“If he’s really a rooster, then I get to cook him!” Manex exclaimed, as my eyes widened with the horror of what I may have done.
For weeks I had been trying to convince the staff at Bahamas Methodist Habitat that one of the hens I had been caring for was a rooster. When Manex finally came down to the coop with me to take a look, it did not take him more than a glance to finally agree that I was right… and to communicate to me what the result would be. Oddly, it had never occurred to me that there might be consequences for categorizing the gender of what had by then become my favorite chicken.
Lutra – oh yes, I’ve named the chicken – clearly stood out in our flock of 21 chickens. With legs twice the thickness of the other chickens, Lutra towered over them. And Lutra was changing. Every day the red coxcomb on top of Lutra’s head and the waddle under Lutra’s chin seemed to grow larger. Heel spurs appeared to be cropping out on the back of Lutra’s legs and long, shiny feathers grew on Lutra’s neck and back. Over the course of three weeks, I watched as Lutra went from simply the largest chicken in the coop to something that truly resembled the textbook physical description of a rooster. Except for one thing – Lutra still had no tail feathers. And for now, it’s those tail feathers, or lack thereof, that is standing between Lutra and the dinner table. “It’s not a rooster,” Brenda had been telling me for weeks, “It’s got no tail feathers.” It was an argument that all of a sudden I was relieved to have lost.
The truth of the matter was that Lutra stood out in more ways than one. I’ll have to ask you to suspend your disbelief for a moment, when I tell you that Lutra was clearly a bird of a sweet and poetic nature. Having a bent towards the romantic, Lutra would crouch in the corners or on the margins of the crowd, watching the others or contemplating the turtle doves that perched overhead waiting to steal corn. When I brought out the feed or the water for the chickens, Lutra would cautiously approach and timidly try to grab a nibble, but then scamper away when the other chickens pushed and shoved.
Lutra’s behavior mystified me. How was it that Lutra was so gentle and timid with the other birds while being twice their size? And speaking of size, how did Lutra get to be so big when I never saw Lutra successfully get any of the food that the other chickens scrambled after. One thing that I certainly did not think we had to worry about was having any fertilized eggs; Lutra did not seem to be the slick type to make any aggressive moves.
But still my meddling has caused quite a dilemma for Lutra. The gender of my timid friend has become quite the talk around town, and the conclusion of that conversation will determine Lutra’s fate. As is often the case with humans, we feel a need to know the gender, and then we feel a compulsion to assign an identity, then a concept of proper roles and activities, and a likely life path. This is why the first thing we ask our pregnant friends is: “Is it a boy or a girl?”
Things can get just as messy for humans as for chickens, I suppose, when we assign them a role and a fate based on our own expectations of what is normal. “Boys are not supposed to wear that. Girls are not supposed to do that.”
In some small way, I experienced that myself as a child. I have always loved working with my hands, building and repairing and learning. I kept the old VCR in our home going all throughout high school; each time it would stop working, my mom would ask me to fix it; out would come the screws and whatever tape had gotten stuck and within five minutes we would be back to movie night. When I was seven, however, I had it fixed in my mind that this kind of skill and behavior was completely inappropriate for me as a girl. Having three older sisters, I had ample opportunity to observe what it meant to be a girl. Although it would not be too many years before I would watch my eldest sister board a carrier plane in her fatigues to care for the Marines as a Navy doctor, when I was seven, the future Lt. Commander Willert had not yet expanded my horizons. So, instead, I tried to hide my hobbies and talents; although it was really no secret that at Christmas my brother passed me his Lego sets to build while he kept an eye on my toys for me.
When, at the age of seven, I cut my hand with a pair of scissors while trying to deconstruct a Walkman Radio, I rushed to hide the evidence. Pulling out a set of historical paper dolls, I insisted that I had slashed my thumb open while cutting out a dress for Martha Washington. My mother looked at me skeptically. My father looked at me skeptically. The doctors looked at me skeptically. But I stuck to my story, as determined as a dog with a bone. There was no way I was going to admit that I had been doing something as boyish as prying apart a Walkman with a pair of scissors. (Mom, if you are reading this, which you probably are, there’s your confession. You were right. I was not cutting out paper dolls when you had to take me to get stitches while 4 nurses held me down.)
As someone who took many years to feel comfortable in her own skin, and even more years to be able to own her skills, gifts and calling, I can’t help but have a good bit of sympathy for Lutra. Dear Lutra, who hides and trembles and tries so hard not to stand out when standing out is clearly what Lutra was made to do.
Lutra’s situation, thankfully, is not an open and shut case. There is definitely ample cause for an appeal to the rooster declaration. Brenda, in what have thankfully been her fervent attempts to prove me wrong, has found an answer that I would not have expected and which, if true, is indeed a privilege to observe. It seems there is a good bit of scientific chatter out there that says that chickens, being hatched with both ovaries and gonads, can actually change their gender phenotype. The essays say that if the ovary is damaged, the gonad can become active in response; releasing chemicals that cause the chicken to begin to take on the characteristics of a rooster more than a hen. Although still biologically a hen, they will exhibit as a rooster.
It is still to early to say, and our access to scientific research here on Eleuthera is a bit limited, but I am fervently hoping that Brenda is right and that Lutra is an intersex chicken. Just as the lack of tail feathers has done for the past couple of weeks, such a conclusion might just save Lutra’s life. Because if Lutra is not a rooster, Lutra is not a roaster.
Oh, the world we live in is so full of boxes and categories and expectations and consequences for transgressing. For Lutra, gender ambiguity has put her life at risk, but it also has the potential to save that life if her unusual identity can be embraced. This is why I named her Lutra, the abbreviated nickname for the island of Eleuthera; because Lutra, or Eleuthera, means freedom and that is what I wish for Lutra. I wish for my unusual chicken not only the freedom to live, of course, but also the freedom to stride around the coop with the self-possession of a chicken who has accepted their identity even if others have not. It pains me to see such a beautiful creature hiding in the shadows. But perhaps Lutra is wiser than me; perhaps Lutra knows that she is safest left unseen, unnoticed, uncategorized.
For now, while her fate hangs in the balance, Lutra will have to be content to receive welcome in any flock that I tend. And for my part, I’ll have to be content that for as much time as we still have together, Lutra – who I now insist is clearly not a rooster – will not only be faithful to wake me up at dawn with crowing, but also be faithful to have my breakfast laid and ready to cook by 9:00.
*Manex, if you are reading this, you can feel free to laugh very hard at me now.