If you want to raise chickens right, then you have to learn how to tell them apart. It can be very confusing trying to work out what sex your chicks are but everyone can learn to tell adult chickens apart easily. In fact, we’ve put together a handy guide to show you exactly how it’s done. You’ll be sexing chickens in no time at all!
Is Your Chicken A Hen Or A Rooster? A Checklist includes understanding the different terms for chickens and how they relate to sex, the way to check the sex of chicks, how to see the differences in adult birds and even how you can tell them apart when cooking the birds. Learning how to spot the differences is very easy when you know how.
The Different Terms For Individual Chickens
Before we begin telling chickens apart by sex, it’s important to realize that there are a large number of different terms that people used to refer to chickens and that knowing which is which can help when it comes to sorting your chickens.
What Is A Chick?
A chick is a baby chicken of either sex. Chickens are considered to be chicks up until about the age of 12-16 weeks when other designations take over and they are separated into individual sexes.
An individual chicken can lay eggs for about 2-3 years and during that time period, assuming she has access to a rooster, she can have up to 100 chicks! That makes chickens rather more prolific mothers than you might have thought possible.
What Is A Pullet?
Pullets are female chickens. It’s a phrase that is used to describe a hen that is below a year old, but which hasn’t yet laid any eggs. Confusingly, a pullet is not a chick. If a chicken is under the age of 16 weeks, they will be considered to be a chick rather than a pullet.
When a pullet is getting ready to lay for the first time it may be called a “point of lay pullet” which doesn’t seem to add very much to the description but is the common term for them.
One thing you might not know about pullets is that they can be grumpy and bad tempered as they approach delivering their first eggs into the world. They may also be rejected by the flock until they lay eggs.
What Is A Hen?
A hen is a female chicken. In fact, the term “hen” is used widely across all bird species to denote a female bird. As we’ve seen already, a chicken doesn’t become a hen until they’ve passed through two stages: chick and pullet.
Once they start laying eggs, chickens are hens. Once they start laying, hens generally don’t stop until mother nature forces them to (this is in their middle age of around 3-4 years old). Assuming they’re left to be a hen will typically live between 8 and 10 years.
What Is A Cockerel?
Rather like pullets, a cockerel is not “all male chickens” but rather a male chicken below the age of sexual maturity. Just like in human beings the men of the chicken world are late bloomers when compared to the ladies and you’d expect a chicken to be a cockerel until about a year old.
They learn to crow at about 16 weeks old (think of this as the equivalent of a man’s voice breaking) and given the limited vocabulary of chickens (it appears that they have about 20 words total) much of what they say is simply, “This is mine! Keep away!”
Cockerels will begin to engage in dominance play early with other cockerels to establish themselves as high in the pecking order as possible but if they try this with hens, they will be sent packing.
What Is A Rooster?
A rooster, on the other hand is a grown male bird beyond the age of sexual maturity. A cockerel might talk a big game but he’s not spending any time keeping warm with the hens, a rooster is all about mating, however, and they’re going to do as much mating as possible.
Roosters are competitive. They compete for the affection of hens in their own flocks and seek to grow the size of their flocks as much as possible. In order to do this, they fight. This is why in developing nations “cock fighting” remains a popular sport – put two roosters in the same space and they lay into each other with beak, claw and the spurs on their legs.
When they’re not fighting each other, roosters also fight anything that might appear to attack the flock such as a cat or a dog. He will also keep watch and warn the flock of any harm approaching. On top of this, he’s meant to make sure that the hens have enough to eat.
There is only ever one sexually active rooster in a flock and if a rooster is challenged by another rooster and loses – the flock gains a new leader and the old one will normally head off in retirement to live on the edges of the flock or even completely on his own.
However, sometimes, a rooster may come back to the flock and challenge the newcomer, particularly if he lost due to injury or illness and if he wins, he gets his flock back.
Roosters don’t live as long as hens do – they’re expected to last between 5 and 8 years.
What Is A Capon?
The term capon refers to a castrated cockerel or a cockerel which has been given female hormones to effectively chemically castrate him.
The effect of this castration is to reduce the aggressiveness of the rooster. It is said that this improves the flavor and quality of the meat.
The practice of making capons is still popular in France but for a number of reasons, it is no longer practiced in most of the rest of the world.
How Can You Tell The Difference Between A Male And Female Chick?
It is very important to try and work out the sex of your chicks early, that’s because you are going to want to cull your male chicks.
Why? Because otherwise, you will end up with too many roosters later on down the line. Too many roosters mean too many fights and your entire flock can be gutted in the crossfire.
You’re better off with hens as eggs are probably the reason you bought chickens in the first place and roosters can’t lay eggs.
Sexing chicks is really hard. In fact, it’s so hard that the people who sex chickens in commercial operations make a small fortune (it’s a really well paid job) but in exchange, they have to be able to sex hundreds of birds a day.
They use a process called “vent sexing”. That is, they gently squeeze the chick until some poop is forced out – then they look at the cloaca and see if there’s a penis or not. This must be done very carefully, however, or you can seriously hurt the bird.
And after all that effort? It’s still not an exact science a failure rate of 10% or more is not uncommon when sexing chicks.
How Can You Tell The Difference Between A Hen And A Rooster?
While it is unlikely that you’re going to become an expert in vent sexing. Anyone can become an expert in sexing chickens when they’ve grown up.
The earlier you learn to tell them apart, the easier it is to separate them into male and female groups. Again, if you have too many roosters – culling is going to be a necessary evil.
