Male or Female Chicks? 5 Ways to Tell the Difference
Are you wondering if your chick is a female or a male? Well, you won’t really know until they crow… or, lay an egg! Jokes aside, it can sometimes be tough to say if a young chick is going to grow up to be a rooster or hen, yet there are a number of hints and signs that can give you a good clue. Read along to learn about sexing chicks – with 5 ways to tell the difference between male and female chicks, along with a handy reference chart at the end.
Young female chickens are referred to as pullets and young male chickens are called cockerels. At hatcheries, trained professionals usually determine the sex of chicks by examining their cloaca (vent opening and sex parts) just after hatching. Autosexing breeds can be distinguished by more apparent physical features such as color. Then the sought-after female chicks head off to farm centers or customers – but the sexing process isn’t foolproof! It’s not uncommon for folks to end up with an occasional cockerel despite ordering all females.
Speculation and Time
When raising chicks, there’s always a lot of speculation and guessing around chick sex – especially before they reach 8 to 10 weeks old (when the differences become much more apparent). Between imperfect sexing at the hatchery, androgynous individuals, early or late bloomers, those chicks really like to keep us on our toes! That said, there are always exceptions to the “rules” of sexing chicks outlined in this post.
Every backyard chicken keeper has had a suspected cockerel in the group, though it often turns out to be a hen. As a chick, I was pretty darn convinced that Zoey (our current Barred Rock) was a cockerel for many, many weeks. She had really thick legs, stood tall and proud, and was much larger than her sisters. Turns out she’s just a huge bird! So much so, I often call her Big Bertha instead of Zoey nowadays.
Be patient, give it time, and enjoy those little nuggets while you can. Chicks grow SO darn fast!
5 WAYS TO SEX CHICKS
1) Autosexing breeds
With some chicken breeds, you can easily tell the difference between male and female chicks just by looking at them! Certain breeds are considered “autosexing”, where it’s easy to distinguish male vs female chicks by different physical features or markings, even when they’re tiny fluffballs. In the animal kingdom, this is known as sexual dimorphism. Many hatcheries offer autosexing breeds as an easy way to guarantee females.
Autosexing chicken breeds include Dorkings, Crested Cream Legbars, Welsummers, Bielefelders, Rhodebars, and many other less common breeds. Some autosexing chick characteristics are quite obvious: like the distinct dark chipmunk stripes down the back of female Crested Cream Legbars, compared to the lighter body color and yellow head dot found on males.
Other examples of sexual dimorphism are more subtle, and therefore may be more difficult to rely on. For instance, male barred rock chicks usually have larger, scattered or irregular white spots on their head, while female barred rock chicks have a smaller, more distinct white head spot. Yet this can be hard to quantify or compare – especially if you only have one barred rock chick in your flock! (Our girl Zoey had a very large irregular white spot.) Male barred rock chicks also usually have more evenly yellow legs than female barred rocks, who have subtle black or gray on the front of their legs instead.
2) Size, Stance, and Legs
Compared to female chicks of the same age, male chicks tend to grow larger and faster. They often stand up taller than their female counterparts too… you know, practicing puffing out their big impressive chests and all! Male chicks also tend to have thicker legs and feet than female chicks.
3) Combs and Wattles
Another way to tell the difference between female and male chicks is by watching their combs and wattles develop. Both hens and roosters have combs and wattles. Some hens have impressively large combs, even bigger than roosters! For either sex, a bright red comb is a sign that the chicken is healthy and sexually mature.
Yet the comb and/or wattles on male chicks usually grow sooner and larger (noticeable around 6 to 8 weeks of age) and turn bright red earlier. On the other hand, female chicks combs and wattles usually grow in later (10 weeks or older) and become significantly more red and enlarged in the weeks before they start laying eggs. Hens start to lay eggs around 18 to 20 weeks of age at the earliest.
Sex aside, comb and wattle size varies greatly depending on breed and comb type. For instance, Ameraucanas and “Easter Egger” hens and roosters both have very small pea combs. Their combs look like a piece of chewed up gum stuck between their eyes, rather than a classic tall pointed single comb. Pea combs, cushion combs, rose combs, and other petite combs can make sexing chicks more difficult than other comb types.
