Name That Chicken!
A Guide to Improving your Identification Skills
Take a look at the picture below. What do you think? Is this a picture of a hen or a rooster?
This picture is of my Ancona, Rangi. At the time, Rangi was 5 months old. In spite of the very prominent set of comb and wattles on Rangi’s head, Rangi is, beyond a doubt now that a few years have passed, a hen! Those most skilled at identifying breeds and genders of chickens may have realized that the bird in the above picture is a hen right away. However, many look only at the size of her comb and immediately assume she is a rooster. If you are one of those people, this article is for you! I am writing this article in order to help people hone their skills at identifying a chicken’s breed or gender.
Some chickens are fairly easy to identify—but others are not, and beyond that, many breeds are very similar! If you’re not looking at all the details, you might immediately assume that a bird you’re seeing is one thing, when in fact it’s another. So where do you begin? Let’s talk about the necessities for identification!
Before you can be absolutely sure about identifying a chicken, one thing you should be sure to have is a picture! Words can only go so far, and people may be tempted to bend their description towards what they want to hear. The best pictures for identification are those taken from the side of the bird, especially when it is in its natural stance. The picture below is a pretty good example of a good picture for identification.
Clear pictures that include a good view of the bird’s comb, saddle area, and feet make identifying the bird’s breed or gender all that much easier. Taking such pictures of chickens can be an incredibly difficult task, however, and so sometimes they will not be available. Sometimes, you have a picture like the one of Rangi at the beginning of the article, which only shows her face, hackles, and a little bit of her back. If less-than-stellar pictures are all that you have to go off of, it might help a little bit to know another identification must-have—the bird’s age!
Unless it is completely obvious from other details visible on the bird, I will not make a confident guess on a bird’s gender without knowing its age. Take for example the below picture. If this was of a 10-week-old chick, this could be assumed to be a cockerel. If it were twice that age, it could be a pullet. Without knowing its age, how would you even be able to make a guess?
Okay, so if you’ve been paying attention, you could probably see that that is another picture of Rangi. What can I say, she’s a good example of a tricky bird to ID.
Another helpful detail, whether you are identifying breed or gender of the bird, is its origin. Knowing where a bird came from will narrow down the possibilities on what breed it could be. This is especially true of birds living outside of the U.S., as some breeds look very different in other countries than here! It can also be useful to know where the bird came from if identifying the bird’s gender, as a production-bred hatchery bird may mature a lot faster than a breeder’s bird of the same breed.
What’s the point? Well, if some or all of these must-haves are missing from a post asking for identification help, then your first step before guessing anything should be to ask about it!
Identifying Breed: Looking at Colors, Shapes, and Sizes!
I can’t count on both hands and feet the number of times around the net that I’ve seen a person post a picture of a Cuckoo Marans hen only to be told by several others, who are clearly only seeing a striped bird and looking no further, that their Marans hen is a Barred Rock hen. There are similarities, yes, but when viewed side by side, the difference is pretty clear. Below are a Cuckoo Marans hen and a Barred Rock hen. Do you know which one’s which?
Left image: Barred Rock hen, my own photo; Right image: Cuckoo Marans hen by ‘seppingsR’, 2008. CC BY 2.0 / Cropped and resized from original
To properly identify chickens, you must look beyond feather coloration and take in more details. For instance, the Marans hen in the picture above has pinkish white legs, while the Barred Rock hen has yellow legs. This is one major distinction between the two breeds. You might also notice that the Barred Rock hen’s barring is more crisp and clear than that of the Cuckoo Marans, another detail that can help distinguish the breeds. In other breeds, feather colorations may be nearly or completely identical, meaning that looking at other details is a must.
What breed is the rooster in the picture below? A Welsummer? A Light Brown Leghorn? Black Breasted Red Old English Game?
This rooster is lacking the golden-toned hackles of the Light Brown Leghorn, and the yellow legs of the Welsummer, which immediately rules them out as candidates for his breed. However, he is also too heavily built and not upright enough in stance to be an Old English Game, ruling out that breed as well. Indeed, a defining feature of his true breed is pretty well hidden due to how he is standing, the fifth toe he sports on both feet. However, even without this detail, his stance and build are fairly telling, along with his feather and skin colors. This is a Red Dorking cockerel.
