We have a funny little hen named Sister Brigid (that’s the patron saint of chicken farmers). She’s one of three Kraienköppes that we have, and she’s always been an odd bird. She’s definitely the littlest of our chickens, but super spunky, and in recent months — maybe even the last year — she’s looked increasingly bedraggled. I was commenting on this yesterday when The Hunky Foreman (aka my fiancé Brett) and I were in the chicken run tending to things. THF pointed out that the Sister has spurs like a rooster would, and mused aloud, “It makes me wonder if she’s a hermaphrodite.” Hmmm, that made me wonder…is my chicken a hen and a rooster? Is that even possible?
As it turns out, yes. Only in the chicken world, these chickens are called “gynandromorphs” — they have both male and female characteristics (a hermaphrodite, on the other hand, has both male and female sex organs). A great read on this topic can be found in this article from National Geographic, but in a nutshell: Mammals who are gynandromorphs have somewhat of an even mix of male and female characteristics, heavily influenced by their hormones. While chickens’ genders also rely on hormones, they have a much stronger cell-by-cell identification — meaning, in gynandromorph chickens, 50% of their cells are male (rooster) and 50% of their cells are female (hen).
To further complicate and fascinate the issue, in many instances, chicken gynandromorphs are kind of split down the middle…literally. One half of their bodies are rooster, the other half hen. So you get the rooster qualities (darker feathers, larger comb/waddle, spurs) on one side of the body and hen qualities (smaller comb/waddle, lighter feathers, no spurs) on the other side.
Which brings me back to Sister Brigid. Here’s a pic of her feet:
Her spurs are the most rooster like thing about her. I wouldn’t say she is split down the middle, with one half of her body being rooster with the other side hen, but her right side seems to be the dominant roosterish side. Her right foot is bigger, even though both feet have spurs. She also has even coloring and is small for an already small breed. She has laid eggs, but not many, and she is very broody. But she’s also very strong spirited and, even though the other chickens kind of pick on her (pulling out her tail and neck feathers), she never hides and cowers. I’ve seen her go after a hen twice her size and scare it off.
To be clear, we’d have to do some genetic testing to determine if the Sister is indeed a gynandromorph, but it seems pretty clear to me that this is what we have here. I had no idea — literally no idea — this was possible until this morning. I went down a rabbit hole of reading this article and then this one. This article is about how to tell a rooster from a hen, and this one is about how chickens can actually change their sex.
Nobody knows yet if chicken gynandromorphs can reproduce, or if this has any bearing on overall health and longevity. While we get concerned because Sister B looks so beaten down and shrimpy, just when we start to wonder (for the eleventy millionth time) how she has made it this far, this girl shows her plucky attitude and opens her can of whoop ass on another bird. Clearly, if we felt she was in danger of being pecked to death because of her perceived weaknesses, we would figure out a different environment for her, but I’ve never seen her in that kind of danger.
Who knew chickens’ sex lives, gender and identification could be so fascinating? For us at Berkeley Farm, Sister Brigid is just Sister Brigid. Light has definitely been shed upon her quirks, but I don’t really care about her gender. She’s just one tough chick, and we love her, spurs and all.
Note: In the above pic, Sister Brigid has a hen saddle on. We’re experimenting to see if this protects her a bit more since the other hens like to pull her feathers out. For information about hen saddles, see this post.