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.

"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."