Backyard Poultry

Sexing Chicks

Starting a Flock : Caring for Chicks

Mikelle Roeder, Ph.D.

Multi-Species Nutritionist

Congratulations on your new baby chicks!

Whether you’ve hatched them yourself or acquired them from a supplier, your new chicks are sure to enrich your life. But how can you tell the gender of your new birds?
 
The first step is understanding the terminology of your new chicks. Female chicks are known as pullets, while male chicks are called cockerels. As they mature, pullets grow into hens and cockerels grow into roosters.
 
Now that you know the terminology, how do you know if the pullets you’ve ordered are, in fact, female? Or how can you determine the sex of your hatchlings?
 
Unlike mammals, the sex of the newborn chick is not inherently obvious. The reproductive organs of both the cockerel and pullet are internal, so at hatching it is difficult to tell who is a girl and who is a boy.
 
Following are a few commonly used methods to make the determination.
 
Vent sexing
Vent sexing – or manually examining the reproductive organs - is one way to determine the gender of your new chicks.
 
Vent sexing is not easy, and requires a trained eye. The training for vent sexing is lengthy and difficult; therefore, it is a practice most often only performed by large commercial hatcheries. Done improperly, vent sexing can cause disembowelment of the chick, so the process should not be attempted without professional training.
 
Trained professionals follow this process for vent sexing: the chick is turned upside down, fecal material is expelled, and the vent area is turned outward in the process. The observer looks for the presence or absence of a rudimentary male sex organ to determine if the chick is male or female. This method takes a lot of practice and is generally used only on commercial farms, and even the pros don’t have a 100 percent accuracy rate.
 
Feather sexing
Another way to determine the gender of your birds is by their feathers. This process is called “feather sexing.”
 
Unfortunately there are no set rules in feather sexing across breeds. In some breeds, there are some notable differences between the feathers of male and female birds. The catch is that some of the differences are specific to certain genetic traits. Many breeds do not have such traits, and feathers can appear the same in pullets and cockerels. 
 
Because of these genetic differences, feather sexing is easier in some breeds than in others. For example, male Rhode Island Reds and New Hampshire breeds are hatched with a white spot on the down over the wing web. This spot is lost as the down is replaced with feathers. There is a lot of variation in the size of the spot, so this method is not always accurate.
 
Similarly, Barred Plymouth Rock breeds are born with a white spot on top of their heads. The spot is typically smaller and narrower in females versus males, but again the variation makes it an unreliable sexing tool.
 
Sex-linked crosses 
With no definitive way to tell the gender of chicks from day one, some breeds have been bred to further show the gender from day one. These breeds are known as sex-linked crosses.
 
In sex-linked crosses, like the Black Sex-Link, genetics help tell the gender by both the color and the growth rate of feathers. The traits for color and growth rate, called alleles, are carried on the same chromosomes that determine the sex of the chicken. If the traits of the mother and father are known, the traits (and therefore the sex) of the hatchling can be deduced based on the appearance of color and feather growth.  
 
Unfortunately, sex-linked adults do not breed true, so to continue to produce sex-linked chicks one must maintain a flock of each of the parent breeds.
 
Chick-sexing myths
There are a number of myths about how to determine the sex of a baby chick. Here are the facts.
  • The shape of the egg that houses a developing chick is not indicative of the hatchling’s sex.
  • Holding a weight on a string over the developing egg and watching it swing in a circle (female) or back. and forth (male) is not an accurate or scientific way to determine the sex of the chick.
  • One cannot candle an egg and determine if the embryo is male or female.
Chick sexing: No easy way
By now, you’ve probably guessed that there is no simple way to determine the sex of a day-old chick.
 
The best, tried and true, 100 percent guaranteed method is to watch the chick grow. Cockerels will develop larger combs and wattles, as well as longer tail feathers. They are typically larger in body size, and will begin to crow (or try to!) a few weeks after hatching. While not a quick determination, the “growth watch” method is the only practical, truly accurate way to determine the sex of a chick.
 
Even if you’ve ordered or purchased pullets, know that mistakes happen and there is a margin of error for everything. Make sure to have a plan in case you accidentally end up with a rooster and cannot keep him. Some town or city ordinances do not allow roosters in suburban areas. Working with your local farm store, you may be able to network and find other farms or backyard enthusiasts more than willing to raise roosters.
 
End up with a rooster? Learn tips for welcoming him into your flock.
 
eXtension.org. 2013. Sexing day old chicks on small and backyard flocks. Accessed online December 23, 2014 at: http://www.extension.org/pages/65437/sexing-day-old-chicks-on-small-and-backyard-flocks
 
Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, Mississippi State University. Sexing of day old chicks. Accessed online December 23, 2014 at: http://msucares.com/poultry/management/poultry_sexing.html
 
Mormino, K.S. How to sex chickens: male or female, hen or rooster? Accessed online December 23, 2014 at: http://www.the-chicken-chick.com/2014/06/how-to-sex-chickens-male-or-female-hen.html
 
Schrider, D. 2013. Determining sex in chicks. Backyard Poultry Magazine. Accessed online December 23, 2014 at: http://www.backyardpoultrymag.com/determining_sex_in_chicks/