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M A R C H 2 0 0 0
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.
"Well, there are four or five ways to sex," Grove said, his right hand poised like a hawk over the chick. "There's wing-sexing, which is sexing by the arrangement of feathers on the edge of the wing. They're different in cocks and pullets.
"Then there's sexing with a glass -- a kind of telescope or microscope that you wear on your eye, like a pair of spectacles that's grown out long on the one side. I tried those, but they were just in the way.
"Then there's the way the Japanese do it, which is to hold the bird backwards" -- he flipped the paper south to north -- "so it's facing away. I did it the other way around, with the bird lying there in my hand looking at me as I spread it.
"Then there's a way to do it where you use your two forefingers and pinch and pull. Not me. I used my right thumbnail." He cocked his thumb and brought it to bear on the paper chick.
"The nail has to be just the right length. I was very careful about cutting it exactly right, and to tell you the truth, now that I'm not sexing anymore, it's kind of relaxing to let it grow or cut it back and not worry about it. I reach in with the nail and flip the flap open, see? And then fold the other with my left forefinger, see? You're looking for hardness and softness -- that's the easiest way to explain it -- and a certain arrangement of lines in a pullet, and equipment the size of a pinhead in a cockerel. In a turkey you're looking for lines that look like crosshairs on a gunsight. I'd have a coffee can nearby -- as you take them from the hatch, you squeeze real gently and they lose their mess, which you want them to do so you can see more clearly down there. And they're damned ready to lose their mess, because they're scared, you know; they've never been touched before. I wore an apron to protect my clothes, and I'd have a bright light overhead. I used to use a two-hundred-watt light but finally went to a three-hundred-watt light when my eyes started to go a little. That's why I quit -- because my eyes were going a little, and because of my back troubles."
Once he'd squeezed the chick ever so gently, and folded open the tiny genital flaps to ascertain the sex of the bird, he would flip it to the left (female) or right (male), into boxes that a "swamper" kept ready. The swamper was a jack-of-all-trades assistant; he or she set and reset feeder trays of chicks so that they would proceed in a steady stream toward the sexer's left hand; set, reset, and labeled the boxes for sexed chicks; and counted the chicks as they quickly filled the boxes, twenty-five to a box. The swamper also plied the sexer with coffee and sandwiches at regular intervals and often drove the sexer back and forth to work so that the sexer, whose shift could easily stretch to twenty hours or more, could snatch some sleep. The rise of mega-hatcheries has forced the swamper, and the independent sexer who employed the swamper, into general obsolescence.
I asked Grove about his colleagues. Were there many female sexers?
"There were a few gals in the business, but mostly it was men," Grove said. "You had to travel around to where the business was. I was an independent sexer, registered as such with the State of Oregon. I sexed in Ohio, Maryland, Delaware, Kansas, New Jersey, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Washington, Idaho -- even Hawaii once, when there was an emergency and the guy they had got sick. I don't know how they found me, but they did -- a phone call at night, and off I went. There was good money -- seventy-five dollars a week in 1938, when I was sexing out of Ohio, real good money for then. These last years I'd get a cent per chick, two or three cents per turkey. It's piecework -- that's why you have to be so fast."
Who was the greatest sexer ever?
"Well, it was a tough job, and very hard to learn -- maybe one in thirty folks who tried it got the hang of it, and maybe one in a hundred was good enough to be a professional. But I thought the very best were from the Northwest, and maybe the best of all was Johnny."
"Johnny" was Johnny Hada -- such a legend in the sexing world that he is still usually referred to by his first name alone. Like many legendary figures, Johnny had to overcome terrific adversity -- in his case, imprisonment in a Japanese-American internment camp in Idaho during World War II. He retired from sexing about twenty years ago and died in 1995.
Now Grove is thinking about the old days, the 1940s and 1950s, when he sexed for a slew of little Oregon hatcheries that are gone. He names a bunch of them and then gets to thinking about the huge chick factories of the past.
"I sexed in some of the biggest hatcheries in the world, like Morris Hatcheries, in Maryland and Delaware, where they hatched two hundred thousand chicks at a time, and Weans Hatchery, in Vineland, New Jersey -- hatcheries so big that they had little railroads running through them to haul boxes of chicks. I'd take a break just for a sandwich and coffee, and then right back at it. I went thirty-three hours straight one time; that was my record. That was at Hart's, in Beaverton. I started out doing fifteen hundred an hour and finished doing maybe seven hundred. I was tired."
As in many modern American industries, the small company has increasingly given way to the mammoth corporation. With the size of hatcheries increasing and the popularity of chicken meat growing, production became more ordered and regulated, and Grove's freelance style of sexing declined. Today most sexers are salaried, and they work regular shifts at large hatcheries.
"There was about sixty years there when a real good independent sexer was a popular man," Grove said. "But those days are gone now. I don't miss them, no. I miss the money a little -- you could make forty thousand dollars a year, and you were your own boss and you saw the country. But I'm done now. I don't miss it. I've seen enough damn chicken asses. But I never got tired of chickens. I never stopped eating them. Had chicken last night, I'll tell you. Pullet."
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2000; The Joy of Sexing - 00.03 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 3; page 28-31.