Raising a Turkey for Thanksgiving

YOU GUYS. We did it. I still can’t believe it, but we did. We brought home a little fluff ball in June that became the star of Thanksgiving dinner last Thursday.PSX_20151201_171049

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It was both easier and harder than I expected. Rest assured, it was
absolutely more expensive. Between the cost of the chicks ($10-$12 a pop), the grandiose shelter they just had to have but refused to use, and the exorbitant amount of feed they went through… Well, I think you get the picture.Red Bourbon

Raising them to maturity came with its fair share of headaches, too. In the end, only 1 of the 5 Red Bourbon Heritage chicks and the 1 Broad Breasted Bronze we purchased survived. The heritage breeds are generally known for being more fragile than the BB varieties, but many a night was spent cuddling Fat Amy back to life because he couldn’t figure out how to simply step out of the rain into the heated shelter. There’s something to be said for the “dumbing down” that happens though selective breeding.

It was really interesting to see the differences raising a heritage and a BBB along side one another. The Bourbon was definitely more “wild,” and retained much more of her natural instincts. They were both full of personality, but we couldn’t help but favor the BBB. I’m certain it was because he was a Tom. Fat Amy’d gobble at everything – a passing car, the lawn mower, a C-130 flying overhead, Fat Amyan unexpected breeze… you name it. He was single-mindedly obsessed with trying to attack the dog, despite repeatedly having walked away with fewer feathers than he started with, and would even start wars with her through the back door. (Baby Jesus bless that dog’s patience. She will ascend to sainthood. I’m certain of it.) He would side-eye everyone and everything, and was constantly strutting for his lady. With all that bravado, it was impossible not to love-hate him. Bourbon

While we would prefer heritage breeds for a number of reasons, next year we will be sticking to BBBs. Flighty Heritage breeds are not conducive to neighborhood living. Trust me on this. We’ll have to save that for a time when we’re a real farm and not a house with a yard in a residential area.

The Bourbon came out to 16.8 lbs live weight, 13 lbs dressed, which is pretty standard for a heritage hen. She went to freezer camp for another day. On that note, the neighbor kids have started asking about her. Who wants to tell them?

For those of you who follow our Facebook page, you saw that Fat Amy topped the scales at 44.5 lbs, and dressed out to an epic 36 lbs. Which amounts to entirely too much turkey, if you’re wondering. We had to special order an XXL roasting pan, which he only just fit in. He barely fit in the oven and took 7 hours to cook, when it was all said and done.

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After God only knows how many cheers around the table in his honor, the happiest Thanksgiving turkey that ever was fed the happiest urban farmers that ever were, their friends and their family.

Framily

Turkey Leg

And then there were leftovers. And more leftovers. And more leftovers…

Turkey sandwiches, turkey tacos, turkey salads, turkey scrambled eggs, turkey soup, as well as 3 turkey pot pies and 4 trays of turkey enchiladas for the freezer. So if you invite me to a potluck any time soon, you know what you’re getting.

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(Pssst tell me your favorite leftover turkey dish in the comments)

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Do I Need to be Worried About Bird Flu in my Backyard Chickens?

There is no short answer for the question buzzing across social media and various forums regarding bird flu and how it could impact our backyard flocks. Ultimately, the best tool in preventing avian flu from reaching your flock is knowledge. Understand that avian influenza (AI) is spread both directly, by chickens having contact with infected feces; or indirectly, through air-borne particles. There are different strands of AI. The strand that is currently going around (H5N2) is not considered contagious to humans. For additional information about the bird flu, symptoms and how it is spread, please see these comprehensive resources from the CDCUSDA, WHO, USGS National Wildlife Health and North Carolina State. That being said…

Why is it that Bird Flu is ravaging factory farms while leaving backyard birds mostly untouched?

Everyone is talking about it: WSJ, NPRRuters, CNN, FOX, and others, but most reports are centric to fiscal impact, supply shortage and general fear-mongering. This conversation, instead, needs to be centered around what is fueling this problem. Wild birds have contagious diseases. This is not new, nor is it something we’re ever likely to eradicate. However, what we can control is the environment we raise captive poultry in. Conditions in chicken farming establishments are abhorrent. Gross overcrowding fosters the rapid spread of deadly disease through weak, malnourished poultry. Thankfully, these are not the same conditions found in your backyard.

