The Inexact Science of Sexing Chickens

One of the most frequently asked questions we hear on the phones at Purely Poultry, at poultry swaps and during the question/answer part of presentations is: How do I tell if my chicks are male or female?

Sexing is simple if you buy black or red sex link chicks, but otherwise, sexing is more complicated and not something that can be explained in a quick phone call or during a section of a short seminar.

In fact, there are people who are “professional sexers.” They are employed by hatcheries and determine whether day old chicks are male of female. The method that professionals use is called vent sexing and involves looking inside the vents of day old chicks.

These highly knowledgeable and experienced professionals  are only right about 90% of the time. The 10% error margin is the reason that male chicks are sometimes erroneously included in orders that specified females only.

In many urban areas, particularly those where backyard flocks have only recently been approved, roosters are not allowed. Some people simply don’t want the noise that comes with roosters. If you don’t plan to raise any chicks yourself, there is really no reason to have a rooster. Your hens can (and will) lay plenty of eggs without a rooster.

The safest way to insure that you only receive females is to order sex-linked breeds because there coloring reveals whether they are male or female. However, if you are interested in raising a heritage breed, you should specify females only in your order, but you also should be aware that there is a 10% chance you’ll receive some males.

Occasionally, customers ask us what they should do with any males they mistakenly receive. Our best advice is to give them away, especially if roosters are illegal in your area.

How will you know if you’ve received males? You won’t, at least at first. It takes a few weeks, but then as the birds begin to develop you may spot some clues:

  • Look for the beginnings of wattles. Females rarely grow wattles as chicks, but you may begin to see the early growth of a wattle on a male chick by about 6 weeks of age.
  • Hackle feathers (just at the base of the neck) and saddle feathers (the last feathers before the tail feathers begin) are pointed on males, but rounded on females. This difference takes a couple of months to emerge, and can be difficult for novices to see.
  • At five to six months, you can see the beginnings of spur development on males. In some breeds females will develop one spur, so be sure to look at both legs.
  • Although it is a bit more intuitive, many long time poultry keepers say that the attitude and character of a chick is the best way to tell if it is a rooster in the making. Males are more likely to come to humans, less fearful and generally more aggressive than females.

As you can see, sexing chickens is, at best, an inexact science! While we always welcome your questions, on the topic of sexing, we may not have all the answers, but will be happy to share what we do know. Have you ever found – to your surprise – that one of your “girls” was actually a rooster?