How to Know Before They Crow

The spring chickens turn 12 weeks old today! Seems like just yesterday we were watching them hatch.

They’re old enough now that we can tell who’s going to be staying with us long-term. Mostly.

“Chick sexing,” or gender identification in chickens, can be pretty tricky. Last time we ended up with 2/2 boys, and because I’m an optimist, for months tried to explain away obvious rooster traits as “early-blooming hens.” Nope. Not this time.

With 23 young chickens all the same age, it’s been a lot easier to tell the girls and boys apart with this hatch. But we won’t know for certain until they crow or lay an egg (probably at least another 6 weeks).

chicken_sexing_11_weeks_EE_SS

Most of our chicks are barnyard mutts and Easter Eggers (also technically mutts), which can be especially difficult to sex because they have a lot of variation in appearance. Luckily, it looks like we got males AND females from most of our known crosses, so I have a decent basis for comparison this time.

I’m no expert, as you may have gathered from the first few sentences, but I have done a fair amount of research (and taken a lot of pictures.) So without further ado, here’s all I know about sexing chickens:

Earliest methods

Unless you’re hatching sex-link chickens (which are crosses bred to hatch out with males and females having a different down color), it’ll probably take a few weeks to start seeing differences between the pullets (girls) and cockerels (boys).

in_the_coop

In commercial hatcheries, they use vent sexing (or squeezing the chick and peeking inside its egg-hole, if you want to be scientific about it.) This is difficult to do and requires a lot of specialized training, and has about a 10% error rate even so. Plus, it can only be done within the first day or two. Your birds would probably appreciate you not trying this one at home.

Hatcheries also use feather sexing for certain breeds, but this doesn’t work on all chickens — only those that have the “slow feathering” gene — and so I’ve never tried it myself. There are plenty of resources on feather sexing out there, but the general process involves comparing the relative length of the primary and covert feathers on the wing at about one week of age.

Behavior

This is a pretty obvious one:

Cashew_vs_Noodle

A big difference between cockerels (young roosters) and pullets (young hens) is the fighting. Pullets will occasionally chest bump or peck each other, or even engage in battle with the boys sometimes as the pecking order gets sorted out — the Brahmas were the biggest chicks at first, so there were a few scuffles as the boys passed them in rank. But in general, the girls make their point and move on, while the boys make an event of it.

Cashew_1_Cordon_0

The fighting’s never been violent, mostly just show, but Cashew did get it handed to him one morning when he tried to challenge one of the older hens.

And I should also mention that the boys don’t always fight, particularly if they have an overbearing mother hen keeping them in line. That was a big part of why I was able to explain away so many rooster traits last time around.

As very young chicks, I’ve heard that roosters tend to be the calmest and friendliest — but I’m calling “old wives’ tale” on that one. From this hatch, we have some birds of both sexes that are very calm and outgoing, and others that don’t like to be handled at all — I’d say it depends much more on the individual bird and whether or not they’ve imprinted on humans.

But at this point, 12 weeks in, even the friendlier cockerels are starting to get a little more standoffish. The girls, on the other hand…

Shelly_9_weeks

Comb development

This is probably the easiest method of sexing chickens based on their outward appearance, though it’s not 100% accurate — some hens have huge combs, and some roosters are late bloomers. Not these two (I had them pegged in the first couple weeks):

Firecracker_n_Cordon_3_weeks

For chickens with pea combs, you’ll usually be able to see 3 prominent rows of “peas” early on if it’s a cockerel, and 1 flat row if it’s a pullet.

FiveSpice_3_weeks

Female rose combs and pea combs tend to be much smaller and flatter than their male counterparts. These are two of the 4 pullets we got from a hatchery, Vindaloo and Bake (of the duo Shake and Bake.)

Bake_and_Vindaloo_3_weeks

All 4 of our hatchery pullets (2 Silver Laced Wyandottes and 2 Light Brahmas) have had pink in their combs from day 1, so don’t read too much into color early on. By about week 5 or 6, the cockerel combs in our flock were really obvious.