The older they become, the more aggressive they will become and soon your cute chicks will have grown into warriors that love to kill each other.
There are five key areas of difference to look for to help tell the difference between male and female chickens: feathers, plumage, wattles and combs, legs & spurs and their behavior. Let’s take a quick run down on the main differences:
Possibly the easiest way to tell the difference between two adolescent birds is to check out the neck feathers:
- Female chickens have rounded neck feathers
- Male chickens have pointed neck feathers
Now, this isn’t quite as easy as it sounds and if you want to do it right, you need to hold a bird under your arm and then with the other hand, you use a piece of tough card (or even a credit card sized piece of plastic) and place it below a row of neck feathers.
This will allow you to get a very clear look at the shape of the feathers against the card – round feathers and you’re probably holding a hen; pointy ones and you have a rooter in the making.
However, it’s worth noting that rather like vent sexing – this method isn’t infallible. Sometimes you’ll get a surprising outcome from this.
One other thing to look for is the color of feathers. In species that show a variety of colors, pullets tend to have a single color of feather whereas a cockerel is likely to display many different colors in their feathers.
Plumage is the overall effect of feathers. It served (and for some non-domesticated birds, still serves) an evolutionary purpose and hens tend to look very different from roosters because of their plumage.
A hen’s job is to hide from predators in the wild. In fact, chickens are very vulnerable to predation when they’re laying eggs, so their plumage evolved to act as a form of camouflage.
The dull browns, off whites and yellows of a hen are there to help it blend into the background and to reduce their overall profile if spotted by a predator. A smaller seeming bird is a less interesting meal.
Roosters, on the other hand, have plumage for an entirely different purpose. It’s there to let the ladies know they’re around and it tends to brightly colored and exciting to the eye. It also helps to distract predators from the ladies and a rooster is better equipped to fight off threats to its flock as it won’t be laying any eggs.
Wattles and Combs Differences
If you’ve not heard the term before a wattle is the red tissue which serves as part of the chicken’s natural thermal regulation system. It dangles down below the chicken’s bill.
The comb, on the other hand, is the tissue which stands up on a chicken’s head and look something like an actual comb for someone’s hair.
Chicks don’t have wattles and combs at first. They start growing at about the age of 3 weeks old. The earlier that combs appear, the more likely it is that the chick is male and will mature into a cockerel.
Pullets wattles will start to change color at around the time they begin to start laying. This is usually very noticeable, and the final color should be a bright pink or a bright red.
Hens are fussy about wattles. A rooster that doesn’t have good looking wattles won’t find it easy to get the ladies to love him and it can be a good idea to cull male chicks with damaged wattles.
It’s also worth noting that any change in the color of wattles is usually a sign of disease and hens will reject roosters they feel are diseased and the same may be true vice-versa.
Legs And Spurs Differences
When roosters fight, they do it with the spurs on their legs and as you’d expect, mother nature has made sure they’re ready for the fight.
A rooster will have longer, thicker more substantial legs than hens of the same breed and they are more likely to have sharp spur growth (bones above the toes).
It is, sadly, the presence of these spurs and the drama of two roosters fighting which makes the sport of cockfighting so enticing for many. In many developed countries this practice is illegal and if you suspect that it’s going on near you, you may want to speak to the police.
In other parts of the world, however, it’s still considered a perfectly normal sport.
In their youth, hens tend to shy away from people and act like nervous ninnies. Cockerels, on other hand, are quite happy to be friendly with the people who care for them.
Over time, however, this pattern reverses. Hens tend to warm up to the people that care for them and can be quite affectionate. Roosters withdraw from the earlier friendship and can become obnoxious and even aggressive toward their owners.
Chickens of either sex are quite happy to have a fight but it’s roosters that tend to get really violent about it.
You may also see a rooster dancing to impress the hens that he wants to mate with.
Hens also tend towards community and seek safety in numbers. Whereas a rooster, when he’s not mating, will normally be off by himself keeping an eye out for predators and any other roosters that might be passing by.
Hens don’t crow like roosters. They do have a voice and have been known to get very vocal when an egg has arrived (this is sometimes called a “hen’s song” but it’s not like anything you’re listening to on YouTube and much more like the “back-back-baaaaak” sounds of chickens in cartoons).
The purpose of a hen’s song is thought to include:
- Letting the flock know where she is
- To help the rooster come along and mate again
- To boast about her new eggs
- To distract or intimidate a predator
A rooster can also cluck like a hen. They have a fairly limited vocabulary but can communicate danger, aggression and concern.
They also crow. They crow before dawn to let the hens know that light is coming, that they may wish to feed and that they can see any predators more clearly.
Can You Tell The Difference Between Hens And Roosters When You’re Eating Them?
Some people will argue that they can tell the difference between the two, but the truth is that the differences are minimal, and we’d suggest it might take years of experience to pick them out from each other.
Hens have more fat than roosters. This doesn’t mean much more than slightly oilier roast. Roosters are bigger than hens but once the feathers are gone, this isn’t particularly noticeable either.
You’re much more likely to discern the difference in different feeds when eating chicken (which has a huge impact on flavor) then the by gender of the deceased bird.
We hope that you’ve found “Is Your Chicken A Hen Or A Rooster? A Checklist” a useful guide to telling the two sexes apart in chickens. It’s not always an easy job but it is an important one if you want to care for the wellbeing of your flock and keep chicken rearing as easy as possible.
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