Wednesday, December 12, 2012

What to Look For in Black Australorp Chickens

Dear Bee,

I am watching my dual-purpose Black Australorp flock closely for desirable characteristics, and for flock behavior (foraging ability/behavior, relationship to the roo, pecking order, flocking instinct, predator evasion, etc). At the moment, I am not exclusively evaluating egg laying, because several are now coming back into laying after molting between August and now.
I do see some hens with smaller combs than others. Is this a strong indicator of being less-properly-developed than one with a larger comb?  They are all very bright, vibrant red, just some are smaller and some are quite large.

Also, I have one hen who is just turned a year. She was my first broody. As an "only child" from that hatch, she became bottom of pecking order, and was severely pecked by her flockmates. She has recovered, but still continues to appear lackluster despite 5 weeks on fermented feed (while everyone else looks great!). Now I have 10 chicks that are no longer under their Mother's care, she has taken to pecking and bossing them around. I am not keen on her behavior or condition and am considering culling her.
Help me understand, Bee, if you would, the physical characteristics I am looking for with my BAs. I am not concerned about show qualities, only utility.

Bee’s Answer:

1.           This is where the standard of perfection (SOP) does mean something, I'm afraid. If you use the normal comb and wattle size for a breed ~ keep in mind the high bred SOP gals are going to have bigger, better everything than our hatchery gals ~ as a gauge for what is normal, then you can look at your birds in a whole new light.   Here's a regular, utility type Black Australorp (BA) from the hatchery:

Her comb and wattle size is about par for the course and its okay if they are larger ~ but smaller, more pale, less coloring in that face could indicate a bird that has not developed well due to just bad reproductive genetics.  In other words, if the only thing that distinguishes her from an immature pullet is her body size, she is either not going to lay or will never lay well.  There will always be exceptions to the rule but in my chicken life, I've culled more with the smaller comb/wattles for their breed standard than I have of those with a normal sized development and color. 

2.  This pecking order behavior not only comes from the rooster but the hens as well, when indicating one that is not a layer.  I've never seen a hen singled out in that manner that was worth saving.  Either they don't socialize well, don't forage well, don't lay well (which always seems to come right along with these other traits) or they are constantly broody and you never really get eggs from this bird because of it.  I've also noticed what you have noticed... these are the same birds that also make very poor mothers.  It sounds like she also went broody out of season, another thing to watch for.  Abnormal hormone function is a big indicator of how sporadic her laying will be in a year's time. 

3.  If you'll notice the bird in the picture above, she is about normal for what to expect and look for in a working, utility, hatchery BA.  She has a broad back that doesn't taper too soon in the tail region.  Her tail is not too high. Now, I'm going to use a yoga reference here, so please know that I'm not saying this to shock or offend, but.... whenever a woman is on all fours and arches the back, the vaginal walls are drawn tighter the higher the tailbone goes.  Now, apply that to the oviduct of a chicken... the higher the tail, the more physical obstruction to large egg development and ease of lay.  Look at the three body styles between the hatchery bird above, the SOP girl below and my Black Betty below her. 

Unfortunately, I don't think Betty will ever be great shakes as a layer, and though I love that perky tail, for her breed I know it bodes no good when coming to egg size or good reproductive structures. 

(Photo courtesy of Greg Davies)

Standard of perfection (SOP) above, compared to:

If you look at the SOP gal, she has a deeper, fuller chest cavity... this means she has more room for all her organs, leaving more room in the rear for larger ovary, ease of egg delivery through the oviduct.  The wider hips also provide a better structure.  It doesn't always follow that this body structure will have bigger and more eggs, but it's a good indicator... they are built better for it in all ways and her genetics has prepared this girl to be a producer. 

The hatchery gal up top has a passable chest but a tad less deep and full than the SOP.  Betty has a very flat lower chest.  See?  A full breast in a chicken isn't all about the meat... there's always a reason for these body structures. 

Look at the chest and length of back on Ruby... one of her few good features:

Now look at what that meant in the length of her body cavity... let it be known that, when she was laying, Ruby laid a very large egg.  But… her egg structures went too far in the opposite direction… she had an over bite, if you will, on her vent.  She laid large eggs but was having trouble keeping the feces from leaking from her anus all the time, which created a place for bacteria to grow.   It also prevented her from being bred properly and increased the chances of bacterial infection in her reproductive tract/eggs/chicks.  As indicated by her being the only bird from the Gnarly Bunch that didn't recover promptly from the gleet infection.

Structures and body types always mean something and this is why when you hear a breeder talking about back line, chest, tail set, etc. it is all relative to their ability to produce eggs, be more fertile, have a muscle length and development ~ if that is their trait ~ etc. 

Now, all that I've said needs to be taken as coming from someone who is not a breeder (I keep chickens strictly for utility purposes ~ eggs/meat) but can only tell you what I've noticed or conclusions I have made over the years by dealing with this breed and similar breeds.  There are always, always exceptions to the general rules... always.  Those exceptions don't need to be culled but you won't want to breed them... they won't also produce little exceptions, in my experience. 

Other things to look for in a BA?  Docile and sweet, thrifty on feed, excellent laying of large pale brown/tan eggs, broodiness is good but rare in the breed lines from hatcheries, fierce broodies, good mothering, good feathering with a green sheen, moderately meaty build but not as large as a White Rock. 

(White Rock Hen)

You want BAs that are great foragers, longevity of laying... the usual.  Black Australorps are the longest and most consistent layers I've had from all the dual purpose (DP) breeds I've known and still producing better than most other hatchery birds clear up into 7 yrs and beyond. 

Bee -

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