Wouldn’t it be nice if all species of birds could be visually sexed? Unfortunately, nature was unconcerned about us humans when many of the bird species evolved. A bird’s sex is often a well kept secret, known only to the bird and perhaps others of it’s own species.
Some species’ genders are easily identified. Male and female eclectus are different colors, the male is green, the female red. When they mature, male parakeets have a blue cere (nasal area) while a female’s is brown. A female cockatoo’s eyes turn brown as they mature, but not always. Other species show color differences as they mature, but many do not.
Some people want to know the sex of their pet so that they can give them a proper name or know what pronouns to use when referring to them. Others are interested in mating their birds and know not to expect too many babies from male-male and female-female pairs.
How then can gender be determined? There are many old wives tales and a few scientific methods which have been used with varying degrees of success. Below is an overview of four scientifically based approaches: DNA Sexing, Surgical Sexing, Blood Feather Testing and Fecal Analysis.
Each method has its positives and negatives. The choice depends upon the situation and the needs of the owner.
DNA sexing can be performed from as little as one drop of blood. The DNA in a blood sample is processed to produce a ‘picture’, which is then analyzed to determine the bird’s sex. Results are available in about three to four weeks and are very accurate.
The sampling process is simple, using a few drops of blood taken from a vein or toenail. It is both a convenient and non-stressful technique. The sample is then placed in a prepared collection vial and shipped to a lab. Regular mail can be used.
Like a human, each bird’s DNA is unique and doesn’t change. Thus the test works on babies as well as adults. In addition, the test results can be used as a means of identification. Some labs, also offer a registry service. The DNA is banked, similar to a fingerprint, for future matching and identification.
This method is accurate, convenient, non-stressful and affordable if the waiting time for the results is not critical. Chromosome testing identifies the sex of a bird, not whether or not it can successfully produce offspring.
Surgical sexing is performed by a veterinarian at his office using endoscopic surgery. It is usually not recommended for very young birds. The bird is first anesthetized. The veterinarian inserts an endoscope (a metal tube with a light attached) into a small incision made in the bird and can literally see the sex organs. This enables the vet to not only identify the sex, but to determine if the bird is sexually mature and if there are any abnormalities or potential breeding problems as well.
Surgical sexing is extremely accurate and quick, though somewhat stressful for the bird. Results are immediate and it provides needed information for those interesting in breeding. If performed by a competent veterinarian, the procedure is considered quite safe, although there is some risk from the anesthesia or possible post-operative complications. Most concerns have been with anesthesia. One type, an injectible, keeps the bird asleep longer and tends to cause vomiting. Advances in the field have produced safer anesthestics (eg isofluorine – a gas), and the risks are now deemed negligible by experts. A bird should be up and about within a few minutes after the anesthesia mask is removed.
It has been the practice to tattoo birds, which have been surgically sexed, under their wing – left wing for a female, right for a male. More recently veterinarians have been using leg bands or microchips.
Blood Feather Analysis (BFA)
BFA is a blood chromosome testing method. Tissue from a bird’s blood feather is cultured and used to perform a blood chromosome analysis. If a bird currently has no blood feathers, then a few feathers must be pulled so new ones can grow. This take approximately two to three weeks. When the feathers are pulled they are placed in a special tube, packed with cold packs and sent priority mail to a lab. The tissue is then grown and examined under a microscope. Results are available in about two weeks.
This method is safe and accurate, but results are not immediate. It also works on birds of all ages. It’s disadvantages are in the inconvenience and cost of shipping and for breeders, not actually seeing the condition of the sexual organs.
This method involves collecting fresh fecal samples, according to directions, and then mailing them to a lab. The samples are examined to determine the male and female hormone levels (testosterone and estrogen), limiting the testing to sexually mature birds. It’s accuracy depends upon proper collection of the samples and the health of the bird.
This method is safe and relatively inexpensive. Results should be available in about one week.
Choose the method which best corresponds to your needs. Those interested in breeding birds will likely choose surgical sexing. The DNA and Blood Feather methods are very safe, accurate and also work on chicks. They are good choices for pet owners who want to know the sex of their pet.