22 March 2022
On Sunday at Duck Hollow we saw a female mallard with odd plumage. She was paired with a male mallard but she resembled a male in eclipse plumage. Was this duck a hybrid? Or was it something else?
Michelle Kienholz was so intrigued that she took photos and sent them to the Duck ID group where she learned an amazing thing about female ducks. This odd mallard at Duck Hollow is an “intersex hen.” She is becoming male in a process called spontaneous sex reversal (SSR).
Unlike mammals whose sex chromosomes are XX in females and XY in males, female birds have WZ sex chromosomes and males have ZZ. This means that female birds have all the equipment they need to be female but if something suppresses the “W,” they are left with only “Z” and express as male. (Males cannot become female because they have no “W” at all.)
Female ducks are born with two ovaries but only one develops. The left ovary actively pumps out hormones to stifle the male genes, making the bird truly female. If a disease damages the only ovary and it stops producing hormones the female duck spontaneously turns into a male. Experiments have shown that the now-male duck is able to breed and fertilize eggs.
Because most ducks are sexually dimorphic a female with a dead ovary eventually looks male as well. The intersex hen at Duck Hollow is partway through her/his outward transformation, which is why she/he is in eclipse-like plumage.
Notice the clues in her/his feathers that indicate the transition:
- tail feathers are black and curly white,
- green feathers interspersed on head
- breast is darkening (top photo)
- color line between neck and breast is becoming white
Read more about Spontaneous Sex Reversal in ducks and see a video in this BBC article: How Does a Duck Change Its Sex?
For more information on bird sex chromosomes see Anatomy: W and Z. For photos of eclipse plumage see Mallards in Eclipse. And here is an article about spontaneous sex reversal in chickens, a problem for chicken farmers.
(photos by Michelle Kienholz)