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It Isn’t Over Easy : Separating the Chicks: A Baffling Job

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Standing in front of a bin of day-old chicks, Jerry Hokoda gently picked one up, upended it and peered through magnifying lenses at a spot beneath its tail. Hokoda briefly exposed and studied the newborn’s baffling genitalia, then tossed the chick into a plastic bin to his left. It staggered for a moment like a fluffy little drunk, then began cheeping again.

Less than four seconds after the first chick landed, Hokoda dealt off another one--this time to a bin on his right.

Hokoda steadily worked his way through the birds, averaging one every 3.6 seconds. Those on the right were females, destined to lay eggs. Those on the left, the cockerels, faced a darker destiny. Hireo (Jerry) Hokoda is one of a few hundred Americans who can reliably tell the difference, knowledge on which the $4.1-billion-a-year egg industry stands or falls.

Largest Egg Ranch

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Hokoda was working in the chick-sorting room of Goldman’s Egg City in Moorpark, the largest egg ranch in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Egg City’s 2 million hens lead dull but productive lives in open-air coops with better views of the distant Pacific than any chicken deserves. Just after dawn each morning a shrill megacackle tears the air, as more than a million White Leghorns bear down to produce the snow-white eggs that consumers prefer.

According to Matt Lonsdale, operations manager of Egg City, making a profit in the egg business depends on keeping roosters, as well as foxes, out of the henhouse. And that is extraordinarily hard to do.

As Lonsdale explained, male chicks do not burst from their shells bearing any obvious signs of their gender. Without distinguishing snips, snails or puppy dogs’ tails, one chick is as inscrutably cute and fluffy as the next. Unless the sexes are sorted shortly after they hatch, the task can’t be done again for six weeks or more, when the males identify themselves by crowing, growing combs and generally behaving like young roosters.

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Not Chicken Feed

By that time, the superfluous cockerels may have put an egg man out of business.

Each of the firm’s chickens eats less than a quarter pound of feed each day, a bit more in winter, a bit less in summer and when the Santa Anas kick up. That sounds like chicken feed until Lonsdale adds, “We use an average of 2,300 tons a week.” No rational capitalist feeds a million or two extra mouths.

Which is why Egg City retains the services of Hokoda.

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Hokoda’s profession is so improbable that the 57-year-old Westminster man is convinced that the panel of the TV show “What’s My Line?” guessed it only because they were coached. As a professional chick sexer, he is one of a dwindling tribe of about 300 experts who can glance at the ambiguous back end of a chick and distinguish tomorrow’s hens from tomorrow’s cocks.

Hokoda’s line of work has sometimes evoked snickers. “When people would ask what we do for a living and we said, ‘Chick sexing,’ they’d give us a dirty look,” he recalled.

Hokoda isn’t laughing, however, nor are the 3,000 egg producers in the United States who depend for their survival on his craft.

In one of those rare instances in which a stereotype worked for a minority, chick sexing has traditionally, though groundlessly, been thought of as a skill unique to those of Japanese descent. And so it has been an economic boon to Japanese-Americans like Hokoda who had limited access to other fields.

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Although schoolchildren do not celebrate Chick-Sexing Day, it was a great day in American history when the craft was introduced in this country. Imported from Japan at the height of the Depression, the profession has been credited with saving the country’s faltering egg and poultry industries, enhancing the remarkable efficiency that characterizes them today.

Twice a week Hokoda takes a team of sexers to Egg City. On a recent Wednesday he and two colleagues, working as subcontractors, spent the better part of a day scrutinizing 39,000 cheeping yellow newborns in the glare of 200-watt bulbs.

1,400 Chicks an Hour

Hokoda, who has been doing this for almost 40 years, can sex chicks almost as fast as he can pick them up. His rate is about 1,000 an hour with an accuracy of “99 1/2%.” He isn’t bragging. “I have a couple of fellows in Fresno that can go 1,400 an hour continuously,” he said.

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Hokoda is expert at vent-sexing, the hard kind. As he explained, the sex organs of a chicken are hidden inside an abdominal canal, called the cloaca, that carries the excretions of the bird’s intestine and kidneys, as well as eggs or sperm, to an opening, or vent, in its underbelly. Cloaca means sewer in Latin. It’s not pretty, but it’s probably as good a name as any for this multipurpose alimentary and reproductive sluice.

