Monday, March 21, 2011

All About Sex

When buying baby chicks, one of the many factors you'll need to consider is gender. Most people prefer to purchase pullets (female chicks), to raise a laying flock. In fact, some backyard flock owners are prohibited by local laws from owning anything but hens, classifying all roosters as noise-making nuisances.

Others, especially meat-flock keepers, choose males, or cockerels, since male chicks cost around half the price of female ones and are usually slaughtered before they're even a year old, so they're cheaper to buy and to raise. Other poultry keepers buy males for their stud services or to show them in competition. Yet others get males to complete their flock. Because the demand for males is so low, hatcheries often use males as "packing peanuts," shipped alongside the requested females in order to provide warmth during shipping.

Then there's the straight runs. Straight runs are the equivalent of chicken roulette. Straight-run chicks have not been sexed (had their gender identified). Sometimes this is due to time constraints; too many chicks means too much time required to sex them. Inexperienced poultry keepers may not know how to sex chickens or don't trust their skills enough to do so. Some times, the breed of the chicken itself prevents early gender identification. For whatever reason, no one ever knows what they're getting when they buy straight runs... which can be quite problematic for the backyard enthusiast who discovers her four beloved hand-raised chicks can crow and are therefore not permitted in her neighborhood.

We had ordered our Silkies as straight runs, as this is the only way the hatcheries sell them for some reason or another. Our advance party of seven chicks from Tractor Supply? All straight runs. Given that we had a Buff Orpington rooster and a Columbian Wyandotte rooster arriving soon, we wanted to make sure our flock wouldn't be inundated with cockerels. This was supposed to be a hen party, after all! J and I had recently viewed a video, Mad City Chickens, which included a clip of McMurray Hatchery workers sexing newly hatched chicks. The workers were so skilled, they were sexing a chick every 10 seconds or so. I might not be able to go that fast, but sexing the chicks myself couldn't be too difficult.

With a new book, Sexing All Fowl, recently arrived from the Randall Burkey Company, I prepared the equipment I would need for this procedure. Soft cloths, a Dixie cup, and disinfectant wipes — check. Seven chicks waiting to learn if they were boys or girls — check. Confidence about what I was about to attempt? Well, you can't have everything.

If you haven't guessed, sexing chicks involves looking to see if there are little private boy parts present. That's all well and good for the majority of mammal males, who strut their stuff out in the open (or talk about said stuff with proverbial male pride). Cockerels' special bits are located inside their vent. You're welcome to guess what gets vented through the vent. In order to properly sex a chick, I was to weave the chick through my left hand so its legs were held firmly between my index and middle fingers and its head was positioned between my pinkie and ring finger. Then, with my right thumb, I was to gently yet firmly stroke its belly. This supposedly would cause the chick to poop, into the waiting Dixie cup I was apparently holding with a third hand. From there, I was to wipe the vent clean (the book said use my right index finger to wipe away moisture; uh, no thanks!) and then, with my right thumb and index finger positioned on either side of the vent, I was to apply enough pressure to make the vent sphincter flare. It's flaring? Look quickly... if I saw a black spot the size of a pinhead, it was a boy. That's right. The size of a pinhead! No pinhead penis? Congratulations, it's a girl.

The chicks being sexed in Mad City Chickens were new hatches, straight out of the incubator. Our chicks were about 8 days old. I figured that, being older, those equipped with pinheads would have more prominent parts at this stage of development, perhaps the size of a thumb tack. Picking up Dennis, our happy little digging chick, I began the process of sexing my first chick.

Dennis, however, was neither happy about nor digging what I was attempting to do. The poor little thing squirmed and flapped its little wings, peeping madly and trying to escape from the hand it had previously trusted. I tried tuck-tuck-tucking to it, but it knew I wasn't about to hand over a treat. I tried reassuring it softly and, when that didn't work, I just looked Dennis in the eye, told the fuzzball this was a necessary medical procedure, and to be patient and he'd get a treat when it was over. For some reason, that seemed to work. Dennis stopped struggling, pooped on cue, and flared its little vent at me just like the book described. The lighting was off, however, so I brought Dennis' little tush closer to the heat lamp and pressed again. Bingo! A dark little pinhead appeared on the wall of the vent sphincter. Dennis was a boy!

Which I probably could have guessed, considering his love of digging: typical rooster behavior, trying to demonstrate his ability to forage for food to the females. Just how many females was yet to be determined.

I pulled Dennis back out from under the lamp and turned him back over... just to discover his eyes were shut and he was completely limp. "Dennis? DENNIS?!!" I cried out. Had I accidentally killed the poor little thing? Squeezed his little neck between my pinky and ring finger until he couldn't breathe? I panicked. I stroked his belly, stroked his head, all the while pleading with him to snap out of it, to be okay. I dipped my finger into the waterer and brought drops of water up to his little beak, encouraging him to swallow. After I'd just about given up and was wondering how to tell J I'd accidentally killed one of the chicks, Dennis finally fluttered his little eyelids open. I would have hugged the little bird if I weren't afraid that would crush him! Instead, I held him gently on my hand, gave him a little treat, and, once he seemed to have had enough of being petted, carefully placed him back in the brooder.


Okay, I told myself. That happened because of my inexperience and also because Dennis was a little bantam. If I tried on a standard-sized chick, I'd have better success.

Gloria, however, was not at all of accord with me on that. Like Dennis, Gloria peeped madly and flapped and flailed and kicked two little chicken feet at me as I did my best to intertwine her through my fingers. Gloria would have nothing to do with this. Finally, I just gave up, turned the Lavender Orpington chick belly up, and held it under the heat lamp.

Gloria went perfectly still.

Hey... maybe I had something here. Holding Gloria carefully and speaking to it softly, I pressed down on either side of the vent and took a look. Nothing. Just to make sure, I repeated the procedure. Still nothing. Gloria was a girl.

After Gloria, sexing the remaining five went much more smoothly. Having their rears exposed to the heat of the brooder lamp caused the chicks' vent sphincters to flare, without having to wind them through my fingers and without having to make them poop. Only once, on Blazekin, did I have to repeat the procedue and apply additional pressure to make the flaring more prominent. The final result: four girls (Gloria, Blazekin, Cutie, and Belle), and three boys (Dennis, Eggbert, and the unfortunately named Barbra).

At least, that's what I think. The truth will be known soon enough, since chicks begin developing their combs and wattles (those floppy red things beneath their chins) at three to four weeks of age. In other words, just in time for a trio of roosters to start strutting for the dozens of chicks arriving shortly.

This should be interesting.

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