"Is it a boy or a girl?" Most people hear this question in conjunction with the announcement that some couple has a new baby. In the early seventies, being one of the first guys with long hair in redneck-ville would get you the same question. Reminds me of my favorite line from "Easy Rider": "Looks like refugees from a gorilla love-in." [Don’t forget to put the GO in go-rilla when you read this.]
Today I hear this question most frequently when somebody adopts a new kitten. There are occasionally people who can’t figure it out on a puppy either, but not too many [Yes, I remember that Lassie is a boy.]. Kittens are a little more challenging, especially pre-weaning. When you check out their apparatus, you find what basically looks like two "dots". If you look really closely, you find that the girls have a slightly longer "dot" on the bottom. If you don’t have one of each, it’s kind of a tricky job for an amateur. Many is the time I’ve had to perform a paperwork gender adjustment and help with new name suggestions. You would be suprised how many times a six-months old kitten is presented for neutering surgery and we find ourselves changing the schedule to accomodate an ovariohysterectomy (a.k.a. "spay" — removal of the kitten factory), or vice versa. Bob becomes Roberta or Queenie becomes Quentin, all with a stroke of the pen, long before the knife comes into play.
Really, while it does take a little practice (and your bifocals), it’s not that hard to distinguish future tomcats from future momcats. Birds, on the other hand, are a different story.
If we’re talking cardinals, it’s easy. The boys are beautiful red, and the girls are olive drab. Of course, pet cardinals are rare. Parakeets, parrots, cockatiels — these are the more common feathered friends that share our homes. Most of these birds do not have sexual dimorphism. Unlike the cardinals, these tropical boys and girls look the same on the outside. The birds don’t have any trouble telling the difference (and we presume the bees are similarly perceptive), but we humans could only make a wild guess.
At one time, the best way to tell the sex of these exotic birds was to perform exploratory surgery. Zoos with valuable collections of birds often would wish to perpetuate rare species. This is difficult to do if you’re providing soft lights and gypsy violin music to two males. Thus, they would anesthetize the birds and cut them open for a quick peek. Mighty risky business it was, too. Then there were advances that made anesthesia safer, and the invention of the laparoscope let you take a peek through a very tiny incision: "band-aid surgery."
Now the simplest way to determine whether your bird will be having the babies or just saying "Yes, dear" is to run a DNA test. Yes, that staple of crime shows, the DNA test, reveals that tell-tale Y-chromosome, the genetic structure that makes it impossible to understand women. You just clip a toe-nail a trifle short, collect a miniscule drop of blood (after which you should remember to cauterize the nail), and drop your tiny tube of blood in the mail to the lab. In just a few days, you’ll know whether to paint the cage pink or blue (being careful not to use lead-base paint, naturally).
There are other ways to find out, though. For instance, six months ago these nice folks bought a male cockatiel at Petco and named him Angel. For those of you who have no acquaintance with Hispanic culture, there are many people who consider Angel a boy’s name. Last night, Angel lay a beautiful, pearly-white egg. If you think wearing a pink shirt could cast doubts on your masculinity, try giving birth. Fortunately, in the great American melting pot many of us think of Angel as a girl’s name. So for Angel and his family, there’s no need for a name change. They can eliminate the gender confusion by embracing multi-cultural diversity. Of course, multi-cultural diversity can be pretty confusing, too, but at least they don’t have to re-name the bird.