Is My Chicken a Rooster or Hen? 6 Easy Ways to Tell Them Apart
It’s the age-old chicken-raising question: is my chick a rooster or a hen? While this problem frequently confounds newbie chicken keepers, it can even be a struggle for veterans to tell them apart sometimes. If you’ve been having trouble telling yours apart, don’t feel bad – we’ve all been there!
The unfortunate reality of chickens is that it’s sometimes impossible to tell male and female chickens apart, especially when they’re still young. TL;DR: if you can’t tell, give your chickens a little time. As they grow older, their sexual characteristics will become more and more apparent.
The goal is always to figure it out as early as possible, and that complicates things. That’s why sex-linked chickens are so popular and so revolutionary – the ability to instantly, and with 100% certainty, tell cockerels from pullets is invaluable to farmers, hatcheries, and small flock owners alike.
In this post, we’ll walk you through how to tell a rooster from a hen – and we’ll debunk some myths about telling hens from roosters as well. With any luck, by the end of this post, you’ll feel a little more comfortable telling them apart!
Method 1: The Comb and Wattles
This rooster has a single comb.
The face – most notably, the comb and wattles – is well-known as the easiest way to tell an adult rooster from a hen. However, contrary to popular belief, it is not the best way to tell a pullet from a cockerel. A rooster’s comb develops over time, so it may not be fully pigmented or fully grown until after he reaches maturity. Plus, there are more than nine different kinds of combs in the chicken world, and not all of them are big and obvious like the handsome fella’s in the picture above. Here are a few more picture examples of combs chickens can have:
More comb types exist than the four in this section, but rose, pea, and single combs tend to be the most common. While walnut combs aren’t super common among chicken breeds, silkies themselves are very popular, so you’ll probably see a couple. The same goes for “V” combs, which you’ll see on a lot of crested breeds (Polish, Appenzeller Spitzhaubens, and Houdans, to name a few). There are a few other comb types out there, but they tend to be pretty rare.
Let’s get back to the point of this guide, though: separating roosters from hens. While roosters do tend to have larger and redder combs overall, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, especially when you compare roosters of different breeds and ages. The Wyandotte hen in the picture up above, for example, has a comb around the same size as the Silkie and Araucana roosters to her left, but she’s not a rooster.
For this reason, unless you’re comparing apples to apples – or, in this case, hen vs rooster of the same breed – using comb and wattle color and size aren’t always reliable. Plus, some hens do end up with oversized combs, and some roosters end up with small ones. This is especially true in young chickens, who might be early or late bloomers. Just like people, chickens grow and mature at different rates!
Believe it or not, this chicken is a hen! White Leghorns are known for their oversized single combs and wattles. If you didn’t know better, you might think they were all roosters!
Using the comb in your pullet/cockerel determinations isn’t the wrong thing to do, but don’t let it be the only thing you use. It should be part of the bigger picture, rather than something you single out. If you do that, you’ll have much more success telling the young ones apart.
Method 2: The Spurs
One of the most iconic features of a mature rooster is his set of sharp spurs. As a general rule, only roosters have “true” spurs, so you should be able to use them to tell hen vs rooster, right? Well, when they’re young, you can’t.
Spurs grow slowly, like fingernails, and a rooster’s spurs really don’t start growing in earnest until he reaches puberty. Even a year-old rooster might not have a very impressive set yet. While they can help you tell adult roosters from hens, most roosters will start crowing long before their full spurs come in anyways.
Some people look at spur “bumps,” or the area where a spur will eventually grow in, to tell hens and roosters apart. The problem with this method is that a lot of hens have this bump, too! Some hens will even grow a pretty impressive set of spurs themselves, though they’ll almost always be smaller than a rooster’s. Plus, different chicken breeds can grow different size spurs, and they grow them at different rates. You might run into the same apples-to-apples issue as with combs and wattles.
For these reasons, we don’t recommend using spurs (or spur bumps) to tell cockerels from pullets.
Method 3: Crowing
The crow is one of the most reliable ways tell a rooster from a hen, but roosters tend to crow on their own time! Here at Little Onion Farm, we’ve had roosters who were dead silent until they were over a year old, and we’ve had young cockerels that started announcing themselves before they even left the brooder. Unfortunately, you do have to wait and pray with this method, but it’s almost always a surefire sign that you have a rooster when he starts to crow.
As a general rule, it’s only the roosters who crow. However, hens can crow in very rare cases, especially where there’s no rooster present. Sometimes, a dominant hen in a rooster-free flock ends up showing some rooster-like traits, like mounting other hens or crowing. However, this is a rare exception, and it generally doesn’t happen until the hen is already mature, so you shouldn’t need to worry about it for young birds.
Method 4 (The Best Method): Feathers
Here’s an industry secret, and something that many newbie backyard chicken owners don’t know yet: the feathers on your cockerel or pullet are, bar-none, the best way to tell them apart early on. Sexing hen vs rooster via feathers takes a bit of practice, but as you raise more chickens and involve yourself more in the chicken world, you’ll learn more and more about what denotes rooster or hen.
Most roosters* have special feathers called saddle feathers and hackle feathers that hens do not (and never will) have. Many also have longer tail feathers than hens, but we don’t recommend using tail feather length or shape alone to tell cockerels and pullets apart. Tail feathers are generally only a good identifier in mature roosters, and even then it depends on the breed. Some breeds have long, beautiful, classical rooster tail feathers, while others are short, stubby, and easy to confuse with a hen. Some hens have long tail feathers, too!
