By now, you’ve probably seen articles floating around about the cardinal in Pennsylvania who is half male and half female. As a recently converted bird lover, and a trans man, and a nerd, all this talk about bird sex really got me thinking.
Biological sex is quite a bit more complicated than we like to assume, even in human beings. There is the fact that intersex people exist, and also the fact that what we call “biological sex” is actually defined by a series of attributes which lead to the classification of “male” and “female.” But when it comes to non-human animals, biological sex is sometimes more complicated, or complicated in different ways. Bird sex is pretty different than mammal sex, for example. But we still as a culture have decided to mostly classify them into two categories, male and female, and assume those are fixed and stagnant. Spoiler alert: they’re not.
For example, that cardinal.
For example, it is well documented that both domestic chickens and ducks sometimes spontaneously change sex. Birds typically only use one ovary (the one on the left, for whatever reason) and in some cases a completely female bird, who has laid eggs in the past, will suddenly transition to male. The ovary on the right hand side simply develops into a testicle, and the testosterone kicks off secondary sex characteristics (like the comb and crow for a rooster, the green head on the mallard, and the curled “drake feather” for all male ducks of mallard origins). This happened to a neighbor of mine this past summer. He had a chicken who had been laying eggs, and within the space of three days she looked, and sounded like, a rooster. It wasn’t long before he had new chicks who were fathered by this rooster who used to be a hen.
All of which brings me to my own experiences with ducks, and specifically with Edith.
The Story Of Edith The Duck
Male ducks are called drakes, while female ducks are just ducks (or some people call them hens to differentiate). There are a few ways that people classify ducks as males and females. Adult drakes are typically larger than ducks, in some breeds the difference can be as much as a pound or two, and they tend to have larger heads and thicker necks. In some breeds, males have differently colored plumage, including a green head. And almost all drakes sport a “drake feather,” a curled feather near their tail. They also have different voices, the distinctive quack we associate with all ducks is actually just the females of the species, while males have a quieter, kind of raspy, voice.
Additionally, drakes can be more aggressive, although not as aggressive as roosters, especially during mating season. While not usually aggressive towards humans, there is no nice way to put this, male ducks have an extremely high sex drive and can easily go overboard and hurt a female duck by what is called “overmating.”
We decided we didn’t need any drakes, since we wanted our ducks for pets and eggs, and weren’t planning on making more ducks. And we didn’t want to deal with the potential liability. So, we ordered all female ducklings.
Now of course, when the hatchery (we use Metzer Farms and they don’t pay me to say that) separates the newly hatched ducklings into male and female, the process they use is as imperfect as the way we assign gender in humans. They’re really only looking for one thing: does it have a penis? If they see a penis, it’s male, if not, it’s female. Understandably, there is some margin of error here, partly because sex is more complicated than the presence or lack of one organ, and partly because we’re talking about tiny ducklings, with even tinier genitals, here.
After Mary the duckling died, we ordered three female ducklings. Two Cayugas, a breed of duck which is black but shimmers iridescent green in the sunlight, and one rouen, a breed of domestic duck that looks an awful lot like a mallard (but is larger). My partner lobbied for at least one “butch” name, so the rouen became James. We named the cayugas Mildred and Edith, and for the first couple months of their lives, we called them “sisters.”
That is, until things started to change.
We first noticed in when their adult feathers started to come in. All of a sudden Edith and Millie, who had previously been nearly impossible to tell apart, looked different. Both had that greenish shimmer when the light hit them just right, but Edith was much green, particularly on her head and especially around the eyes. Cayuga drakes are known for having a greenish head, but with the overall green shimmer it can be hard to tell what’s what. We weren’t sure what we were seeing, but digging through message boards I found quite a few people who noticed green around the eyes of a young cayuga, and in a month or so the bird was obviously a drake.
The next thing was the voice. Millie and James both quacked early and often, but Edith seemed quieter. With multiple birds, it was sometimes hard to tell who was making all the noise, but we certainly didn’t see Edith quack.
Then there was pool time. Ducks prefer to mate in the water, and often start flirting before the duck pool is all the way filled. We noticed pretty quickly that there was one duck who was always trying to climb on top of everyone else in the water, and it was Edith. Now, just like in many other animals, it isn’t uncommon for female ducks to mount each other (a lot of poultry folks refer to this as “practice mating” which cracks me up). But it wasn’t a case of everyone doing it, it was just Edith, every single time.
One day I was in the backyard and Edith opened her bill and let out this sound, it was a thin raspy little whisper of a sound. And I thought “there it is, like it or not, we have a drake.” It was right around the time I was starting hormone therapy, and there were many jokes made about me and Edith going through puberty together. We didn’t change the name, Edith, but we did start using he/him pronouns.
Of course, keeping a drake meant our little flock looked different than what we had dreamed of. We started out imagining having two female ducks, expanded that to four when Mary died, and then Martha died of botulism in August. Suddenly we had two ducks and a drake, pretty far from the ideal duck to drake ratio. We saw how um, active, Edith was in the pool in the fall, and we worried about what that would mean for Millie and James in the height of mating season the following summer. If we didn’t want to get rid of Edith, and we didn’t, we decided we would need more ducklings. They arrive next week.
A few days ago, I was in the backyard, watching the ducks. It’s true that Edith has a greener head and is always “on top” in the pool. But Edith isn’t larger than Mildred, if anything he’s a touch shorter. And although our ducks are now eight months old, the curled drake feather has yet to appear. I’m still happy to have more ducklings on the way, but I suddenly found myself questioning my assumptions about Edith.
But of course, maybe I have been looking at Edith the wrong way? I’ve been assuming this animal will fit neatly into one of two categories, but maybe he doesn’t! Especially after reading about that cardinal, I felt less certain about everything. A little googling of the term “intersex duck” led me to learn that intersex mallards are well documented, probably because the plumage difference is so striking, seeing something in between is noticeable. Couldn’t the same thing happen in other mallard derived duck breeds?
I don’t know what Edith’s sex is, and that highlights something important for me: we don’t know as much as we think we do. In the end, before even getting to the complicated issues of gender and culture, biological sex is often more of an educated guess than anything else.
Want more of the ducks? You can follow them on instagram! (You can also follow me on instagram, but I am less cool.)
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