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North West Island Feral Fowl




NORTH WEST ISLAND FERAL FOWL

The Pheasant and Waterfowl Societies Breed Recovery Program

North West Island is the second largest coral cay in the southern Great Barrier Reef. The island comprises an area of 1.05 km2 and is located 75 kilometres northeast of Gladstone, QLD. 

The earliest instances of guano mining in the Great Barrier Reef were probably informal and unlicensed; however, Guano was mined on NW Island during 1890-1900 and a turtle soup canneries operated on NW Island from 1904-1914 and 1924-1926.

A work force of 107 Asian workers and five Europeans were reported on NW Island. 

North West Island Feral Fowl (NWIFF) are believed to have been maintained as a food source by the Island’s guano miners. Their origins are unknown. NWIFF were abandoned on the waterless coral island when mining work ceased. The fowl were subjected to extraordinary ongoing evolutionary pressures for the next 80 years and their history is a unique and extraordinary Australian story.

NWIFF numbers increased dramatically during the wet summers and declined in the dry winters each year.  Bedford (1928) reported that the descendants of domesticated fowls were found on islands. Chickens were kept by the miners as a reliable source of food. 

A friend of The Pheasant and Waterfowl Society having an interest the Jungle fowl species, studied Green Jungle Fowl, Red Jungle Fowl and has kept “North West Island Feral Fowl” for many years ensuring they did not hybridise.

Small numbers of North West Island Feral Fowl have been maintained for approximately 40 years on the mainland by devotees whom avoided their hybridisation since removal from the National Park and their history is well documented.

It is thought that the Feral Fowl were brought to North West Island at some time during the periods of guano mining activity on NW Island.

When the Capricornia Cays National Park was formed in1980. The feral fowl were eradicated on North West Island and some fowl were removed to mainland Australia. 

During the period that the island was uninhabited, the Feral Fowl evolved during extreme “boom and bust” wet and dry seasons.

The Feral Fowl’s diet was devoid of all grains and comprised what could be foraged from beach washed items (dead fowl, seabirds, fish, crabs, possibly seaweeds, etc.) and insects and invertebrates from the island. Feral Fowl are reported to have been observed foraging on the high water line.

Feral Fowl populations are said to have plummeted during the dry winters as no permanent supply of fresh water exists on the North West Island. Feral Fowl population numbers rebounded during the wet summer breeding season when food and water was more readily available.

A Fowl surviving such extreme environmental conditions (arguably the harshest known environment for feral fowl) deserve a place in Australia’s aviculture. The Pheasant and Waterfowl Society initiated a breed recovery program endeavouring to maintain this fowl for future generations.


NORTH WEST ISLAND FERAL FOWL – JOHN FRISCH EXPERIENCE.

The following anecdotal account resulted from a phone conversation occurring on the 9th November 2018 between the author and John Frisch, related to his knowledge and experiences with the North West Island Feral Fowl.

Eminent Australian scientist Glenorchy McBride wished to study an isolated population of fowl. The expedition purpose was to undertake a detailed field study and survey of the North West Island Feral Fowl which John described as “feral chickens”.

John had a friend whom had a suitable trawler vessel whom could transport the group to North West Island.

John described the Island status as unoccupied crown land and the origins of the fowl he believed to be Burmese Jungle fowl (Gallus gallus domesticus) which were abandoned on the Island when miners completed their mining operations.

John mentioned that he observed large heaps of turtle bones stacked 6 feet (1.8 metres) high, remaining from the turtle cannery works.

Phosphorite rock was mined at North West Island prior to mining operations being conducted at Christmas Island and Nauru.

John Frisch was invited to accompany Glenorchy McBride on an expedition to North West Island in late July 1965. John was 23 years old and had experience and was skilled in handling poultry.

John used a Rangoon pole with noose attached at the end at night to snare roosting fowl utilising a torch.

The field study survey involved long hours seated in hessian hides observing the fowl. Their territories were mapped and the fowl counted within their territories. There were 1700 Feral Fowl and 250 feral cats counted.

NWIFF were very shy and extremely territorial with cock fowl possessing well defined territories, the boundaries of which were strictly observed. Interstitial males promptly replaced a dominant breeding cock following its demise or removal from the territory.

