This is something I spotted in the Wikipedia entry on chicken sexer, which I stumbled across while idly clicking through food related articles after, for some reason, deciding I needed to find out the history of ketchup.
Vent sexing is not easy. The sexual organs of birds are located within the body; the professional vent sexer has studied their external appearance, which can fall into as many as fifteen basic patterns, and learned to identify which ones are male and which female. Vent sexing is a difficult trade to master; many professional vent sexers are Japanese, where the art originated. The mystery of vent sexing was revealed to the Western world when a seminal paper was published in Japan in 1933 by Professors Masui and Hashimoto, which was soon translated into English under the title Sexing baby chicks. After Masui and Hashimoto’s discovery, interested poultry breeders brought in people who had been trained by them to teach the art, or sent representatives to Japan to learn it. The skill is complex and has been likened to skill at playing chess and other crafts or games where pattern recognition is the key to success.
Appropriately enough, the only other language edition of Wikipedia to include a version of this article is Japanese.
Update: I found a Japanese page that has a photo of a chicken sexer at work.
This academic paper which uses chicken sexing as an example of acquiring subconscious perceptual skills is kind of interesting, and yet dull at the same time.
Upon doing a Google search, I found a great article on a Japanese chicken sexing competition from the 2001 Wall Street Journal archived on some website, which I’ll reproduce below.
Masters of a dying art get together to sex
New York, Feb 11: Under chandeliers in a convention-centre banquet room, Junichi Goto leans over a box of downy yellow chicks. He glances nervously at the 18 men around him, all sitting before similar boxes of hatchlings. A din of chirping engulfs the room.Japan’s national champion chick-sexer is ready to defend his title.
Mr Goto has mastered a surprisingly difficult skill: telling female chicks (pullets) from males (cockerels) when they are just hours out of the shell.
Last year, the lanky 38-year-old sorted 100 chicks in three minutes, 34 seconds, without a mistake. While that is 28 seconds longer than the record set by a legendary sexer more than three decades ago, it’s still moving at a clip of 1,682 chicks an hour. “You get very nervous,” whispers Eeiichi Yoshiguchi, a chick-sexer looking on from the sidelines. “It’s like the Olympics.”
Mr Goto’s skills, which took years to master – and which he has put to use as far from home as Norway, Hungary and Belgium – make him part of a long and proud tradition. The Japanese invented and commercialised chick-sexing in the 1920s, and the technique helped revolutionise the poultry business everywhere. Japan has long dominated the industry, dispatching the fastest and most-accurate chick-sexers to work in hatcheries from Australia to Atlanta.
But as the 41st Annual All-Japan Chick Sexing Championship begins, a pall hangs over this small, tight-knit world. The forces of global competition and technological change roiling Japan’s retail and financial industries are slowly coming to roost in agriculture – one of the most protected and inefficient parts of the economy.
In meetings the next day, leaders of the All-Japan Chick Sexing Association, which sponsors the competition, are to discuss a litany of mortal threats to their profession. Chicken imports are rising. Hatcheries need fewer sexers.
New breeds of chickens are being introduced whose sex can be divined quickly by unskilled workers. Chick-sexers’ incomes, which once put them solidly in the middle class, are falling more into the realm of burger-flippers.
Already, the number of chick-sexers in Japan has declined to about 230, from more than 1,000 in the profession. “In five years, there may be little need for them,” says Takashi Tomaru, who owns a hatchery where Mr Goto does some of his work. But a day spent at the chick-sexing face-off shows how these economic changes are fraying yet another of the countless little professions that have helped keep Japanese society prosperous and orderly.
“Yoi, hajime!” shouts an official to start the contest, and Mr Goto grabs his first chick. Cradling the tiny bird between his pinkie andring finger, he flips it over to examine the underside. Excrement squirts from each chick as Mr Goto gives a gentle squeeze to expose its cloaca, the vent where both the anus and genital organs are located. Dust rises from the squirming mass of down, so many sexers wear masks.Yet the 88 men and women gathered here don’t consider their work menial.
Their talent likes in being able to distinguish the smaller vent muscles of the females from the larger ones of the males-no simple task because the musculature comes in many confusing variations.
Discipline, intuition and years of training are the hallmarks of a great sexer, they say, and history has borne them out. The Japanese retain their reputations as the world’s best sexers largely because of an obsession with maintaining high professional standards. Nearly all have graduated from the chick-sexing association’s school, whose two-year accreditation course is the only one of its kind in the world. And there’s continuing education, too: After the competition, all the contestants sit through a professor’s two-hour lecture on egg formation.
