One of the most common questions we are asked is how to sex chicks or can chicks be sexed. There's no clear answer, however there are methods that help determine the sex of chicks early in development. There are also methods that simply do not work or should not even be attempted. It is understandable why people do want to know early on what sex their chicks are, so they are not getting attached to cockerels that they are not allowed to keep or prefer not to have. But sometimes a toss of a coin is as good as any way to determine whether you have cockerels or pullets until the chicks are older.
Currently, the industry uses vent sexing as the most accurate method of sexing chicks, however even the experts have a 10% percent margin of error. The method of vent sexing was developed in the 1920s, by the Japanese. And many of the expert poultry sexing employees are Oriental. This is not something you should even attempt at home, you can hurt the chicks and can cause death. One reason this method requires an expert, is that the sexual organs of both male and female can be very similar, and there are some 30 different shapes to those organs. So it's easy to see why there is a margin of error even when experts are making the determination. I have visited the farms stores where chicks are labeled as pullets. Barred Plymouth rock are an auto-sexing breed, which means their sex can be determined at hatch. The boys will have a dot on the top of their head, while the girls do not have that distinct dot. I have seen at least 20% of the chicks labeled as pullets that are in fact cockerels. So even some auto-sexing breeds will have a margin of error in determining their sex.
Another more recent method for determining the sex of the embryo, is through laser testing, that is still in trials in Germany, but soon to be introduced to the poultry industry. A tiny hole is created in the eggshell, before there is any developing chick. The fluid is then tested. A cockerel's hormones are slightly higher than a pullets. A computer makes the determination as to which sex the chick is. Those eggs that test out to be cockerels are tossed, and those that test out as pullets are then sealed with adhesive tape and returned to the incubator. Even this method of modern technology is only 95% accurate.
One very old farm myth is to hold a chick upside down by it's legs. If it's a pullet, it will draw its body up. If it's a cockerel it will flap its wings and try to right itself. This is not an effective or even recommended way to determine sex. It can hurt the chicks, and it determines nothing except either a reactive chick or a non-reactive chick. Docile breeds, male or female may have no reaction at all. Aggressive breeds may all react.
Shape of the egg is another very old farmers myth. Round eggs determine boy or girl, elongated or pointed eggs determine boy or girl. Take a good look at the eggs your hens are laying. It is virtually impossible to determine the sex of a chick by looking at the egg. Your chickens may lay round eggs commonly or elongated, pointed eggs commonly but that does not mean that they are laying eggs that are only one sex.
Wing tip sexing. This method can only be accurate within the first 3 days, and there is a margin of error. A pullets wingtips will be long, while a cockerel wingtips will be short. What makes this one difficult to determine and a margin of error is that there's only a brief time that the wing tips will look different. The other reason this may not be at all effective is that there is such a thing as *hen feathered*. Hen feathered shows up in roosters, which makes wingtip sexing impossible. There's also frizzled, sizzled and silk feathered, which makes it impossible to use the wingtip comparisons.
From our own experiences and calculations, in any given hatch, you can count on about 50% pullets and cockerels. One hatch may have more of one than another, while another hatch may be basically equal. It is not unusual to have a higher percentage of males than females. In our annual calculations, we find that out of hundreds of chicks hatched we get about a 1:1 ratio.
There are claims that if the incubator is up to half degree warmer than suggested, that there will be a high percentage of cockerels, while one degree cooler will produce pullets. In theory this sounds somewhat logical, since males tend by nature to be more warm blooded than females. We have not tested this theory, because monitoring the thermometer to keep it a half degree higher is risky, and any fluctuation can cause a failed hatch.
Some of the easiest ways to determine sex, beyond simple averages, is to observe behavior. Even from hatch chicks are determining a pecking order, and the cockerels are showing their protective instincts. If a chick puffs out its chest and struts toward you as you are approaching the brooder or feeding, that will often indicate a cockerel, even at just a few days old. If there are two or three chicks that appear to be scrapping that can also indicate cockerel. Those chicks that retreat are often pullets.
