A Very Freaky Deal

We have a pair of Golden Pheasants. Here’s Pharoah, the male, in all his glorious plumage. The photo doesn’t capture the brilliant yellows and glowing greens.

He’s a quiet guy, saying nothing, and running for the nearest clump of grass whenever I show up.

Here’s Trixie, his mate, in her tastefully understated plumage so she can blend into nature while sitting on a nest of eggs.

She loves to chat when people visit, and isn’t as shy as Pharoah.

Last month Melissa came in from doing chores and said, “Trixie’s molting.” Since it’s normal for birds to shed their feathers and grow new ones, I just nodded. “But her feathers are coming back like Pharoah’s. She’s growing male feathers. She’s cross-dressing.”

“That’s nice, dear.” I was deep into the simultaneous revision of two manuscripts (not something I can recommend if you value your sanity), so I really wasn’t listening. Or maybe I heard, but I just didn’t believe it.

Then Melissa went on a hunting weekend and chores were mine. I entered the bird pen with food and water, calling for Trixie. I heard her perky chirp coming from one of the low wooden shelters, so I bent over and peeked inside.

Holy crap. Holy What’s-Wrong-With-This-Picture? This wasn’t the Trixie I knew. She had a long tail, like Pharoah’s. She had yellow and red and orange feathers, like Pharoah. Could this really be Trixie? I searched the rest of the pen and found Pharoah, who of course darted behind a little building.

Yes, that first bird had Trixie’s shape, taller and rounder than Pharoah. And she was chirping happily, like Trixie. She was Trixie!

I ran back to the house for my camera. I snapped Trixie’s photo. I chased Pharoah around the pen, nearly falling into a hole and breaking an ankle. I nearly slammed my face into a low-hanging roof. Each time, the blasted bird slipped around the corner so the only thing in the photo was his tail. Then I remembered I had a Pharoah photo on my computer.

But now I needed a photo of both together to prove there really were two male-colored birds. Neither Trixie or Pharoah cooperated. I finally snapped this non-award-winning photo of Pharoah following Trixie.

Then my camera battery died, and both birds hopped onto the roof of the shelter and sat side-by-side, blowing raspberries at me.

Our birding friend Kathy assures me these sorts of things happen (the female-to-male plumage, not the bird taunting behavior.) I did some research and found an article, but when I got to: ‘phylogenetic distribution of proximate mechanisms controlling plumage dichromatism,” I moved on.

I don’t really need to know the science behind it. It has something to do with her being low on estrogen. (Oh, baby, can I relate to that.)

The good news is that Pharoah still loves Trixie, and still does his best to impress her with his brilliant plumage. I imagine she’s less impressed now, since she’s so stunning herself.

7 thoughts on “

  1. Well, I’ll be darned. Humpf. Whether male or female, cross-dressing, putting on a costume for Halloween or just plain mixed up . . . wow! What bee-yew-tiful plummage!

  2. This made me curious about which species do this and I stumbled on a paper from 1888 on the topic! Only the first page is open access but the title says it all: On the occasional Assumption of the Male Plumage by Female Birds. (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1474-919X.1888.tb07738.x/abstract)

    Plumage in birds is interesting because while male-type behaviors and things like wattle size are testosterone dependent, male-like plumage is often the default (and what even females will generate in the absence of ovarian hormones). Sounds like you figured that out! Many species that have defined breeding seasons have a decline in reproductive steroid hormones in the off-season. It will be interesting to see if this happens to her every winter!

  3. Wow, wow, wow!!! That is just crazy! If only human females grew a luxurious head of hair, had more radiant skin and such when hormones are out of whack! I’ve had a few female animals of one type or another take on male behavior, but nothing that dramatic! Learn something new all the time, good job on the pics, I know how tricky it can be to get the one you want. Also, don’t blow away in today’s wind!

  4. You guys are just full of interesting information!

    The pheasants are just for looks, not for eats.

    We’re in the middle of a nasty two-day windstorm, so Pharoah and Trixie are hunkered down in the little shelter with plenty of food and water. We’ve made sure all the animals have access to a barn, even though they’re not using it.

    I think the animals are doing better than I am. 48 hours of howling wind is starting to drive me crazy… luckily, it’s a short drive.

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