EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD
For out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent.
The cockatrice, a supposed offspring of chicken and serpent, breathed fire and killed its victims with a glance. It was one of the many composite beings compiled in medieval bestiaries and favored by Renaissance poets. Thus, Shakespeare has Juliet lament “the death-darting eye of cockatrice.” And the Duchess of York equates her heartless son, Richard III, with this baleful bird-reptile mix:
The weasel, it was said, was the only animal immune to this strange hybrid’s gaze. And the cockatrice itself could only die if it heard a cock crow, or if it happened to see its own reflection.
So as a whole, the cockatrice legend is far-fetched indeed. But in all this fancy is there perhaps, as is the case with so many myths, some grain of truth? Is there perhaps such a thing as snake-chicken hybrid?
The Renaissance scholar Fortunio Liceti (1577-1657) relates how his maid Julia told a tale about a chicken mating with a snake (Liceti 1665, Book II, Ch. 87, p. 253). Thus, she said, while still living with her parents, she had “more than once
On a first reading, Julia’s story sounds like an impossible fairy-tale fantasy. But then there’s the following American news report, published in the nation’s capital, which does allege the actual occurrence of a snake-chicken hybrid, produced by a mating just such as the one Julia described all those years ago. With the exception of the inserted picture, the article is copied verbatim from page 7, column 3, of the September 17, 1881, issue of The National Tribune, a newspaper published in Washington, D.C. (source). The snake in question would almost certainly be a Northern Water Snake, Nerodia sipedon, given that it is New Jersey’s third most common snake and its only native water snake.
So would a snake and a chicken mate? While there seem to be no reports (other than Julia’s) to support such a claim, it is in fact known that the domestic fowl will engage in sex with a wide variety of other animals, including creatures as unchicken-like as dogs, ducks and cats (see video). So why not a snake as well? After all, many biologists now believe that birds are little more than feathered reptiles, and therefore that they are more closely related to reptiles than to mammals. So perhaps a chicken and a snake would in fact be more willing partners than, say, a chicken and a cat?
The fact that the snake and chicken, according to the news report, were kept together from a young age would make such a mating more likely. Many animals will imprint on whatever creature they are regularly in contact with at an early age, that is, they will attempt to mate with that kind of animal when they reach sexual maturity.
And in comparison with other kinds of birds, hens are especially indiscriminate in forming strange liaisons. They will incubate virtually any eggs they are given and will even raise the young of animals quite distinct from themselves, such as ducklings, ostrich chicks, puppies or kittens (videos showing examples). As a result, animals raised by those hens are often imprinted on chickens when they reach maturity, that is, they will prefer to mate with chickens rather than their own kind.
Imprinting is a very well documented phenomenon in mammals and birds, but among reptiles there has been very little research in this regard, which means that it may occur in certain types of reptiles, as well, but simply be unstudied. Reptile behavior is often stereotyped as being somehow inflexible and instinctual, whereas in certain cases it’s clear they can learn and adapt (see, for example, the videos at the bottom of this page). I myself when a small child had a wild pet toad (Bufo americanus) who, after he learned that I would supply him with food, would come when I called each evening to the door of our house. Obviously, a toad is an amphibian, not a reptile, but it seems many people regard them as being on an intellectual par with snakes.
As to the physical compatibility of the genitalia, roosters have no external sexual organs, so there is no intromission when chickens have sex. Instead, both roosters and hens have cloacae, and when their cloacae come into contact, semen is transferred from the rooster to the hen. A northern water snake, however, does have an intromittent organ, which is known as a hemipenis. A hemipenis is the male sexual organ of snakes and lizards, which are collectively known as squamates. So if anything, a squamate would be even more capable of introducing semen into a hen than would a rooster, since its organ could actually be inserted into the hen’s cloaca. Under ordinary circumstances a hemipenis remains concealed within the body, but it emerges during sex.
So, whence came this snake-headed chicken? If the news report is true, one can only imagine that Dad was the snake—to be exact, a northern water snake—and that Mom was an ordinary chicken. A bird-reptile hybrid!
There is in fact an additional old record of such a hybrid. It appears in Ulisse Aldrovandi’s Historiae serpentum et draconum (1640, p. 62). Aldrovandi’s illustration, which appears at right, shows a creature much like an ordinary rooster, except with respect to its tail, which is like the caudal portion of a snake. Whether this old depiction is honest and accurate is difficult to say. Still, it does not seem to be particularly unusual for different hybrids produced by the same distant cross to vary in the same way as the two described on this page, that is, for one hybrid individual to have the head of one parent, but for another to have the tail. Thus, in the present cross, the Marlton animal supposedly had a snake’s head combined with the body of a chicken, while Aldrovandi’s had the head and body of a chicken combined with a snake’s tail.
However, to really know for sure whether snake-chicken hybrids are possible, someone will have to replicate this cross.
By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).
Human Origins: Are we hybrids?
On the Origins of New Forms of Life
Cat-rabbit Hybrids: Fact or fiction?
Georges Cuvier: A Biography
Prothero: A Rebuttal
Branches of Biology