Survival Gardening

12 Ways to Sex a Chicken

Do you want to know how to sex a chicken? Hens and roosters play different but complementary roles in a flock and both have different physical characteristics. The trick is figuring out which is which before they grow up!

a sick chick
a sick chick

Knowing how many hens and how many roosters you’ll wind up with is important for planning your operation.

You’ll need to know how many layers you have, how many roosters for breeding and defense, and more. An imbalance will only slow things down and make your life hard.

In this article, we will discuss the anatomy of both hens and roosters, as well as various methods for determining their sexes at any age.

It can be tricky, but with this guide, you’ll be able to determine the gender of your poultry in no time. Read on for all the info you need.

Age and Breed Make a Difference

Not all chickens are female and before we get to the list of possible ways to tell a male chicken from a female, or vice versa, it is worth pointing out that the age of the chicken can make a big difference in your success rate.

For example, with some chicken breeds, the males and females will reliably have different colored feathers even as chicks.

This can be very helpful if you know which breeds you are dealing with. Generally, though, sexing chicks is very difficult and often risky if you are trying to inspect their sex organs.

Sometimes you’ll just have a hard time with things, as in some breeds, the males and females look almost exactly alike even as adults. Silkies and Sebrights are two such breeds that are notoriously difficult to visually sex by any means.

But much of the time, thankfully, once they reach adolescence they will generally have enough physical or behavioral characteristics developed to make a sound determination of gender with a high degree of accuracy.

In short, you will always want to rely on multiple visual or behavioral characteristics to confirm what sex a chicken is.

Sure, some are 100% certain, but you will rarely be so lucky while the chickens are young. With that in mind, let us get on to the list.

1. Laying Eggs

The single most surefire way to easily sex a chicken with no fuss and no muss. Unfortunately, it only works once your chicken has reached sexual maturity!

Among chickens, only hens lay the eggs, and furthermore it is only hens that will brood over laid eggs.

Know that hens will lay eggs regardless of whether or not there is a rooster present (she does not have to breed to lay), so anytime you see a chicken of yours drop an egg or sit on them, you will know you have a hen on your hands.

2. Check Comb and Wattles

One of the best physical indicators for sexing young chickens as they mature is to look at the size and shape of their combs and wattles. Once a rooster is heading into adolescence, it will have much larger and brighter combs and wattles than hens will. This is due to the fact that they rely on said features to show off and attract mates.

The comb is the fleshy bit on top of a chicken’s head, and the wattles are the dangly bits that hang down from beneath their beaks.

Roosters will often start to develop noticeably larger, pointier combs as early as six weeks of age, and by month two to 10 weeks they are difficult to miss. Same thing with their wattles.

When in doubt, think “bigger is better” when it comes to distinguishing roosters from hens by their combs and wattles.

However, hens that are close to being in lay might start to show a comb that is somewhat plumper and deeper in color than usual, though the shape will not change much if at all.

3. Hackle Feathers

Hackle feathers are those that flow along and down the back of a chicken’s neck onto its back. In roosters, they are generally fuller, longer, and more pointed in hens. 

This is another good way to visually sex young chickens as they develop their adult plumage. A rooster’s hackle feathers often look like a sort of cloak or cape around his shoulders.

As with combs and wattles, hackle feathers usually start to become apparent around six weeks of age and are prominent by 8 or 10 weeks.

Again, take care as some breeds show markedly little difference in hackle feathers. Bredas show this similarity of hackle feathers, for instance.

4. Saddle Feathers

You can also check the saddle feathers, which are feathers located on a chicken’s lower back ahead of their tail feathers.

Again, roosters are “showier” in general since they always seek to both attract the attention of predators away from the flock and impress the ladies with their nice plumage.

Whereas a hen will have conservative, rounded saddle feathers that seem continuous until her tail feathers begin, roosters will have longer, rougher, and brighter or contrasting ones that might even hang down.

Like most differences in appearance, these really take off as chickens mature. Saddle feathers usually start to become more noticeable across most breeds around week 9 or 10 of their lives.

5. Tail Feathers

Who could miss the spectacular tail feathers of a mature rooster? Hardly anyone, that’s who! So it should come as no surprise that tail feathers are one of the best ways to tell a rooster from a hen.

Hens will have shorter, less flashy, and often more rounded tail feathers than their male counterparts.

Roosters’ tails tend to be much longer, brighter, and upright before tapering and curving over in a sort of arc or sickle shape.

Though some roosters have tail feathers that are more or less congruent with the rest of their coloration and pattern, many, many breeds feature a magnificent display of different colors and patterns.

If you should notice such a change in any of your young or adult birds, you will know with near certainty you have a rooster from that alone.

6. Posture

Hens and roosters don’t just differ in the color, pattern, and shape of their features. Their attitudes and bearings are noticeably different, to the point that experienced chicken-keepers can often just tell by looking at a bird’s posture and behavior whether it is male or female.

In general, roosters tend to hold themselves much more upright and “proud” in their posture than hens. They hold their heads and tails high and walk upright with a bit of a strut.