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Conventionally farmed chickens are forced to wallow in their own feces, lack the ability to dust bath to clean themselves and are denied easy access to fresh food or clean water. I will spare you additional details, but if you’re still curious about factory farm conditions for poultry, you can click here for a short video.

The rapid spread of avian flu among factory farmed poultry is alarming, especially considering the widespread “bio-security” protocols that are in place, supposedly to prevent this type of contamination by “shielding” chickens from any external, or natural exposure. Let’s hope that this outbreak sheds light on the many issues with our country’s conventional poultry farming practices. Just don’t hold your breath, because this isn’t the first time in our life time or even this decade that bird flu has ravaged through the chicken industry.

For many of us, this is a primary reason we started keeping our own chickens, to have more control over the conditions our eggs come from. So, let’s use this time to thoughtfully educate about and enjoy the benefits of keeping backyard chickens in the face of the bird flu outbreak.

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What you can do to help keep your backyard flock healthy:

1. Clean your coop and run regularly, especially if your chickens are confined or semi-confined. Be sure to use gloves and a shovel when working with manure.

2. Provide fresh, clean water for your chickens. For the time being, do not use water from a pond to fill your poultry’s water. Pond water can be contaminated by wild avian.

3. Administer a healthy diet. Just like in humans, a healthy diet helps boost the body’s immune system. Along with their regular feed, chickens need access to fresh greens, like grass or any array of green kitchen or garden scraps, such as spinach, kale, collards, romaine, cabbage, parsley, etc.

4. Do not introduce new birds. Any avian can carry Avian Flu, particularly waterfowl. Now is not the time to introduce any new outside birds to your flock or habitat, unless it is from a trusted breeder. Even then, please exercise caution and discuss any questions and concerns you have with the breeder before bringing new poultry home.

5. Avoid Flock Swaps, fairs and other gatherings where you or your birds will come in contact with other avian. While there is not a lot of concern about avian virus infecting humans right now, you could easily bring home contaminates to your flock.

6. Avoid contact with wild birds. Every backyard set up is different, so there isn’t one clear cut solution for limiting wild birds’ access to your flock. Spend some time in your chicken yard observing. Are wild birds accessing to your flock’s food and water? Is there a way to limit that exposure? Are excess food containers stored properly to protect contamination from rodents? Have you consider netting over top of the habitat to keep wild birds out?

7. Wash your hands. Before and after interacting with your flock. Always.

8. Relax and enjoy. Really. If you’re maintaining high standards of care, just continue monitoring your flock’s health with a watchful eye, as you always do, and don’t worry too much about it.

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Rescuing a Goose and her Goslings

We found ourselves in a Home Depot parking lot late one night last week with a dilemma. A Canada Goose had made her nest in a small island of a relatively busy parking lot. She had dutifully sat on that nest among the constant disturbance of loud shoppers, boisterous children, heavy vehicle traffic and the never ending flicker of street lights for three long weeks, bringing us all together to this moment. Her babies had hatched that day. Some other kind soul provided her a small Tupperware of water that she had tipped over, leaving it empty. I bent over to fill it from my water bottle while she hissed and we weighed our options…

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The newly hatched babies can’t last long without access to water and there was no way Mother Goose was going to be able to safely navigate her brood through the parking lot and across multiple roads to the closest pond or lake, especially without the help of her mate who was no longer in the picture.

“Well, what do you want to do?” But we both already knew the answer before the Handy Man even asked. We couldn’t just leave them there. “It is Earth Day, after all,” I shrugged and that set us in motion. The employees at Home Depot kindly gave us a large empty box to transport her and after a brief debate about who would take off their shirt to cover her with (I won, for obvious reasons), and a little strategizing, we quickly secured Mother Goose and her seven goslings to the box. She was weak and easy to catch. Too easy, really. We decided to relocated them to the security of our backyard for the night, and asses further action in the morning.

