A question of sex

One of the pleasures of living with livestock is that you see animals often enough to begin to understand their behavior. Differences in chickens that wouldn’t be apparent to a visitor become patterns to the people who see them every day. It’s charming when a chicken jumps into a car to see what’s in the back seat, but it’s interesting when the same chicken always jumps into a car to see what’s in the back seat.

We see differences not just in individuals, but in breeds. The Buff Orpingtons are more friendly and curious than the Rhode Island Reds. The Reds are more standoffish, more athletic, apter to go about their chicken business without fuss or bother.

One of the reasons I haven’t warmed up to our ducks is that they are absolutely indistinguishable, one from the other. They eat, drink, swim, and move as a group. When we go in the pen to shut them up for the night, they panic as a group. Still. Even though we’ve been doing it every night for the seven weeks that make up their entire lives. They are one organism. One messy, stupid organism.

Even though I felt no affection for last year’s turkeys, they had what, in turkeys, passes for personality. They engaged with us, and seemed to understand that we were not to be feared. Drumstick did his fluff-up alpha-male thing every time we went into the pen. Edith was wily and smart; it was she who figured out, and taught the others, how to fly over the netting.

At the time, I thought the turkeys were charmless, but that was before I had ducks. Ducks make turkeys look like George Clooney.

We have a new flock of chickens this year, with some new breeds – Brahma, Barred Rock, Araucana, and Leghorn. They’re not even a week old yet, but there already a few discernible differences. The Rhode Island Reds are frenetic, with a tendency to run full-tilt from one end of the brooder to the other. The Barred Rocks seem sleepy and lethargic, and like to bask under the heat lamp with a leg or wing sticking out.

And then there’s this one Araucana. Unlike most other breeds, Araucanas come in a variety of patterns and colors, and this chick is an all-over yellow-white. She’s easy to distinguish from the rest of the flock, which is mostly shades of brown, black, and rust. I liked the look of her from the moment I opened the box, and she was the only one I earmarked for us as I distributed chicks to the friends we’d gone in on the order with.

She’s the one to watch. When we put a hand into the brooder, she’s the one who comes over to investigate, while the others watch from a safe distance, or head for the hills. She’s less flustered than the others by strange noises like sneezing. She’s six days old, but she’s a ballsy, curious little hen.

But Kevin doesn’t think so. “She’s not a she,” he said. “That bird’s a rooster.”

It is technically possible. Murray McMurray guarantees 90% accuracy, which means they do expect the occasional male to slip through. But I want her to be a her, both because I like the idea of a stand-out female and because I don’t want to have to send this bird to the Cone of Silence at six months, when he starts crowing at dawn.

Where I see curiosity, though, Kevin sees aggression. “He’s not investigating, he’s attacking.”

“She didn’t attack me, she was just looking.”

“He attacked me,” Kevin said.  “He pecked me almost to death.”

Oh please.  

“He’s a rooster.  Did you see the way he puffs out his chest and pushes the other chicks around?” he asked, puffing out his chest and pushing me around. 

I suspect we’ll be having this argument until November, when our chick begins either to lay or to crow.

17 people are having a conversation about “A question of sex

  1. This reminds me of a scene from City of Thieves (great book) where the protagonist gets his hands on a chicken and thinks he’s saved (he is on a mission to find a dozen eggs) only to find out the creature he’s been carrying around is a rooster. Soup ensues.

  2. I have one chick that did the same thing, and she was also bigger than the other three and I was convinced that she was a he. He/she also developed a black streak on her head the others didn’t have. Now the other’s have caught up to her in size, and one is developing a dark patch on her head, so Doofus doesn’t stand out so much anymore.

    Doofus is the one who wobbles, and if it weren’t for her disability, she’d be top hen. Well, she’s stil a pullet, but you know what I mean. She’s not front and center like this one pullet is when I offer tidbits, but she shoves everybody else out of the way to get to me. In fact, I think I can hear her barking “outta the way!” as she shoves her way forward.

    So I’m still holding out hope that she’s a she. And I think you’re right. Maybe your Araucana just thought Kevin would taste good.

  3. Uncle Frank used to tie a red string to a leg of any chicken that flew over the chicken yard fence and got into the garden, so that he could clip the wings of repeat offenders. The rate of recidivism was extremely high, but apparently 95% or so of his 300 chickens never even considered making the attempt. So were the high flyers more adventurous or more intelligent than the rest? Uncle Frank leant toward the Chicken Einsteins; I favored the Vasco Da Gama theory. A bit of both, I suspect.