John explained that spur length provided an indication of cock’s age and he related an anecdotal yarn about the occasion he sent his wife out with the rifle to obtain a fresh chicken for the evening meal. John explained she returned with a rooster having 3 inch long spurs. The rooster and a couple of rocks were dropped in the boiling pot and John claims it was difficult to establish what was rocks and what was chicken come meal serving time.

North West Island Feral Fowl were transferred from NW Island to Tryon Island. The transfer was unsuccessful and they died out due to the higher density of campers and hunting pressure which killed off the population.

Tryon Island is located 9.0 kilometres from North West Island and has an area of 21 hectares (named after the naturalist Tryon)

Feral Fowl were observed nesting among the entanglement of Pisonia and fig tree roots.

Feral Fowl were opportunistic feeders eating Figs, cockroaches, insects, centipedes and mice. They were observed foraging along the high water mark.

Feral Fowl breeding success was largely dependent on being synchronised with the arrival of thousands of migratory birds The arrival of migratory sea birds for breeding on the Island provided easy pickings for the 250 feral cats which in turn dramatically reducing predatory pressure on the ground nesting fowl.  Late hatched chicks would succumb to the sticky Pisonia berries which entangled their feathers causing their demise.

An open shack existed on the Island that was used occasionally by fishermen or seafaring landings.

Fowl were observed from within hessian hides. Fowl were trapped in simple “drop traps”, snared or captured at night using long Rangoon canes with snares attached to their extremities.

The Feral Fowl population maintained a balance in mice, centipede and cockroach numbers which rose abruptly after the Fowl were removed from the Island. Baiting of mice after the Fowl were removed resulted in poisoning of significant numbers of Buff-banded land rails.

John explained although there was no permanent water on the Island, a depression existed that would temporarily hold water and tree hollows maintained small quantities of water.

NWIFF were frequently observed in the early morning drinking water droplets formed by dew on the leaves of Birds Beak grass (Thuarea involuta) growing on the Island foreshores. The Fowl devised a method to harvest moisture when the opportunity presented.

Feral Fowl flew strongly flushing like quail and were capable of strong sustained flight unlike other poultry breeds.

John observed that Feral Fowl possess red breast meat unlike most other breeds of domestic poultry.

Roosters observed were generally of two types namely Silver and Red. (Duck-wing and Black/red)

There was little notable variation in the hen colouration which were generally mustard brown coloured around the neck with black edged feathers and a dark body.


Why is there no standard for North West Island Feral Fowl?

NWIFF history is well documented and the origins of the existing fowl is either documented or has been confirmed by Mr Hans Wallfried of South Australia whom maintained the breed for 30 years, thus saving them from extinction.

The Pheasant and Waterfowl Society of Australia claims related to authenticity of the breed is that existing populations are direct descendants of fowl from NW Island held and studied by Professor Cummings and Julie Roberts at New England University.  Julie Roberts confirmed her studies conducted at New England University were undertaken on fowl sourced during an expedition to NW Island. 

NWIFF breed to two colour types with only minor variations evident. Black/red and Duck-wing cockerels may be present in a single clutch of offspring irrespective of the paternal cockerel type. Breeding of NWIFF to a standard where the natural intelligence/disposition of the fowl may be lost to achieve a physical type. Such a result may create a more desirable fowl physically but may also result in the loss of some unique behavioural characteristics observed in NWIFF.

Brooding and raising NWIFF chicks

Raising of parent reared chicks is a family affair. A spare hen of a trio was observed to display all the postural traits of the brooding clucky hen immediately after chicks were hatched. The only identifiable difference being the incubating hen displayed a well-defined brood patch. Broody hen traits such as fanning of the tail feathers, scratching the litter accompanied by clucking, low carriage of the wings, beak feeding of chicks, and brooding were displayed by both the brooding hen and the spare hen.

A cockerel was observed beak feeding newly hatched chicks and tid-bitting the chicks. Mimicry of the clucking of the broody hen accompanied the cockerel’s feeding of the chicks. The cockerel also shared the night brooding of some chicks during the first couple of weeks.

NWIFF response when exposed to perceived or actual threats

NWIFF are extremely wary when exposed to unfamiliar experiences.

NWIFF presented a food item to which they have not been previously exposed results in their cautious approach with necks lowered and head close to the ground. They may take a couple of minutes to approach an unrecognised food item before the first fowl tests the food. Other fowl respond immediately the food item is considered safe to approach.