Hens, on the other hand, will often keep their heads lower and necks near parallel with the ground.

A hen’s walking pace is quicker and slightly more frantic than the usually measured walk of a rooster.

In short, roosters have an attitude, a chip on their shoulder, and hens typically do not (unless they are broody)!

7. Size

All things being equal, roosters are going to be larger than hens. This is especially noticeable in meat birds, which have been bred to grow as quickly as possible and achieve a large size at butchering age.

However, even among layers and all other breeds, males tend to be larger and heavier, on average, than females, often by at least a pound a few inches in height.

Roosters are also noticeably bulkier under their feathers, since they put on more muscle than hens.

If you happen to have two chickens of the same breed that look nearly identical, it may not be easy to tell them apart based on their size at maturity.

The difference in mass can be slight, and sometimes you will have an undersized rooster or oversized hen.

8. Legs

A great way to ID a rooster early on is to look at his legs. In most cases, those of a young rooster will be much thicker and more muscular than a hen of the same age.

This is due to the fact that as he grows, he will need extra support for his larger body, and also because he is more likely to rely on his legs for kicking in a fight. A hen’s legs will tend to be thinner and more delicate her whole life.

Speaking of fighting, another telltale giveaway of a rooster is his spurs. If you have ever been on the receiving end of a rooster’s spur, you will know that these are definitely not something to take lightly!

Spurs are the long, sharp, curved nails that grow out from the back of a rooster’s legs. Hens will have shorter, duller nails in the same spot, whereas a rooster’s are quite prominent and pointy.

Also, since we are down here, take a look at the chicken’s feet. You will notice that a rooster’s feet tend to be a little bigger overall compared to a hen of the same size.

9. Crowing and Vocalization

Of course, the most well-known way to tell a rooster from a hen, even for non-keepers, is by the rooster’s iconic crow. The cock-a-doodle-doo that lets everyone know where he is!

All chickens make vocalizations, but only roosters crow. This is their way of announcing their presence, alerting the flock and proclaiming their territory. If you hear crowing in your flock, you know have a rooster on your hands.

Hens do make plenty of other noises, such as the well-known cluck, as well as chattering, cooing and more.

Hens can make plenty of noise, but rarely if ever will they be as loud, as often, as a rooster, with the possible exception of some particularly noisy girls when they go broody.

10. Vent Sexing

Vent sexing refers to a process where someone with experience can tell the sex of a chicken by looking at its vent, which is the multipurpose opening on the back of the bird through which feces and eggs (for hens) are passed.

A person who is attempting to vent sex a bird will open the vent and look inside for the presence of a little bump called a papilla. If the papilla is present, you likely have a rooster. If there is no papilla, it’s a hen.

Though there are many keepers who learn how and employ this method, proper and safe procedure requires some training and a good deal of practice to be done correctly, to say nothing of it accurately.

Mistakes do happen, and while it is sometimes commonly used to sex otherwise difficult to ID baby chicks, it is also quite easy to fatally injure or maim the poor bird while doing so.

So unless you are properly trained in this way, it is not recommended that you try this at home. Leave it to a pro!

11. Auto Sexing

Auto-sexing is simply the term for a particular breed of purebred chickens that have completely distinct, and reliable, markings or coloration at birth. In short, the boys always look like boys and the girls always look like girls.

If you are buying or raising auto sexing chickens you can relax since you will be able to tell them apart at a glance.

Some breeds known for auto-sexing include:

  • the Bielefelder,
  • Buff Orpington,
  • Rhode Island Red,
  • Cream Legbar and Barred Plymouth Rock.

In the case of the Beielefelders, male chicks have a “chipmunk” light brown stripe on their backs with a white or pale spot on the head.

Females will have a dark brown stripe on their back that goes completely up and over their head.

By learning these simple indicators for the applicable breeds you will never miss the mark when sexing your birds.

12. DNA or “Feather” Sexing

DNA sexing, sometimes called feather sexing, is a process by which the sex of a chicken can be determined through a quick genetic test.

A few feathers are plucked from the chick and sent off to a laboratory by mail where the DNA is extracted and analyzed.

In a few days, you’ll get your results back and know for certain. Results are usually collated by assigning your chickens a colored leg band or other marks.

The main advantage of this method is that it can be done on very young chicks, even those that have not yet developed conventional sexing characteristics.

This is obviously handy for breeders or hatcheries who need to know the sexes of their birds as early as possible in order to begin raising and selling them. It is also surprisingly affordable in most areas.

Another advantage is that there are no real physical risks of harm involved for the bird compared to vent sexing.

Although it might seem like a waste in lieu of some other methods mentioned on this list, when time and certainty is of the essence for your operation it is worthwhile, and the same for breeds that are notoriously hard to tell apart by any other way, like Silkies.

Learn to Tell Your Chickens Apart with These Tips

So, there you have it. A bunch of different ways to sex your chickens. While some are more accurate and reliable than others depending on age and breed, any of them can be successful in combination given the right circumstances.

Remember that no one method is 100% foolproof (save the laying of eggs or DNA testing), so always try to use a combination of methods to ensure accuracy.

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