Which Chicken is Which?
Identifying Poultry in a Backyard Flock
By Matt John
Identifying individual birds can be one of the most challenging tasks when owning poultry. Small flock owners with a few chickens of different varieties will likely know each bird and often have them named. When all are the same breed and variety it becomes more complicated, but even then some chickens have personalities that can help distinguish them from their flock-mates in a small backyard flock. When this is not possible, using identification markers is necessary to tell one bird from another.
Individual, group and family identification is often best accomplished in poultry by using legbands. In this article, I will explain reasons for using legbands and the options available. I will also discuss various systems for banding and touch on other methods of identification including; toe-punching, wing-banding and wing badges.
There are a few major reasons for individually identifying poultry. Obviously to know individual birds from others in a pen is the primary reason. Typically the colored, numbered plastic legbands (bandettes) are used for this. Fanciers or youth who exhibit poultry at shows and fairs are often required to have numbered legbands on each bird entered. Small flock participants in the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) are sometimes required to have each bird individually identified as well. Poultry keepers who have laying hens or breeding birds of various ages in the same flock sometimes use plain colored spiral bands to denote age. For example; pink for 2006, blue for 2007, green for 2008, etc. This way as they depopulate part of a laying flock each year to make room for pullets, they can be sure to remove the oldest birds first. The spirals are less expensive than numbered bandettes and by using colored spirals instead of inexpensive plain metal numbered bands the flock owner can glance at the colors instead of handling each bird to look for specific numbers.
Breeders who linebreed or use family breeding programs often use individually numbered colored bands to identify specific lines or families or may use a combination of numbered colored legbands and colored spiral bands. For example; blue bands for the male line and pink or red for the female line is common with many bantam breeders. Both types of plastic bands come in specific sizes—each suited to various breeds and/or ages of poultry. These are not adjustable. Breeders who keep more than one breed of chicken may need to have multiple sizes on hand.
Besides the numbered plastic bandettes and colored plastic spirals, legband options include adjustable plain metal, adjustable colored metal and butt-end metal bands. The metal bands are designed to be used as permanent legbands and require special tools to apply. For my largefowl breeding flocks, I use the permanent metal legbands on each bird. These come in three sizes and the larger two sizes have three holes on each band so that every band can be custom fit for an individual bird. When I am legbanding a number of chickens, I don’t have to search for a specific size like I would if I were using the plastic legbands, I can just grab a band, choose the correct hole for the leg size and use the same tool for every band. The butt-end bands are thicker, more attractive and fit more snugly around the bird’s leg, but are not adjustable and require a different tool for each size. When working with multiple breeds, it would be expensive to purchase butt-end legbands of each size and the corresponding tools to apply them. I also use the colored spirals to denote specific groups. I will often have a colored spiral on all hens from a specific year, and when one of my birds wins at a show, I put a white spiral on their leg so I know it was a winner when it is in the breeding pen with the rest of the flock. Using this method, I have an inexpensive, permanent individually numbered band on each bird so when I trap-nest, I can identify a specific egg from a specific hen. By using the spirals too, I know the age and if that particular bird won at a show just by glancing at it running in a pen with its flock mates.
An alternative to spirals is to use the colored cable ties available in hardware stores. This option may seem cheaper depending on where you shop, but you only get one use out of each cable tie, while plastic spiral bands can be reused indefinitely.
One caution on using legbands, I have seen bands applied when the bird is young and still growing and as the bird’s leg gets larger, the band gets imbedded into it. This is obviously painful and can cripple a bird if not caught soon enough. This most often happens with spiral bands or cable ties.
A common question I get from poultry breeders is “How can I identify individual birds from hatch to maturity?” If you are pedigree mating and need to individually identify each bird from hatch to adulthood, there are basically three options. The first is to purchase the smallest size plastic legband and each size up to the adult size and change bands on every bird as they grow. This is time-consuming and expensive. A better option may be to use wingbands. Metal wingbands can be applied to most largefowl breeds and many larger bantam breeds at hatch. These can either be colored or plain metal and can have any series of numbers or text engraved on them. They require piercing the wing web of the day-old chick and sealing the band either by hand or with a special tool. I worked at the poultry research farm in college and wing-banded thousands of pedigreed Leghorn chicks. With a little practice it is quick and nearly painless to the chick. The only precaution is that occasionally a wingband will slip around the tip of the wing before the bird’s wing grows out and can bind it, restricting normal growth.
Another similar option that is rarely used is the wing badge which is a larger plastic marker similar to a cattle eartag that is attached to the wing and used to identify adult layers in commercial egg or broiler breeding programs years ago. They aren’t applied until the chickens are near maturity, but provide an easily visible identifying number in a pen mating system. Wing badges are still available, but don’t seem to be used much as far as I know.
The other method for identifying individual birds from hatch to maturity is toe-punching. A toe punch is a small tool used to make a tiny hole in the web of a chicken or other fowl’s foot. There are two webs on each foot and two feet on each bird for a total of 16 possible combinations for each variety. I have yet to meet a breeder that has more than 16 different families in the same breed and variety. This method can be utilized at hatch and if done correctly is a permanent marker. However, I have seen toe punches on a duck’s web grow back in.
Speaking of ducks, other fowl including ducks, geese, swans, as well as turkeys, pheasant, quail, peafowl and pigeons can also be banded in the same way as chickens. I have seen geese and ducks pull plastic legbands off, so I would recommend using metal bands on waterfowl. Pigeon shows require permanent, dated legbands for exhibition. Pigeon bands must be applied before the birds are two weeks old or they won’t go over the foot. Dated pigeon bands are available through breed associations as well as various pigeon supply houses.
There are several reasons for legbanding your poultry and more than a few options for identifying birds in your flock. Depending on what your goals are and how much information you need to keep track of, there are numerous reliable options for banding your poultry.
Poultry bands are available from a variety of hatcheries and poultry supply companies including Poultryman’s Supply Company. For more supply companies, do an Internet search for “poultry legbands.”—Ed.
Matt John is the owner of Shady Lane Poultry Farm, http://www.shadylanepoultry.com, which recently moved to Columbus, Indiana. Shady Lane Poultry is an independent poultry breeding company that supplies day-old chicks in several varieties including many heirloom breeds to poultry farmers, breeders and preservationists.
Matt is also the Managing Partner of Poultryman’s Supply Company, http://www.poultrymansupply.com/, a national mail-order poultry supply business that he co-owns and operates with his father.