The Australorp chicken is a breed that was developed in Australia. They are handsome birds, usually all black with red combs and wattles, but what really makes this breed stand out is its prolific egg-laying ability and hardiness when kept in natural free-range conditions.
Background of Australorps
The ancestors of the Australorp were primarily black Orpingtons imported into Australia in the late 1890s. They were carefully selected to be dual-purpose chickens (meat and egg birds) and other breeds were used to improve their traits, such as Rhode Island reds, Minorcas, White Leghorns, and Langshans.
The breed achieved fame when six hens living under natural conditions produced 1857 eggs in one year, an average of 309 eggs per hen. One hen was noted to have laid 364 eggs in one year, an achievement that is rarely possible even for hens kept indoors under artificial lighting conditions.
Backyard chicken owners are currently reporting the average free-range Australorp hen produces 250 eggs per year. The average young free-range hen across all breeds only lays 200 eggs per year; in comparison, the average artificially kept young battery hen of any breed lays around 320 eggs per year but has a miserable existence and a short life span.
Due to their impressive egg-laying abilities, this breed was exported from Australia to many countries around the world starting in the 1920s and is quite popular among US backyard chicken keepers today for many reasons, including their gorgeous appearance, egg-laying abilities, and wonderful temperament.
As a heritage breed, they went through a period where the breed was considered endangered, but currently, they are categorized as recovering and are rapidly attracting attention as a chicken well worth owning.
Type of Australorp Chickens
Australorps are considered to be fairly large chickens. Full-grown hens weigh around six pounds and roosters can reach ten pounds. Classically, they are black with a red comb and wattle, but in some countries, such as Australia, the breed standard also allows for white or bluebirds with a red comb and wattle.
They should have a round, deep breast and an upright stance, carrying the tail high. The comb, wattle, and earlobes should be a rich, deep red. The comb should have no more than seven points. The legs should be free of feathers and should be dark in color.
The beak and eyes should also be dark in color and there should be four toes per foot. The black sleek feathers should have an iridescent greenish-purple shine in full sunlight.
Their eggs are light brown in color and are considered to be extremely large in size. The breed is formally classified as a heritage breed, meaning it breeds naturally, thrives under free-range conditions, and is extremely hardy and resistant to adverse environmental conditions.
Australorp Personality and Temperament
Owners of Austrolorps report they are generally gentle and friendly birds. Unlike some breeds of chickens that engage in fierce inter-chicken harassment or seem to hate people, these birds generally get along well with other chickens and seem to enjoy interacting with people.
Their owners report they will run up to them and follow them around, especially if the owner is the type that hands out treats like mealworms and berries. The roosters of this breed are also quite well-behaved and rarely if ever attack humans or harass their hens; despite this, the roosters are described as being very effective protectors of their hens, keeping a keen eye on them and scanning the area for predators like hawks and foxes while the hens forage.
Austrolorps, like most chickens, generally begin laying eggs when they are around five months old. After a few weeks of random egg-laying and possibly some weird misfires with malformed or shell-less eggs, the hens settle down to producing an egg almost every day.
If the chickens are provided with nesting boxes, they will generally use them for egg-laying. Austrolorps, unlike some chicken breeds, don’t have a tendency to hide their eggs or get angry when the eggs are collected.
After around age two, hens naturally start to gradually lay fewer eggs per week, a young bird will lay on average six to seven eggs per week, while a five-year-old bird may only lay two eggs a week.
If your birds are laying fewer than the expected number of eggs they are probably stressed by something happening in their environment or just taking a temporary bio-break. Chickens can, if well-cared-for, live for up to 20 years, although most end up as soup around age 10 when they stop laying more than the occasional egg.
This breed also has a natural tendency to brood and hatch their eggs if the owner keeps a rooster around, doesn’t regularly collect their eggs, and wants a new batch of chicks. If you are raising chickens for meat, like all of the more natural heritage breeds the Australorp breed takes much longer than “broiler” meat hybrids to reach the desired five-pound broiler weight.
How to take care of Australorp?
Laying hens should be fed a good, high-quality layer grain mash or pellet. While some people feel that free-range hens can do ok on lower levels of protein, we feel that a 20% protein layer formula is healthier for them. Free-range chickens will also forage for insects, worms, and even mice to supplement their diets with extra protein.
They also eagerly eat greens and weeds; if you live in a colder climate, during the winter it is essential to supplement your chickens’ diet with fresh greens like spinach, and most chickens really enjoy a good snack of freeze-dried mealworms, shrimp, or other protein sources like soldier worm larvae.
It’s a good idea to offer a supply of extra calcium for building those strong eggshells, most feed stores that sell chicken feed also sell calcium sources in the form of crushed oyster shells and the like. Simply put a bowl of it in the chicken coop and let the hens decide if they want extra calcium or not.
Austrolorps are a generally healthy, robust breed and there are no known genetic health issues in the breed to be concerned about.
It is important to be aware that chickens are delicious, a fact well-known by a large number of predators, including raccoons, weasels, foxes, snakes, cats, and hawks. Most of these predators only go looking for chicken snacks at night.
In order to keep your backyard chickens alive, you need to provide a very secure, safe coop for them to retreat into at night for safety. Chickens rapidly learn the routine and will put themselves into the coop at night after foraging all day.
Tips for Raising Australorp Chickens
You have three options for obtaining chickens: buy fertile hatching eggs and an incubator to hatch them out and then brood them, buy chicks and brood them, or buy adult birds from someone local. Most backyard chicken owners opt for buying chicks from a local farm/feed store (usually the same place that they buy their chicken feed from) and brooding them.
Although hatching eggs out is a fun and fascinating process, it only goes well if you spend a lot of money buying an incubator and an automatic egg-turner. If you want to produce new chickens every year, investing in such equipment makes sense, but if you are an average backyard chicken owner who only wants to acquire one or two chicks every ten years, the investment in these devices doesn’t make much sense versus just buying the chicks when you need them.
Young chicks have trouble controlling their body temperature. When raised by a mother hen, the mother provides warmth to the chicks. When raising chicks away from a mother hen, you’ll need to provide a source of heat in a safe environment until the chick fully fledges out, a process referred to as brooding.
The temperature in the brooder is gradually decreased over time as the chicks mature. Most farm/feed stores have heating lamps and heating devices available for sale, and it is actually possible to successfully brood a few chicks in a cardboard box supplied with a heating lamp, water, and food if you don’t want to buy or construct a dedicated brooder.
It may also be necessary to provide the chicks with medicated feed for the first few weeks to ward off disease and to supplement their water with electrolytes, vitamins, and probiotics to make sure they start off life as healthy as possible. While Australorps are generally very sturdy, robust birds, young chicks can be delicate.
In summary, the Austrolorp is a gorgeous, hardy, sturdy bird that thrives in the free-range environment. It was selectively bred during its development to be both a good meat bird and a very prolific egg-layer. They are gentle, friendly, quiet and peaceful, and make a good addition to a mixed-breed flock or when kept as an Austrolorp-specific flock. They lay large light-brown eggs in abundance.