Hokoda figures that it took him three years to learn how to sex chicks with the reliability that the industry requires. First he went to chick-sexing school, and then he began clocking the thousands of hours of practice that are the real foundation of expertise. His mastery was accelerated by the fact that many farmers make sexers buy their mistakes or bill them for the feed a missed cockerel eats.

Like the majority in his profession, Hokoda knows what he looks for in a chick but has trouble putting it into words. Inside every cloaca--well, almost every cloaca--there is a tiny bump, the sexual organ or eminence. Read the bump and you’ve sexed the bird.

“You go by the shape,” Hokoda said of the bump, or bead, as it is also called. “On a female there is no shape. There’s a mass of flesh. The male has a distinct form, and the flesh itself is on the shiny side.”

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Complicated Issue

Others describe the male eminence as hard, the female as soft and reddish. In fact, the male eminence, or process, as it is also called, has several characteristic shapes, as well as a number of unusual ones. The issue is further complicated by the fact that some female eminences aren’t shapeless after all. That’s not surprising, given that, in embryo, both sexes start out with a bump that grows in the male and shrinks in the female--most of the time.

Hour after hour, Hokoda made his judgments, deftly tossing males to the left, females to the right. That he sexes chicks as quickly as someone might tighten bottle caps on an assembly line belies the difficulty of the task. “You’re looking at something that’s a little bigger than a needle point,” he said.

A few sexers insist that they can tell a male from a female before they look at the vent, on the basis of a subtle difference in the way the chicks respond to handling. Obscured in the mists of chick sexing lore is a legendary, probably apocryphal, sexer who could sort like crazy despite being blind.

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As Hokoda squinted at chick after chick, he explained that the birds must be sexed in their first few days of existence, while they are still living off the remnant of liquid egg that nourished them in the shell. Once their bodies are stuffed with solid food, it becomes almost impossible to observe the eminence, and the fragile birds are even more likely to be injured in the course of trying.

Hokoda guarantees Egg City and his other clients a hit rate of 98%. “In the old days we only had to guarantee 95%, but that was when a farmer bought 200 or 300 birds for his own use,” he said. In the high-pressure world of the multimillion-hen egg farm, Hokoda must deliver better than 98% accuracy to keep his good name and clientele.

‘Awful Lot of Mistakes’

“These big operations are buying 20,000 pullets at a time, and 2% of 20,000 would be an awful lot of mistake,” he said.

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California, the nation’s top egg-producing state, has particularly high performance standards, perhaps because it has a relatively large number of sexers.

Hokoda and his team earn 2 cents for every chick they sex. If they let more than the agreed-upon number of males slip by, they kiss their paychecks goodby. A first-rate sexer can earn a minimum of $40,000 a year. Hokoda, however, pays a high price for a good salary: He is so sensitive to chicken feathers that he can’t work unless he gets weekly allergy shots.

When Hokoda and other old-timers went into the business, chick sexing was virtually a Japanese-American monopoly. The technique was developed in Japan in 1934. The next year five Japanese experts demonstrated it to an audience of awed North American poultrymen with the help of a translator who practiced a trade even more difficult than chick sexing--explaining it in English.

Bilingual Japanese-Americans were the obvious choice to study the technique in Japan, then to return and practice it in the United States. Some set up training programs in this country, including John S. Nitta, who founded the Harvard of chick-sexing schools in Lansdale, Pa., in 1937.

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Tuition $75 a Week

During its heyday in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, Nitta’s school had classes of 30 or 40 and its own dormitory. Tuition was $75 a week for a six-week course. According to the founder’s son, David K. Nitta, the school admitted no one over 28 years old because older students seemed to have trouble taking the complex instruction involved.

Nitta’s school, which closed in 1974, was the largest, and most professional, of half a dozen in the United States. Training programs advertised in Japanese-language publications, usually in English. Then, as now, sexers often brought family members and friends into their informal guild.

