Whether you decide to get started pullets, day old chicks, or hatch out chicks, it is important to be able to accurately and correctly sex your chickens. The methods of sexing chicks in this article can be applied to all breeds of chickens. Excluding the male Campine and Sebright, who are hen feathered, all chickens have secondary sex characteristics that distinguish males from females. When taking these characteristics into account it is important to compare chickens of the same breed, age, and in some cases color variety when sexing them. The easiest way to tell if a chicken is male or female is to wait for it to either crow or lay an egg. However, this method can leave you guessing for up to six months on the gender of your bird.
Vent sexing, feather sexing, or coloration are used to sex day old chicks. Vent sexing is only used on day old chicks and should only be done by a professional. Feather sexing is only accurate for a few breeds and crosses where the females have faster growing feathers than the males just after hatching. Sexing by coloration as day old chicks is only reliable in auto-sexing chicken breeds and sex link chicken breeds where the males and females hatch out different colors. For chickens six to twelve weeks of age, the development of combs and wattles is a very reliable indicator of sex if you know what to look for. For chickens twelve to sixteen weeks of age, the shape of the hackle feathers on the neck are a reliable way to determine sex. As pullets approach laying age they will start to squat and explore the nest boxes. Using comb and wattle development to sex your chickens is most accurate when the chicks are at least eight weeks of age. If you are purchasing chickens that are three to four months old or older, look at combs, wattles, hackles, and saddle feathers to make sure that you get females. If in doubt, wait another week or two. If you are still unsure of the sex wait for the chicken to either crow or lay an egg.
While your chicks are still in the brooder you will notice that some don't stay as fluffy as others. Chicks start to grow in their first adult feathers at two weeks of age, first their wing feathers grow in, then their tail feathers come in, followed by their back, neck, and hock feathers. Pullet chicks feather in faster and look like small fully feathered adults. Cockerel chicks tend to fully feather in later and will have patches of chick down. The cockerels will have patches of down on their wing bars, backs, necks, bellies, and hocks. These areas start to fill in at four to six weeks of age. The White Leghorn cockerel in the picture above, still has a few areas that have yet to fill in with feathers at six weeks of age. By seven weeks of age this little guy was fully feathered just like the pullets he was raised with. Rate of feathering combined with the appearance and development or lack of combs and wattles is your best indicator for sexing chicks at six to eight weeks of age. If you are unsure of the sex you can wait until your chickens are ten to twelve weeks of age and then reassess them. Silkies cannot be sexed accurately by this method since their feathers lack barbs, giving their feathers the feel and appearance of chick down.
When sexing chicks I look for comb and wattle development and the color of the comb and wattles. Cockerel chicks will get their combs in before the pullets and they will start to color up pink and red soon after. If it is very hot in your brooder, grow out pens, or outside all your chicks will start to show comb and wattle development earlier than chicks in a cooler place. Pictured above are a Buff Orpington cockerel and pullet at six weeks of age. Arrow 1 is pointing to the cockerel's pink-red comb. Arrow 2 is pointing to his red wattles. Arrow 3 is pointing to the place where the pullet's comb is, right now her comb is small and pale and not visible from a side view. Arrow 4 is pointing to her wattles that have just started to grow in. At eight weeks old cockerels should have obvious combs and wattles that are larger than pullets of the same age. The pullets won't have prominent combs and wattles until they are at least twelve weeks of age depending on the breed. At eight weeks old if you are unsure of the sex of your chickens, wait another month. By twelve weeks it should be easy to tell male from female chickens.
The shape of hackle feathers is another way to distinguish male from female chickens. Hackle feathers are the feathers on the neck of a chicken and both males and females have them. Cockerels and roosters have longer more pointed hackle feathers while pullets and hens have shorter more rounded hackle feathers. The picture above shows a Light Brahma pair. The hen on the left has her rounded hackle feathers circled in blue. The cockerel on the right has his pointed hackle feathers circled in yellow. Pullet and hen hackle feathers are rounded at the end of the feather while the hackle feathers of a cockerel and rooster are longer and pointed at the tips. Saddle feathers are the pointed feathers that cascade off of the back of a cockerel or rooster. The cockerel's pointed saddle feathers are circled in red. Pullets and hens don’t actually have saddle feathers. Some chicken breeds like the Cochin, have what is called a cushion. A cushion is a fluffy mass of feathers between the back and base of the tail. A mature rooster or cock will have sweeping hackles and saddle feathers that give him a regal look and make him stand out from the hens. Your pullets should lay prolifically, so be sure to have an egg basket handy.