4) Sexing Chicks by Feathers
Another key difference between male and female chicks is their feathers. Imagine a full grown rooster, with his long majestic neck, back, and tail feathers (also known as hackle, saddle, and sickle feathers respectively). Around the age of 9 to 12 weeks old, male chicks will start to show noticeably longer and pointed saddle feathers. Hackle and sickle feathers start to show around 14 weeks or older.
Hen feathers stay more uniform, short, and blunt compared to rooster feathers. Many female chick feathers grow in more quickly than males however, including faster tail development, so they can appear fully-feathered sooner.
There is another form of feather sexing that allows poultry professionals to distinguish between cockerels and pullets by examining wing feathers just after hatching. With this method, the feathers on male chick wings are even lengths while female chicks have irregular or alternating feather lengths on their wings. See image below.
Some backyard chicken keepers like to try to apply this method to their home flock, but further research reveals that wing feather sexing is only reliable in controlled environments where sex-linked chickens are bred to retain this trait (e.g. as part of a commercial poultry operation) though it can occasionally apply to backyard chickens successfully as well.
5) Behavioral Differences
Appearances aside, there are a number of behavioral traits that can give you a clue if chick is a rooster or hen. In addition to standing taller, male chicks may fight amongst each other more, trying to show off for the ladies or compete for the best roost.
Male chicks may also start to practice “tidbitting”: where roosters scratch, dance, and give short, high-pitched clucks near food – a signal that he found some tasty treats and wants to share with his girls. Yes, roosters are quite the gentlemen! And despite their mean reputation, cockerels can also be the sweetest birds in the flock. In fact, male chicks are often the most friendly and readily-handled of the group.
And of course, the final and perhaps most obvious sign that a chick is male: he will start to crow. Though a rooster won’t belt out a respectable crow until he’s 4 or 5 months old, young male chicks usually start exercising their vocal cords and start trying to crow as early as 6 to 8 weeks old.
One tell-tale behavior of older female chicks is the “submissive squat”. As pullets near maturity and are close to egg-laying age (16 weeks or older), they will often start to squat low and spread their wings as you approach. You can bend down and give them a nice little pet on the back, but it’s not pets they’re after… Female chickens squat as a sign they’re ready to mate with a rooster, and lay eggs! Check out this post with 5 signs that your pullet will start laying eggs soon.
Interestingly, pullets or hens may also exhibit “masculine” tendencies in the absence of a rooster, including tidbitting, issuing predator warning calls, or even crowing (though this usually happens far later than it would for males). Our eldest hen Hennifer regularly crows, and our Crested Cream Legbar hen Phoebe even grew spurs!
What to do with young roosters?
If you end up with a cockerel, please consider keeping him if you can! Roosters are excellent flock protectors, keeping watch and alerting the others when predators are around. Roosters are often very friendly with their favorite humans too! Otherwise, you can re-home your rooster to a nice farm where he can live out his life, or at least provide food for a family. Check your area for local animal or farm sanctuaries, or even “rooster rescues”. Listing the rooster on Craigslist or Facebook marketplace is another option.
And that’s the 411 on sexing chicks.
All in all, I hope this guide gave you plenty of tips to help identify male and female chicks. I also hope you have a blast raising them! I miss having them around so much. Please let us know if you have any questions in the comments below, and consider pinning or sharing this post if you found it useful.
If you’re new to keeping chickens, be sure to check out these important related articles:
- Baby Chick Care 101: Brooders, Heat, Health & More
- 10 Ways to Keep Chickens Cool During Summer or Heat Waves
- 10 Tips on Caring for Chickens in Cold Winter Weather
- When Do Chickens Start Laying Eggs? 5 Tell-Tale Signs It’s Soon!
- How to Store & Wash Fresh Eggs: Best Practices
- Feeding Eggshells or Oyster Shells for Essential Calcium & Health
- How to Ferment Chicken Feed for Better Hen Health & Eggs
Very interesting article. Now I know what to look for next time I buy my chickens.
One can assume sex differences in baby chicks I a couple other ways. Gently hold a baby chick upside down:.after a few seconds, the female will calmly hang while the male will try to right itself by lifting its head. Also, there is a difference in the feathers under the wing, near the shoulder but the chick needs to be very young.