And you thought your job as a chicken plucker was terrible - try chicken sexing
In the midst their quarterly technology section, The Economist included a small article that most readers no doubt sped by to get to the more über-techno stuff - 6 Million Dollar Man prosthetics, self-healing wireless antennas made out of liquid metal. With my hunt and peck method of scratching around for blog feed, I dipped my beak right in to the story on breakthrough technology for chicken sexing. (This first appeared in The Economist's online mag in February. Not sure, but you may need a subscription to access this.)
Now, peculiar as it may seem, I am not a complete stranger to bird sexing. Many years ago, my husband made a donation to the research work of a bird-sexster scientist at the San Diego Zoo who was trying to figure out how to distinguish Mr. from Mrs. in those bird species where the males didn't sport the colored plumage. Not that Jim had the least bit of interest in bird sexing - which was done by examining the bird's scat - but we were wildly interested in the bonobos, and Jim's donation to the art and science of bird gender ID helped open the cage doors a bit, and we got to meet our little cousins from the way back. Which was a lot more interesting - at least to us - than trying to identify a bird's sex. (With apes, there is no problema whatsoever figuring out the boys from the girls.)
What I wasn't aware of was the importance of sexing in the wonderful world of chickens, in which a lot of the layers get to live, and most of the non-layers - chicken layabouts, as it were - end up boneless and skinless in a yellow styrofoam Perdue tray.
But how to determine which is which, in a population without apparent genitalia or secondary sex characteristics - no Foghorn Leghorn deep voice to ID the critter.
Until now, there've been two methods:
“Vent sexing”, the most common way, requires a worker to squeeze a chick’s anal vent, or cloaca, to clear the faeces and assess the size of a telltale bump inside the hole. Not the most popular of jobs. The alternative, “feather sexing,” is a form of cross-breeding that leaves females with detectably longer pin feathers than those of their male counterparts. This is slightly more salubrious, but the long-feather gene has been linked to other traits that may be undesirable to hatcheries, such as cancer. That discourages hatchers from adopting the method.
Which means a lot of vent sexing - especially given that there are an estimated 6 billion laying hens in the world - which is just about a chicken in every pot.
But it's hard to imaging a worse job.
I'd rather clean out Porta-Potties, thank you.
I guess all you could say about vent sexing is that it wasn't likely to be off-shored.
But now the job may be going the way of the buggy-whip manufacturers of Westfield Massachusetts.
That's thanks to Dr. Tauseef Butt of LifeSensors, a Pennsylvania bio-tech outfit.
Dr. Butt - - and could there be a better name for someone who's come up with a way to replace having to hand squeeze a chicken's anus? - has developed an estrogen sniffing sensor that pricks an egg, extracts a bit of goo, which is analyzed to determine just what's lurking under that shell. (Too bad it still doesn't fully answer the 'which came first debate', although for purposes of chicken sexing, it's clearly the egg.) Most boy eggs will get to stay boy eggs; a lot of the girl eggs will get the chance to grow up and become chickens. Don't know which I'd choose. Hmmm, do I want to end up in am omelet without ever having gotten the chance to peck my way out of my shell? Or would I rather go for the gusto and get blinded, de-beaked, chained to a "nest", and plumped up with hormones. (All in all, it's better to be a human, or a bonobo.)
Implementing the sexing technology in the real hatchery world is a bit in the future, so chicken vent sexers can breathe a sigh of relief that it will be a while before their jobs are replaced by automation. (Advice to vent sexers: breathe that sigh of relief away from the vents you're sexing. Just saying.)
So, it's Monday morning. You may have started the week feeling boo-hoo bad for yourself because your job's not perfect.
But as you head into that boring status meeting where you chant your rote weekly update as if it were confessing your sings in third grade (I fought with my brother. I talked back to my mother.), answer a pointless e-mail that you already responded to twice, or watch a colleague under fake-deadline run around like a chicken with its head cut off, ask yourself whether you'd rather be doin' what you're doin' or sexing chickens in a hatchery for minimum wage?