My Gender Bender Hen

These are not the best photographs but they are untouched and they are  of Aphrodite. The first one shows her undergoing her yearly molt, and the second is of the very-changed “hen” several years later. Photocopied from Greenwoman Zine, Issue #1.

These are not the best photographs but they are untouched (except I colored the combs and wattles)  and they are of Aphrodite. The first one shows her undergoing her yearly molt, the second is of the very-changed “hen” several years later. Photocopied from Greenwoman Zine, Issue #1.

This is probably the most extraordinary story that I have published so far—and it’s true. I wrote it years ago and it appeared in the first issue of Greenwoman Zine and in Colorado Gardener a couple of years back. I also read the essay on KRCC, our local southern Colorado NPR affiliate station, on their “Western Skies” program. I remember someone wrote the station that they, too, had witnessed a similar transformation.

Many times I’ve thought, why doesn’t everyone know about this?!?

I guess that’s why I keep putting it out there. It is just too good a story to not republish. I mean, the story is amusing enough, but that’s the small part. It’s the science, the mystery, and the reality of how little we really understand, that blows my mind.

Unfortunately, what is considered “normal” and “acceptable” is still hotly contested, as this winter’s Olympic games in Russia remind us.

Sigh . . .

* * *

My Gender Bender Hen

Some years back, before it was “cool,” I was an urban chicken raiser, mistress of a flock of five hens. One late spring morning, at feeding time, I decided to check my charges’ legs for mites. It wasn’t something I did often, but there had been a case the year before and I wanted to be on top of things. The air was happy with bird song, sweet with the perfume of lilacs as I eyed the girls pecking at their breakfast, a mix of grain, dinner leftovers, lettuce, and beet trimmings from the garden. The black-skinned, partially feathered legs of the two white Silkies, Flora and Fauna, looked smooth and healthy, as did the legs of Athena, our Rhode Island Red. Even Mrs. Bush’s gams (she’s the Araucana) looked all right. Then I got to our mixed breed hen, a pretty black and white speckled bird. The six-year-old hen’s legs looked fine too—except for the spurs. Yes, spurs, those long claw-like things roosters fight with. Aphrodite now had one on the back of each leg. My eyes traveled up to her head. She had also grown long, dangling wattles and a huge red rooster’s comb.

I stared in disbelief. She’d been crowing for a few months, but I had heard that hens would sometimes do that. This felt unreal. As if I had just seen our male Labrador Retriever squeeze out a puppy. Impossible. I had held this chicken’s first egg in my hand over five years ago; it was streaked with blood from the effort, something I found poignant, wondrous even. We’d eaten her eggs for years, our daughter Lily even witnessed her lay one. As a resident of Colorado Springs, an evangelical Christian stronghold, my first thought was Salem, Massachusetts, circa 1600. As a lover of all things green, all things animal, I was an admitted nature worshipper; heck, I could probably be labeled a non-practicing Pagan. Could I be accused of witchcraft? Or, even worse, could this be an environmentally caused mutation?

It felt very Twilight Zone-ish, breaking the news to my family. My husband went into immediate denial, suggesting that I was somehow mistaken about the chicken’s sex (for six years!?!); our 13-year-old daughter Zora responded with a rather sarcastic, “Oooohh-kaaaaay”; her sister, 10-year-old Lily, laughed out loud. She laughed because Aphrodite has always been awful. Haughty, domineering and gorgeous, a mixed breed bird bought at the State Fair at a premium price, with a graceful, tapered body speckled in black and white, long slate blue legs, golden brown eyes, and, well, she did have a dainty comb and minuscule wattles. Aphrodite has always been our most beautiful and least liked chicken.

After several days, in which a supernatural aura continued to surround our home, I sought help. I sent short emails to several universities which specialize in the Poultry Sciences. In reply, Dr. Wallace Berry at Auburn University wrote back: “Sex changes such as with your hen are fairly common, especially in older hens. This happens when something damages the ovary, usually a viral infection. The remaining ovarian tissue tries to grow back, but takes on some of the characteristics of both ovary and testes. In fact, it is referred to as an ‘ovotestis’. It will secrete testosterone which makes the hen appear and behave as a male. However, she (he) will not be able to effectively produce sperm or sire chicks.”

Well, there it was. A logical biological explanation. The chicken wasn’t enchanted, nor did she make a conscious decision to go butch; it just happened. The incident made me think about that first egg with its crimson streaks, religious debates about sexual orientation, and how mysterious our world is. What babes we are in understanding it, in understanding ourselves. Aberrations in nature are the norm. And the scientific proof was indisputable—Aphrodite transformed into Hermaphrodite—without any hocus pocus at all.

—Sandra Knauf

* * *

Footnote: A very young Zora Knauf (then age 13 or 14) came up with the title for this piece!


Filed under Garden Writers We Love

7 responses to “My Gender Bender Hen

  1. We had a hen that did that. Like yours, she laid eggs for years before taking a walk on the wild side. She, too, grew spurs and started crowing-but, as a Polish crested, did not grow a comb or wattles. She would lay a (very) occasional egg. After a couple of years, she quit crowing and laid a few more eggs.

  2. Great story Sandra. When I was young, my Dad raised chickens. I never paid much attention; only knew that our rooster crowed every morning. I learned something about chickens today. Thank you for a great story.

  3. Rachel Clark

    What a story! I had no idea this was possible. Nice to know an old dog can learn new tricks–and chickens, too. Great title!

  4. Thanks for this post! It actually solves a fifty year-old puzzle for me. When I was a kid, my father was stationed in Taiwan, and we chose to live in rural areas rather than expat compounds. We raised chickens there, and occasionally hatched out a new batch in an incubator. One crop produced a chick who became my friend. I had tended it when it was ill, and it grew into a pretty red hen–who then, a year or so later, became a pretty red rooster. “Big Red,” as we ended up calling him, loved to fly up on top of our outdoor washing machine to roost on my arm when I called him. I’m pretty sure he ended up in the pot at some point, but I remember him to this day. I thought that he had simply delayed development because of a bout with chicken cholera or something–which may, in fact, have been the cause instead of a gender shift.

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