A fast maturing breed, such as the Red Sagitta, Rhode Island Red, Serama, and a few others, can be determined at around 4 weeks with fair accuracy. The comb on the cockerel will begin to develop, and you may see tiny tail feathers developing. Most other breeds will be 6 weeks or more before you can determine the sex. In the case of our Blue Breda Fowl, you may not be able to determine the sex until near maturity. Breeds with small or near non-existent combs, are very difficult to determine if there are no other outward signs during the development.
Auto-sexing breeds or sex-links are developed to make sexing and culling easy for everyone. As with our auto-sexing Cream Legbar, the boys coloring is muted and they have a dot on their head, where the females look like little chipmunks with their dark stripes down their backs. Sex-link cockerels are a different color than the pullets, so once again, they are easy to determine. If you are opposed to the sex links or production birds, as they are known , the auto-sexing breeds, Barred Plymouth Rock, Cream Legbar, Isbar, Marbar and similar breeds are a good choice. They are pure breeds, and each has some special feature about them. Such as Legbar and Isbar. Blue eggs are laid by the Legbar and greenish blue eggs ae laid by the Isbar. In either case, the birds are dual purpose, they are generally good layers and good meat for the table.
As you can see from the various methods, sexing chicks early on is not for the amateur or beginning chicken owner. We've raised chickens well over 20 years, and we can only boast a 75-80% accuracy rate. Some is determined by behavior, some is determined at the first crow. While others are determined early by comb and tail feather development. But we can be fooled and some of the breeds we raise, are near impossible to sex until they are well developed.
I recently heard two off the wall ways to sex chicks. One is holding back the eggs for several days before incubation supposedly produces pullets, and in a breeding program, removing the rooster after a few days, because the older the sperm the more apt to produce pullets. Both easy to debunk.
As for holding the eggs back several days, before incubation, most of our eggs are held several days before we incubate them, for varied reasons but mostly because we're waiting for a hatch to finish before we can put more into the incubator. Our ratio remains the same an average of 50%.
Now for the theory that removing a rooster from the breeding cage after a few days, will produce more chicks. That is highly unlikely. Several sperm are deposited in the hen at mating time. That hen has to ovulate before the sperm can be released and then fertilize the egg, so that can be several days anyway.
In order to prove any of these theories, it would require some serious study and documentation. One hatch will not determine any kind of conclusion. Any time there is a breeding program, there are many, many generations of chicks hatched, documents coordinated and mathematic equations employed to make any kind of determinations. Science doesn't happen overnight. There are studies after studies done that can take years of process and elimination. And even then many times there are no absolute conclusions. To do one hatch, then determine that because that one had all pullets or higher percentage of pullets compared to cockerels definitely does not determine that theory is accurate or even reliable. Averages are taken over a period of time, not from one uncontrolled hatch.
If these theories were true and 100% accurate you can bet the poultry industry would be practicing these methods. If you question whether they do practice these methods it is a resounding NO. They do not. They determine the sex the same ways we do, they either wait the 4 to six weeks until there is more characteristic signs or vent sex by professionals.
Currently there is only one method that is in it's experimental stage that holds promise and that is in ovo testing. Where a needle is inserted into the egg, some albumen removed and tested to determine how many chromosomes there are that determine male from female. This method has the most promise for the industry with about a 95% accuracy rate. This of course is not a method that will ever be affordable for a backyard flock enthusiast. But interesting nonetheless.
To recap, observe the chicks, usually the more aggressive chicks are male, so if a chick puffs out it's chest to challenge you when you are interacting with those chicks, you may have a little cockerel that is already taking his roll in life seriously. Cockerels tend to develop faster than pullets, so you may observe one or more chicks that are a bit larger than the others from the same hatch and same breed. The comb and wattles tend to develop more quickly in the males and the legs of males tend to be thicker and longer than females. Some Cockerels will actually begin testing their vocal cords as early as 4 weeks.
These are the best methods to determine without harm to the chicks and tend to be the most accurate method for backyard enthusiasts. If these methods do not work for you, consider auto-sexing breeds, or sex-links, that can be determined at hatch. Sex-links were developed for that very purpose, however there are even some heritage breeds such as the Barred Plymouth Rock that can be determined at hatch. Note that there are some breeds that are virtually impossible to determine the sex until they are nearly mature. Our Blue Breda Fowl are an example of this.
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