Fowls – introduction

Information about the physical and behavioural characteristics of fowls.

Varietal range differences

A variety of breeds of fowls are used in schools for the purposes of egg laying and meat production as well as specialty birds for showing.

Today, the laying hen and the meat chicken breeds are completely separate due to their different purposes of commercial production, i.e., one is to produce eggs only whereas the other is bred to grow as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Common breeds of layers include:

  • Isa Brown
  • Hy-Line Brown
  • Lohmann Brown
  • White Leghorn

These birds start to lay from approximately 17-18 weeks of age.

The commercial chicken meat industry uses birds that are a result of specialized crossbreeding. These are known as broilers and are typically processed by 5-7 weeks of age.

The most commonly used broiler breeds include Ross, Cobb, Arbor Acre and Avian with the first two being most popular in Australia.

In addition to the commercial breeds, there are numerous so-called specialty or fancy breeds. Some of these breeds, such as the Australorp, Sussex, Rhode Island Red and Wyandotte, are very popular backyard birds, and hence are also widely used in schools.

Poultryhub – fancy chicken breeds

Schools that wish to maintain a poultry enterprise need to select a breed suitable for their local climatic conditions, facilities and accessibility of markets for any outputs. Access to a meat chicken processing facility is essential for schools producing broilers. The Meat Industry Act requires that all poultry killed and sold for human consumption must be processed in a licensed processing facility. Schools must not use broiler chickens unless they are going to be raised for meat production and can ensure that they are processed by the age of ten weeks.

Keeping poultry in schools — Choosing your birds

Laying breeds for small farms

Image: Breeds from left to right: Light Sussex birds grow well into quite large framed birds; Isa Browns are often kept by schools for egg production; The Silver Laced Wyandotte is a very attractive specialty breed.

Physical characteristics

Characteristics Details
Size Height of bantam hen – 15cm, large fowl – 70cm
Weight Bantam hen 500g, Large Sussex male 4.1kg
Weight at hatch Bantam 20g, large fowl 35-40g
Incubation period 19-21 days
Range of breeding ages Bantams: 6 months to approximately 4 years, for large fowls 9-12 months to approximately 4 years. For large fowls breeding may extend till death, however, they are not usually used for this extent of time.
Healthy characteristics
  • Body temperature: 40-42°C
  • Heart rate: 180-340 beats per minute


Poultry have very good vision and are very sensitive to flickering lights and sudden movements. For this reason natural light is always preferred not only to ensure correct cycling and sleeping/roosting routines but also flickering lights can be very irritating for birds.

Poultry’s sensitive vision allows them to identify predators and escape which also means that sudden movement or appearance of a handler may cause an entire flock to take flight and try and escape even if they are accustomed to handling. To avoid spooking poultry and causing unnecessary stress, always approach slowly and with caution, allowing birds to have time to see you properly.


Poultry are prey animals. They have very sensitive hearing that enables them to hear and identify predators or danger. Poultry have a variety of different calls that they use to communicate with one another and alert each other of approaching danger. A bird’s calls and noises will depict their level of stress or calm and will have an immediate effect on the rest of the flock.

Behavioural characteristics

Poultry are social, inquisitive animals with a strong territorial instinct. They put themselves to bed in the same spot every night and enjoy being with other birds. They should never be kept alone and form a clear pecking order or hierarchy within their group. For this reason new birds should be introduced with care, adding two at a time to prevent a new single hen being picked on. Hens will often fight with one another until the pecking order is sorted out.

Poultry like to scratch and dig in the dirt, forming dust baths to lie in and foraging for grubs and other insects. It is important to address these behavioural needs when housing poultry and making sure they have a suitable environment in which they can scratch in the dirt and dust bath. For this reason, poultry thrive in a free ranging system where they have plenty of space to roam around and flap their wings, access to fresh air, vegetation, dirt and grubs and can express their natural behaviours.

Poultry develop their own personal space referred to as their flight zone. A group of birds have a collective flight zone depicted by their individual characteristics, breed, age, environment and previous handling experiences. If a bird’s flight zone is penetrated, the birds move away to regain a more comfortable distance from the intruder. Poultry raised in a pen with close contact to people will have a smaller flight zone and are calmer when being handled as opposed to birds raised in a free ranging area with minimal contact with people. It is common for poultry that have been hand raised to be very tame and comfortable being picked up, groomed and patted.

Due to poultry most commonly being housed in pens, the need for them to be herded is minimal, making their flight zone not as influential as other farm animals. The flight zone does become influential when poultry need to be caught for husbandry procedures, showing, moving them and locking them into smaller pens or cages. Poultry kept in a free ranging setup may also have to be herded into smaller enclosures at night for extra protection or for easy catching.

Image: Poultry enjoy being with other birds and should never be kept alone.


In general, poultry used in schools have been extensively handled and are quite comfortable with people being close by and in the pens. Many birds used in schools will be comfortable with being picked up, patted and groomed due to extensive handling. When poultry are hand raised from hatching they become very tame and will eat out of a handler's hand and usually mob the handler when they enter the cage in hope of food. Poultry should never be kept in isolation as a pet however, as they are very sociable animals and thrive off both social and environmental enrichment.

Keeping poultry in schools – Poultry behaviour


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