Although Hokoda smiled as he said it, he made clear that he became a sexer because it was the best of a limited number of options available to him as a Japanese-American. “Without a college education, about the only other thing we could do was go into a market, gardening or a factory,” he said, adding that he knows many Nisei with college degrees who became sexers.

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Able sexers never lacked work, even during the Depression, according to 70-year-old Henry Takahashi, a retired practitioner who lives in Granada Hills. Possessed of a rare but essential skill, they managed even though the work was then seasonal and the pay was half a cent or a penny a chick. Traveling around the country, sometimes sailing to Europe as well, a Depression-era sexer could accumulate more pennies in the hatching season than the average doctor earned in a year.

“Even when times were bad, we could make $5,000 or $6,000 between February and May,” Takahashi recalled.

Avoided Internment

Later there were other benefits. After Pearl Harbor, when West Coast Japanese-Americans were being rounded up for internment, chick sexers could be fairly sure they wouldn’t end up at Santa Anita. Without them, the government apparently reasoned, GI Joe might never see another powdered egg.

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“Sexers got a special permit to go back East right away,” recalled Hokoda, whose father was a gardener and who was interned as a child. “Even during the war, they were able to get a new car and tires and things because sexing was considered vital.”

That era is recalled in a 1951 movie called “Go for Broke.” One of the few films to deal with Nisei valor in World War II, it features a drafted chick sexer who longs to be back home practicing poultry proctology instead of taking orders from Lt. Van Johnson.

Lucy Kuge, a veteran sexer who worked alongside Hokoda at Egg City, illustrates just how close-knit and homogeneous the sexing community used to be. Kuge, who lives in Arroyo Grande, graduated 20 years ago from Nitta’s school in Pennsylvania. One of two women in a class of 25, she went there at the urging of her four chick sexer brothers. One day she looked up from her box of chicks and saw one male worth saving, fellow student, now her husband, Arthur Kuge. They often work for Hokoda as a team.

Given how difficult vent-sexing is, it is inevitable that the poultry industry would try to breed a chicken in which the cockerels emerged from their shells displaying the genetic equivalent of blue booties. In 1970, after 11 years of genetic experimentation, a Midwestern supplier of egg and poultry stock developed a strain of White Leghorns in which the wing feathers of the males are stunted, allowing them to be spotted at an untrained glance.

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Both Varieties

Egg City raises Leghorns of both the vent-sexable and feather-sexable variety. Although feather sexers need only a few minutes of instruction and can be paid minimum wage, the firm continues to hire Hokoda and other practiced vent sexers despite whichever kind of chicks it wants sorted.

Chick sexing is a sunset trade, at least for Hokoda and other Japanese-Americans who once controlled its relatively lucrative secrets. When he was starting out, the country had about 30,000 hatcheries, and most of its 1,000 sexers were Japanese-American. Today there are about 400 hatcheries, albeit much larger operations, and Korean immigrants increasingly dominate the craft.

“The young boys don’t go into this anymore,” Hokoda’s wife observed, failing to add that they don’t have to now that racial discrimination is illegal and medicine and other professional opportunities are open to Asians.

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Nitta speculated that sexing’s changing ethnic mix reflects both the rise in fortune of Japanese-Americans and the recognition by a more recent immigrant group that the jobs others disdain may be their economic opportunity. As Nitta noted, sexing is rigorous and unglamorous, and wages haven’t increased as fast as the cost of living.

‘Koreans ... Involved’

“It’s not as lucrative as it was,” Nitta said. “The Koreans are becoming involved because they’re more impoverished.” Although there are now no chick-sexing schools in the United States, Korea has several.

At the end of the day, Hokoda and his team emptied bin after bin of cockerels into plastic bags for gassing. Other firms drown unwanted chicks.

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Sexing does not always mean sudden death for the males. Some are needed for breeding purposes. Others are raised as broilers. Most, however, end up as landfill or mink food.

The chicks Hokoda and his sexers identified will go to one of Egg City’s hilltop henneries north of Moorpark. There the fecund virgins will screech at the sunrise and drop their eggs. In two years, their laying careers will be over.

As far as Egg City’s bookkeepers are concerned, though, old hens never die.

Campbell’s turns them into chicken soup.

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