Written by: Dr. Jacquie Jacob, University of Kentucky
It is possible for a female chicken to take on external characteristics of a male, a phenomenon referred to as sex reversal. (To date, spontaneous sex reversal from male to female has not been reported.) Genetically and anatomically, a chicken that has experienced sex reversal is still a hen, but it has secondary characteristics similar to those of a male.
Typically, several observable differences in the secondary sex characteristics of roosters and hens exist (as shown in Figure 1). These include the following distinctions:
In single-comb chickens, the male’s comb is turgid and stands erect, whereas the female’s may flop over to one side.
The male has larger, more developed spurs than the female.
Although both sexes have the capacity to crow, typically only the male does.
In multicolored varieties, the male has more variety of coloring in his plumage than the female (except for breeds of which the males are hen-feathered, such as the Sebright and Campine breeds).
The male has longer and more pointed hackles than the female.
Both sexes have main tail feathers, but only the male has saddle feathers and sickles.
How does spontaneous sex reversal occur? Typically, a female chicken has only one functional ovary, the left one. The right ovary and oviduct are present in the embryonic stages of all birds but usually do not develop in chickens. Most cases of spontaneous sex reversal result from a disease condition that damages the left ovary. This condition could be an ovarian cyst or tumor or diseased adrenal glands, which cause the left ovary to regress. Residual tissue in the right ovary develops in the absence of the functional left ovary. This regenerated right gonad is known as an ovotestis and may contain some tissue characteristics of the ovary, the testes, or both. Steroidogenically functional, an ovotestis secretes androgen as well as estrogen. As a result, the hen develops male secondary sex characteristics. So, although the bird is genotypically female, it is phenotypically male. (Genotype refers to the actual traits coded for in paired genes; phenotype refers to the observable expression of those traits.) There are reports of hens with ovotestes producing semen, making them capable of fathering offspring. However, most chickens that have experienced sex reversal never lay eggs or sire offspring.