The Difference Between Chickens, Hens, and Roosters
Chicken, hen, and rooster – you may have heard these terms used interchangeably. However, as any chicken keeper will tell you, there are distinct differences between the three terms. So what are the differences among them?
What is the difference between chickens, hens, and roosters? Most of us are familiar with the domestic chicken – a popular type of domestic fowl kept for its eggs and meat production. In simplistic terms, a hen is a female chicken, while a rooster is a male chicken.
Read on to learn more about the many differences between hens and roosters and how to distinguish between the two.
What Is A Chicken?
The only chickens I’ve ever met have been domesticated. Chickens were thought to have become domesticated some 5,000 years ago and have been used for their eggs, meat, and cockfighting throughout history. While cockfighting is now considered a barbaric sport, it is believed that this practice played a role in exporting them to other countries, such as the United States.
As heavy, ground-dwelling birds, chickens are part of the Phasianidae family, including peacocks and turkeys. Birds in this family tend to be larger than other birds, which is one reason they would rather stick to the ground than fly long distances. Their heavier weight keeps them from flying too far and high off of the ground.
Another popular poultry bird is a Guinea Fowl. To learn the difference between chickens and Guinea Fowls, check out my article Guinea Fowl vs Chickens: What’s the Difference?
Hens are adult female chickens, while roosters are mature male chickens. Chickens reach maturity, or adult status, at one year of age. What are chickens called before they reach adulthood? Newly hatched chickens are called chicks. Female chickens that are less than one year of age are called pullets, while male chickens that are less than one year of age are called cockerels. When you purchase a chick at a feed store, they are often only one day old. Many feed stores will also sell “started pullets” between approximately 15 and 24 weeks of age. At around 24 months of age, pullets will typically begin to lay eggs.
Physical Differences Between Hens and Roosters
Besides the obvious, there are many differences between roosters and hens. Some of these differences can be seen in the chicken’s appearance. Read on to learn more about the physical differences between the two genders of the chicken world!
There are many different breeds of chickens, and they can vary significantly in size. Within their breed, however, roosters are much larger than hens. Roosters are often larger than hens from a very young age and can be one of the first hints that may lead you to suspect you have a cockerel instead of a pullet.
Roosters, like most male birds, are much more colorful than their female counterparts. Their tail feathers are usually much longer than a hen’s feathers, often curving over the tail and falling down, creating a beautifully full, delicate-looking tail. Why are male birds more colorful than females? Researchers theorize that it is to catch the attention of the females to court them.
Combs and Wattles
Combs are the red fleshy growth on top of the chicken’s head, often ridged and upright but sometimes flat according to the breed. Wattles are similarly red and fleshy growths that hang from the chicken’s chin, under the beak. Chickens do not sweat, and combs and wattles are full of red blood vessels that help to keep the birds cool in hot weather.
Combs will vary in appearance depending on the breed, but both combs and wattles will appear much more prominent in roosters than in hens, with combs often standing upright and folding over at the top.
Roosters have sharp leg spurs above the rear toes on their back feet, while hens do not. Roosters use their leg spurs while fighting and to protect and defend their flock. Their spurs do not become sharp until a cockerel reaches approximately one year of age.
Behavioral Differences Between Hens and Roosters
In addition to physical differences, there are several behavior differences between roosters and hens as well.
Most of us are familiar with the crow of the rooster, a typical illustration of the rising of the sun each morning. Roosters crow not only with the sun’s rising but throughout the day; they also crow to let the flock know that all is well. When they see danger approaching, roosters will also let out a shrill warning, such as a diving hawk. They will chortle when they are suspicious and keep a close eye on something in particular (whether that be the neighbor’s dog, a rabbit, or a tumbleweed).
Hens also make sounds, albeit different ones. Hens will cackle throughout the day – and if you haven’t heard a hen cackle, it is worth a listen; it honestly sounds like they are laughing at you! Another common hen sound is the “egg song,” as many chicken keepers call it. After a hen lays an egg, she will leave the nest and make a repetitive “balk” sound, sometimes for as long as 15 minutes at a time. While many attribute this to pride in laying her egg, it can also be that hens make this sound as they are leaving the nest to attract predators and lead them away from the nest of eggs.
Differences In How They Spend Their Time
Hens spend most of their day scratching and pecking at the ground, searching for bugs and other tasty treats. They spend their days ensuring they are well fed to have enough nutrients and protein to lay eggs.
On the other hand, Roosters spend only about a third of the time with their heads to the ground as hens. Instead, they spend the majority of their time watching for danger, always on alert and ready to warn the hens of anything they deem suspicious.
