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 -


  1. I have never considered BA's. After reading this, it might be something looking into.


    1. I'm with you, Vicki! I'll be looking into getting some BA chicks this spring.

  2. The BAs are my breed of choice, and I just sort of 'lucked' into them. I researched the breed when I found out that's what my feed store had, and they 'sounded good to me'. After almost 3 years of having them, I have found even the hatchery mutts are delightful, make loads of pretty brown eggs and have a sweet, calm disposition. They forage actively, go broody and, incidentally make a fine meal.

  3. I know I'm looking at BA's on my next addition!


  4. I have Black Australorps and plan on adding to my flock by purchasing chicks from a breeder. I porbably won't buy hatchery chicks again, because the more I learn about the standard of perfection the less I like my current flock and want one that meets the standard. If more chicken people don't take these traits and bloodlines more seriously, the genetics will be lost forever.

    Ryan in Tennessee

    1. I got a good BA by mistake :D (She got in with my Swedish Flower Hen group quite by accident).

      She was the ugly duckling baby - but she is a good young lady! May do more in the future but I'm with you - no more hatchery birds if possible!

  5. Thanks for all the helpful information. We have 25 chicks coming next week and I was researching what to do. :) Feel like I know what to look for now. ;)

    1. So glad you found Bee's article helpful! Best of luck with your Black Australorps!

  6. I have one BA, a fox got the other three. She's grown big and pretty but has no waddle, comb is small, no bright red on face. Just black. Should I be worried about egg laying?

  7. We were given 5 black astrolorps .they are 1 year,have never laid.they were given scraps.will they ever lay?

    1. After a move to a new location, a change in coops or any other major "life events," hens will stop laying for a number of weeks until they adjust to the changes. Be patient. They should start laying again soon!

  8. I have 2 hens, both Black Australorps. Nearly 6 months old. A few weeks ago they started vocalising, frequently and loudly: growls and calling. Especially at sunrise. It's almost like having a rooster. Anyone noticed this trait in the breed?

    1. It is not uncommon for hens to start trying out the egg song as they get close to laying age. Also, in the absence of a rooster, sometimes hens will step in to make rooster noises. In fact, I have a hen that crows. LOL!

  9. Nice post that connects the SOP to real life observations. Question: My hatchery BA, by all indications healthy, stopped producing the fall and appeared to start to molt at 43-44 weeks in January in the Northeast. Looks horrible, but eating well, full crop. They've been wormed. I hope this is just a very early, unseasonable molt.

    1. Every now and then mother nature gets a bit confused. I have had, and know many other chicken keepers who have had an off-season molter. Please be sure to keep this bird warm on the cold nights and watch her for signs of hypothermia (ruffled, lethargy, etc.). If she is roosting with the other birds at night, see that she is in the middle of the flock as having birds on either side will keep her warm. Boost the protein of her feed to at least 20% until she has a good covering of new feathers.

  10. Are there physical signs I can look for in my BA? I received 20 hens and 1 rooster, all ranging in age (without specifics.) So i was told anywhere between 1-3 years old. 3/20 hens are small whereas the others are much larger. Safe to assume the larger birds are the older hens.

    My Issue is, since having them we have only gotten about 2 dozen eggs from them, in the past 3 months. Granted it took them time to acclimate to their new home. Then they were fed the wrong feed for a couple weeks, which took their protein levels down. Once on correct feed, we started receiving about 2-4 eggs every 3-4 days. So recap 20 hens and only 4 eggs..

    They are officially in their proper coop as of last week. Next week i will allow them back to free range as they were doing with their temporary coop under our tall porch.

    Some of the larger hens have random brown feathers and pale combs and wattles. The hens were picking on each other for a little bit while they were free ranging and we gave them some feed spread across the lawn. While watching them, it wasn't just one hen charging another hen. It was a handful of hens charging at each other over food. They have feed available to them to graze on. So it wasn't as if they were starving.

    I have not seen any signs of mites or lice. But perhaps i am over-looking something.

    Any advice would be appreciated. Are my hens too old for laying now? due to physical signs of random brown feathers and pale combs and wattles.?

    The few eggs we were getting range from super small eggs to the average medium light brown egg.

    At then end of May, i will be adding 5 additional hens, Light Brahmas and one Light Brahma Rooster. With the intention of retiring the BA rooster.

    I want to make sure my current BA are healthy and still laying before i add the new additions to the flock.

    Please advise. I have exhausted all other options on trying to figure out why my egg production is so sparse. I wish i had a guide which would assist me in placing an age to my hens. I am concerned the original owner gave me hens ranging from 1-7 instead of 1-3.

    1. The pale comb and wattles tells me there is an issue with parasites - internal, external or possibly both. Any time the comb/wattles aren't a nice, deep red, there is something amiss. Broody hens will get pale, but otherwise it generally indicates anemia and poor health.

      Do what you can to rid them of any internal and external parasites and hopefully once they regain their health, they will lay much better for you!


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