Because a chicken does not have a penis.
December 14, 2017 2:07 PM   Subscribe

What's the egg industry's biggest logistical challenge right now? Distinguishing whether a seconds-old chick is a male or a potential egg-layer. That's where chicken sexers come in; they're essential, and accurate sexers are prized in the industry. But how do they know what they know? And what can their well-developed pattern recognition teach us? James McWilliams, for Pacific Standard: The Lucrative Art of Chicken Sexing.
posted by MonkeyToes (55 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
I love Metafilter.
posted by Melismata at 2:15 PM on December 14, 2017 [11 favorites]


Quick reminder that the other side of this skill is that the male chicks sorted via this skill are sorted directly into live grinders to dispatch them (I'll spare video links but they're plenty available if you're curious). I grew up on a chicken farm and, "rapid ways of seeing" aside, I'm always a bit stunned when gruesome animal agricultural practices are used to illustrate the perceived value of skills divorced from their applications.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 2:24 PM on December 14, 2017 [58 favorites]


Someday they're going to edit a fluorescence gene alongside the sex genes in chickens and then just sort them with a UV light. Enjoy the free ride while it lasts, sexers.
posted by GuyZero at 2:26 PM on December 14, 2017 [8 favorites]


Or less cruel, just make chickens that only produce male offspring upon chemical stimuli. This is more challenging since males are the homogametic sex in chickens, unlike mammals where the Y chromosome determines maleness. Still, you could put in an inducible lethal gene on the Z chromosome and a constitutive repressor on the W chromosome, it's just a bit more work.
posted by benzenedream at 2:35 PM on December 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


Little warning: I tried to read this twice on Safari on my iPhone and had the article hijacked by a “congrats! You’ve won!” pop up and redirect. Caveat lector.
posted by kimberussell at 2:46 PM on December 14, 2017 [9 favorites]


Chickens that exhibit differing colors upon hatching already exist... (as well as auto-sexing chickens). It's odd that the article doesn't mention them.
posted by elsietheeel at 2:48 PM on December 14, 2017 [9 favorites]


I really don't know what it is, but there is something about the phrase "vent sexing" that makes me really uncomfortable.
posted by solotoro at 2:59 PM on December 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


Enjoy the free ride while it lasts, sexers.

I see what you did there.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 3:00 PM on December 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


I wonder if there have been any studies on how accurate the chicken sexers are. Certainly they can't be correct 100% of the time.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 3:06 PM on December 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: as well as auto-sexing chickens
posted by Fizz at 3:12 PM on December 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


Jokes aside, this is a fascinating piece. Thanks for the post!
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 3:20 PM on December 14, 2017


male chicks sorted via this skill are sorted directly into live grinders to dispatch them

(SFW, it's offscreen) footage of this used to stunning effect in SMAC! I didn't realize that this was what was being depicted until many years after first seeing the cinematic.
posted by coolname at 3:34 PM on December 14, 2017 [6 favorites]


I wonder if there have been any studies on how accurate the chicken sexers are. Certainly they can't be correct 100% of the time.

I don't know what the actual statistics are but I can tell you that of the first dozen chicks my friends raised (from guaranteed 100% female stock), 3 of them ended up being roosters. And then tasty dinners.
posted by danny the boy at 3:56 PM on December 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


coolname, I think that same footage is used in the chicken processing portion of Fricke's Baraka.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 4:14 PM on December 14, 2017 [5 favorites]


We had a pet hen that my sister's Grade 5 class hatched from an egg, and she was the only one who volunteered to take the chick home. We had to wait until she matured a little before we knew her sex, though. You might say we got a pullet surprise.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 4:22 PM on December 14, 2017 [15 favorites]