NWIFF do not display panic responses to a threat. They are more likely to huddle together and observe the threat than to attempt to flee.  This behaviour is very evident in young chicks whom huddle together rather than endeavour to escape.

A distress alarm call by a recently caught rooster often results in a second cockerel attacking the handler.

Broody hens display are extraordinarily brave displaying no fear when confronted with a threat and will attack immediately if one of the chicks issues a distress call.

Alarm calls by cockerels.

Loud unexpected noises or the unexpected appearances of a dove sized or larger bird will result in each mature cockerel issuing a synchronised distress call.

The appearance of Pacific Black Ducks, magpies or native doves or their like triggers an alarm response. All NWIFF respond with attentive behaviour after an alarm call.

NWIFF captive history.

A genetic bottle neck occurred when seven (7) chicks hatched and six (6) chicks survived in the care of Vic and Jean Dunstan from Victoria. It is not known if additional NWIFF were sourced by Vic & Jean from Professor Cummings.

Jeans complete flock was acquired by Hans Wallfried when Jean’s health deteriorated.

The latest on the PWSA North West Island Feral Fowl Breed Recovery Programme

At the commencement of 2019 breeding season, there were only thirty nine (39) individual fowl existing which were known to be direct descendants of the North West Island Feral Fowl.

That number represented one of the rarest and most endangered poultry breeds in Australia. Why is the breed important you may ask?  Our response would say they are a unique Australian story dating back to the late eighteen hundreds.

The story of their survival for 100 years on an island generally unoccupied by humans, in the absence of permanent water nor grains that fowl would normally consume is extraordinary. Their survival depended on evading predation by a large number of feral cats that existed on the island. They were subject to the most extreme evolutionary pressures of any known feral species yet they survived and evolved during a period of 100 years into a fascinating breed.

In 1960 an eminent poultry academic Glenorchy McBride from the QLD University conducted a detailed scientific study of the NW Island Feral Fowl. His scientific study involved many visits to the island to study the unique fowl’s social behaviour. Glenorchy McBride further studied captive fowl at the QLD University.  Mr John Frisch from the Central QLD region accompanied Glenorchy McBride on some of the university field study expeditions and has provided the author with many anecdotal stories on the NWIFF.

A significant and extremely detailed scientific research document titled:- “The Social Organisation and Behaviour of the Feral Domestic Fowl” was published by the University of Queensland. The scientific study based on five field trips to North West Island resulted in the issuance of more than 50 pages of the study’s results. The document details the NWIFF’s history and survival on what was generally an uninhabited island. The fowl survived on North West Island up to the 1980s when the island was gazetted as a National Park and the islands fowl were then trapped and shot.

Scientific studies were conducted on North West Island Feral Fowl at New England University by Professor R.B. Cummings and Professor Julie Roberts on a captive flock. Today’s existing population of NWIFF are direct descendants of the New England University flock. Correspondence exists confirming thirty five (35) eggs laid by NWIFF from the New England university flock were posted by Professor R.B. Cummings to Vic & Jean Dunstan in Victoria which arrived on the 10th December 1980.

Five eggs broke in transit and twenty two eggs were incubated and an additional eight eggs were placed under a broody hen. Eight eggs proved to be infertile. Seven chicks were reported as hatching from the twenty two remaining eggs. A small flock of seven fowl was established in Victoria on the 31st December 1980.

A small number of fowl from the Dunstan’s flock were provided to Hans Wallfried and the remainder of the flock was acquired by Hans when Jean’s health deteriorated. Hans maintained the flock for more than 25 years and two satellite flocks were set up from fowl obtained from Hans.

A breed recovery programme was commenced by the Pheasant and Waterfowl Society of Australia, based on the survey which revealed 39 NWIFF existed in three flocks.

The author and PWSA member Ben Mills in WA endeavoured to increase the population of the extremely rare and unique Australian breed of poultry.

The evolution of NWIFF on an isolated island resulted in the breed’s susceptibility to poultry diseases to which they had not been exposed during 100 years of their island isolation. Significant losses were experienced by the author due to the fowl’s susceptibility to common poultry diseases the impact of which have been mitigated by vaccinating day old incubated chicks.

The breeding recovery programme encountered setbacks but current numbers stand at 154 individual fowl at the end of the 2019 breeding season.

