Rooster vs. Hen: Know Before They Crow
How to tell a baby rooster vs baby hen before it wakes the neighbors.
Reading Time: 6 minutes
In the fun of getting tiny fluffy chicks, it’s hard to imagine a time they won’t be welcome in the barnyard (or backyard). Yet most people want hens, not roosters. In some places (notably suburbs), roosters are not permitted at all, thanks to their penchant for crowing. So how do you tell apart a baby rooster vs baby hen?
Several methods can determine rooster vs hen traits (including some which are breed-specific). Sexing methods include:
- Vent sexing
- Wing feathers
- Leg thickness
- Comb and wattle
- Secondary feathers
- Sex-linked traits
- DNA testing
When chicks are just out of the shell and dry, the only reliable sexing method is examining the sex organs in their vents. Vent sexing is a specialized practice that takes years to perfect. The difference between the male and female sex organs of newborn chicks is so subtle that even trained experts get it right only 90-95% of the time. Vent sexing can cause serious injury or death if done incorrectly, so this technique is best left to the professionals.
Between three and seven days old, feather sexing is possible — but ONLY if a chick’s father was a fast-feathering breed and the chick’s mother was a slow-feathering breed. “When slow-feathering females are crossed with fast-feathering males, the male offspring are slow-feathering like their mother, and the female offspring are fast-feathering like their fathers,” notes Dr. Jacquie Jacob from the University of Kentucky. Frustratingly, this technique of feather sexing does not work with purebred chickens.
Feather sexing of these hybrids is determined by a layer of feathers lying over the primaries. The longest feathers on any bird’s wings are the primary feathers. If you (gently!) spread the little wings of week-old chicks with the mixed heritage mentioned above, the primary feathers are already in. Layered over those is a secondary layer called “primary coverts.”
On hybrid pullets, the primary feathers are strong and straight, and the layer of primary covert feathers is obvious and well-developed. Their feather sprouts have an alternating pattern of longer and shorter feathers.
On hybrid baby roosters, the primary feathers are shorter, look spindly, and lack a noticeable row of primary coverts. Their feather sprouts look all one length.
By the time they’re a month old, little roosters are already becoming little roosters, not just in looks but in dominant rooster behavior. Cockerels may square off with other males, feathers ruffled, to establish a pecking order. Little boys don’t flee when you put a hand in the brooder — they’re bolder. When startled by a noise, boys pull themselves up and issue a warming peep, whereas girls usually crouch down and stay silent. Cockerels are more prone to puffing out their chests and standing taller and even start “clucking” the pullets to a new food source, just as they do when they’re adults.
At four to six weeks of age, pullet legs are more slender and refined, whereas cockerel legs are thicker with bigger feet.
As with all things chicken, leg thickness is not uniform across all breeds. Bare-legged chicks are easier to sex than feather-legged chicks.
Comb and Wattle
In breeds with pronounced combs and wattles (and not all breeds have these traits), little roosters already have larger and redder attributes than pullets by four to six weeks of age. By eight to ten weeks, combs and wattles are noticeably larger and more colorful among males.
By four to six months of age, secondary feathers begin to form as the birds approach sexual maturity. The most distinctive are the hackle, saddle, and tail feathers.
Long, sinuous hackle feathers grow around a rooster’s neck and flow over his “shoulders.” Hens also have hackle feathers, but they stay rounded and shorter. In some breeds, hackle feathers are a different color than feathers on other parts of their bodies. If you see two roosters fighting and it looks like an umbrella got stuck in their throats, those are the hackle feathers.
Saddle feathers, as the name implies, are located on the back just above the tail, right where a saddle would fit. They start growing at around three months. These flowing, sinuous feathers spill down the sides like little waterfalls. Some breeds of roosters (notably Sebrights, Silkies, Golden Campines) lack both hackle and saddle feathers (they’re termed “hen feathered”), but among most breeds, these are reliable secondary characteristics since only males have saddle feathers.
Then, of course, there are tail feathers, for which strutting roosters are justifiably famous. Even before elongated plumes grow, boys and girls have different tails. The tail feathers of hens are broad, straight, and full. On young roosters, the tail feathers are rounded, a little pointy, and not well-defined. Most notably, on cockerels the tail area “arches” in a rounded shape, whereas a hen’s tail region is flatter. Once again, however, not every breed of rooster has large, showy feathers.
In a few lucky instances, it’s possible to instantly tell the gender of a chick based on color. Male Rhode Island Reds and New Hampshire chicks have a white spot on the down over the wing web (this spot is lost when the chicks feather out). Sexing by this spot color is not always accurate because of the spot’s size variations. Similarly, Barred Plymouth Rocks have a light-colored spot on their heads upon hatching — larger in males, and smaller and narrower in females. It’s not flawless, but this gender determination is about 80% accurate. The Welsummer breed has differences in striping between males and females, accurate to about 90% (with experience).
Sex-linked chickens are crossbred hybrids, producing the desirable traits of both parent breeds (such as egg color, egg production, or meat production). A convenient benefit is male and female chicks are different colors. Breeds include the Bovan Nera (sometimes called Black Rocks or Black Stars) in which Rhode Island Reds are crossed with Barred Plymouth Rocks. However sex-linked birds will not breed true.
Some “autosex” breeds also have different-colored genders at hatching. Originally hybrids with complicated lineages, they continued to breed “true” and developed into an autonomous breed, such as “Legbars” (originally bred from Leghorn roosters and Barred Plymouth Rock hens).
There are essentially two kinds of sex-linked crosses: black sex-linked and red sex-linked. Black sex-linked is a cross between a Barred Plymouth Rock hen and a Rhode Island Red rooster. Upon hatching, both sexes have black down, but males have a white dot on their heads.
A number of different crosses can produce red sex-links. At hatching, males are whiter and females are red.
Crowing and Laying
Most people think crowing is the ultimate test of a male, and for the most part, they’re right. Early crowing attempts by young roosters, which start around four to five months of age, are often comical. “He’s missing a ‘doodle’ in there,” someone once observed. Some hens do crow occasionally, though not with the lusty assurance of rooster that comes with practice.
And of course, the definitive fail-safe method to distinguish roosters from hens occurs around five or six months of age: Hens lay eggs. Roosters don’t. Ta-da!
It’s possible to have a lab check the DNA of a newborn chick using either down, feathers, blood, or the eggshell (after hatching). But do you really want to spend $25 per chick to determine the gender?
Finally, there is the type of sexing best categorized as “wives’ tales,” which is no more scientifically accurate than random guessing. Believe me, if sexing chicks were this easy, every commercial hatchery in the world would use these methods. They don’t, because they’re not accurate.
- Egg candling. This merely shows whether an egg is fertile, not the gender.
- Egg shape. Nothing — nothing whatever — indicates a chick’s sex by the shape of its egg.
- Holding a chick by the scruff of its neck. In theory roosters let their feet dangle while hens draw up their legs. The theory is wrong.
- Holding a chick upside down. In theory roosters flap and struggle while hens just dangle. Again, the theory is wrong.
Time Will Tell
In short, it is difficult to sex a chick at birth. “The most accurate way to sex chicks is to watch them grow,” concludes Extension.org, and those are wise words. Unless you have a professional chicken sexer on hand, don’t count your roosters until they crow … or lay eggs.
Originally published in the June/July 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.