If you purchase your chicks from a straight run, that means that your chicks haven’t been sexed and there is a 50/50 chance of getting cockerels (males) or pullets (females.) It’s difficult to tell which is which, since most chickens don’t have immediately recognizable gender traits until they reach adulthood. Many people have problems identifying the sex of their chicks. This can be a problem for those who keep chickens and other types of fowl in their backyard, as many residential areas prohibit the ownership of roosters due to noise complaints. Others may just not want their flock reproducing, or they want to cut down on the bullying in their existing flock, which can become an issue if you have too many males.
There are a lot of myths out there surrounding how to accurately sex your chicks, most involving the size, shape, and color of eggs. These have been debunked many times! Egg characteristics may be able to tell you something about your hens, but not the chicks growing inside.
Many professionals determine the gender of their newborn chicks using the vent sorting method. Vent sorting involves inspecting the sex organs by lifting the chick and examining its rump. This method has a 95% accuracy rate when done correctly, but unfortunately, vent sorting is not an easy method to learn, and is usually left to professionals. Don’t worry! There are many tell-tale signs that point to the gender of your chick or duckling early on that you can spot yourself.
Physical characteristics are probably the easiest way to spot a rooster from a hen, but they can be tricky to determine with younger birds, as all breeds are different and some birds can simply develop slower than others. Pay attention to the size of your chicks – males and females will normally grow at a similar pace at first, but eventually the females will begin to grow more slowly, while the males get a nice growth spurt. Often, pullets will have shorter legs and stay lower to the ground, and young cockerels will look like they are stretching to reach the top shelf.
Many people assume that only male poultry develop a comb, but this isn’t always true. Combs and wattles, usually red but sometimes black or brown, are the flabby pieces of skin that grow out of the base of the beak. While most males usually develop much larger combs, hens of many breeds of chicken also grow combs. When observing your chicks as they grow, look for those that begin to grow combs first – usually (but not always) these are the males. If you have a group of chicks that are all female, some will of course develop at different speeds, so it’s important not to immediately assume the first one’s with combs are males.
Feathers are another good indicator of gender. Most chicks will start to lose their baby fluff at around 3-4 weeks of age, and slowly begin to show their adult plumage. A little research can go a long way when sexing your chicks – some breeds, such as the Sicilian buttercup, have very different characteristics between male and female. Unfortunately, for some breeds like the Barred Plymouth Rock, males and females will have very similar color patterns. Pay attention to the feathers around the neck and tail – males often have longer feathers with pointed ends, while female feathers are shorter and rounder. These pointed saddle feathers around the base of tail will be the most accurate indicator of a male around 12-14 weeks.
It’s important not to jump the gun and assume you have roosters until you have waited an appropriate amount of time and closely evaluated these saddle feathers. Roosters often tend to have a slight sheen to their feathers, and will usually be more colorful, while their lady-friends develop more neutral coloring. This is also true for other types of fowl, such as turkeys and ducks – the males develop flashier plumage and are dressed to impress, while the females tend to grow feathers that help them blend in with their surroundings.
Anyone who has kept roosters will probably have a few pin-prick puncture scars around their shins and a funny story to tell about their standoff. These are due to spurs – the sharp little weapon that grows at the back of the foot and hurts way more than you’d think. Once you see spurs growing, you know you’ve got a little roo. Hens will have blunt nubs where the spurs would be. You can start to check for spurs around week 4 of growth for most breeds.
Sounds: These usually aren’t apparent until the birds are 8-12 weeks old, but it was especially helpful to determine the sex of our ducks and turkeys, whose sizes and plumage were very ambiguous before they fully matured. Listen for crowing in chickens, and the gobble sound in your turkeys; both of these are characteristics of a male. Male chickens and turkeys tend to be very loud, but in ducks its the opposite: hens tend to be louder and drakes more soft-spoken.
Attitude: Ever wondered where the word cocky came from? Roosters tend to be very curious, proud, and more assertive, even from a young age. Watch your chicks and see who tends to take charge and lead the way more often. Just don’t let your chicks become bullies!
Fighting: Once their spurs start to develop, you may also notice a few small scuffles between two males. They’ll fan their neck feathers out and jump or peck at one another. This isn’t exclusive to male birds, but frequent fighting can be a hint to look out for other signs.
If you research your breeds and learn what to look out for, determining the sex of your chicks isn’t as impossible as it looks. Keep in mind that even professionally sexed chicks may end up incorrectly sorted, so always have a backup plan if you end up with an unwanted rooster.