Hans Wallfried                       12 fowl                          5 mature fowl and 7 chicks

Ben Mills flock                       47 fowl                        47 mature fowl

Authors flock                          95 fowl                       61 mature fowl and 34 chicks

Total fowl                               154 fowl

The above numbers represent a significant increase from those existing at the commencement of the breed recovery program.

The Future of North West Island Feral Fowl

Ben, Hans and the author have chicks on the ground at the time of writing this document and more fowl are expected to be bred in the future. We daren’t count chickens before they hatch.

The Pheasant and Waterfowl Society patrons Steve and Stephanie Robinson have established the fourth (4th) flock of NWIFF to display at their Darling Downs Zoo. Additional fowl will be donated to the Zoo to enable the general public to view and learn about this unique breed. The Darling Downs Zoo has successfully bred NWIFF.

A fifth (5th) satellite flock has been recently established by poultry fancier and poultry breeder Michelle Burton.

The sixth (6th) satellite flock is in the care of Mr Terry Rubesame in the South Burnett, Qld.

The seventh (7th) flock is in the care of Mr Tony Dart in the Yeppoon region of Central QLD whom has bred birds successfully. Tony advised that Australian Bush Turkeys will attack free ranging birds 

The PWSA flock currently numbers 56 fowl, excluding the four (4) additional satellite flocks which have been created from the PWSA flock.

The survival of North West Island Feral fowl is dependent on the existence of satellite flocks which contain a diversity of genetics. Pairs or trios are less likely to be successful due to lack of genetic diversity. Establishment of viable satellite flocks will protect the NWIFF genetics in to the future 

Introduction of other poultry genetics to the breed would result in a chicken of little value with no historical link to the well documented history of an extraordinary Australian poultry breed.

Creation of additional satellite flocks is planned to ensure the North West Island Feral Fowl’s future survival. The PWSA seek to find suitable partners with compatible objectives to secure the future of a uniquely Australian breed of fowl. NWIFF are commencing their breeding season, so if you are interested in keeping a flock of unique and interesting fowl please contact me on Mob 0412 799 767 as NWIFF birds are available immediately. 

John Urane

August 2022

I’ve briefly pondered why chickens cross the road but I’m more puzzled at why a chicken would depart a secluded tropical island paradise surrounded by trees gently swaying in the breeze, vivid white coral sandy beaches surrounded by sparkling azure blue ocean waters. Fortuitously I caught up with the man that could answer these questions 

The following account resulted from a phone conversation occurring on the 9th November 2018 between the author and John Frisch. John Frisch held a Bachelor of Agricultural Science degree and was undertaking his Honours Degree at University of QLD under Dr Glenorchy McBride. John possessed knowledge and experience making him suitable to accompany Dr Glenorchy McBride in field studies conducted on the North West Island Feral Fowl.

University of Queensland Animal Behaviourist and Geneticist, Dr Glenorchy McBride, wished to study the behaviour and dynamics of an isolated population of fowl.  Such a population was known to occur on North West Island, a coral cay off Gladstone in Central Queensland.  In 1965, Dr McBride and his small team visited the island and undertook a detailed field study and survey of the North West Island Feral Fowl (NWIFF). John described the NWIFF as “looking like some of my own bantams”

John and his late father accompanied Dr McBride during the August 1965 field study visit.  The team was taken to and from the island by a local fisherman Lionel Wickham.

Over the years John had camped on the island many times both before and after the island was gazetted as a National Park. He therefore saw the feral fowl population from when it was effectively in balance with the island ecology through to the disruption of that ecology following the complete removal of both the feral fowl and cat populations.

John described the Island status in1965 as 'Unallocated Crown Land' on which the sole structure was a shack erected several years earlier by fishermen from Gladstone on the site of the old turtle-soup factory. John believed that the NWIFF originated from Burmese Jungle fowl (Gallus gallus domesticus) which were left on the Island when miners completed their mining operations. In an attempt to 'improve' the NWIFF, in the1960s a few roosters from domesticated breeds had been released on the island by Yeppoon locals who were known to John, however, because of the fierce territorial nature of the feral fowl and several other factors, John Believed it is unlikely that the introduced roosters made any contribution to the gene pool of the NWIFF. 

John mentioned he observed large heaps of turtle bones adjacent to the shack.  These were remains from the time when the turtle-soup factory operated on the island.