Once you start genetically engineering chickens to have distinguishable genitalia or to be 99% female at birth, surely it can't be much longer to engineering chickens with no brains, digestive tracts or other parts not essential to the egg/meat production process, just a nutrient pipe at one end and a waste pipe at the other. Then they can be specialised into two lines. One will be an egg producer, which can be optimised for egg production rates impossible in nature. (Its market will be limited; there is already genetically engineered yeast that produces egg albumen, but no similar process for yolks or complete eggs.) The other will become a meat production process, evolving towards its ultimate form: nutrient-fed meat tentacles, gently flailing under electrical stimulation, growing at a steady rate towards an automated guillotine poised over a slow-moving conveyor belt.
posted by acb at 4:27 PM on December 14, 2017 [23 favorites]


I think it might still be a bit farther along than that. Existing "sex link" chickens are just carefully planned cross breeds.
posted by elsietheeel at 4:33 PM on December 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


acb, that all sounds very practical. When can you get started?
posted by Dr. Twist at 4:39 PM on December 14, 2017 [16 favorites]


Acb, you could have just said ChickieNobs.

It is pretty weird that we think grinding up 50% of baby chickens while conscious is normal while genetic engineering is scary.
posted by benzenedream at 4:49 PM on December 14, 2017 [40 favorites]


Well, the other option is suffocating, vacuum sealing, and then freezing them in bulk in large plastic bags so they can be shipped off to the pet food market...

Why do I know so damned much about chicken husbandry????

AND WHY DO I STILL EAT CHICKEN? AND EGGS???

posted by elsietheeel at 4:55 PM on December 14, 2017 [11 favorites]


Once you start genetically engineering chickens to have distinguishable genitalia or to be 99% female at birth, surely it can't be much longer to engineering chickens with no brains, digestive tracts or other parts not essential to the egg/meat production process, just a nutrient pipe at one end and a waste pipe at the other.

So while I am no geneticist, yes I think those two things are actually really far apart and vastly different in terms of complexity.

But sure, I'm cool with meat bags.
posted by GuyZero at 5:19 PM on December 14, 2017 [11 favorites]


engineering chickens with no brains, digestive tracts or other parts not essential to the egg/meat production process, just a nutrient pipe at one end and a waste pipe at the other

How are you going to connect the nutrient pipe and waste pipe without a digestive system?

And where will the eggs come out if there's only a "waste pipe"?
posted by yohko at 5:43 PM on December 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


And where will the eggs come out if there's only a "waste pipe"?

clo·a·ca
klōˈākə
noun

a common cavity at the end of the digestive tract for the release of both excretory and genital products in vertebrates (except most mammals) and certain invertebrates. Specifically, the cloaca is present in birds, reptiles, amphibians, most fish, and monotremes.

I'll give you the digestive system question, though.
posted by elsietheeel at 5:45 PM on December 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


Nasty additional info alert.....a guy I knew in highschool, his dad (parents were Japanese immigrants) sexed turkeys. They had one of the biggest, newest houses in town, with a trout brook running through the back yard. I remember him saying the sexing process was pretty terrible, that the female chicks were sorted out and the males were let go to fall into empty oil drums, with the ones on the bottom being suffocated as the can filled, then the lid was smacked on and it was loaded onto a truck bound for landfill.

They had a fancy treehouse and an archery setup. I guess it's a little ironic that we'd play a game of "chicken", where we fired and arrow straight up and see who'd stand there the longest before heading for cover.

Somewhere I heard it had to do with subtle differences in the armpit feathers at a specific age.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:49 PM on December 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


Chicken sexing has been a topic of categorization research for a while...it's a great case of expert categorization and pattern recognition in a learning task. This paper from 1987 is one of my favorites, I've cited it several times in my own work...but the best part is fig. 2, where a censor bar has been added to protect the chick's privacy.
posted by k8bot at 6:01 PM on December 14, 2017 [16 favorites]


Surely computer vision people are spending big bucks on this; I'm surprised it isn't a thing yet. Also, how do the people claiming a 95% success rate know until three weeks later?
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:24 PM on December 14, 2017