Mr Goto, the defending champ, can trace his place in the business back to its earliest days. He works in rural central Japan, as a member of a group of about 10 sexers started by one of the founders of the profession. Mr Goto became a sexer after seeing an ad in a magazine when he was 16 years old. He skipped his high school graduation ceremony, decided not to go to college, and entered sexing school. After a two-year apprenticeship, he passed a test to become a full-fledged sexer and spent four years working in Europe.
It is a well-trodden path for top Japanese chick-sexers. Demand for their skills grew rapidly after a Japanese poultry specialist unveiled the vent-sexing method in 1927 at the World Poultry Congress in Ottawa. Until then, the industry-prizing hens for their egg-laying and tender meat-wasted time and money raising both male and female chicks for several weeks, until the differences between the sexes became obvious and the males could be weeded out. The new Japanese sexers fanned out across the globe, to sex chicks and also to set up chick-sexing schools and employment agencies.
Over a bowl of curried rice during a break from this winter’s competition, Tomoyuki Motoda recalls working in a hatchery in Atlanta more than three decades ago. He learned English and went to see baseball player Hank Aaron hit homers. He also worked hard, practising on spare cockerels for hours in the evenings to keep his skills sharp enough to make top dollar. Now he is 58. No 23-year-olds are among the sexers dining around him. “We’re all old,” he frowns, gesturing across the dining room with his chopsticks.
Even while Mr Motoda was working in the US, the economic forces now threatening the Japanese sexer’s world were gathering. After years of searching, US poultry breeders in the 1960s discovered a simpler way to sort chicks. They noticed the wings on some female chicks were longer than those on males, and started selecting for the trait. The result: “feather” sexing, which made it possible for almost anyone to do the work. US hatcheries, under pressure from a consolidation of the poultry industry, introduced these breeds and hired low-cost sexing labour, often Mexican and Korean immigrants. Japanese sexers all but vanished from the US.
But in Japan, protectionist barriers, sluggish competition and concerns about the quality of feather-sexed breeds kept the revolution at bay-until the 1990s. Today, restaurants and food producers are scraping for cost savings. Chicken imports from low-cost producers in the US and Asia have taken off-accounting for about 30 per cent of chicken consumption in Japan last year, up from 17 per cent in 1990. Meanwhile, Japanese hatcheries are modernising and consolidating, too.
The Tomaru hatchery, where Mr Goto sometimes works, completely rebuilt its facilities three years ago, modelling them in a hatchery in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, says Mr Tomaru, whose grandfather started the business. As part of the overhaul, the 44-year-old Mr Tomaru decided to replace breeds that need to be vent-sexed with chicks that can be feather-sexed.
The changes haven’t wiped out vent-sexing, which is still needed to sort a small number of chicks used as breeding stock. But on a recent day, most of Mr Goto’s colleagues were sitting around a large, circular conveyer, performing the unskilled labour of separating by wing feathers nearly all the 80,000 chicks sorted that day.
Mr Tomaru concedes the changes have been devastating for the sexers. When his father ran the hatchery, they made about $500 a day, says Mr Tomaru. Now it is more like $250-when there is work. The local branch of the sexers association sent him a letter begging him to raise the pay. Mr Tomaru says he “just ignored it”. Indeed, he speaks hopefully of new techniques being developed to sex chicks in the egg.
The chick-sexers, too, are adjusting to the new reality. This year, for just the second time ever, the annual sexing competition includes a feather-sexing demonstration. Even the slow sexers sort flawlessly by feather at close to twice the vent rate.
But it is only during the vent-sexing competition that the competitive juices flow. After three minutes and 35 seconds, Mr Goto tosses his 100th chick aside-just one second off his winning pace last year. Still, he fears he made at least one mistake. “I was too tight,” he frets. When the results arrive late in the afternoon after judges have verified the contestants’ work by examining the same chicks slowly, he learns that he erred twice, enough to knock him out of contention. The winner, Hirokazu Muroya, clocks in at an error-free three minutes and 40 seconds, collecting his eighth all-Japan title.
Having exchanged his white sexing smock for a suit and tie, the 48-year-old Mr Muroya collects his winnings: two trophies, an engraved plaque and a set of luggage. As he looks over his prizes, he says that he realises the business he’s in may not have much of a commercial future. Still, he says proudly, “We need to pass along these skills to the next generation.”