Would You Make a Good Chicken Sexer?
I’m betting you haven’t given a moment’s thought to how you would determine the sex of a baby chick. Most of us haven’t. But then, we don’t run large commercial hatcheries. The owners of commercial hatcheries invest their money in females who lay eggs for commercial sale. They need to know which chicks are females on the very day that they hatch. To find out, many hire a chicken sexer.
Six Ways to Determine the Sex of a Chicken
Since chicks are either male or female, any method of sexing has a 50% chance of being right. Methods that work some of the time include:
- Length of wing feathers. This works within 1-3 days of hatching, but is only valid if the chick’s father was a fast-feathering breed and the mother a slow-feathering breed.
- Down colour. This works only for chickens with distinctive colour patterns.
- Physical features like combs, wattles, and feather length. These aren’t apparent until at least three weeks after hatching.
There are three methods that are much more accurate, but also expensive:
4. DNA testing
5. Testing of the egg within three days of fertilization. A special light analyzes red blood cells to determine sex of the chick. This is a new technique, whose use is not yet widespread.
6. Vent testing. This is the work of professional chicken sexers.
On the day that a chick is hatched, the chicken sexer picks it up, gently squeezes its abdomen to expel feces, then looks in the chick’s anal vent (called a cloaca). The chicken sexer is looking to see if the chick has a tiny (less than 0.1 mm) genital organ shaped like a pimple. If so, this usually indicates that the chick is male.
If only it were that simple. 40% of day old female chicks have pimples that look like those of males. And 20% of all chicks don’t have an easily recognizable sex organ at all. A chicken sexer has to learn as many as a thousand vent configurations and then achieve a consistent 90-95% success rate while they process up to 8000 chicks per day.
The Art of the Chicken Sexer
Vent sexing was developed by a Japanese scientist in 1920. After an article was published in English in 1933, poultry breeders from around the world began attending the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School in Japan.
While Chick Sexing School offers a two-year course, a good chicken sexer often says that he “just knows” whether a chicken is male or female. This matches the training approach that was practiced in the 1930’s. The student chicken sexer would put a chicken in the female bin or the male bin. The master chicken sexer would say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. This would carry on for weeks or months until the student’s accuracy approached the 90% success rate.
Would You Be a Good Chicken Sexer?
So to be a good chicken sexer, it appears you need to possess the diagnostic skills of Dr. House, or at least those of an expert chess player who can ‘see’ their next five moves. Assuming that this intuitive knowledge can be learned at chicken sexing school, there are just a few other qualifications for a good chicken sexer. They include:
- delicate hands so that you don’t damage the day-old chicks
- the ability to sit under a spotlight in a darkened room for up to thirteen hours at a time as the chicks roll by on a conveyor belt
- laser-sharp concentration and focus for hours
If chicken sexing is in your future you can make up to $60,000 U.S. a year, more if you win chicken sexing competitions. And you’d probably find work quite easily. The United Kingdom reported a “chicken sexer crisis” as recently as 2015. Apparently, fewer young people are enrolling in chicken sexing school. Just three students graduated in 2010.
The Future of Chicken Sexing
The days of the professional chicken sexer may be numbered. In-ovo (egg) testing is a new technology that is showing promise. And more hatcheries are using specially bred chickens so they can do wing feather sexing.
I know it’s progress and, believe me, I wouldn’t want the job, but there’s something a bit sad about losing the art of chicken sexing. At least, that’s what I think. Do you agree?