K8bot's paper is an interesting read--to your point, JiA, there's this: "...inability to obtain the critical contour information from pictures. When confronted with an ambiguous live chick the sexer can introduce dynamic variation by alternately contracting and expanding the [genital] eminence by pressure variations. It is likely that such pressure makes the convexity-concavity (or flatness) distinction more readily discernible. Consequently, it was perhaps not surprising that most of the professional sexers voiced reservations about having to perform this task from pictures."
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:35 PM on December 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


But how does this all affect the chicken of tomorrow? (sexing at 6min)
posted by Crystalinne at 6:42 PM on December 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


I think the holy grail on this is actually being able to sex chickens while they are still embryos. '

No point in wasting electricity incubating a bunch of eggs when you could just make omelettes instead.
posted by soren_lorensen at 6:51 PM on December 14, 2017 [4 favorites]


And where will the eggs come out if there's only a "waste pipe"?

LOL city folk.
posted by padraigin at 6:57 PM on December 14, 2017 [19 favorites]


Previously. (My second ever post on MeFi.)
posted by jacquilynne at 7:26 PM on December 14, 2017 [4 favorites]




acb: "The other will become a meat production process, evolving towards its ultimate form: nutrient-fed meat tentacles, gently flailing under electrical stimulation, growing at a steady rate towards an automated guillotine poised over a slow-moving conveyor belt."

This basic idea goes back at least as far Pohl & Kornbluth's The Space Merchants from 1952.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:15 PM on December 14, 2017 [3 favorites]


Surely computer vision people are spending big bucks on this; I'm surprised it isn't a thing yet.

Despite the claims of "lucrative", these people are processing chicks at half a cent a piece. That's dirt cheap labor. Why would anyone spend millions to try to automate half a cent a chick? In the total cost of raising chickens that's nothing.
posted by JackFlash at 8:20 PM on December 14, 2017


Are there more than 200 million chicks? Then spending a million and saving half a cent a chick is worth it. SPOILER: America goes through billions of chickens a year.
posted by Jpfed at 9:04 PM on December 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


I, too, have posted previously about chicken sexing. MetaFilter is a good website.
posted by parudox at 9:21 PM on December 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


America goes through billions of chickens a year.

Tangent here, but could you imagine if ghosts were real? We would be like miles deep in chicken ghosts. We would be lousy with them. The mournful moans of billions upon billions of chain wrapped ghost chickens would make it impossible to get anything done.
posted by Literaryhero at 10:19 PM on December 14, 2017 [16 favorites]


And where will the eggs come out if there's only a "waste pipe"?

To spell it out, obviously it's not a "waste pipe" when that's where the product your business actually sells comes from.

I've seen chickens before. Sheesh.
posted by yohko at 10:24 PM on December 14, 2017


(upon further research it is entirely possible that I severely underestimated the size of the United States)
posted by Literaryhero at 10:34 PM on December 14, 2017 [2 favorites]


This basic idea goes back at least as far Pohl & Kornbluth's The Space Merchants from 1952.

Thank you. I was getting worried that no one was going to mention that novel's Chicken Little, the giant undifferentiated mass of chicken meat that the chicken miners hacked away at.
posted by mark k at 11:23 PM on December 14, 2017 [1 favorite]


Aaaaand I’m one step closer to being a vegetarian.
posted by kinnakeet at 12:03 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


I found a 1933 article from Canadian Poultry. "Boys and girls between the ages of 18 and 24, according to experience in Japan, will be attracted into this new and lucrative profession." Indeed.
posted by readinghippo at 12:32 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]


Three seconds a chick makes twenty chicks a minute. At half a cent per chick that's ten cents a minute or six dollars per hour. Either the chicken sexers are way faster or they're being paid way more per chick, or this is actually a pretty poorly-paid profession.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:00 AM on December 15, 2017 [1 favorite]




It's weird, I can think of a bunch of high tech mechanisms to sex chickens but I can't think of anything I'd want to invent less.
posted by effugas at 2:01 AM on December 15, 2017


The real question is: Who wants to sex Mutombo?
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:42 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]


It is now my ambition in life to have a resume that includes Chicken Sexer, Human Cannonball and Key Grip on it.