We ushered our ducks to the safety of their house and set her up a hay nest next to the small man-made duck pond where she could sleep peacefully for the night. The next morning we awoke to all seven goslings playing boisterously in the pond, devouring the unmowed grass.

IMG_0518IMG_0526  The rest of the farm was intrigued by the visitors, but kept their distance. IMG_0525 A little rest, food and water had done everyone good and they were ready for their final relocation and release at a near by pond. For the record, catching a rested, nourished Mother Goose was significantly more terrifying than catching the one we had encountered in the parking lot. There are no photos or video of the capture, but this pretty much sums it up, if you were wondering what that is like…

This fairy tale ending made it all worth it, though.

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This isn’t an uncommon problem for geese. Over hunting and loss of habitat took its toll and by the 1950s they were believed to be extinct until, in 1962, a small flock was found in Minnesota and a breeding and release program was established. They have rebounded, but still have on going issues with habitat disruption. In the US, these geese are largely considered pests due to their droppings, noise and confrontational demeanor in urban environments. As suitable nesting habitats dissipate, geese have turned increasingly to man-made havens.

Things to know if you happen upon a nesting goose in an urban environment:

Do not feed them! These are wild animals. You do not want them becoming dependent on human food, nor do you want to give them food that is damaging to their very complex digestive systems. Bread is a big no-no! The goal is to guide them safely to an area where they have the ability to feed themselves and their babies appropriately.

Do not remove a goose from its nest if the eggs have not hatched. Wait until all eggs have hatched before relocating the bird. Any disturbance to the nest and eggs will likely result in death to the unhatched birds.

Do not separate the goose from her goslings. This causes obvious emotional trauma for the parents and the goslings, who rely on their parents for protection and food. Goslings left to fend for themselves fail to develop proper socially, struggle learning basic flight skills and become non migratory without someone to teach them the complex migratory patterns.

Make sure to relocate the gander with the goose and goslings. Geese are monogamous and mate for life around the age of two. The gander shares incubation responsibilities and helps raise the goslings, so taking his family away from him would be devastating to everyone involved. If you can not locate the gander or truly do not believe he is still in the picture, all is not completely lost. The goose will go through a period of morning and likely find a new mate the following year.

Limit physical handling as much as possible and do your best to mitigate the stress of the situation. It is preferable to gather a group of people to gently herd the geese away from hazards to a near by body of water verses capturing and relocating.

Water Therapy, the Escape and the Return to the Pond

It has been a crazy few weeks here since I posted about the ducks being afraid of the water. The ducks still abhor the pond, although they cannot remember why. So the Handy Man and I began an intensive duck version of “water therapy,” hoping to lure them back to their once beloved water.

First, we began treat training, as we needed some leverage against the ducks to get them to do our bidding…or to perform the few simple tasks we required of them, like put themselves to bed at night and swim in the pond. This was a fiasco in and of itself. Although Peanut ‘n’ Butter came to love peas quickly, they would not do anything to get them. More so, we were permitted to toss them peas from afar. And that was about the extent of the success of that. The dog on the other hand, loved pea-training.

Peas, Ducks and the dog

The second step to water therapy was to get the ducks back into the water. Any water. Placing them in the pond was not an option, as they jumped out before their feet even hit the water. So, back to the bathtub it was. We made daily trips in the house, up the stairs to the tub. They loved this.  We fed them peas as they splashed and played boisterously for hours each day, but they would not return to the pond once back outside. Peanut ‘n’ Butter were content to watch us toss handfuls of peas into the pond from across the yard.

Peas in the Bathtub

Now confident they were comfortable in the bathtub, we introduced the gold fish to the situation in the third phase of water therapy. We allowed Peanut ‘n’ Butter to observe the fish through a clear container before releasing it (and some peas) into the tub. Please, take a moment to picture this in your mind – two grown adults, with full sized ducks in their bathroom, putting a goldfish in the bathtub. What have we come to?

Ducks vs. Fish The Hunt

Much to our surprise, Peanut ‘n’ Butter loved the fish. And by loved, I mean ate. They even did a celebratory dance in the tub about it. (Not pictured, as I was too busy shielding the camera from the excessive water splash-age.)

