How to Tell a Rooster from a Hen

One of the most frequently asked philosophical questions is, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" However, other chicken-related questions can also be surprisingly complicated. For example, most people assume they can tell the difference between a hen and a rooster, but when the chickens are young, this distinction isn't as clear as you probably believe.

chicken hen
How to Identify a Rooster from a Hen
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Determining a chick's sex

Most people unfamiliar with raising birds assume that it's easy to tell a chick's sex at birth in the same way you can recognize the gender of a baby or a puppy. However, this is not the case, particularly when it comes to chickens. In fact, as eFowl explains, there are only two methods of determining whether a chick is going to grow up to be a hen or a rooster, and neither is 100 percent accurate. Because neither test is accurate, even if you buy gender-sorted chicks, you still have around a 5 percent to 20 percent chance of getting a rooster vs. the hen you thought you bought.

The most common and accurate form of gender determination is called "vent sexing." This practice involves looking at the genitals of a young chick to determine if it is male or female. Unfortunately, because the genitals are on the inside of the chick, this can kill the chick if done improperly. When done by a properly trained expert, the accuracy of this testing method can be up to 95 percent, although it is usually closer to 90 percent accurate when done on a commercial scale for large hatcheries.

Alternatively, some breeders use a technique called "feather sexing," which results in male and female chicks having different feather characteristics so they can be more safely, easily, and quickly identified. This technique has been practiced on most of America's most popular chicken breeds, but the chicks must be properly bred in order to exhibit the correct feather characteristics, and the person examining the feathers must be properly trained based on the type of breed. When done properly, this testing method is between 80 percent and 95 percent accurate depending on the chicken breed in question.

Rooster vs. hen identification

Most local chicken breeders sell what's called "straight run" chicks that have not yet been sexed, giving you 50/50 odds of getting either gender. When that's the case, Living Well Mom explains that you generally can't tell the gender of a young chicken until it either crows or lays eggs, which may be between 12 and 30 weeks of age or longer in some breeds like silkies.

Aside from crowing or laying eggs, though, there are other traits you might look out for in young hens, called pullets, and young roosters, called cockerels. It's also worth remembering that both roosters and hens are chickens, though many people mistakenly call a hen a chicken and do not think a rooster is also a chicken.

Comb and wattles

A big difference between male and female chickens is the red cartilage on their head. The part above the head is called a comb, and the part below the beak is a wattle. Roosters tend to have larger and brighter red combs and wattles than females. Though this isn't always immediately obvious when they are juveniles, it may help to determine their gender before they begin to crow or lay eggs.

Differences in feathers

The differences in feathers used for feather sexing a chick disappear after only a few days, but as the chicken's adult feathers begin to grow in (at about 13 weeks, according to the Happy Chicken Coop), you may notice more differences between the genders. The feathers around the neck, known as the hackle feathers, are more rounded in a hen and more pointed in a rooster. Saddle feathers are long, flowing feathers around the area where you would put a saddle on a chicken (if you were to do such a silly thing), and they are only found on males.

The most obvious difference in the feathers is in the tail. A female's tail feathers will all be about the same length and rounded, whereas a male will have what are called "sickle feathers" in his tail that are particularly long, sickle-shaped feathers. These sickle feathers are often multicolored as well.