Chicken, Hen, or Rooster: What’s the difference?


Most Americans only know that chickens are the white meat wrapped in plastic that they see displayed at the supermarket. This is not surprising considering only two percent live on farms in the United States, leaving the other ninety-eight percent to remain in the dark about the different breeds and habitats of chickens.

So, chicken, hen, or rooster: What’s the difference? There are several breeds of chicken and hens are the females while roosters are the males of the species. Plus, there are many differences between roosters and hens with assorted sizes, colors, and other characteristics that make one better eating than the others.

This article will focus on:

  • What are Pullets?
  • What are Hens?
  • What are Cockerels?
  • What are Roosters?
  • What are Capons?
  • A Few Basic Facts About Chickens
  • The Differences Between Hens and Roosters

Try not to salivate for eggs or crave bacon as this piece tells all about chickens.

What are Pullets?

A pullet is a young female chicken under the age of one that has not laid her first eggs. They are not, however, chicks as chicks are freshly hatched, and pullets are teenage chickens between twelve and sixteen weeks old.

Point of lay pullets is those that are approaching their first laying of eggs.

Like human teenagers, pullets approaching her first lay will be moody, grumpy, talkative, and go from nest to nest as if looking for something. Pullets are outcasts in the hierarchy of chicken society until they become hens, and the flock accepts them into the flock.

What are Hens?

“Hen” is a term used to describe females of any bird species that lay eggs.

Until her first lay, a female chicken is called a pullet.

As stated, female chickens before they lay their first eggs are not considered hens, but afterward, she will lay eggs as often as her nature will allow and continue until old age at between three and four years old.

Hens have no control over when they will lay eggs and are wooed by roosters in courting, not so subtle and very noisy mating rituals.

Hens live for eight to ten years.

What is a Cockerel?

Cockerels are male chicks until they reach sexual maturity at about one year old, then they are referred to as roosters.

On average, cockerels begin to crow between the ages of twelve to sixteen weeks old, although some breeds to begin earlier. At first, cockerels crows are squeaky or gargled, much like male humans go through a voice change.

With practice, a cockerel learns to crow and becomes louder with a definitive message; “This is my territory, stay out.”

Even when still young chicks, rival males try to establish dominance over each other and the pullets they were hatched with. The males will bump chests and stare down each other, then play fight. Normally, the goal is to establish a hierarchy among the males with the subordinates watching and imitating the movements of the dominant male rooster.

However, cockerels have little power over hens who will not tolerate them asserting dominance over them and let him know it. 

What is a Rooster

After a cockerel reaches maturity, at about one year old, he becomes a rooster and starts mating with the hens. Roosters become bold, pushy, and aggressive as they vie for hens to add to their flock. If roosters aren’t culled (separated), they will injure each other using their sharp hackles and sickles located on their legs and feet.

A rooster is expected to guard his flock, warn them of danger, provide food for them, and make sure they are taken care of. He will intervene in fights between members of his flock to make certain no one is hurt.

Roosters constantly are on the lookout for challenges from other younger roosters, and if they fight and he loses, there will be a new leader of the flock. The old rooster might hang about on the area around the flock or move away and live an isolated life.

If the older rooster lost the fight due to illness or injury as opposed to old age, he may return to the flock and challenge the new rooster for his position.

Roosters can live from between five to eight years.

What is a Capon?

Capons are immature roosters that have had their testicles surgically removed, or they have had an Estrogen implant. These procedures cause a lowered aggression in the animals and the meat to become more tender, flavorful, and juicy.

In Europe, Spain, and France, capon meat was once considered a luxurious delicacy fit for only the rich and powerful. Caponization is still widely practiced in France.

In other places, caponization has fallen out of favor as it is a high-risk surgery and too expensive to make it profitable.        

A Few Basic Facts About Chickens

First, as odd as it may seem, chickens (Gallus Gallus Domesticus) did not originate in the United States. Instead, they are believed to be descended from wild Indian and south-east Asian Red Junglefowl.  

A group of chickens is called a flock, and because of humanity’s love affair with chickens, there are more chickens in the world than any other bird. They also provide two foodstuffs; their meat and their eggs.

