In any social group, there is always going to be some sort of harmony and unrest. You only have to look at home and work, and of course some places are more dysfunctional than others! Flocks of chickens have their own ups and downs partly due to fluctuating hormones, but why has my lovely hen, Mabel suddenly started crowing?
This is actually not the first time this has happened in my flock. A few years ago, I had a lavender Aracauna called Pollyanna who started crowing (or tried to) at 5am one summer morning. Polly wasn’t shrill in the slightest and sounded like an owl! It was quite comical when she took a breath to begin, as her wings would lift slightly, like it was a big effort!
But when Mabel started crowing…at first I thought a neighbour had got a new cockerel, but it sounded suspiciously close by. As mentioned in my earlier blog, my own roosters sleep in the garage in a darkened box till 9am so as not to disturb anyone, so it couldn’t be them. Plus, this crow sounded different from theirs. Have I gained an extra bird?
Running down to the garden in my pyjamas, I saw my hens looking back innocently at me. In my rudely awakened mind, I figured one of them had to be the culprit as the crow wasn’t a true cockerdoodledoo. I did a mental elimination of each hen but at the back of my mind, I had a hunch it was Mabel. Out of all the hens, she was the most butch!
I wondered if it was psychological. Mabel started crowing about two days after I lost Siegfried, who sadly died suddenly in his sleep. For some reason, Siegfried had singled Mabel out and used to chase her off. I often wondered how he achieved his dominance as Mabel was both bigger and heavier than him. When all three young boys were introduced to the flock, Mabel had given both Oscar and Tarquin a good pasting and so Siegfried never challenged her. As you can guess, back then Mabel was the alpha female. Fast forward another year, Siegfried had blossomed into a handsome rooster who chased the girls with a springy elevated step, and even had the nerve to challenge me! I wondered now he has left for chicken heaven, if Mabel is asserting her authority again by crowing like a rooster? Or at least trying to. This is what she sounds like;-
Its a shame I didn’t get a recording of Polly ‘crowing’ as she was quite deep sounding in comparison, but her story was not dissimilar either. Polly used to be alpha female, but after a mysterious illness she lost that title, and became mercilessly bullied by Rhonda, a hefty Bluebelle, who was the previous underdog. Polly recovered and continued to lay eggs, but never regained her position. She took to crowing instead which she did in the summer mornings around 5am. During summer I normally leave the coop door open 24/7 but I started shutting it overnight to stop her disturbing everyone, and she pretty much stopped after that.
Mabel however, has been known to occasionally crow during the day too. She now sleeps in the garage at night in her own private box to avoid waking everyone, as she is considerably louder in comparison, and shutting the coop door hasn’t deterred her. More of a concern, she hasn’t produced many eggs in the last year and I have seen her perform a mating dance to some of the other hens! Could Mabel be turning into Marcel?
This is the science bit. It seems that Mabel’s behaviour is down to some internal physiological changes rather than external influences. In hens, only the left ovary is functional. The right ‘ovary’, which technically is not an ovary, is dormant, although this is not the case with some other birds and species. If the left ovary is damaged, eg infection or tumour growth (tumours are common in older hens and Mabel is now 4) it will stop producing oestrogen, the female hormone. Subsequently, the rise in male hormone, testosterone, will cause growth of comb, wattles, male plumage and the crowing, plus other male behaviour! Well, Mabel aways had a big comb and wattles but here’s a picture of her sunbathing as a pullet.
And here she is at time of writing, age 4. She still has the plumage of a hen though. Some hens going through spontaneous sex reversal develop spurs and male feathers.
Furthermore, it is possible for the once dormant right side to develop into an ‘ovotestis’ which is a kind of male organ capable of producing sperm! Not sure whether Mabel has this – I have seen her doing her courtship dance but she hasn’t mounted any of the others yet. Below is a short video of her mating dance!
Crowing hens crop up from time to time, but a hen becoming a rooster is a rare occurrence. It has been known to happen but it would be unlikely that Mabel would turn into a full on producing rooster. More likely I would end up with a noisy half and half bird with no eggs! If you want to know more about the spontaneous sex reversal in hens, check out this fascinating link which I have found invaluable while researching this unbelievable subject! http://www.urbanchickenpodcast.com/ucp-episode-018/
Chickens eh? There seems to be more drama in a chicken run than in a soap opera!