Foolproof Ways to Tell Difference Between Rooster and Hen
Looking at your birds’ comb isn’t 100% reliable or useful when you have chicks or teenage birds in your backyard flock. And, don’t rely on the natural cock-a-doodle-do alarm clock because hens can crow too!
If you want to tell rooster vs hen apart from the moment they take their first baby steps, we’ve got you covered. Here are the differences between a male and female chicken:
Rooster vs Hen, Cockerel vs Pullet: What the cluck is the difference?
Sometimes all the specialized vocabulary can be overwhelming. So before we examine the differences between a rooster and a hen, let’s talk about their teenage names – cockerel and pullet.
Obviously, roosters are males, and hens are the ladies. How about cockerels and pullets? Cockerels for teen boys and pullets for adolescent girls (1).
Now that we know the correct terminology – here’s a quick chart showing the different ways to identify hen vs rooster.
|Day-old Sex-Linked Traits
Hackle Feathers- Pointed
Has Saddle Feathers
Long Pointed Sickle Feathers
|Day-old Sex-Linked Traits
Hackle Feathers- Rounded
No Saddle Feathers
Short Rounded Tail Feathers
|Combs and Wattles
Turn Red More Quickly
|Legs and Spurs
|Generally don’t have spurs
Unlikely to Crow
Curious to know more? Let’s look at each of these ways more closely.
The most effective way to know if your baby chick is a cockerel or a pullet is vent sexing, but it isn’t the easiest or the safest. Professional chicken sexers (yes, that is a job) conduct this gender reveal test on behalf of commercial hatcheries.
This sexing technique is how online hatcheries guarantee a certain percentage of correctly sexed chicks. But, what is vent sexing? Or better yet, how does it work?
First developed in the 1930s, this sexing technique involves carefully (and gently) squeezing the sex organs near the vent (2). Since chickens have one hole for pooping, urinating, and laying eggs (3), this gender reveal party isn’t the most pleasant.
Chicken sexers can be between 90-95% correct at telling the sex of day-old chickens.
Vent sexing seems easy, right? Nope. The stress can kill your yellow fluff balls (4).
It gets even worse and more complicated because chicken sex organs can present themselves in fifteen different ways (5). The male organ will appear as a small bump. The females don’t have this feature.
Another way to sex your chickens is to examine their feathers. From fluffy down to flowing tails, your birds’ feathers change and develop as they grow. By examining their plumage, you can get clues to know if you have a Patrick or Patricia.
You will see a lot of information out there telling you feather sexing is a reliable method to sex your day-old chicks. And that’s true – but only sometimes. For feather sexing to work, your chicks need to have a fast feathered father and a slow feathered mama (6). These hybrids have a sex-linked trait related to wing development.
It’s relatively easy to learn how to feather sex your chicks. Obviously, as this sexing method’s name implies, you’re going to inspect the plumage, and, just like Sherlock, you’ll need to spot two differences – wing feathers and feathering length.
For baby roosters, they have less developed wing feathers than the baby hens do at this stage. Female baby chicks usually sport an uneven feathering length, while baby boy chicks are all the same (6).
Depending on what breed of chicken you have in your flock, you can determine chicks if it’s a boy or a girl from the moment they hatch. Usually, these are hybrids, but you do find sex-linked traits in heritage chicken breeds as well. For example, it is easy to distinguish Barred Rock rooster vs hen by looking at their fuzzy heads (7).
“The sex of purebred Barred Plymouth Rocks chicks can be determined on the basis of the size and shape of a light-colored spot on the top of the head.”
Some common “breeds” that are sex-linked hybrids are the Golden Comet, Gold Star, and the Cinnamon Queen (6). To understand more of the genetics behind sex-linked breeding, watch this video:
Hackle Saddle And Sickle Feathers
If you cannot identify your chicks when they hatch, you probably want to wait until they grow and develop some of their secondary sex characteristics. One of the things you should watch for is their adult feathers. Around 5-6 weeks, their feathers should be coming in (8).
The hackle feathers grow up around your chickens’ necks. If you look closely, pullets and hens have rounder feathers, and cockerels and roosters have pointier hackle feathers (9).
Your roosters will also have saddle feathers down around their back that hens don’t have. But be careful. Roosters of certain breeds, like the Seabright, don’t have saddle feathers. They are “hen-feathered” (10).
Another telltale feature is the rooster’s tail. (And yes, that pun was intended.) The distinctive sickle feathers arc up into a curve and come down to a point (9).
Now some breeds have distinct feathers making it easier or harder to sex than others. Sexing Polish chicks is a matter of debate. Some say females have round crests, and males have pointed crests. On the other hand, It is nearly impossible to tell a Silkie rooster vs hen because their distinct feathers don’t follow the same patterns as other breeds.
Combs And Wattles
If examining the feathers isn’t helping you sex your chicks, take a look at the combs and wattles. In case you don’t know- combs are the red fleshy thing on the top of your chickens head, and wattles are the fleshy things that dangle by their cheeks (9).
In general, you will see that males will grow larger combs and wattles than females within the same breed. Males combs are also, as a rule, redder and more vibrant than females (11). Again within the same breed.
If you have chicks that are all the same breed, you can get a good idea of the males by watching the combs and wattles as your chicks mature – the males will be bigger and redder.
However, if you ordered a straight run of mixed breeds from a hatchery, this probably isn’t going to help you. Some of your roosters may have tiny pea combs, and some of your hens may have large carnation combs. And that comparison is going to lead to incorrect identification.