Humans have many other uses than food for chickens:

  • We keep them as pets
  • We raise them for breeding
  • We also enjoy their plumage and use it to as stuffing
  • Their feces are used as fertilizer

As can be seen, chickens are greatly beneficial to humanity, and yet they can pose a danger through disease as well. More on that topic later.

How to Tell a Hen from a Rooster Chick

Knowing the sex of baby chicks is important for the following two vital reasons.

One, you need to know because having too many roosters will cause huge problems down the road when they reach mating age. Roosters will fight and even kill each other to establish a flock of hens, and their hackles can cause enormous damage. Keeping only one or two male chicks can save the lives of your flock.

Two, the more hens you have in your flock, the more eggs they will produce, so knowing the number of nesting boxes one needs is crucial. 

While sexing chicks is not an exact science with a ten percent failure rate, the easiest and most successful of these techniques is vent sexing.

With vent sexing, a farmer holds the chick and gently expels poop from the cloaca in order to see the sexual characteristics of the bird. If the cloaca shows a penis, then it is a male, and if not, you have a hen. However, if this procedure isn’t done correctly serious damage or even death can occur for the little bird.  

How Do You Tell a Female Adult Chick from an Adult Male?

Determining the sex of an adult chicken is extremely important so that they can be separated into their appropriate groups. This is because as they grow, birds of the same sex behave differently depending on whether they are egg-laying hens or competitive roosters.

While it is simple to identify chicks and adults but exceedingly difficult to determine the sex of an adolescent bird due to them not yet developing their adult characteristics but having lost those they had as chicks.

A few details about birds to look for have already been covered in this piece, their wattles, and combs. However, spurs are also a vital tell-tale sign of telling the sex of a chicken. This growth on the back of a chicken’s leg is necessary for reproduction as it allows the rooster to cling to the hen during mating. Comparing the spur sizes of a female and male will help determine which sex has what in a new flock of chicks.

Feather Shape and Color

The best way to determine the sex of an adolescent bird is by looking closely at the feathers of the neck of the bird. A female has rounded fathers, and a male has pointed feathers.

To examine a bird, pick up the bird, hold it securely under one arm, then take a sturdy piece of an index card or credit card and place it under a row of feathers If the neck feathers have pointed ends it is most likely a male if they are rounded then it is probably a female.

This method, like all looking at other body parts on a chicken, is not foolproof, so a farmer shouldn’t be too surprised if they get it wrong.

Normally, in birds that have multiple feather colors, pullets will be a dull color with uniformity of the color throughout their plumage. Cockerels, on the other hand, will have a wide range of colors to their feathers and will not be just one solid color all over.

Other Differences Between Hens and Roosters

There are many other differences between hens and roosters other than their sex. They have different

  • Plumage 
  • Behavior
  • Wattles and Combs
  • Legs and Spurs

Plumage

When hens lived in the wild, they developed plumage that is subdued in color, appearing in browns, yellows, and whites to make it a smaller target for predators. This trick of color helped the species to remain viable.

A rooster has vibrant and elaborate feathers to help attract hens for mating. They also use their feathers to puff themselves up when intimidating other roosters, hopefully, to hold their harem while avoiding a bloody fight.

Roosters also have feathers that are iridescent and capture the light to show off a beautiful blue and green plumage. As a rule of thumb, if a chicken has iridescent feathers, it is most likely a rooster.

Behavior

As chickens become mature, roosters become bolder and friendlier to humans when they are young but become cantankerous as they age. Hens, on the other hand, tend to warm up to each other and humans.

Both sexes of chickens may fight, but roosters are more violent in their conflicts. This is especially true when they are ready to mate one or more hens who are in heat. Roosters perform a mating dance for his chosen hens, dancing in a circle with a drooping wing.

Hens roost in nests among other females and, after laying eggs, will remain there until either the eggs hatch or the eggs are removed for food.

Roosters are solitary birds preferring to stay on the periphery of their flock to keep watch. They are always watchful for other roosters and will fight them off if he must to protect his harem.

Wattles and Combs 

Wattles are the red tissues that hang beneath the bills that are part of a chicken’s heat regulation system. Chickens are unable to sweat and instead cool themselves using passing his blood through the wattles.

