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    What is Poultry?

    Authored by Gail Damerow

    How to define the word “poultry” depends on who you ask. The United States Department of Agriculture defines poultry in terms of food animals. The American Poultry Association doesn’t define poultry, per se. But it does list species it considers falling under the poultry category. So, let’s take a deep dive into the question of “What is poultry?”

    USDA definition of poultry

    The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines poultry as “any domesticated bird used for food. Varieties include chicken, turkey, goose, duck, Rock Cornish hens, and game birds such as pheasant, squab and guinea fowl. Also included are huge birds such as ostrich, emu and rhea (ratites).”

    To the commercial poultry industry, then, the economic qualities of food production are an essential part of the definition. Preppers and sustainable homesteaders most certainly would go along with that definition.

    USDA classes of poultry

    Oddly, the USDA identifies five classes of poultry, all of which are either chickens or turkeys. This list does not mention geese, ducks, pheasants, or other types of poultry. These five classes are:

    1. Rock Cornish game hen or Cornish game hen, defined as “an immature chicken younger than five weeks old, of either sex [note that a Cornish game ‘hen’ may or may not be a hen!], with a ready-to-cook carcass weight of two pounds or less.” 
    2. Broiler or fryer, defined as “an immature chicken younger than five weeks old, of either sex, with a ready-to-cook carcass weight of two pounds or less.” 
    3. Roaster or roasting chicken, defined as “a chicken younger than 10 weeks old, of either sex, that is tender-meated with soft, pliable, smooth-textured skin and flexible breastbone cartilage.” 
    4. Capon, defined as “a surgically neutered male chicken younger than four months old that is tender-meated with soft, pliable, smooth-textured skin.” 
    5. Fryer-roaster turkey, defined as “an immature turkey younger than 12 weeks old of either sex, that is tender-meated with soft, pliable, smooth-textured skin, and flexible breastbone cartilage.” 

    APA definition of poultry

    The American Standard of Perfection published by the American Poultry Association (APA) contains an 8-page glossary. Oddly it does not include the word “poultry.” However, the APA website indicates that: “The term poultry includes large and small bantam chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys and guinea fowl.” No pheasants, squabs, or ratites.

    For some described breeds, the Standard includes economic qualities. Examples are “General purpose fowl for meat and egg production,” or “Good layers…” And in its “Historical Introduction,” the Standard mentions that “The aim of the [American Poultry] Association has been to stabilize our economic and commercial breeds to uniform size, shape, and color, with good production and practicability; with provision that ornamental breeds, including the Bantam, be attractive, productive, and meet requirements of the Standard breeder.”

    Still, according to the APA website “Membership in the American Poultry Association is a way to keep abreast of what’s happening in the Exhibition poultry hobby.” Indeed, many exhibitors and other poultry enthusiasts — who appreciate the attractive appearance and unique personalities of their backyard birds—wouldn’t think of serving them up for dinner. Eggs, on the other hand, are fair game. 

    APA classes of poultry

    The APA Standard lists 14 classes, not according to their role as food animals. Rather, the classes refer to place of origin (for chickens), description (for bantams), or species (ducks, geese, and turkeys). These classes are:

    1. American
    2. Asiatic
    3. English
    4. Mediterranean
    5. Continental
    6. All Other Standard Breeds
    7. Game Bantam
    8. Single Comb Clean Legged Other Than Game Bantam
    9. Rose Comb Clean Legged Bantam
    10. All Other Combs, Clean Legged, Bantam
    11. Feather Legged Bantam
    12. Duck
    13. Goose
    14. Turkey

    Other poultry term definitions

    In using the word “poultry,” both USDA and APA list species. So, let’s look closer at what these species are.

    Chicken — A bird of the species Gallus domesticus kept for meat, eggs, exhibition, companionship, entertainment, and/or insect control.

    Bantam — A small chicken, about one-fourth to one-fifth as heavy as its corresponding large-size chicken breed. But bantams are not exact miniatures. The size of the head, tail, wings, feathers, and eggs is larger than would be in perfect miniatures. Note: Some bantam breeds do not have the same ancestry as the large version with the same breed name. Although they look similar, but smaller, they may come from entirely different bloodlines. 

    True Bantam — A bantam breed that has no large counterpart. Bantams and true bantams are primarily ornamental poultry that are popular for exhibition and as backyard pets.

    Turkey — A large North American bird of the genus Meleagris that has a bare head and neck and has been domesticated for food.

    Waterfowl — Geese and ducks, whether wild or domesticated.

    Geese —Large waterfowl of the family Anatidae that are larger than ducks, but with a shorter bill, and smaller than swans, but with a shorter neck. They are raised primarily for food and as guard animals, and sometimes exhibition. 

    Ducks — Small waterfowl of the family Anatidae that have a short neck and legs, webbed feet, and a broad, flat bill. They are raised as ornamentals, for exhibition, as pets, or for food.

    Fowl — Any bird raised for food or hunted as game. 

    Game fowl — Any of several chicken breeds and color varieties originally developed for cock fighting. Today they are primarily ornamentals that are popular for exhibition and as broody hens. Examples are modern game, old English game, and American game bantams.

    Game birds — Birds that are typically hunted but may be domesticated as ornamentals or for meat. Examples are guinea fowl, pheasants, pigeons, and quail. 

    Pigeon — A bird in the family Columbidae, that has a stout body, rather short legs, and smooth and compact feathers, kept for exhibition, racing competitions, and for meat.

    Squab — An immature domestic pigeon, raised to the size of an adult pigeon at about one month of age, and harvested for meat before it starts flying.

    Guinea fowl — A pheasant like bird of the family Numididae that is native to Africa. Feathers of the species Numida meleagris typically have lots of small white spots. Guineas are great as watch animals and for insect control, but also sometimes appear at exhibitions or on a dinner plate.

    Rock Cornish game hen — Not a game bird, and not necessarily a hen, but an immature Plymouth Rock x Cornish chicken usually stuffed and roasted whole as a single-serving meal. 

    Ratites — Flightless but fast-running birds with small wings, long legs, and large, long necks. They are raised for meat and for their enormous eggs, which are often used for crafts. Examples are ostrich (the largest), emu (the next largest), and rhea. Ratites have a flat raft-like breastbone, as compared to the sharp sternum, or keel, of most other poultry; the word ratite derives from the Latin word ratis, meaning raft.

    So, you see, the answer to “What is poultry?” is both simple and complex. Yet most people intuitively think “poultry” when they see domesticated birds confined to a yard, as compared to birds that freely live in the wild.

    Gail Damerow has written many books about chickens. Those available at Tractor Supply include Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens, Hatching and Brooding Your Own Chicks, The Chicken Health Handbook, and more. Visit Gail’s blog at gaildamerow.com.


    More information about poultry

    Raising poultry is a great way to start your journey into livestock. Get all the information you need with our guide to raising poultry from starting your flock to poultry first aid.
    Be prepared for illness or injury with our chicken first aid guide. Read more about building a sick bay for your patient and how to keep the rest of your flock safe.