Legs And Spurs
You can check out the legs of your chicks as they grow to try and determine if they are cockerels or pullets. Cockerels will begin to develop spurs on their legs. What are spurs, you ask? Good question.
Spurs is a bone that grows out of the back of their legs. As your cockerel matures into a rooster, his spurs will lengthen, curl and even develop a sharp tip. It is what he uses to defend his ladies against predators (12).
You might begin to see the beginning signs of spurs as early as three months, but they don’t usually develop until around eight months.
Don’t get too confident if you see spurs. Hens can develop it too, especially as they age. Certain female breeds, especially those from Mediterranean areas, are known to develop spurs.
Behavior And Aggression
Physical characteristics aside, you can use the different behavioral patterns between hens and roosters to identify the gender of your mystery birds.
Roosters grow up to be more aggressive than hens. That is their role in the flock- to keep their ladies safe from harm. It doesn’t generally take long for baby roosters to show their true nature.
Male chicks are more aggressive and independent than their female siblings. And if you have two or more baby roos, you will notice that they start to fight each other fairly young.
Now, an old wives’ tale says you can sex your chickens by watching their behavior as they hang from your hand. We don’t recommend it as you may accidentally harm your chicks.
Everyone knows that cockerels and roosters crow while pullets and hens don’t (11).
However, under certain circumstances, a hen can crow. It generally happens when the crowing hen is the alpha female in a flock without a rooster, though in some cases, it can be a sign of a medical condition (12).
The truth is the only way to answer with 100% certainty if your chicken is a hen or a rooster (short of DNA testing) is the day your hen lays her first egg. Under no circumstances will a rooster ever lay an egg.
While we all want to know if we have roosters or hens as soon as those fuzzy little chicks hatch, unfortunately, it’s just not that easy to sex chickens. Since their private parts aren’t on display for the rest of the world to see, we have to rely on less than perfect methods.
With time and observation, you can learn to sex your chicks correctly most of the time. But the truth is, unless you are a professionally trained chicken sexer or are breeding sex-linked chicks, you probably won’t be right all the time. But the odds are 50/50, so you should be right at least some of the time.
You can tell a rooster from a hen at 4 weeks by looking at their tail feathers – females develop them sooner than males. If you have one or two chickens lagging in the tail feathers growth department, they’re more likely roosters. You can also inspect the combs. Usually, boys have redder combs while ladies have a pale or skin-tone-like color.
You can tell a rooster from a hen at 2 months by inspecting their combs and wattles. A hen has a little to no comb in slightly pink color. Males, on the other hand, have growing combs and wattles usually in a bright red hue. Again, you can also check the tails. If the tail feathers are broad and with defined, rounded ends, it’s a female. Roosters have pointy and arched tail feathers.
Yes, you can DNA test your chickens to learn their sex. It is a simple and relatively inexpensive procedure. You will need to send either a feather or a blood sample for testing.
Some breeds like Silkies are tough to sex before they begin laying. If you want a 100 percent accurate result, a DNA test will tell you.
No, you can’t tell if a chicken egg is male or female. Some chicken owners will tell you that the shape of the egg will determine the sex, but it is not true. Nor can you determine the sex of your chick by candling. If you want to find out the gender of the chicken eggs, you’ll have to wait until they hatch and grow to pullets or cockerels.
Yes, all roosters will crow, regardless of the chicken breed. However, some may crow more than others. If you have two or more roosters, the dominant rooster will crow more loudly and more often than others. It is hard to say when your cockerel will begin to crow because it is different for each bird. And, you will find some breeds are more vocal than others.
- Glossary of Poultry Terms. Retrieved from: https://afs.ca.uky.edu/poultry/glossary-poultry-terms
- Sexing Baby Chicks. Retrieved from: https://www.worldcat.org/title/sexing-baby-chicks/oclc/3261486
- Laying An Egg. Retrieved from: http://www.afn.org/~poultry/egghen.htm
- Sexing chickens. Retrieved from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0032579120309755#bib25
- Sexing of day-old chicks. Retrieved from: http://extension.msstate.edu/content/sexing-day-old-chicks
- Sex-linked Crosses. Retrieved from: https://afs.ca.uky.edu/poultry/sex-linked-crosses
- Sexing day-old chicks. Retrieved from: https://poultry.extension.org/articles/poultry-management/sexing-day-old-chicks/
- 4- to 5-Week-Old Baby Chicks. Retrieved from: https://www.purinamills.com/chicken-feed/education/detail/4-to-5-week-old-baby-chicks
- External Anatomy of Chickens. Retrieved from: https://poultry.extension.org/articles/poultry-anatomy/external-anatomy-of-chickens/
- Biology of the Fowl. Retrieved from: https://extension.psu.edu/programs/4-h/projects/poultry/raising-rearing/viii.-other-on-line-resources/the-chicken/biology-of-the-fowl
- Chicken. Retrieved from: https://afs.ca.uky.edu/poultry/chicken
- Rooster Spurs: 3 Methods For Removing Them. Retrieved from: https://www.hobbyfarms.com/rooster-spurs-removing/
- Sex Reversal In Chicken. Retrieved from: https://poultry.extension.org/articles/poultry-anatomy/avian-reproductive-female/sex-reversal-in-chickens-kept-in-small-and-backyard-flocks/
Tana grew up around island farms and pine forests. Her love for nature lead to her degree in Biology and mission to lessen her environmental impact. Now she grows food in her backyard and shares what she learns from Eco Peanut with others.