Feather Sexing Chicks

New Babies on the Farm

In the last two years on the farm, we have gone through our fair share of chickens. There are several contributing factors to this, but the main one is Roosters. We keep a limited number of hens because of restrictions set forth by the Homeowner’s Association, which is a somewhat sensitive and complicated relationship. For the sake of maintaining some assemblance of being neighbourly, admits our flagrant disregard for the “rules,” we are cautious to not keep any roosters. The problem with this is that when we go to pick out a new chick, I inevitably select a wee baby rooster. I fall madly in love with it as it grows; more so than I ever seem to do with the pullets. I ignore or deny all together the early signs that my she might be a he. Maybe she’s just masculine, I think. Perhaps her more exuberant coloring is a byproduct of immaculate breeding, and those aren’t saddle feathers coming in – it’s just a bad hair day.

Until it happens, one day she crows. And even though I had known deep down, I still feel a little pang in my heart. The Handy Man immediately posts him on Craigslist; the description always includes the sentiments, “He is extraordinarily sweet and we would keep him if we were able.” I make the Handy Man sift through each response, before we decide on a home that sounds the nicest – or sometimes the person who responds with the best grasp of the written English language (don’t even pretend like you don’t do that too). Then off he goes, to be a man somewhere where he can belt his little rooster-heart out and have a harem of lady-friends.

I recently spent some time with a few reputable breeders learning to feather sex and wanted to share with you some good guidelines for when you go to pick out chicks. This is not 100% foolproof and does not work for every breed, but it does give you better than average odds of selecting a pullet and not having to go through the heart break of getting rid of your Roo.

This is best done between one and three days of hatch.

When you pick up the chick, gently stretch out its little wing. You will see two rows of feathering – the coverts and the primary wing feather. In a male, the primary wings grow slower than a female, therefore when you examine the wing, the coverts and the primary feathers are approximately the same length. In a female, the primary wings grow faster. This means, when you examine the wing, you should see two distinct rows of wing feathers. The coverts will be shorter, and the primary longer.

Using this method, I was able to sex these three chicks when I picked them up. I’m confident that all three will be girls.

Euskal Oiloa - Marraduna Basque Hens

Euskal Oiloa – Marraduna Basque Hens

Once the chick has breeched the week mark, this method is no longer applicable. The male’s primary feather growth rate catches up and begins to surpass that of the females’. Although there are many early indicators and countless theories on growth and development at these stages, “feather sexing” at this point is really just a guessing game – I like to think of it as gambling with yourself in a hand that Mother Nature always wins. Most experienced breeders say that often they can’t even tell. So obviously this means that I think I will be the exception; the one person that can! And since we recently acquired a few chicks that are too old to reliably feather sex, I will be wagering myself a bet.

Here, on these three week old Wheaten Marans, you can see the vast developemental difference between the two chicks. The first has primary feathers that are notably longer, and has prominante tail feather development alread. I’m putting $10 on “Rooster” for this one. His counter part will be a pullet.

Boy

Boy

Girl

Girl

Here, you can see simular feather differentiation on these two week old Chilean Araucanas. Though, they are “rumpless,” so there is no tail feather development in either.

Boy

Boy

Girl

Girl

Although this is my official declaration, I secretly hope I’m wrong because I want to keep them both. Look at that single cheek tuft on the little “boy”! It’s like when you see a child with one glimmering dimple flash you a smile. Ever so slightly lopsided from the asymmetry, and absolutely perfect. Clearly, I am falling in love. Which confirms this particular hypothesis. Surely this will be a Roo. And surely, I will still feel that little pang.

Only time will tell for sure, however, understanding developmental differences can help you determin earlier on the gender of your chicks. Hopefully these guidlines will help you select chicks of your prefered gender, before you get them home and start to fall in love.

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