  4. We got our first batch of chickens last June, so we’re hardly experts. But we did have one really friendly, curious little cockerel, who used to jump in my partner’s lap for a cuddle when she sat down for a session of Chicken TV. Well, he turned into the nastiest, orneriest, most aggressive rooster of the bunch. He’s in the freezer now, waiting to be made into coq au vin.

    Here’s hoping your chick is a she and keeps her sweet temperament!

  5. martha in mobile says:

    We had a Brahma chick who, when all the other chicks (of whatever breed, including Brahmas) would scuttle off to the side of the cage at our approach, would come over to see what we were up to. She is, predictably, the dominant hen.

  6. What is it we see in individual chickens that make us admire them, or at least feel drawn to one over the others? I suspect a psychologist would say it tells us more about who we are, and what we’re projecting on the chicken.

    What do they know? Pffshhh.

    This year I’ve learned about the effect of nurture over nature in chickens. I hatched 10 Buffs in the incubator and put 8 under a placid Buff hen, and 2 under a fractious pekin hen. The Buff’s brood are calm, and explore their surroundings at a leisurly, laid back pace. The chicks under the pekin are neurotic and whingy, so much so I admit that I’ve been sorely tempted to despatch them early.

    The chicks have the exact same biological parentage, only the fostering is different. I’m amazed at the influence the hen has over the development of her chicks. Perhaps RIRs fostered under a placid Buff would develop a friendly nature. (FYI it didn’t work with the ducks I reared under a hen – they are still the panicked single organism that you describe, running and quacking in unison, fleeing some invisible enemy. )

  7. I have a hen named George because of the exact same argument. And the one we named Henrietta, was a rooster, which became fajitas.

  8. You always have a least one line in your blog posts that makes me laugh my tail off…Ducks make turkeys look like George Clooney. You kill me Tamar!

  9. Aww, I still think you’re too hard on the ducks!

    Interestingly we have 2 ducks of one breed, and 1 of another (used to be 2 of that breed too, until Delilah keeled over), and they are different. The 2 Khaki Campbells (Katy and Clover- I loved the Katy Did books as a child) stick together but the Cherry Valley (a commercial hybrid – Honeysuckle) is definitely slightly separate. Not as athletic or adventurous and less bothered about water than K and C. Also muddier, possibly because she doesn’t get in the water as much as the other two. Whether it’s breed or the fact she’s not a direct sibling, I don’t know.

    And FWIW, my Barred Rocks are dominant and domineering! The Araucana is sweet but flighty. Daisy the Cuckoo Maran is my current favourite personality-wise- gentle but not as dim as some of the others…

  10. This could be my favorite comment thread of all time. I do love your chicken (and duck) stories.
    There seems to be enough precedent for my interpretation of our chick’s behavior that I’m sticking to it.

    Jen, I hope you don’t dispatch the neurotic, whingy chicks, because I’m very curious to find out whether the differences between your two groups will persist into adulthood. The nature/nurture question always interests me, and you’ve got yourself a nifty little experiment going there. I vote for a contribution to our understanding of chicken development — when it’s at your expense and inconvenience, of course.

    Susan, that’s dead on. She’s Phyllis Diller to the life.

  11. ” … They are one organism. One messy, stupid organism.”
    That’s why nothing should be decided at meetings.

    We have a chook called “Racket”, bloody thing never shuts up. It’s a cross Campine (silver) with Silver Spangled Hamburg, very pretty – but raised by a Sussex, who is the head-honcho-hen. It’s probably the father to blame. That’s what my wife says.

    FWIW I agree with Kevin, it’s a rooster. They’re always the ones to “stand up to the hand” while still in the brooder. Whenever I walk in on a bunch of brooders I always call out before I walk in. So they know the giant is coming.

    Oh and when I said Araucana’s were delicious the other day, I actually meant Anconas, my apologies for the mixup. Too many chooks, not enough dinners.

  12. Tamar, my life is full and I’m so busy. Yet, I enjoy your writing so much that I can’t wait to find out the sex of this chick and I’m a suburbanite who lives in a town that won’t even allow us to have chickens!

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