When you’re breeding and raising chickens for dual purposes (for meat and for egg laying), there comes a time when you need to decide which purpose each bird will be geared towards. Since males don’t produce eggs, it’s pretty clear who the layers will be and who the eaters will be. It’s a bummer to be born male in the farming world. Unless of course you are of exceptional breeding quality- then you’re rockin’ with the ladies.
We usually separate the two groups around 8 weeks old. By then you can usually pick out the roosters from the hens and can see any extreme personality characteristics that you would want to weed out of your laying flock. (We have a couple of young hens that might be put back out with the roosters if they don’t calm down a bit. Hey, we’re a laid back family around here. Gotta keep the energy level peaceful or you’re out of luck.)
The benefit to sexing the birds at this age is that they tend to blend in better with an established flock than older (or younger) birds do. Juvenile birds are young enough to know better than to challenge the adult birds’ status and the adults tend to give them more wiggle room when they accidentally step into their space or try to eat first. The term “pecking order” is popular for a reason- chickens are quite particular about their hierarchy and don’t like to have it challenged.
Although there are some obvious standouts in the crowd, it can be difficult to determine exactly which birds are male and which are female at 8 weeks old. The roosters aren’t crowing yet and the hens are still about the same size as they boys. But there are some identifying traits that you can pick out if you look closely.
The first thing I look at is the comb. Males tend to have a much more prominent comb that tends to stand out like a red flag. Likewise, the wattles (the red fleshy bits of skin under the chin) tend to be larger and brighter on roosters. They serve to keep the chicken cool in hot temperatures and also to attract potential mates. However, since we’re dealing with mixed breed chickens, and some have single combs and others have rose combs or pea combs (chicken genetics article coming soon!), we can’t always go by this trait alone.
Another very helpful part of the body to look at is the leg. Roosters will have thicker, sturdier legs and in some breeds (such as the Barred Rock, below) they are even a different color from sex to sex. If you’re still not sure, you can check for the start of a spur on the ankle. Males will have a small nub that is the start of a spur (the long talons that are used in cock fights).
In some breeds (again, see the pair of Barred Rocks below) the males will have a brighter coloring than the females. In the wild we see many species of birds that have brightly colored males and drab colored females. It is thought that the bright color of males helps to attract mates while the dark color of the females camouflages them while sitting on a nest. This is less true in domestic/farmed animals, but is sometimes selected for (as in sex-linked breeds) to make sexing at an early age easier.
Lastly, you can look at the plumage itself. Males tend to have longer tail feathers that stick straight up when they strut. (But again, this varies by breed.) One of my favorite things to look for is one of the hardest things to see at such a young age. The HACKLE! As a fly tier, the hackle is the most valuable part of the rooster. The saddle hackle is located on the side of the bird, just behind the wing. The neck hackle is, of course, located on the neck. Hens have shorter neck hackle that can be used in smaller fly patterns, but the roosters have the long, beautiful saddle hackle that is sought after for streamers and wet flies. (Or for hair accessories, if that’s more your speed.)
There are a couple of other giveaways too if you’re paying close attention- like the muscle tone or heft of the body when you pick the bird up. And although these guys aren’t quite crowing yet, they are getting close. When I picked this champagne-colored guy up he made a deep throaty croak. Bummer. Rooster. I’ve had my eye on this one (below) since the day he hatched, hoping it was a hen because he seems to be a mix of Buff Orpington and White Cochin. Both are breeds known for their broodiness and good mothering ability. I was sure this was our next great nanny. Apparently not.
So I did my best. From what I can tell there are 14 hens and 15 roosters. Amazing how that 50/50 thing works, huh? I may have made a couple of mistakes. Time will tell. (That’s how we ended up with 2 roosters this past year- one boy didn’t start crowing until the week following D Day for the other roosters. Brat.) The hens moved into the barn with the established girls and met their parents for the first time. Surprisingly we’ve had very little issues with them getting along. Maybe it’s because they know they’re family (mmm…no, probably not). Or maybe it’s because we have enough space for them to keep their distance if they like. But I imagine it’s mostly due to the age that we introduced them and the breeds/personalities that we keep. Good karma, I guess.
The boys are doing just fine all alone. We wouldn’t be able to keep them all together forever, even if we wanted to, because they will eventually start picking fights and trying to prove their masculinity as they enter adolescence. Boys. When it starts to interfere with their quality of life they’ll move to the freezer. Until then, they’ll enjoy a new patch of grass, weeds and bugs each day to keep them busy.
Except…maybe…this one. Ain’t he purdy?