Roosters or Hens?

At eight weeks, Paco has all of the physical and personality characteristics of a young cockerel.
At eight weeks, Paco has all of the physical and personality characteristics of a young cockerel.

One of the most important ways to ensure a harmonious flock is making sure that your hen/rooster ratio is reasonable.  Multiple roosters will squabble and even kill each other when competing for too few hen’s affections.  Many towns have ordinances against roosters because of their before-dawn crowing, and it’s always a good idea to check with your neighbors even if your town doesn’t have any specific laws.

Having said that, a couple of roosters bring a lot of entertainment and personality to a flock.  They are usually more friendly than hens because they are not afraid, and their clucking and presenting for hens is endlessly amusing.

In order to ensure that you have a good hen to rooster ratio, it’s best to figure out the sex of your chickens early.  It’s easier to part with a chicken you haven’t had for too long, and you have more time to find them a good home if you start looking right away.

Spot the roo! While Rosemary, left, has quite a personalty, only the middle chicken in the photo turned out to be a rooster.
Spot the roo! While Rosemary, left, has quite a personality, only the middle chicken in the photo turned out to be a rooster.

Most hatcheries offer sexed chicks and claim at least a 90% accuracy rate.  This is for standard breed chickens, very few hatcheries will sex bantam breeds.  Local suppliers from poultry clubs or feed stores rarely offer sexing, and if you hatch your own eggs you won’t know what you are getting.  This is one of the main reasons many people looking for their first chickens turn to hatcheries.

You can vent sex your chicks yourself, although most hobbyist chicken keepers do not.  This is the method that hatcheries use, but it does require some skill and I do not recommend attempting it unless you are an experienced chicken keeper.  Since chickens naturally hatch with a 50/50 mix of males and females, if you are hatching your own eggs or getting unsexed chicks, it is not unlikely you have some roosters in the mix.

One of the easiest ways to know if you are getting males or females is to order sex linked breeds.  There are a few breeds of chickens which have been bred to display different colors in the different sexes.  Sex-link breeds are, however, not able to produce offspring that show the same color-sexing traits, since they are usually created by crossing of various breeds themselves.  A few of the sex-link breeds available include: Red Stars, Golden Comets, Black Stars, and Golden Buffs.

Big Red, our Red Star sex-link pullet.
Big Red, our Red Star sex-link pullet.

Sex link chickens are different from autosexing chickens because sex link varieties are created by crossing various breeds to produce an offspring that can be sexed by color.  Autosexing breeds, which are more unusual, naturally display different colors in males and females.  This also means that the offspring of an autosexing breed of chicken will display the same genetic coloring as its parents.  Autosexing breeds of chickens include Cream Legbars, Golden Legbars, Rhodebars, and Barnebars.  Cream Legbars are the most easily found variety.

Attempting to determine the sex of your chicks by appearance or attitude is the most common way hobbyist chicken keepers verify sex, but until they are at least 8-12 weeks of age this method is fraught with error.  Markers of a rooster include a larger, faster developing comb and wattles, longer hackle and tail feathers once feathering begins, upright postures, and fearless, assertive attitudes.  However, all of these things have exceptions and can be displayed in young pullets or be absent from a young cockerel.

Helga had all the attitude of a rooster, but you can tell by her small comb and feathering that she's a pullet.
Helga had all the attitude of a rooster, but you can tell by her small comb and feathering that she’s a pullet.

There is also a method of feather-sexing day old chicks which I have heard is quite reliable, but have not tried myself.  The theory is that the feathers of a day old to three day old cockerel on the wings are all the same length, whereas the feathers on a day to three day old pullet’s wings are two clearly different lengths.  This method has been demonstrated to be very effective, but is not common practice.  I am not sure why it is unusual, except that the timing of sexing the chicks is very specific and beyond three or even two days, it becomes ineffective.

The easiest way to tell if you have a cockerel or pullet is to wait and see who starts to crow, and who starts to lay eggs.  Roosters usually begin crowing around eight weeks, and hens will start laying eggs at about six months.  If you start to hear strained, warbling cock-a-doodle-dos in the morning, you have a young rooster on your hands.  Young roosters will also start to show an interest in adult hens and begin to present for them and attempt to mate with them.  There is one loophole in this method: if you have several young roosters, often only one or two will start to crow initially, while the others defer to the dominant male and remain silent and submissive.  If you continue to wait for another few weeks, all of the males should begin to crow, but a quick determining method I’ve found is to introduce a new female to the flock.  When a new adult hen arrives, suddenly all of the males are interested and will start to court with her.  A female pullet will show no interest, except possibly some aggression.

We figured Fat Boy was a rooster from his personality at only a few days old.
We figured Fat Boy was a rooster from his personality at only a few days old.

Of course, the easiest way to determine the sex of the birds you are getting is to purchase them as adults.  Their appearance and behavior will tell you immediately: roosters have large combs and wattles, full plumage in their tales, spurs on their legs, and will crow regularly.  Hens lay eggs, of course, and have small combs, and are much more docile in their behavior.


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