Monterey_5.5_weeks

Monterey is one of the 4 chicks we got from General Tso (a Speckled Sussex) and Cutlet (a brown EE hen):

General+Cutlet

We’re pretty sure we have 2 girls, and definitely 2 boys from that cross. They’re really lovely birds, and although they were hard to tell apart for the first couple weeks they’ve become quite easy to sex based on their coloring (more on that in the next section).

Here’s Monte’s sister Patty, along with another brother-sister pair:

ShuMai_Blackie_combs_9.5_weeks

The 2 black chickens are the offspring of General Tso and Kung Pao, who both have single combs:

General+KP

At 3 weeks, the difference in comb sizes was clear with the Speckled Sussex + Black Star crosses as well:

ShuMai_3_weeks

Blackie_3_weeks

In addition to watching comb growth, you can also get hints from the coloring as the birds start getting their adult feathers (at about 4-6 weeks.) To me, this is the most interesting part of the guessing game.

Coloring and feather patterns

Easter Eggers in particular have a few patterns between the sexes that, while not universal, seem to be common among a lot of mixes (and even birds of other species). Mainly, the females are very drab compared to the males, who are a lot flashier:

FiveSpice_Sesame_etal

In general, if an Easter Egger starts feathering out in a silver (black and white) pattern it’s probably a cockerel. If a silver EE starts to get patches of red on its wings and shoulders, like FiveSpice in the photo above, it’s definitely a cockerel. FiveSpice and Sesame are very common EE patterns, so I felt pretty sure of their sex by the time they were fully feathered out.

Sesame_9.5_weeks

Now, here’s an exception to what I just said about black-and-white EEs:

Asada_n_Enchilada

These two sisters are definitely Easter Eggers (they hatched from identical green eggs), but according to the farm where I got the eggs their father is a Barred Rock/EE mix. They have barred (striped) feathers like Barred Rocks, but peacombs and puffy cheeks like EEs. In this case, their coloring comes from the dominant barring gene and shouldn’t indicate roosters (also because they act like girls and don’t have any combs to speak of, I don’t really have doubts about these two.)

One very obvious sign of an Easter Egger rooster is a chicken with red patches on the wings. There are certain colors in certain regions that most hens just won’t have — one of these is bright or dark red on the wings and shoulders (and ditto for black or white patches on the wings as well). But, this gets a little tricky when the birds have a red breed mixed in, as was the case with our Easter Eggers crossed with Speckled Sussex and Rhode Island Red.

We got 3 birds from our Easter Egger x Rhode Island Red cross, two of which were obvious roosters from about 4 weeks on. The third is the only bird I’m not sure about right now.

This is their father, along with one of the potential mothers:

EE_cockerel_RIR_hen

You may recognize this guy as Mack, the little Easter Egger chick hatched by Kung Pao, who now lives with our friend Claudia (he’s also the father of FiveSpice and Sesame.)

The boys, Cashew and Sweet-N-Sour, have patches of solid red feathers and iridescent green tail feathers coming in. Oh, and big red combs. Cashew has a pea comb, Sweet-N-Sour has a single comb.

RIR_EE_boys

Crispy, the other sibling, is not so obvious. You may remember Crispy as one of the assisted hatch chicks (all four of which are doing great, by the way!)

Crispy_red_spots

At first, Crispy feathered out in an even orange-and-brown pattern and I called pullet because of the tiny comb. But then I saw red patches start to leak in on the wings and shoulders, and changed my vote to cockerel. For a while, I was sure we had another boy as the patches got bigger and more pronounced. And then, as the rest of Crispy’s adult feathers started to come in, I realized that the red was coming in all over and in a very consistent pattern. Here’s Crispy last week alongside Sweet-N-Sour:

RIR_EE_mixes_Crispy_SS

Since Crispy is half Rhode Island Red, the red might just be from her mother. Crispy is also much smaller and doesn’t have the cocky posturing of the two brothers, and even has a smaller comb than most of the known pullets, so there’s that. But I’m trying to keep my optimism under control, for now, because it’s also quite possible that Crispy is one of those late bloomers.

