I try to keep connected with the poultry community at large through Facebook, Twitter, and one of the most common questions I see cross my computer screen includes a photo of a chicken with the caption “rooster or hen?”. Unless you’re trained in sexing day old chicks, or you bought a sex linked variety, you won’t be able to tell until your birds begin to mature. Once your birds develop feathers and other features you can take an educated guess as to the age old question of “rooster or hen?”.
Male chickens develop differently from their female counterparts. Facial features such as the comb and wattles tend to be larger and more pronounced, but you need to compare apples to apples since different breeds develop differently. If you have a group of 10 birds from the same breed and one or two have obvious differences in facial features, then there’s your preliminary tip off.
Male chickens develop a bone structure that tends to be larger overall versus the female of the same breed. If you have a bird that appears to be taller, displays a markedly thicker leg or has a noticeably broader skull, then that’s another potential indicator. Spurrs are predominantly a male trait, however don’t use that as an absolute identifier since on occasion, hens do develop spurrs.
Male chickens naturally begin to behave differently when they begin to produce testosterone. Roosters will display behaviors such as courting, which looks more like herding while dragging a wing. Other male behavior also includes mounting of other birds, insisting on keeping the flock generally contained by chasing lone birds back to the flock, vocalizing loudly when food is found and watching over the group as they eat. Male chickens may also challenge or attack many things, including the barn door, waterer, their reflections, other birds and possibly you. Hens don’t typically challenge people or things persistently, so if there’s one bird that always attacks your shins in the mourning, then the odds of it being a male are high. You’ll notice I never said roosters were smarter…
Males and females also display different feather types with few exceptions. Male chickens develop longer hackle and saddle feathers which taper to a relatively sharp point, unlike female feathering which maintain a stout, blunted round shape through all of their feathering. Males also exhibit what is referred to as sickle feathers, which is the long, curved and sweeping feathers of the tail. Identifying males and females based on their feathering is the most straight forward method of identifying them, and typically the most definitive method by far.
A very few breeds exhibit what is referred to as “hen feathering” which is characterized by male chickens displaying the same short, blunted feathering as their female counterparts. When identifying males versus females in these breeds you will have to rely on relative size, bone structure and behavior. Infamously, the Sebright breed is a member of the hen-feathered shortlist.
Some hens produce abnormally high levels of testosterone and may exhibit some of these identifiers, but they don’t typically show all of them. Masculine feathering is seldom achieved by these hens, and if they do exhibit masculine feathering then it’s not typically well defined. Hens can also crow, albeit very rarely. It is more likely to see masculine features than it is to see a hen crow, but I have seen it a few times. I personally had a Porcelain Belgian hen who would crow more convincingly then her mate, especially if they were separated. This hen exhibited no masculine features and no other male behaviors.
If you see a bird laying an egg, it’s not a rooster. If you suspect a bird of being male, but you’re not sure, isolate them in a cage or separate coop and wait to see if an egg appears. This of course is assuming that the bird is 6 months old or older.
If it walks like a rooster, talks like a rooster and looks like a rooster… it’s probably a rooster. If it’s not a rooster, then it’s one really confused hen. For those of us who absolutely can’t keep a rooster because of local laws, nosy neighbors or your personal sleep patterns, I suggest listing roosters on Craigslist.org. You can expect folks on Craigslist to eat the birds, so if that doesn’t sit right with you then ask around, you may be able to place them elsewhere.