SUCCESS, we thought. Surely we had done it. The ducks (re)discovered that they loved water AND that they liked eating fish.

In the supposed final stage of water therapy, we set a fish, in a clear container, on the edge of the pond. We carried the ducks from the bathtub to the pond, showed them the fish, and set them in the pond, hoping they would make the mental correlation. But no. Before their feet hit the water, they were gone.

In the days that followed our failed attempts, we gave them space. Other than bedtime. Bedtime has also been a situation in and of itself. It has taken them TWO MONTHS to figure out how to get into the coop to go to bed on their own. The Handy Man and I have had to corral Peanut ‘n’ Butter to the ramp and guide them up it to tuck them in each night. Every night. For two months. Last night was only the third night they were able to accomplish the task completely unassisted. For comparison, we only had to show the much younger, smaller chicks how to get into the coop twice before they were completely self-sufficient at the task.

But at least there had been some progress, albeit, painfully slow progress. The other night the Handy Man and I went to bed with some small satisfaction that the ducks were finally starting to “get it.” Maybe they’d never get back in their pond, but at least they would be able to put themselves to bed.

I know now that this was just an attempt to lure us into a false sense of security.

Early the next morning Peanut ‘n’ Butter, two breeds of ducks that supposedly cannot fly, were found in the front yard.

The Handy Man heard them quietly talking amongst themselves when he crouched down to pull some weeds before heading off to work…and there they were, proudly sitting in the front yard; probably plotting our demise. Sometime between sunrise and 6:30am they took flight, making it over the 6’ privacy fence, and decided to hang out in the lawn for all of the neighbors to see on their way to work.

How long had they been planning this escape??? When did they learn to fly???

Handy Man corralled them back through the fence, hoping it was a fluke, as we cannot have our animals escaping in a residential area to face dogs, cats, or the dreaded HOA. However, in the days that followed, we watched Peanut ‘n’ Butter conduct flight training before our very eyes. Peanut would sound “take off” with a single quack, and both would take off into the wind reaching heights of 7 to 8 feet and traveling 20 yards, stopping just before the fence.

Peanut 'n' Butter feigning innocence but looking quite suspicious post-escape.

Peanut ‘n’ Butter feigning innocence but looking quite suspicious post-escape.

We concluded that Peanut ‘n’ Butter weren’t happy here and needed to be re-homed, freed or for their primary feathers to be clipped. I really couldn’t bear the thought of any of those options. Searching for answers, I stumbled upon an ad for 3 week old Blue Swedish ducklings up the road. A last ditch effort to “fix” our ducks. I convinced the Handy Man that the babies would love the water, having never been traumatized by it and that Peanut ‘n’ Butter get back in the pond, seeing that it was safe and that they would be happy and stop trying to escape. Although, I had to agree that if it didn’t work we would re-home the unhappy pair, I was willing to take the gamble.

Impulsively, we brought the babies home and placed them directly in the pond. They had never experienced water before and loved it. They splashed, played, preened and even chased fish while the rest of the farm looked on in aw.

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Peanut ‘n’ Butter drew closer and closer, watched tentatively from the bank for nearly an hour before it happened. First Peanut, then Butter returned to the pond.

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Today, just two days later, it is how it always should have been. Peanut ‘n’ Butter seem to have forgotten they were ever afraid of their pond. There have been no further escape attempts, and the only flights taking place are short bursts of play in the pond.

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There is finally peace on the farm and the whole flock is content…

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The whole flock

Thanks to Sifl and Olly.

Sifl and Olly

Ducks Afraid of the Water

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It would be just our luck to acquire farm animals that are overly sensitive and easily frightened by things that would be common if encountered in nature…

You see, Peanut ‘n’ Butter did not start out afraid of the water. In fact, they have had quite the love affair with water in their first two months of life. When we moved them outside to be “grown up” ducks, we installed a pond (DIY details to come), which the ducks took to instantly. From the moment there was water in their pond, they did not leave it. We had to pull them out of it each night to put them to bed in the coop and they immediately returned to it each morning.

Any time is a good time for a pool party

Any time is a good time for a pool party

Then it happened. The Handy Man and I got a good idea and ruined it all.

