If you’ve raised baby chicks or you see some in your future, one of the questions you’ll ask is, “How can you tell the males from the females?” It is commonly thought that you have to wait until they grow bigger and the roosters start acting like they own the place (to put it nicely) to definitively tell the difference. If you have sex-linked chicks of course, you know by the feather color at birth. Most of the time your chicks won’t be sex-linked though, so it’s helpful to know what kind are what. My chicks hatched 10 weeks ago. Ever the impatient one, the idea of waiting a few months to know the difference wasn’t working well for me. I did some web searches and came up with the answer. Yes, you can tell on Day One after hatching if your chicks are going to be roosters or hens – you take a look at their wing feathers. I did it, made notes, sat back and waited. I can now tell by the behavior of my 10-week old chickens which ones are cockerels (young males) and which are pullets (young females). Every single one of them turned out exactly as I expected, based on their feather length at birth.
Poultry experts would probably stop me here and tell me that feather sexing isn’t reliable because not all chickens have the genes that produce wing feathers that can determine their sex. I guess I got lucky, that is all I can say. I have 16 of your average chicken mutts.
How to Sex Chicks on Days 1 – 3 After Hatching
To tell the difference between and cockerel and a pullet, you’ll need to look at the chick’s wing feathers. This is done on Days 1, 2 or 3 after hatching. There are two different sets of wing feathers on each chick: the “Primary” wing feathers and the “Covert” wing feathers. When you hold the chick in one hand and use the other hand to spread the wing out, you’ll be able to see the feathers. Cockerel wing feathers are all the same length. Pullet wing feathers are two different lengths.
Wing feathers all the same length = Male
Wing feathers two different lengths = Female
It’s that easy. On some cockerels the wing feathers are slightly different lengths. You may look at it and note that they are not exactly the same, perhaps 1/8″ or 1/16″ off, and you may wonder if that one is a pullet. No, it is not. The pullet feathers are dramatically different in length. There is 1/4″ or more difference. When you see it, you will know.
If you would like to know more about feather sexing, I encourage you to search the internet – there are a lot of resources out there. Here are a few that I came across that were memorable, if not educational.
The Animal Science department at the University of Missouri has a fantastic slide show explaining why the feathers are different lengths
Here’s a video showing how they do it in the big hatcheries. This short clip made an impression on me – I am happy to say that my chickens haven’t been through these processes! Small, local egg and meat farmers don’t treat their chicks this way.
Interested in learning more about backyard chickens?
Here’s additional FSC pieces on the subject.