hope I’ve helped you figure out how to sex chickens. Now all you need to do is put it into practice.