Defending The Flock
The life’s work of a rooster is to defend his flock. It is a good rule of thumb to keep between 4 and 10 hens per rooster, and a rooster will (quite literally) protect his hens with his life. You will not have to talk to many chicken keepers before hearing stories of incredible bravery that their roosters have shown.
There are stories of roosters fending off coyotes, neighboring dogs, and even larger predators. A rooster will not back down until a predator leaves or the predator has taken the rooster’s life. I myself have been on the receiving end of a rooster attack more than once. If they see you as a threat, you better watch out! On the other hand, hens will run for cover as soon as there is a hint of danger, usually under brush or into their coop.
Roosters are often aggressive, even with their human caretakers. On the other hand, Hens choose to avoid the unknown rather than take a stand against it. Roosters will often chase and sometimes traumatize humans and try to attack anyone who is simply going into the run to change the water out. If you are the victim of an aggressive rooster, take comfort in that he is just doing his job – defending his hens against any unwanted visitors.
From a human’s perspective, roosters will commonly display behaviors that seem almost endearing and chivalrous. When you throw treats to your flock of chickens, you will see the hens running uninhibited to the tasty morsels, pushing one another out of the way. On the other hand, Roosters will run to the treats and make a quiet call to the hens, alerting them to the food. When I was growing up, we had a rooster that would stand around and watch the hens eat the treats, often not taking one himself until the ladies had their fill.
Roosters are often the last ones into the coop at night and the first ones out the door in the morning. Their job is to keep the hens safe, and they take this job seriously – doing all they can to ensure the hens are in the coop safely in the evening and that no hazards are awaiting them outside of the coop in the morning.
Hens are content to peck and scratch all day, but roosters like to spend a significant amount of time chasing after the hens to mate with them. A rooster in his prime can breed up to 30 times per day, with the hens submitting to the rooster (often after putting up a bit of an argument). Between watching for predators and mating with hens, it’s a wonder roosters have time during their day for anything else!
Care Differences Between Roosters and Hens
The only differences in care between the rooster and the hen are surrounding the hen’s egg-laying. Both roosters and hens sleep on a roost in a coop, eat the same diet, need access to fresh water at all times, and require little else to be happy.
If you have both a rooster and hens, you will likely be feeding an all-flock commercial feed. Unless a hen eats a layer-specific feed, she will need a calcium supplement to ensure her eggs have adequately strong shells. The most familiar calcium supplement that chicken keepers provide are oyster shells, which can be purchased at any feed store or online, and should be offered free choice.
Hens will also need a place to lay their eggs – usually, this is in the form of nesting boxes kept in the chicken coop. If you do not provide a nesting box, your hen will find somewhere else to lay her eggs – and then it will be up to you to locate her nesting spot!
Hens may also be susceptible to becoming egg-bound, which is when an egg gets stuck inside of a hen that she cannot pass. It will be worth it to research how to help an egg-bound hen if you keep laying hens. That way, you will be prepared in the case of an emergency.
Roles Within The Flock
In addition to the above differences between the rooster and the hen, there are also differences within their roles in the flock. Chickens are social creatures, and among hens, in particular, disputes will often break out. While roosters are the ones in charge, there is also a delicate hierarchy among the hens. There are usually one or more dominant hens and one or more submissive hens. Squabbles often erupt, and you will usually see the rooster intervening and breaking up the fight. Roosters tend to keep peace within the flock, and hens are typically happier and feel more secure having a rooster with them. When it comes to problems with dominant hens, it is not uncommon for these issues to disappear once a rooster is added into the flock.
How Can You Differentiate Between The Sexes At Birth?
Some breeds of chickens, like the Red and Black Sexlinks, can be sexed easily at birth because the cockerels and pullets will be born with different colored feathers. Some breeds, like silkies, cannot be accurately sexed at the time they are hatched. Most breeds of chickens can be sexed with some degree of accuracy upon hatching – how do most hatcheries sex chicks within these breeds?
A female chick will have longer wing feathers, while a male chick will have slightly longer tail feathers. The more chicks you watch, the easier it will be to tell the differences in feather length. Another difference in genders among chicks is that female chicks have a second row of feathers overlapping a first row on their wings – male chicks do not have a second row.
Of course, attempting to sex freshly hatched chicks is not always cut and dry, and it is not unheard of to accidentally bring home a cockerel that was advertised as a pullet!
There are several differences between roosters and hens, and these differences are very apparent when watching a flock of chickens interacting. While there are many different behaviors between the two genders, there is a lovely harmony within the flock when there is a proper ratio of roosters to hens. Both hens and roosters have evolved over thousands of years to look and behave differently, and there is little else more satisfying to sit and watch than a cohesive and well-functioning flock.
Did you know that chickens can successfully co-exist with many other farm animal species? To learn more, check out the articles below: