The Joy of Sexing

Sixty years spent telling one newly hatched bird from the next

"Two years ago I sexed my last chick," Hugh Grove said. "I walked away. It was time. I was relieved to be done. I quit cutting my thumbnail just so, and put my smock and bucket and light away, and that was that. No regrets. The time comes, and you've got to face it like a man."

Grove was standing in a field of garlic on a hill in Oregon's farm country, not far from the mountains of the Coast Range. He was talking about independent poultry sexing -- discerning the sex of a newborn chick -- which was a commercial skill in great demand in mid-twentieth-century America. Grove was born in Canyonville, in southwest Oregon, in 1919. As a teenager he came north to work on Charlie Wilson's farm, near Newberg. "There were a couple of gals sexing chicks there," he explained, "and Mrs. Wilson said to me, 'There's a good job for you.' So I learned the business, from a Mrs. Hickey, who was a great sexer. She was a terrific sexer. This was 1937, in Mary's Corners, Washington."

The art of determining the sex of chicks in less than three seconds apiece began about a year before Mrs. Hickey set to teaching Hugh the business. Prompted by the Chicken of Tomorrow Contest, in which chicken breeders from all over North America vied to produce the broadest-breasted chicken, a guild of artists came into being each of whom soon could sex 1,200 newly hatched chicks an hour, hour after hour, all the while making only a handful of errors. They were highly sought after and were paid handsomely for their work.

For as long as human beings have raised chickens, hens generally have been the stars, as layers, breeders, and better eating than the tough-muscled males. But roosters as a class got their worst blow in the late 1930s, when the great hatcheries, avid for the Chicken of Tomorrow prize, came up with feed so effective that two pounds would produce a pound of chicken meat. The new feed was expensive, though, and suddenly hatcheries were in a hurry to know which new chicks were female, and thus worth feeding. Waiting six weeks or so for the sex of this or that ball of fluff to become obvious would be costly. And so was born the sexer, sharp of eye and patient of mien, soft of hand (squeezing a chick just a little too hard produces a messy handful of former chick) and strong enough to stay alert and accurate through an entire hatch, which could be many thousands of chicks. Chickens take about twenty-one days to hatch -- eighteen days in the incubator and then three days in a "hatcher," where the temperature hovers between 99.50° and 99.75°. A good hatch manager can time his hatch to the hour.

"I started with Leghorn cockerel chicks and then did turkeys," Grove said. "Over the years I've sexed geese, ducks, quails, pheasants, partridges -- even canaries, which you have to sex by using a crochet needle to get them open. And wild turkeys, too, when some doctors and dentists in Oregon got some from Mexico and wanted to hatch and release them in the Coast Range -- which they did, and they've done very well. Smart bird.

"But I've done a hell of a lot of chickens -- more chickens than anything else. Millions of chickens. Millions. I opened more chickens than any hundred chefs and cooks you could find. Rhode Island reds, Parmenter reds, White Rocks, white Leghorns -- those are the easiest, probably. Barred Rocks -- those you can tell by color, too. Rock Cornish hens, and then black turkeys, Beltsville turkeys, whites, bourbon reds, Narragansetts, and bronzes. I've sexed twenty-eight thousand turkeys in a row -- a planeload to be sent to Utah. The Mormons are crazy for turkeys. I could sex as many as fifteen hundred turkeys an hour. That's about one every two seconds. And I was one of the best. I guaranteed ninety-nine percent accuracy, and there's not many fellas who could say that -- or gals either."

I asked Grove what happened to all the males he has tossed gently to one side for sixty years.

"Sometimes hatcheries kill them right off and sell them to mink farms, where they're mixed in with the feed," he said. "There are some birds where the males are good meat, but even with those you want to separate the males from the females as soon as you can, because the males will fight if they're around the females, and then after a few months they'll start trying to mate with the females and causing a ruckus."

I asked what bird I'm buying when I buy a chicken in the Safeway.

"A Cornish-White Rock cross, generally," Grove told me. "This bird will get to six pounds by eight weeks or so. They grow so fast they outgrow their legs, and their legs can't support them. That's why poultry raisers sell them at eight weeks."

We walked slowly around Grove's house so that he could refill his hummingbird feeders. I asked him if he had ever sexed a hummingbird. "Not yet. Came close with those canaries. Be hard to catch a hummer right from the shell."

What is the biggest bird he ever sexed?

"Wild turkey. Big, strong bird. I was asked to sex an emu once, but I didn't do it. Too big. It'd be a battle to open it, and they can kick your brains out, you know."

I asked Grove to sex a bird for me, to show me how it's done. He looked around his yard for a candidate, but the only small birds in sight were the hummingbirds buzzing at his feeders. We retreated to the porch, where he sketched a chick and then held the paper in his left hand.

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