It's a lot easier to tell when he starts to look like this...
One morning around the end of June, I was in the kitchen cooking breakfast when I could have sworn I heard a crowing sound coming from the hen-house. And then it started to click. That's why our Ameraucana/Easter Egger, Betsy Ross (we gave her an all-American kind of name), looked so different than the other two chickens. I thought it was just the differences in the breeds. I then called my brother-in-law, the one I refer to as "the chicken whisperer", and I told him about the situation. He told me not to jump to conclusions just yet and to wait it out. Then I showed him some pictures of "her" the next day. He told me I definitely had a rooster on my hands.
I can't blame the store where I got my chicks -- they told me that they were 90% sure that all the chicks they had were female, but there was a chance we'd get a boy. So I was warned. But since I was only getting three chickens, I thought my chances were pretty good that we'd only have hens. Oh well. It's been a learning experience. As such, I thought I would share what I've learned about identifying a rooster, with the help of some photos of Ross the Rooster (though we still kept accidentally calling him Betsy).
That's the obvious way to tell. It took a few days after that initial "did-I-just-hear-one-of-my-hens-crow?" moment for him to crow regularly. Granted, it wasn't a very respectable crow; it was pretty much the equivalent to the way a teenage boy's voice cracks. At first, he'd only do it in the mornings (right around 6:30 AM), but then it happened numerous times a day. It didn't bother me much, but I worried about him bothering the neighbors. It got louder and clearer by the day.
2. Saddle Feathers
My brother-in-law told me that one of the big giveaways in distinguishing a rooster from a hen is the pointy saddle feathers that drape down by the tail. On our hens, the feathers around their tails are rounded and they don't point down. As you can see, his tail feathers are characteristically rooster-ish.
3. Tail Feathers
Ross's tail feathers aren't very impressive yet, but you can see how he has a long, curved tail feather sticking out above the rest. Those are called sickle feathers. That was one of the first things I thought odd about our "hen" a couple weeks before I heard that crow: "Huh. Her tail feathers look kind of like a rooster's." I didn't give it much thought after that. I was still excited at the prospect of getting green eggs from "her".
4. Neck Feathers
Another thing I noticed about Betsy/Ross the Rooster before I knew he was a rooster was how his neck feathers (also known as the hackle) were different than the other two chickens. Not only were they pointy at the bottom, but they looked different than the rest of his feathers, almost like he had a sort of mane. Plus, he would regularly fluff and puff them out (it always reminded of that of that scene with the frilled dinosaur in Jurassic Park). Pointy neck feathers are a sign of rooster -- the feathers at the neck of a hen are more rounded (as with the saddle feathers).
This one is a little tricky to explain and maybe even a little vague, but our rooster just carried himself differently than the other two chickens. He stood taller than the others and walked with his chest puffed out a little more. It was this sort of "I-rule-the-chicken-tractor" way he stood and walked.
"Betsy" was our favorite of the chickens -- he/she was the friendliest of our three birds. Whenever we checked the brooder, he was the one to always poke his head up curiously, as if he were saying hello. He wasn't skittish or shy with us ever -- he was definitely the bravest one of the group. He also never pecked any of us -- not even my baby, who loves to stick dandelion leaves (along with his little chubby fingers) through the chicken wire to feed them.
That said, he was nice to us, but not so nice to the other chickens. As the chickens got older, we noticed that "Betsy" was pretty pushy with them, chasing them around the tractor, herding them up into the hen-house (as pictured above), hogging food whenever we fed them snacks (he would run right up to them and snatch whatever was sticking out of their beaks), pecking them, and, frankly, just being a bully. As he got older we also...um...saw him putting the moves on the hens. (Maybe that was what all the squawking was about. The couple times I saw this happen, the hens were not at all happy about his advances.)
7. Other Features (i.e., the ones I've read about but didn't really see with our rooster)
There are some other indicators to help you distinguish a hen from a rooster, but I've read that these are the less reliable indicators. One feature can be the comb (roosters have bigger/wider combs -- this wasn't so helpful in our case since Easter Eggers have wider pea combs no matter what sex they are). Another indicator is spurs on the back of the legs. However, this isn't really the best way to distinguish either because I've read that some hens have little spur buds on the back of their legs, too. I've read also that rooster legs are often thicker than hen legs, but this is can be misleading because different chickens come in different sizes.
Maybe you noticed that I've been referring to our rooster in the past tense. Before I got our chickens, I checked with the city for any sort of rules and regulations regarding backyard poultry. One thing they told me: no roosters in residential areas. Ross the Rooster had to go. My brother offered to give him a good home...in his stomach. We didn't want to go that route, but we were prepared to do that if needs be. Just as I was about to tell my brother to come pick him up, someone from our church told me she had a friend who would take him. I'm happy to report that Ross is living on a farm now -- he gets to roam in the pasture and crow to his heart's content. The people we gave him to also happen to have eight hens. Basically, life is pretty good for our rooster friend.
Is there anything I missed? I'm new to chicken raising and welcome any further wisdom on this topic.