Phosphorite rock was mined at North West Island prior to mining operations being conducted at Christmas Island and Nauru.

John was reared on a mixed farm near Yeppoon and owned about a hundred semi-feral Bantams of his own as well as other, domestic breeds, on the farm.  He often used traps or snares to catch the Bantams.

At night John would climb the trees on North West Island in which the NWIFF were roosting, shine a torch light on the roosting Fowl and use a Rangoon-cane pole with a noose attached at the end to snare suitable individuals.  The birds that were relocated to Tryon Island were caught using this technique.

The field study survey involved long hours seated in hessian hides observing the birds. Their territories were mapped and the birds counted within their territories. There were approximately 1500 NWIFF and 250 feral cats counted.

NWIFF were very shy and extremely territorial with cock possessing well defined territories, the boundaries of which were strictly observed. Interstitial males opportunistically promptly replaced a dominant breeding cock bird following his demise or removal from the territory.

John explained that spur length provided an indication of a cock bird’s age and he related an anecdotal yarn about the occasion in 1969 when he and his wife who (as was usual in those pre-National-Park times) were the sole campers on the island.  He sent his wife out with his rifle to obtain a young cockerel for the evening meal. John explained that instead of shooting a young cockerel, which was the usual fare, she returned with a rooster having 3 inch long spurs. The rooster and a couple of rocks were dropped in the boiling pot and John said:- “It was difficult to distinguish what was rock and what was chicken come meal serving time”. 

To enable further studies of the NWIFF in an environment in which there were no cats, a breeding group of the Fowl was relocated by the McBride team to adjacent Tryon Island where there were neither Fowl nor cats.  At the time, Tryon Island was also classified as 'unallocated crown land'.  In subsequent visits to Tryon, none of the Fowl could be found.  Anecdotal evidence indicated that the Fowl had been eaten by campers who occasionally visited Tryon.

Tryon Island is located 9.0 kilometres from to North West Island and has an area of 21 hectares (named after the naturalist Tryon)

On North West Island, Feral Fowl were observed nesting among the entanglement of Pisonia and fig tree roots.

Feral Fowl were opportunistic feeders.  Direct observations and examination of their digestive tracts showed that the Fowl ate figs, cockroaches, other insects, centipedes and mice and would also scavenge sea-bird carcases. They were also observed foraging along the high water mark. Their diet was influenced by the location of their territory.

Feral Fowl breeding success was largely dependent on being synchronised with the annual arrival of thousands of migratory Mutton Birds which breed in burrows on the Island. During their stay on North West Island these birds provided easy pickings for the 250 feral cats which in turn dramatically reduced predatory pressure on the ground nesting Feral Fowl.  Once the mutton bird breeding cycle was complete, they deserted the island. Brooding Fowl and late-hatched chicks were then subject to intense predation from the cats. Late-hatched chicks were also at increased risk of dying because of entanglement in the sticky Pisonia berries.

The shack on the Island was used by visiting campers and in 1965 by the McBride team.

The feral fowl were observed from within hessian hides. To enable more detailed study of individual feral fowl, several attempts were made to trap them with simple “drop traps”.  However, the fowl were extremely wary and trapping was not successful. Snaring the fowl at night while they were roosting was however very successful.

The Feral Fowl maintained a balance in the populations of mice, centipedes and cockroaches. Each of these populations increased markedly after the Fowl were eradicated from the Island. Baiting of mice after the Fowl were removed resulted in poisoning of significant numbers of Buff-banded land rails.

John explained that although there was no permanent source of fresh water on the Island, there was a shallow depression towards the north-west end that would temporarily hold water and tree hollows maintained small quantities of water for at least several months.

Birds were frequently observed in the early morning drinking water droplets formed by dew on the leaves of Birds Beak grass (Thuarea involuta) growing on the Island foreshores. The Fowl devised a method to harvest moisture when the opportunity presented.

Feral Fowl would generally flee by running.  However, they flew strongly, flushing like quail and, unlike domesticated poultry breeds, were capable of strong sustained flight.

John observed that Feral Fowl carcases had very little fat and that the breast meat was red rather than white as is the case for domesticated poultry breeds.

Roosters were generally of two colour types, namely Silver and Red.

There was little notable variation in the colouration of the hens.  Their feathers were predominantly mustard coloured with black edges.

John Urane 

9thNovember 2018

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