Combs is the tall tissue on top of a chickens head. They are also important to the cooling system of chickens as they are full of capillaries and veins.

When a chicken hatches they have no wattles or combs but come appear around the age of three weeks. Chicks that get their combs early most likely will develop into cockerels and eventually roosters.

Wattles will begin to redden around five or six weeks of age about the beginning of the time pullets begin their first laying. A hen’s wattles and comb will turn bright red or pink.

Wattles are part of a rooster’s mating allure, with hens becoming attracted to extremely upright wattles being the most preferred by hens. Roosters with floppy or missing wattles will not be as successful at finding a mate if they can at all.

The brighter the wattle on a chicken, the healthier they are as chickens that are ill or that are molting will have shrunken or pale wattles. Indeed, the color of a wattle may indicate the presence of a disease and the need to visit a veterinarian.

Legs and Spurs

Roosters often have thicker, and longer legs than hens, and those legs are edged with sharp spurs. Spurs are sharp bone-like growths just above the toes on a rooster. Old hens sometimes have spurs that are not as long or sharp as roosters.

Spurs are used as a defense and are dangerous if the rooster is aggressive. When necessary, owners of particularly feisty roosters will remove their spurs to protect both the rooster and the rest of the flock from injury.

Unfortunately, the aggressive tendency of some roosters makes them prime for an illegal sport called cockfighting, where roosters are turned loose on each other for a fight to the death.

The Industry that Feeds America’s Obsession with Chicken and EggsTo produce enough meat and eggs to feed the ravenous stomachs of Americans, chickens are no longer only raised on farms. Now they are hatched, raised, and live out their lives in huge chicken farms located around the country.

Americans consume an enormous amount of meat and eggs from chickens. In fact, chicken is the number one preferred meat in the U.S., beating out pork and beef. Americans eat, on average eighty-nine pounds of chicken each year and in 2018 it was reported that the consumed 95.3 billion eggs.

Apparently, chickens for consumption, along with their eggs, to feed an entire nation fixated on chickens must be grown on an enormous industrial scale. This is done by using conventional caged environments that promote overcrowding, diseases, unsanitary conditions, and cruelty to the birds.

In recent years, an attempt is being made to transition to cage-free production of chickens with some smaller producers using range feeding where the animals are allowed to roam free of extraneous restraints.

American egg and meat producers have discovered that by not using cages, their birds are happier, and that translates into higher egg production and healthier, bigger birds.  

What is the Hen’s Song?

Hens have a crow of sorts. They let out a loud scream of sorts to alert her chicks to hide, and if she sees someone she doesn’t feel safe being around, she cackles loudly.

Hens sometimes announce loudly that they have laid an egg. This sound has become known as the hen or egg song. Not all hens sing after laying an egg, and some types of chickens tend to sing more than others.

The song is a repeated “buck-buck-badaack” sound, and it is thought she sings to draw predators away from her nest, to aid in mating, and to locate her flock. It is also a warning sound to other hens to stay away from her nest.

The reasons hens choose to sing rather than be silent and avoid predators is unknown, but there are some thoughts about the matter, including:   

  • Telling Her Location
  • For Future Mating
  • Showing Pride
  • As a Distraction

Telling Her Location

After a hen has laid an egg, she may sing to call her flock mates. This is because in the wild they might wander off when she is nesting leaving her vulnerable to predators. To help them find her location, the hen sings to signal to the other hens to come to her and share her nesting area for safety purposes.

For Future Mating 

A hen might sing to let her rooster know she is ready for mating to excite him. The rooster, upon hearing the hen singing, will respond to her song quite loudly then rush over to do his mating dance for her.

Showing Pride

Although this thought might be attributing human emotions to a chicken, many believe the hen sings because she is proud of the brood she has just laid. Mainly, though, a hen’s song shows pride in that she is announcing her position in the flock’s hierarchy. The hen is establishing her pecking order within the flock.

As a Distraction

Sometimes a hen is singing to fool predators into believing the nest isn’t where it is actually located. She may be also distracting predators away from other hens who are nesting and vulnerable. Since chickens are communal birds, they have a social structure that is tightly knit. 

Do Roosters Cluck Like Hens?

Roosters can and do cluck like a hen. In fact, they have over thirty different vocalizations they sound depending on what they are feeling, trying to communicate, or are alarmed by. Roosters have a cry for danger from a predator, a call showing he is concerned about a hen, and a number of other crows, clucks, and many other sounds.  

The main thrust of a rooster’s life is to watch over his flock and make sure they are all safe and accounted for. If a hen wanders away while pecking at the ground, the rooster will give a worried crow, and she will quickly return to the fold. If a predator is approaching, the rooster gives off a different warning cry, depending on whether the danger is on the ground or from the air.

It isn’t only the rooster who will instigate a crow. If a hen is frightened, she will cluck an alarm sound causing the rooster to immediately crow to her in reassurance.

Why Do Roosters Crow?

A rooster crows because his internal clock helps him to anticipate when the sun will rise, like a number of other birds. A roosters crow is its bird version of bird song that comes in a regular cycle.

Most animals have daily cycles known as a circadian rhythm that follows the day/night cycle when the animal sleeps and is awake. Roosters are no different, choosing to awaken early when he believes it is time to awaken.

Roosters can be fooled, though, by such things as solar eclipses, and the changes of seasons when the days lengthen and shorten. This confusion only lasts a short while though, as the bird readjusts his wake/sleep pattern to compensate.

A rooster crows on a perch above his flock and territory to make other roosters aware of his presence so they will not intrude. Also, a roosters crow is highly reassuring to the hens in his harem.

What is the Difference Between Hen and Rooster Meat?

Although the differences in taste are minimal, there is a difference between the way a hen tastes as compared to a rooster.

First, a hen has more fat than a rooster that is perceptible if one is looking for it. The hen’s meat will not be greasy, but slightly oilier in taste than her counterpart.

Roosters are larger, but because chickens are processed and packed away from a consumer’s home, the differences are minimal. It is nearly impossible to look at chickens in a grocery store meat locker and tell which one is male or female.

Roosters have more protein, and that means they have more meat than a hen. There again, without knowing before processing, which is a hen or a rooster, it would be impossible to tell by taste or looking at the meat packed in plastic. 

However, roosters and hens raised on a farm on grain have enormous differences in the size of their bodies and the taste of their meat. Hens will taste much more subtle than roosters, which may be caused by hormonal differences.  

Are Roosters and Chickens Mean?

People keep roosters as pets and companions, so, no, for the most part, they are not mean. However, to other roosters who intrude on their territory, the dominant rooster will be mean and even attack.

Predators will have a hard time facing down a rooster as well.  The entire existence of a rooster is to mate with and protect his hens. If a predator comes near, the rooster will try first to lure the beast away from his flock, and if that does not work he will use his hackles to give it a good fight.

Hens aren’t mean if they are acclimated to humans from hatching. However, if they are not used to humans, touching them, gathering eggs will be a challenge. Hens are known to peck hard at the hands of humans who are attempting to collect their eggs.

Hens can become aggressive with other hens if they feel their neighbor is intruding into their nesting area. While hens love to be in the same close vicinity, having a hen try to take over the nesting box of another can and will cause a cackling, clucking, disagreement.

Cannibalism Due to Inadequate Nesting Boxes for Hens

Hens love to peck and scratch at the ground in search of grubs, a behavior leftover from the time before they were domesticated. If chickens are offered a habitat that allows for litter full of small grains of food, this behavior will be reinforced, and they will be much less likely to build up nervous energy and peck one another.

Nesting boxes are where hens build their nests for laying their eggs and for use at night for sleeping. If there aren’t enough boxes for the hens, the birds will become aggressive as they jockey for position and possession of an adequate nesting box.

Both hens and roosters will peck at impaired, injured, or dead birds in their pens due to their natural curiosity and social order. Once pecking begins, it can very quickly accelerate to a bloody frenzy.

April

April has owned and worked with domestic fowl including chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, and guineas since 1998. She has a B.S. in Agriculture from Cal Poly in Pomona, CA where she studied genetics, nutrition and reproduction.

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