One of the first questions people will ask when it comes to chickens is: “Is that a hen or rooster?” Sometimes it’s easy to tell the difference as the roosters strut across the yard and crow. But other times, especially when chickens are young, it’s more difficult.
Today, I’ll talk about some of those differences and ways you can tell hens and roosters apart.
Hens – Roosters – Cockerels – Pullets
First, let’s talk about hens, roosters, cockerels, and pullets.
A chicken is classified as a cockerel (boy) or pullet (girl) before they reach one year of age. After their first birthday, chickens are referred to as hens or roosters.
Jill is one of our pullets. She is a bantam (small) black cochin.
And here is Jack, her cockerel brother. He is also a bantam black cochin.
Now, the next time you hear someone talking about pullets, you know they mean young female chickens!
It’s difficult for the average person to determine the gender (otherwise known as sexing) of a young chick. In most cases, even experienced chicken owners will not be able to tell whether they have cockerels or pullets until the chicks are least 2-3 months of age, often longer for some breeds like Silkies.
The most common form of sexing is called “vent sexing,” but if not done correctly, could kill a chick. And even then, the odds are about as good as a coin toss when it comes to accuracy with this method unless it is someone very experienced. This is why the average backyard breeder does not attempt this, I have not and will not, and neither should you.
In fact, typically the only places you can buy “vent sexed” chicks are from hatcheries where they have highly trained personnel to do it. Even then hatcheries are only accurate about 90% of the time. This means that if you order female chicks from a hatchery or your local feed store (they usually buy from hatcheries too), you still have decent odds of ending up with a cockerel (or two or three).
Here is a great article that talks about sexing baby chicks.
If you buy chicks from a local chicken breeder, they will likely sell you “straight run” chicks. This means that they are not sexed (again because it’s nearly impossible) and your odds of having boys or girls are 50/50.
There are some crossbreeds, known as sex links, and a few other chicken breeds where you can tell the gender right away based on their colors. You can read more about sex links here. That being said, you cannot tell the gender with the majority of chicken breeds.
Pullet or Cockerel?
We all wait anxiously to see if our chicks are boys or girls. We can guess all we’d like, but as many people who raise chickens like to say, you won’t know until they crow or lay an egg!
That can be anywhere from 12-30 weeks of age! Occasionally though you might have a little cockerel who makes himself known by crowing very early. We had a young Silkie start crowing at just 6 weeks of age!
Still it’s fun to guess and see if you’re right late.
For older chickens, typically 3-6 months of age, there are a few characteristics you can look for.
Comb and wattle size and color.
The comb is the “crest” on top of a rooster or hen’s head. As chickens begin to mature, their comb will grow larger and darken or brighten in color. Cockerels tend to have larger and brighter combs then hens.
It’s the same thing with a chicken’s wattles – the fleshy skin that hangs from underneath the beak/neck. Males have brighter larger wattles than females.
This is Wolf, our Light Brahma cockerel, when he was very young. You can see his comb and wattles beginning to enlarge and brighten.
Here’s a photo I took of Wolf today. See how his comb and wattles are bigger now? Wolf is still considered a cockerel because he is 7 months old.
On the other hand, here is Fireball, our Light Brahma pullet. This photo was also taken today. Do you see the difference?
Fireball and Wolf belong to my oldest, Nathan. He gave them Minecraft names. 🙂
Sometimes you will see a young chick begin to develop a larger comb earlier than the others and this is sometimes (not always) a clue as to its gender – more likely a male.
Hackle feathers are another word for neck feathers. A hen’s neck or hackle feathers will be rounder and shorter while a rooster’s hackle feathers are longer and more pointy.
You can see Fireball’s hackle feathers here:
Saddle feathers are only found on the boys. These feathers grow on their back down toward their tail. They become fairly obvious once a cockerel is older.
One way to remember the difference between hackle and saddle feathers is to think of a horse saddle which goes on a horse’s back, not neck. (At least that’s how I remember it.)
Lastly, look at a chicken’s tail feathers. A cockerel or rooster’s feathers will be longer, more flowing, and generally more showy. Sometimes there will be more colors, such as pretty green feathers.
Here is Wolf again. Notice the differences between him and Fireball.
Other Ways to Tell Hens and Roosters apart:
Behavior – roosters are often bolder than hens. You might notice this behavior in small chicks. As they get older, roosters will tend to “challenge” each other with raised hackle feathers. But this behavior isn’t exclusive to the boys; even the girls “challenge” on occasion! Of course, there’s exceptions too; we’ve had shy roosters and braver hens.
Posture – cockerels tend to puff out their chest and stand taller than pullets.
This is Smokey, our sweet barnyard mix (that means mixed breed) cockerel:
Leg Size – boys will have thicker legs than girls. Personally this is one of the last things I consider when telling hens and roosters apart, but it is one more characteristic you might notice.
Spurs – some, not all, cockerels will develop spurs on their legs, a bony growth that grows from the inside of their legs. Spurs can be used as a defense and can be dangerous if you have an aggressive rooster. Luckily there are ways to safely remove spurs without injuring the roo.
This is Harry Potter, my son’s Silkie rooster. He does not have spurs. (Not that you can tell under all his fluff!)
Overall, remember there’s no surefire way to tell the difference between hens and roosters until they are crowing or laying eggs. But these are some fun clues to consider as your chicks grow bigger and it’s always fun to play the guessing game!