That combination should qualify me for anything else I'd want to do for the rest of my life.
posted by delfin at 6:16 AM on December 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


Sorry, hypocrites, but everyone who eats chicken should be forced to spend one week every year feeding fuzzy peeping live chicks into a wood chipper. The CAFO-style modern poultry industry is pure evil mixed with corporate greed mixed with unrealistic expectations for what meat should cost. It is second only to pig farming in its revolting cruelty and environmental menace. In case it matters, I am a veterinarian, and I am a vegetarian. I could tell you things that would make you have nightmares for the rest of your life. This isn't about the morality of eating animals, it's about the morality of torturing them before you do so, and of reducing the value of sentient beings' lives to fiscal units. Sick shit, that.
posted by SinAesthetic at 9:07 AM on December 15, 2017 [9 favorites]


A chicken does not have a penis
So one needs a mysterious keenness
To try to infer
Which is him, which is her
Can this talent have other arenas?
posted by neroli at 10:58 AM on December 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


Before the topic gets too derailed, it may be helpful to know that while that euthanization method is certainly gruesome and horrifying for humans visually and mentally, it is in fact recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association as a humane method because it kills the chicks instantly and with minimal mental distress compared to other methods that seem "nicer" to us.

Not even close to torture, certainly in comparison with other appalling meat-industry practices, and misdirecting outrage towards that particular practice could cause more suffering for the chicks if another euthanization method was used instead. I agree that it would be ideal to avoid killing the chicks in the first place, and hopefully the new technology being developed will help with that.
posted by randomnity at 11:42 AM on December 15, 2017 [7 favorites]


Not even close to torture, certainly in comparison with other appalling meat-industry practices

Just to clarify, I was not referring to this particular chick-killing practice as torture. That's later, for all the chickens "lucky" enough to survive.

I am no longer a member of the AVMA for several reasons, the main one of which is their spineless and sluggish response in speaking out against some of the most egregious industry practices and also to inhumane leg-hold traps. They are not a particularly progressive organization, and not particularly willing to upset people who kill large numbers of animals for fun and profit. Look, I'm no PETA member or fanatical animal-rights activist. But what we do to animals in high-concentration industrial operations in this country is nauseating and morally wrong. And in addition to the obvious damage to animal quality of life, there is the matter of the very real psychological damage that is done to workers being asked to throw chicks in a grinder day in and day out.
posted by SinAesthetic at 2:02 PM on December 15, 2017 [5 favorites]


there is the matter of the very real psychological damage that is done to workers

So often overlooked when whether something is right or wrong for a society to do is the fact that some person will have to do it. Glad you mentioned that.
posted by yohko at 2:49 PM on December 15, 2017 [3 favorites]


I tried sexing a chicken once, and now I'm not allowed back at the state fair.
posted by webmutant at 5:16 PM on December 15, 2017 [6 favorites]


I kept imagining this article being narrated by Dwight Schrute
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 7:33 AM on December 16, 2017 [1 favorite]


I guess I'll make my plug for urban chicken keeping. If your municipality allows it, it's not that difficult to set up and maintain a small flock. It does cost money, it's not a money-saving proposition, but it is a way to get fresh eggs for much of the year (chickens do not naturally lay in the winter in northern regions, though you can push the envelope using supplementary lighting) without participating in industrialized agriculture. Plus they're stupid feathered dinosaurs, will eat your food scraps, improve your gardens with their poop, and generally entertain you and your neighbors. And if you get a mix of breeds, you'll get multicolored eggs and impress your friends.
posted by soren_lorensen at 8:06 AM on December 16, 2017


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