This example illustrates another detail that must be taken into account for identifying the breed of a bird—its shape. Generally, a breed that cannot be distinguished from another simply by feather or skin color can be told by another detail of its appearance, such as the fifth toe of the Dorking, or its large build and low stance. Another very important detail is comb type. Take for example the hens below. One is a Dominique, and the other is a Barred Rock. Do you know which is which?
The Dominique, of course, has a Rose Comb, while the Barred Rock has a Single Comb. There are 9 different accepted types of combs in pure bred chickens, and some odd-looking combs can also occur in mixed breed chickens. For an excellent article and pictorial about the 9 pure comb types, check out this article: The 9 Comb Types.
Another handy indicator if all else fails when identifying a hen is to ask her egg color. Obviously a young pullet will not be laying yet, and so this detail may be missing until later on, but her egg color will narrow down the possibilities of what breed she is. This may be something to ask about before fully committing to a guess on a bird’s breed. You don’t have that advantage with males, however, and so it may not be as reliable as the details I have pointed out above.
Identifying Males and Females: Telltale Signs and Misleading Appearances
The chick below is a fast-feathering Dark Gray Dorking.
Many say that based on the speed of feathering, this chick should be female. However, take a look at this bird a few weeks later.
His large comb and wattles at 9 weeks of age, along with that tiny patch of reddish coloring in his shoulder, make it clear that he is a male.
Here he is much later, at 16 weeks old. You will notice at this point that he still has small spur bumps, and absolutely no signs yet of spurs coming in.
There are many tips and tricks for telling male chicks from female chicks, but many are simply not true. The above bird strikes down two very prominently cited methods claimed to identify males: that they feather slowly, and that you can see their spurs coming in early. Feathering speed is a trait that can be bred for—in other words, it may work for SOME birds, but it WON’T work for ALL birds. Meanwhile, spurs are simply not a reliable sign of masculinity, as they don’t come in until much later, when the bird is already fairly obviously a male, and some roosters will never grow spurs at all. Worse yet, some females grow spurs, too, such as the 6 month old Lakenvelder pullet in the below picture.
Despite these two means of identifying males not being as reliable as they are claimed, there are some tricks that can be used to determine a male from a female at an earlier age. Now, to clarify, by an earlier age I don’t mean days old. Some cockerels may get their combs in very early and so be easy to tell at earlier ages, but most chicks should be in the range of 4 to 6 weeks of age before they can accurately be sexed by their appearances.
Possibly one of the most reliable indicators of sex is the comb. Generally speaking, males grow their combs in early and get color in them earlier than pullets, who often don’t gain much color or size in their headgear until they’re about to begin laying eggs. A good guideline to follow is that anything more than a slightly pinkish color in the comb and wattles before 8 weeks of age is typically a strong indicator of masculinity.
As for comb size, this is where breed comes into play. Males tend to grow their wattles in earlier than females of the same breed, but certain large combed breed females may grow their combs in early, too. Leghorn pullets, for example, may start sprouting a large comb by 3 weeks or so. You will notice, however, that their combs still lack a deep pink or red color until later on.
A Light Brown Leghorn pullet at about 3 weeks old, about 5 weeks old, and 10 weeks old.
Light Brown Leghorns, as seen in the pictures above, have an additional advantage in telling their sex, along with several other varieties of various breeds. The males feather out in a completely different coloration than the females in these varieties. Take for example, these 3 week old Silver Gray Dorkings. Do you notice a striking difference between their feather colors despite them being the same breed?
A very common masculine trait is for males to feather in with black chests. In fact, many times males can be distinguished very early on by their black chest feathers. Now, this obviously is not going to be a distinguishing feature in solid color varieties such as Black, White, and Buff, or darker varieties like Black Copper and Birchen, but in more colorful breeds like Light Brown Leghorns and Silver Gray Dorkings, this can be your earliest indicator of masculinity.
Coloration can be a very useful indicator of sex in many varieties of chickens. Often, males are much more brightly colored, while females are more evenly colored overall. For example, look at the Red Dorkings mentioned before.