We find that a cockerel’s saddle and hackle feathers are the best way to tell them apart because the cockerel’s feathers grow in with a very identifiable shape and sheen. Around 8-12 weeks of age, your cockerels should start to grow these feathers on their backs, wings, and necks. They may be a different color from the rest of their feathers, too – when they are, this is a dead giveaway. Follow this link to the American Buckeye Poultry Club – their picture provides an excellent top-down view of how cockerel and pullet feathers look different, side-by-side, even when the feathers are the same color.
Rooster hackle and saddle feathers tend to be much pointier than hen feathers, as well. However, just how pointy they are can vary from bird to bird, so we don’t recommend going off pointiness alone. The sheen (or glossiness) of the feather, when combined with the shape and color, is a much more reliable signature of a young cockerel.
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Method 5: Unique Feather Patters
Did you know that some chicken breeds have totally unique colors and patterns between roosters and hens? In the most extreme cases – such as what you’d see in sex-linked breeds – you can tell the males from the females from the moment they hatch out of the egg. In other breeds, however, telling them apart can take a bit longer.
Let’s take Barred Rocks, for example. The Barred Plymouth Rock is one of the most popular chicken breeds in the USA, and for good reason! It’s friendly, a reliable egg layer, a great meat producer, and you can tell the hens and roosters apart fairly accurately from a young age – and that’s because of the barring gene.
Because of the way chicken genetics work, a rooster can have up to two copies of the barring gene, while hens can only have one copy. In Barred Rocks, this manifests as distinct barring on the roosters and a more smudged effect on the hens. Some people profess being able to tell Barred Rock chicks apart by the size of the white dot on their heads.
However, as your chicks lose their down and grow their adult feathers, you’ll be able to see the difference pretty easily. See the following picture for a visual example. The chick on top is a cockerel, while the one on the bottom is a pullet. Notice that the comb and wattles on the cockerel are larger and redder, too. These two signs together make for a really solid case.
Here’s another popular chicken breed as an even better example: the Salmon Faverolle. Faverolles are known for their friendliness and docility- sometimes to the point of being a punching bag for other chickens. However, the color pattern differences between the hens and roosters are some of the most striking in the chicken world. They’re so different that you can clearly tell cockerels from pullets as soon as they lose their chick down, even though they’re not a sex-linked breed. The cockerels grow in a coat of black and white feathers, while the pullets feather in with tan and sometimes brownish-red.
You may notice this phenomenon in several other breeds where the roosters and hens look significantly different, such as Dark Brahmas, Wellsummers, Wheaten Ameraucanas, Bielefelders, and some Easter Eggers.
Easter Eggers are particularly notorious for coloring differences between roosters and hens due to something called leakage. Leakage refers to when an undesirable color grows in unevenly on a chicken, especially when that color is part of a rooster’s saddle, hackle, or wing feathers. In the show chicken world, leakage is considered a bad thing, but it can be quite striking on non-show birds.
Easter Eggers tend to exhibit leakage a lot because Easter Eggers have no breed standard. They’re not actually an official breed! While leakage can happen in any breed, most official breeders avoid it. Birds with leakage get culled, or removed from the breeding program, so they don’t pass the trait down to their offspring.
Easter Eggers came about during the rise of the Ameraucana. For a long time, Ameraucanas were the only real blue egg-laying chicken that was easily available to backyard chicken keepers – and they were so in-demand that there just weren’t enough to go around! To help meet demand, hatcheries started breeding Ameraucanas to other breeds. The result would be a chicken that laid blue or green eggs, satisfying the need for a colorful egg basket. Some hatcheries marketed them as “Americanas,” a misspelling of the original breed’s name, while others just called them Easter Eggers.
The only requirement for a chicken to be an “Easter Egger” is, traditionally, to lay green or blue eggs. That means your Easter Egger can have some crazy color and breed genetics in their background. They might not even be descended from Ameraucanas, since we have many other options today that can be cross-bred to create Easter Eggers! You never know what color they’ll grow up to be, and no two are exactly alike!
Method 6: Behavior
Notice how the rooster in the picture above has rusty color leaking through in his wings and gold in his saddle and hackle feathers. These extra feather colors help set him apart from hens, which generally don’t show much (or any) leakage.
If you keep chickens for long enough – especially if you only keep one or two breeds – you’ll probably start to get a feel for young roosters by their behavior alone. Adult roosters display behavioral quirks that hens do not, and they range from subtle to very obvious. Whether your rooster will display these behaviors at a young enough age is a mystery you’ll have to discover yourself, though.
One of the most obvious rooster behavioral quirks is his vocalizations. A mature rooster is constantly speaking to his hens, telling them he’s found a tasty snack or seen a hawk in the sky. As a newbie, it might be difficult to understand or identify the unique noises he makes. Once you’ve had a mature rooster in your flock for a while, though, there’s no mistaking them!
We’ve also heard fellow chicken owners say that young roosters tend to be much friendlier than young hens. Many young cockerels tend to be more confident, friendly, and inquisitive overall, at least up until a certain age.
You may also notice early-blooming cockerels “sparring” with each other in the brooder, or you might see them attempt to crow way too early (it’s super cute). However, just because two baby chicks are standing off with each other doesn’t guarantee that they’re both roosters. If you have one chick who squares up to others repeatedly though, keep it in mind as a potential indicator.
Do you use any other tricks to tell roosters from hens? There are a few other methods out there, such as wing sexing and of course vent sexing, but these methods tend to only be done at a professional (hatchery) level. As such, we did not include them in this guide. If you have any questions for us, or have any suggestions for things you’d like to add, don’t hesitate to reach out!
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