Patty_3_weeks

Our Speckled Sussex + Easter Egger crosses also showed a lot of dark, mahogany red from their father. They looked nearly identical for the first few weeks, with white speckling (also from their father) on their juvenile feathers. These feathers have been replaced with adult feathers over the last few weeks, and the speckling has disappeared.

Stirfry_4_weeks

The adult feathers for both sexes show a lot of red, but the boys have a lot of black on their chests while the girls have red chests. Just like red spots on the wings, black chest feathers on an EE almost always indicate a cockerel.

Monterey_black_chest_EE_speckled_sussex

While the feathers on the boys from that cross are in dramatic patches of red and iridescent black, the girls are feathering out in a “penciled” pattern like their mother, only with more red.

Fingers_9.5_weeks

So as of now, it appears we have 10 boys, and 13 girls (9 from the incubator, 4 from the feed store.) That’s just about what we’d expect, because on average chicken hatch ratios are 51% cockerels, 49% pullets. Of course, that’s assuming Crispy is in fact a girl — I’ll keep you posted. Update: Crispy is in fact a hen, and lays olive green eggs!

18 Thoughts on “How to Know Before They Crow

  1. Lady of McCamley on March 20, 2014 at said:

    While the article is interesting and makes some really good points, it does have some errors as it is presenting barnyard mixes (hybrids of hybrids…or mutts) rather than 1st generation hybrids. The rules stated for EE’s are true for 1st generation EE’s, but don’t hold as true for 2nd generation mixes, especially offspring of parents that are mixes of mixes.

    Anytime you have a 2nd generation hybrid (hybrid of a hybrid) the gene pool expands further and a lot of different things can happen. From my personal experience, an EE rooster over a barnyard hen will produce a lot of different varieties, and I find my “mutts” do not follow any particular pattern at times other than they do mature faster and can fool you as to gender for a time. You have to look at overall growth, color, but in particular comb color and size, which I find seems to be the most telling and reliable. I find you cannot even compare 2 sibling mutts to each other as you could with pure breeds or the 1st generation hybrid as so much variation can happen…with mutts the best thing is to watch and wait.

    Also, the article is in error as to Black Sex Links. While I think the barred examples are likely pullets, confidence of them being so because they came from a Barred/EE roo and therefore sex-linked because of the dominant barring in the roo is in error. The hen must be barred while the rooster MUST be non-barred for the black sex-linking to work.

    Just a BTW…some overall good photos and descriptions of barnyard mixes and growth patterns, but not overall accurate to all points.

  2. Kim Roberts on April 24, 2014 at said:

    Thanks so much for your insights on cockerel vs. pullet and for the helpful photos. We have a girl Ameracauna that might indeed be a boy after all. I have $5 down on “her” being a “him” but my fingers are crossed for “her” to be a pullet so we can keep her/him.

  3. Sue on June 6, 2014 at said:

    Thanks for all the great detailed info! We have an 8 week EE that I was starting to suspect was a cockerel, but now I think still odds are it is a pullet.

    • kristyaspire on March 30, 2017 at said:

      Yes, my husband just informed me that one of my 7 weekers without a comb crowed. This is so frustrating. I guess I have to watch them crow and separate them from there.

  4. Kristin on June 17, 2014 at said:

    I have 25 pullets, 5 weeks old, and some of them appear to be developing combs. I’m worried I might have gotten some cockerels in the mix… all were purchased from a hatchery. Is a comb a tell-tale sign of a rooster?

    Also, I love that you’ve named your chickens with food names. I’ve done that as well. Makes it easier to think of them as dinner rather than pets!