The male has a black chest, and a blackish color overall except for his deep red shoulders and bright red hackles, compared to the pullet who is more brownish with just a gentle yellow in her hackles. These pictures show very typical masculine and feminine coloration trends for chickens. The key points for masculine color patches besides the chest area are the hackles, shoulders, and saddle. These patches can be many colors, but most commonly they are red, white, or black. Many cockerels will have big, obvious patches of these colors in these locations. However, not all will be so obvious.
In some cases, the coloration difference between males and females is subtle or even non-existent until suddenly, one day, your young cockerel sprouts just a little bit of color. This 9 week old Marans is an excellent example of this sudden appearance of color. Notice that just a hint of color has appeared in his shoulder and saddle area.
Some cockerels are more ‘confetti-like’ in their coloration, such as the Dark Gray Dorking cockerel in the below picture. Take note that, despite the splashiness of his coloration overall, he still has concentrations of red and white in the shoulder area, white in the saddle area, and black in the hackle area:
Of course, the most obvious sign of masculinity is the appearance of pointed saddle and hackle feathers, which typically are not apparent until about 12 weeks of age, though they may come in earlier or later than that. Any bird that sprouts these drooping, shiny, pointy feathers is definitely, beyond a doubt male. You can see in the below pictures emerging pointed saddle feathers, and how those feathers droop once they’ve grown out far enough. Saddle feathers can be subtle as they are emerging, but once they begin to droop, there is no denying them.
It should be noted that the hackle feathers of pullets can look pointed due to their patterning, when in fact they are not pointed. A key identifier for masculine feathers is also their shininess. Below, you will see a close up of a pullet’s hackle feathers, and a cockerel’s hackle feathers. Notice not only that the female’s hackle feathers are indeed round, despite how pointed they look due to the black pattern in them, but that the male's feathers are glossy and shine in the light from the camera’s flash.
Tail feathers, though often used, can also be misleading. Below is a pullet at 3 months old with misleading tail feathers that resemble sickle feathers, and a cockerel showing actual sickle tail feathers. Take note of the relative roundness of the tips of the cockerel’s sickle feathers as compared to the pullet’s tail feathers. This is one way that you can tell these misleading pullet tail feathers from true masculine tail feathers.
Stance can also be misleading, as sometimes pullets will stand more upright, and sometimes cockerels will not. Below is a pullet standing more upright, as is claimed to be a masculine trait. There are a few examples of cockerels with lower stances in the above pictures as well. As you can see, stance is not a very credible factor in determining the sex of a chick unless combined with other factors as confirmation.
Even as prepared as one may be with all this information, there will always be those birds that defy all the rules and are hard to tell until later than usual. The below bird seemed quite feminine until about 3 months old, when abruptly he grew in saddle feathers. He very nearly flew under the radar and had lived with the pullets of that brood for a long time after the rest of the cockerels had been removed.
If you look closely, though, you can see some subtle masculine traits in that left picture...
Honing Your Skills: Practice, Practice, Practice!
So, this has been a lot to take in, huh? And at this point, you may be wondering how exactly you’re supposed to remember all this, right? Well, let me tell you from experience that it does get easier to do—but it takes a LOT of time, practice, repetition, and experience!
What can you do to hone your skills? Practice, practice, and practice some more! Spend a lot of time on the Breed and Gender forum and observe how the more experienced users are responding. What questions do they ask, and what information do they need before they respond? Another excellent way of practicing is to look at only the first post of these threads, make your guess, and see how you did! If you miss some, spend more time practicing!
Knowing the general appearances of many different breeds helps a lot as well. This requires a lot of dedication, however, as there are a LOT of breeds to remember! At first, just knowing the very common ones should suffice. As you practice and gain experience, more and more breeds should become recognizable to you. It also helps to own these birds, yourself—and what better excuse is there for chicken math than practice to hone your skills?
The best advice I can give anyone wanting to improve their identification skills is to just keep trying! No one is perfect, and even the most skilled can make mistakes sometimes, too. Don’t be embarrassed! You wouldn’t learn a thing if you got everything right, after all!
Good luck, and happy identifying!