Can a Hen Turn into a Rooster?

That sounds like a ridiculous question. But rumors abound. Hmmm. Let's get to the bottom of this.

Our alpha hen, Java, goes around crowing like a rooster, but gets all the privileges of being a hen. For example, I mentioned in a previous post how I had thrown a big grub to Old Whitey and after identifying it he had called over the hens and Java gobbled it up. That's what roosters do. They attempt to protect and provide for their hens.

But Java is a very aggressive hen. She picks on the roosters and for the most part they just put up with it rather than sparring with her. Within days of Old Whitey giving her a grub she was chasing him and picking on him when we had tried adding him back to the flock after cleaning his wounds.

A young rooster named English had apparently had enough and started sparring with her. They went at it off and on over the course of a day to the point that they both had gotten bloody combs. English, despite his small size, seemed to have the upper hand at first. But eventually Java seemed to come out on top. You'd think all was settled. 

The next day when I let them out for the day Java started it again until English flew the coop, actually he flew over the electric fence into the mesquite grove next to it. I had already resolved that if any of them wanted to free range, it would be at their own risk. I wouldn't have been able to catch him anyway and even if I had, I wouldn't have been able to put him back in the paddock with Java.

Shortly before I went to lock up the coop for the night English worked his way up into the garden mesquite next to the paddock and found himself a tree branch to roost on. I wasn't sure if he'd make it safely through the night with so many predators around. A family of four great horned owls live in the neighborhood and are often seen watching the chickens. A neighbor has had them get into his coop more than once. Recent snow revealed bobcat tracks leading away from the coop. And we've had to chase off coyotes more times than I've reported. 
English Roosting in Mesquite
The next morning English was - surprisingly - hanging out by the paddock. But as soon as I let the others out and they saw him, Java scared him away. This pattern continued for a total of five days. During that time he hung out mostly in the mesquite grove next to the paddock where he found one uncomfortable roosting spot after another, all of which were low enough that a coyote could most likely jump up and snatch him. But he also followed us around frequently and started making a bit of a nuisance of himself. 

I had resisted giving him food or water, hoping he'd work up the gumption to go back in the paddock for it. He never did because of the reaction he got whenever he approached. After the first day or so I decided we should try and catch him and eat him before the predators did. We put a little grain in a bin on its side and my wife tried putting the lid on when he went for it. With a surprisingly strong burst of energy he was able to escape. After I saw him drinking from a little puddle on the greenhouse plastic (it was down from a storm), and scratching at it, I relented and put some water out for him which he eagerly drank. Then I put it near the bin and he wouldn't go near it. Additional attempts over a couple of days couldn't overcome his fear of the bin.

In a conversation with my mom she reminded me about something I'd read. If you have a trouble maker, cull them so others don't learn their bad habits. Java was definitely a trouble maker. In addition to everything mentioned above, she had given me trouble when we moved the paddock and she often would run out of the coop when I went to lock it up. On English's last day outside the paddock I saw him sparring with our other hen, Barb, through the fence with Java standing there egging it on. Big Red went plowing through the hens breaking it up. I tried giving Big Red a high five but ended up just verbally praising him instead. 

Was Java a Hen or a Rooster?

We decided to cull Java and try to get English back in. Before I let the chickens out in the morning I coaxed English into the paddock with the treat bucket I use every morning. Then we opened the coop and grabbed Java. Barb started chasing English as soon as she saw him so I chased her some and pointed out Java who was being held by my wife. Other than that it has been largely peaceful ever since we got rid of the trouble maker. 

English was very skittish around the others the first day and didn't want to go in the coop that night. He headed for the fence and looked like he was about to fly back into the mesquite grove until I ran around and stood in the way. I was afraid he might have re-homed to the trees he'd been roosting in so my wife and daughter were standing by to help. It took a lot of effort, with multiple chickens coming out to check on the excitement, to get him and all the others in the coop all at the same time and get the door shut. We finally succeeded and it wasn't a problem the next night.
Java, Top Far Left
My wife does the chicken processing and blew my mind when she told me that Java had testicles. What?! How could that be? The ranch we got her from said she was a hen. She hung out with the hens. The other birds treated her like a hen. She acted like a hen - except when she acted like a rooster. Maybe English was onto her game and that's why he started sparring with her.

When I had started noticing her crowing I had done some research on why a hen might behave that way. That's when I came across rumors of hens turning into roosters. 

Gender dysphoria (aka. gender identity disorder) is in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. That's what they call it when someone is confused about their sex in spite of their anatomy. Who knew that chickens can also have mental disorders? It seems Java had one, but I don't know how he fooled everyone. 

A rooster can't turn into a hen nor can a hen turn into a rooster and grow a pair of testicles. A hen can undergo some physical changes that make her look and act more like a rooster. Here's an over-simplified explanation: If her estrogen-producing ovary stops working for some reason (eg. infection, tumor), it throws her hormones off which may result in any of these changes: 
  • no egg laying
  • crowing
  • wattle, comb, and spurs grow bigger
  • plumage pattern changes
  • more aggressive behavior
  • her other, normally-undeveloped ovary grows into a ovotestis capable of producing sperm
  • she might even try mating with other hens
If her estrogen-producing ovary heals, hormones go back to normal and she can start laying eggs again. At least this is what my research found. What do you think? We're increasingly convinced that our last hen, Barb, may also be a rooster. Time will tell if it's really Bard.

The picture at the top of the page is Big Red - front and center - with English nearby. 

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