When we see a problem or potential problem in our manufactured habitat, we try to address it in the most natural and mutually beneficial way possible so that it functions somewhat like a realistic ecosystem. For example, with the addition of a pond, we face issues that may arise when dealing with stagnant water – increased mosquito populations. There are a few simple, organic solutions to this: plant mosquito repelling plants (check), install bat houses (check) and introduce fish to the pond.

Now, you can see how this seemed like a good idea. Mosquitoes lay their eggs in water. Fish live in water and eat mosquito eggs. Ducks swim in water and eat fish and mosquitoes. Surviving fish eat duck poop and make more poop for the organic garden. It’s the circle of life. Everyone’s happy.

So off to the pet store we went to purchase feeder fish – the tiniest, cheapest fish you can purchase. They’re typically goldfish or minnows that can live in nearly any condition and run around $0.10 a piece.

Upon returning home from the pet store, we set the bag of fish in the pond to allow the fish to acclimate to the water temperature. The ducks got out of the pond when we did this but we didn’t think much of it and went about our yard work. After an hour passed, I emptied the fish into the pond and the Handy Man and I sat back awaiting our lavish praise. But no praise came. Nothing came. As far as the ducks were concerned, we had just poisoned their pond and it would never be the same.

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The ducks were afraid. Of the fish.

I looked at them in utter disbelief. “YOU EAT FISH,” I yelled. “Do you not know that yet?” We attempted to heard them to the pond to no avail. They would rather have died than go back in that water.

They spent the rest of the day glaring at us from the opposite side of the yard. We hoped that they would go to bed and wake up a.) in a better mood and b.) with no memory of the betrayal. But we had no such luck.

The next day Peanut ‘n’ Butter decided that they were chickens, not ducks. They followed the hens around, attempting to scratch up bugs with their webbed feet and did not once even glance longingly towards the pond. It was dead to them.

Everyone in this picture, including the dog, thinks that they're a chicken.

Everyone in this picture, including the dog, thinks that they’re a chicken.

The chickens, now sensing an imbalance in the backyard hierarchy, decided that they would try out being ducks. As you can imagine, this did not work out very well. Mid-day I found Uggh unsuccessfully “swimming” in the pond, half chasing fish and half panic-stricken, trying to get out. I scooped her up and dried her off. Hopefully she has realized that although a duck may get away with acting like a chicken, a chicken cannot get away with pretending to be a duck.

Silly Uggh, you're not a duck.

Silly Uggh, you’re not a duck.

Day three was more of the same. Impatient with their lack of progress and understanding of their own nature, we tossed them in the pond, thinking it would jolt their instinctual memories. But no. They just jumped out, ran away and glared at us from a safe distance.

We tried to lure them closer by placing their food and water dish near the pond’s edge, but they refused to eat from it. Instead, they ate weeds from the yard until we moved the food further away from the water’s edge.

We'll just eat these weeds instead.

We’ll just eat these weeds instead.

Exasperated at the end of the day, we sat with them that evening, trying to rebuild the trust lost in our relationship. They noisily chatter away, expressing their deep dissatisfaction with the situation to the Handy Man. Of course, as the fish-dumper, I can no longer be held in such confidence.

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Today we got the idea to play the ducks Youtube videos of other ducks splashing and playing in the water, hoping that the excited sounds of their brethren would entice them. (The things you will do for your emotionally distraught ducklings!) We did this for over an hour as Peanut ‘n’ Butter cocked their heads back and forth in response to the familiar noises to no avail. Although they did express interest and crept closer, they never breached the barrier at which they considered a safe distance away from the poisoned pond and monstrous fish.

So here we are with ducks that are afraid of the water. We broke them and their little emotional, sensitive spirits with a bag of fish. To be a duck-out-of-water is a sad, sad plight. Here’s hoping they return to the water on their own, as they continue to grow in size and confidence, overcoming this very traumatic experience…

We'll be over here...as far away from the pond as possible.

We’ll be over here…as far away from the pond as possible.

The fish are happy, though. They’re flourishing and have at least tripled in size. Scary little suckers. I guess the circle of life isn’t always so straight forward. Who knew?

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.