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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Becoming the Beekeeper

“[S]he gave me a lesson in what she called ‘bee yard etiquette’. She reminded me that the world was really one bee yard, and the same rules work fine in both places. Don’t be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don’t be an idiot; wear long sleeves and pants. Don’t swat. Don’t even think about swatting. If you feel angry, whistle. Anger agitates while whistling melts a bee’s temper. Act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t. Above all, send the bees love. Every little thing wants to be loved.”

~ Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

Blissful Bee hard at work

Blissful Bee hard at work

As I’m sure you’ve realized at this point in your research, all of the bloggers and veteran beekeepers out there like to tell the well-intended, unsuspecting, inexperienced potential beekeeper that “it’s so easy.”

How about telling us the truth? It is terrifying. And you’re going to make some mistakes. Mostly out of sheer fear.  But, you will learn from those mistakes. You will learn to listen to what the bees are telling you, and it will become easier. Maybe even effortless. With time. And with lots and lots of gut-wrenching, adrenalin-pumping practice.

It’s not that I think these bee veterans are ill-intended; it’s just that you forget. You forget how hard it is to learn something completely new and foreign. You forget that at one point, it was utterly counter-intuitive to stick your hands into a dark dungeon of thousands of bees. And you forget that you too felt overwhelmed and made mistakes.

Let me share with you my initiation into backyard beekeeping, so that you can learn from my mistakes and not feel so bad about your own.

I was installing two boxes of bees into two new hives. Aside from being terrified of the thousands of mini lions that, I’m positive, could smell my fear, the first instillation went rather well. I sprayed, I tapped, I put the queen in her hive, poured the box of 5,000 workers into the frames and put a lid on it. I stood back in admiration of myself. Was it even possible I could be this awesome? But oh, had the self-admiration come too soon.

The second installation that immediately followed was something that nightmares are made of. If I had ever spent time imagining my greatest bee-related fears, this would have been exactly that.

I removed the can of sugar water plugging the box’s entrance and set it aside, when I reached for the string that is attached to the queen box for easy removal, I saw that it was broken. Gloves were too bulky and the opening too small. I would have to reach my unprotected hand into the cramped hallow of 5,000 workers to retrieve her. I could feel the terror burring inside my chest as beads of sweat began to form on my temple; I plunged my hand into the chamber. To my own amazement, I accomplished this task without harming myself or anyone else.

Box of bees: Insert hand here

Box of bees: Insert hand here

I had only sloppily tucked in my veil… I mean, the cute old guy on Youtube wasn’t even wearing one, so what was the big deal anyway? Just as I set the second queen in her respective hive, I felt it flutter against my neck. A bee. A bee was in my veil. This was it, I was going to get stung. Oh god, two. There were two. Fear overcame me. I knew what I was supposed to do, but all I could hear was what every nerve in my body was screaming at me. I panicked. My hand fluttered up to my face on top of the veil; the bees felt the pressure against their bodies and reacted by stinging me – one in the neck and one on the cheek. Standing over the hive with the freshly deposited queen, I ripped off my veil in terror.

The complication I had not considered up until this point was that now, unlike the first installation, there were bees in the air – lots of them – and my long hair, drawn up in a messy bun, smelled like the sweetness of my honey conditioner. In an instant, there were bees all around me. They were crawling on my head, becoming entangled in my hair that was securing them firmly to my scalp. Causing them to panic. Causing them to sting. Don’t you know I want to love you?! I thought, willing them to love me back; to understand I was trying to help them. But apparently, they knew no such thing. They knew only the panic I was causing them.

I ran. Fight or flight? Flight it was. I had made it 20 or so bounds before it sunk in that there was just no running from what I had gotten myself into as bees, panic stricken, tangled in my hair, stung my head. I glanced over and realized that in the chaos I had not put the lid back on the box of workers, still sitting on the ground at the hive’s side when I fled. I had to go back; I had to finish or it would just keep getting worse.

I walked back determined to finish, the bees tangled in my hair continuing to sting my head. This took an immense amount of control because, let’s face it, all I wanted to do was run away screaming, flailing my hands in the air until help suddenly appeared out of nowhere to save me. But there was no help. There was only me, the bees and my mistakes that had brought us all here.

Determination and pranayama, the art of breathing control central to the practice of yoga – a skill that has saved me a number of times in this life – are the only things that got me through the rest of this nightmare.

Deep inhale. Controlled, deliberate exhale. I will do this. I could feel each little movement; each struggling wing flutter, step and sting on my scalp as I emptied the second box into their new home. I carefully lidded the hive, and slowly walked away. I made it to the patio, just outside of the back door, gently let my hair out of its bun and began lovingly, delicately, painstakingly removing the bees that had not stung me, so that they would have a chance to live. This took around 10 minutes, which obviously seemed like millennia, during which time I sustained a few more stings to the scalp. Then it hit. I was alone, having made it 25 years on this earth without ever being stung, and had no idea if I was allergic or not. To top things off, I had no Benadryl on hand and there were still stingers and carcasses in my hair. I made a quick, sobbing call to the husband and got in the shower to assess my damages. Then calmed, I could levy that only my imagination was swelling, not my throat. A sense of relief and joy washed over me. I had done it!

I quickly scurried off to Facebook to post of my joys when a slow panic washed over me. The cork. I FORGOT THE CORK! They would never be able to get to the queen. They would all die. It was all for nothing. Maybe, I thought wistfully, maybe they can eat through the cork and it will all be fine. Then, glancing at my wine rack, I realized that as much as I loved wine, as much as I longed for and adored wine, I would never eat through the cork to get it. I had to go back.

The workers surrounding the queen box will eat through a candy-cork to free her and begin colonizing... if you remember to remove the cork.

The workers surrounding the queen box will eat through a candy-cork to free her and begin colonizing… if you remember to remove the external cork first.

I often think now that it was a good thing I had to go back into the hives; like getting right back on that proverbial horse so that the fear could not take over and ruin this relationship permanently. With my protective gear properly secured – learned that lesson, alright – I went back out and one at a time dissembled each hive, extracting the now bee-covered frames so that I could retrieve the queen box. With thousands of confused bees swirling around me, I uncorked her and poked a small hole in the candy-cork to give workers a little head start, since I had delayed them so much already. I slowly; meticulously reassembled each hive and walked back to the house unscathed. This was the first step in our understanding of one another. Nothing between us would ever again be as hard as this day.

So my advice to you, dear soul doing something good for this planet, is to preserver. It will get better. You will get better. And some day, you too will forget how hard, how scary and how foreign it once was. But in the mean time, don’t feel bad if it isn’t exactly “easy.”

Reader’s Digest version of lessons-learned:

  • I am only awesome in my mind.
  • Tuck your stuff in. Really well. You are not that old dude in the YouTube video that doesn’t need gloves or a veil. Not yet, anyway.
  • Don’t remove the veil near the hive just because a bee is in it. One sting is better than 20. Trust me – you don’t need to learn this lesson first-hand.
  • Remove the cork.
  • Breath. Fear and panic make you do stupid things.