  5. Cassandra on June 28, 2014 at said:

    Thanks, this is really helpful in figuring out our little flock of 14!!!

  6. Great article!!! We are new to the backyard chicken farming and are loving it…However, I think we are in denial. We have 4 pullets (12 weeks). When we bought them they said they were ameraucanas but I am guessing they are really easter eggers. The problem is 2 of them are crowing but everyone says they think they are pullets. I am thinking they are roo’s..they do the puffed hackles fight and one of them devolved a much redder comb at a very early age. The other 3 have pink combs. After reading and looking at your pictures it is still hard to tell being a newbie. Any thoughts? Can I send you some pictures for your opinion? I want to keep them but we can’t have roosters. :0( Thanks!!!

  7. Lisa on July 3, 2014 at said:

    Fabulous descriptions!! Thank You!!!

  8. Brooke on July 17, 2014 at said:

    Great Site! Very informative! I stumbled upon this worrying that my week old EE may be a cockerel (if so I will have to rehome as I live in city limits). She’s already got little tail feathers I’ve got 5 adult hens of other breeds and not seen this, but this is my first EE. But she does have the color patterns you mentioned. I’m already quite attached, so I’m hoping she isn’t a Roo. I love the names of your chickens and do plan to add some Brahmas in the next round. Do you have a FB page? I would love to follow 🙂
    ~Brooke

  9. Jennifer Knox on August 29, 2014 at said:

    I would really like if you would be able to help me sex my chicks. I have had them for a week and when I first got them I thought all hens and now I have been told I may have all roosters. I was hoping for all hens since I wanted them for eggs and the company. Thank you for your time I will send you photos if you are able to help.
    Jennifer Knox

  10. Janna Mauldin Heiner on June 11, 2015 at said:

    Interesting read. I love the names you give your chickens. LOL! (We once had two goldfish and named them Lox and Sushi). Our coop, a Craigslist deal, has access doors (both hen and egg) made of toilet seats, which my girl and I painted to look like Easter eggs. She calls it the Oval Office. So naturally the chooks are named to suit: Miss Privy, LaTrina, Johnnie, Dunnie, Lady Commodelia, and Lucy Loo.

  11. Eliezer on February 20, 2016 at said:

    How does shu Mai look like now?

  12. Cat on July 16, 2016 at said:

    Well documented with clear photos! Thanks for sharing this info.

  13. Mainexile on September 18, 2016 at said:

    Someone at a chicken swap pointed out that one way to identify cockerels is they have waxy, shiny feathers down at the base of their backs (just in front of their tail) from an oil gland that all roosters have. Is this true?

  14. Great info! Reading up to help me with my EE Polish cross chicks (first successful incubator hatch, and I have two fun little babies)!

  15. Love your chicken names! We have similar ones – Dumpling (EE), Fricassee (black star), Marsala (RIR), Biscuit (ameraucana), Blackened (black australorp), and one was known as “Funky” when it had a gimpy wing as a chick, but now it’s known as Crispy (black australorp). We also used to have Patty, Nugget, Curry, Fil-A (for Chic-Fil-A) & Cacciatore. 🙂

  16. Ann Cameron on January 16, 2018 at said:

    Hey There:

    I really need help. We started with two hens just a year and a half ago. We’re new at this whole chicken raising thing. Here’s the issue: We added four “hens” to our flock in Sept of this year. We raised them like hens, however, two of the four were roosters. So, we took them back to our guy and he gave us two more “hens”. Well, not sure if we have hens or more roos. If I send you a pic, could you tell me for sure? If so, where can I send them?

    Thanks for your help.

    Ann Cameron

    • Sara on January 17, 2018 at said:

      Hi Anne!
      It was really year of the rooster last year! We had a lot more than 50% roosters in all our hatches and it was the same with a lot of our friends. ?
      Feel free to send pics to hello@authenticheirlooms.com and I’ll have my sister weigh in too. Thanks for getting in touch!

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