Sex-changing Poultry? Burn That Chick!

chicken on a spit

Photo courtesy of Heath Alseike.

When we bought our first batch of chicks, I was desperately eager to find out whether I had a good number of egg-layers or whether my neighbors would soon be cursing the crowing.  I fervently researched how to tell a hen from a roo and anxiously waited to see the fine plumage of a male or the more delicate features of a female.

As it turns out, the odds were not in my favor, but thankfully my neighbors don’t seem to mind the crowing of seven roosters.

You’d think it would be easy to tell the gender of your chicken.  I even remember scoffing at one internet site that warned, “you’ll never be truly sure until it lays an egg or crows.”  Really, how hard could it be?

But then came my Shelley….

Shelley – The Enigma

Shelley is big, much larger then her fine female friends.  We bought her from a local breeder who told us she was an Ameraucana (which lay blue eggs).  Clearly she is not: she isn’t “muffed and bearded” nor does she have the characteristic pea comb.  I suspect the breeder meant she was an Easter-egger, which also lays blue eggs, but is not a true breed.  Shelley has long feathers around the neck and some rump feathers, but they are not as extensive as some of my roosters.  I have never seen her in a nesting box, nor have that broody look in her eye.  She is usually racing around the corral.  People always comment what a nice looking rooster she is.

shelley the rooster

Shelley in the foreground and Skunk, a true Ameraucana rooster, in the back.

But you notice I keep referring to her as she?  I suspect she is female.  Her comb is large, but not larger than some of the other females.  She has never crowed.  And she is a favorite among the roosters, if you get my drift.  If any of my chickens is going to produce a fertilized egg, it would surely be Shelley!

So in the absence of genetic testing, egg-laying or crowing, I am afraid that Shelley will remain a mystery to us.

But my research did turn up an interesting story about an ill-fated chicken and “sex-switching” chickens.

The Rooster of Basel and Other Sex-Switching Birds

The poor Rooster of Basel had the misfortune to be alive in 1474 when science was not much more than mysticism and superstition.  The Rooster of Basel had the beautiful plumage of a rooster, yet proceeded to lay an egg.  Thinking the transgender fowl was born out of witchcraft and that the unnatural egg could hatch into a basilisk or a winged reptile with the head of a rooster, called a cockatrice, the townspeople held a trial to determine the bird’s fate.

Things were definitely afowl that day as the poor cluck was sentenced to burning at the stake “for the heinous and unnatural crime of laying an egg.”

There have been other notable egg-laying roosters throughout history.  In 1921-22 there was a buff orpington in England that became a poultry show oddity as it carried the plumage of a rooster, yet laid eggs.  And in Madison, Wisconsin, a brown leghorn rooster began laying eggs in 1922.   The Rooster of Madison, as she was called, laid eggs regularly and even mated with a white leghorn male to produce normal chicks.   During the next molt she lost her rooster plumage and returned to life as an ordinary hen.

How Can That Happen?

How can a chicken that looks like a rooster lay eggs?

A female can grow male plumage if there is some type of damage to the ovary and the ovary begins to produce more male hormones. Sometimes the hen can even begin crowing. The damage can be permanent damage, such as a tumor, and the hen will retain male characteristics.  Or the damage can be transitory and while the hen carries male plumage, it may begin to lay eggs as normal ovary function is restored.  The hen will continue to look male until the next molt.

So is Shelley taking steroids in an attempt to buff up? Will we some day see her true colors? Or will she continue to run around neither crowing nor laying eggs?  I guess I will have to let you know!

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