Livestock Research for Rural Development 18 (1) 2006 Guidelines to authors LRRD News

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Morphological characteristics and feed resources available for indigenous chickens in Botswana

S S Badubi, M Rakereng and M Marumo

Department of Agricultural Research, Private Bag 0033, Gaborone, Botswana


Characteristics, productivity parameters, diseases, management of indigenous chickens and feed resources for indigenous chickens in Botswana were studied using a questionnaire-based survey.

Indigenous chickens at rural level are kept mainly for consumption and income. These chickens are mainly owned and cared for by women (98%) and are kept in flock sizes ranging between 15 and 20. Generally, indigenous chickens are not housed (64%) at village level and this might contribute to high mortality rates. The main feed resource base for indigenous chickens is what is scavenged with some unbalanced supplements offered once a day. On average 11-15 eggs are laid and about 6-10 chicks are hatched (75% hatchability). Factors contributing to poor performance of indigenous chickens are complex, but feed supply and quality, housing and hatchability appear to be areas of immediate improvement. Indigenous chickens in Botswana vary a lot and some strains/breeds like the rumpless, naked neck and some features like crested heads were identified within the populations. Body length for females on average was lower (18 cm) than that for males (20 cm). Shank length also showed a similar pattern (7 cm vs 9 cm) and the body weight was also higher for males, ranging from 340 to 3900 g with an average of 1994 g compared to a range of 110 to 3590 g with an average of 1546 g in females. This shows that in most parameters males are superior to females.

Keywords: Botswana, characteristics, feed resources, indigenous chickens


Around 94% of  the population in Botswana live in the rural areas and these people depend on livestock and crops as a source of dietary protein and income. Poultry, especially chickens, are the most commonly kept livestock species. In Botswana two chicken production systems are notable, being the traditional and commercial. Commercial system is further divided into three distinct sectors: small (P75 000), medium (P75 001 to P1 million) and large-scale (P1 million upwards) production systems (i.e., based on total investment of fixed assets). Large-scale production systems in Botswana are few. The traditional chicken production is based on free-range systems where the birds mostly scavenge for feed picking on food scraps and insects around the households (Aganga et al 2000; Moreki 2000). In this system mostly indigenous breed/strains of chickens are kept (Horst 1990; Williams 1990) with little or no controlled breeding. It is usually the most aggressive, strong and dominant cock, which sires most offspring in the neighborhood. It is reported that indigenous chickens represent an important reservoir of genetic variation that should be conserved (Gueye 1998). They are also subjected to challenging selection pressure due to the poor management conditions under which they are kept. Thus they are a potential source of hardiness genes or traits that should be conserved for future use. McAinsh et al (2004) reported that indigenous chickens are not classified into specific breeds. Rather, they are heterogeneous in phenotype and probably also in genotype. However, Gueye (1998) asserts that, even though there are reports of breeds of chickens in Africa, it might be that these so-called breeds are just phenotypic descriptions. Indigenous chickens are characterized by small size and low egg production (30-80 small eggs per hen per year) (Lambrou 1993). This system is described as a low input - low output system where birds are given limited amounts of feed to supplement what they scavenge (McAinsh et al 2004).

There is little information on characteristics of indigenous chickens in Botswana, but the study by Moreki (2000) identified existence of breeds/strains and even concluded that the naked neck chickens were a threatened strain in Botswana. However, there is need for further investigation as this strain of chicken appears to be environment specific and also depends on farmer preference.

The objectives of the study were to gain an insight into indigenous chicken production system in Botswana, characterize this resource and identify ways of improving this production system.

Materials and methods

The study area covered the 6 Agricultural regions (Central, Western, Southern, Francistown, Maun and Gaborone) in Botswana. On average a total of 6 villages were randomly chosen per agricultural region. The villages were chosen in such a way that one focal area had a radius of 100 km. The climate is semi-arid with low rainfall (ranging from 250 mm in the South to 650 mm in the North). The temperatures are high ranging from 28.9C in Tsabong to 29.8C in Shakawe.

Data on the morphological (phenotypic) characteristics of the traditional chickens were collected from twenty focal areas. The samples were taken from seventeen households per focal area. Households, which were distantly located from each other, were selected for sampling in each area. A total of 70 indigenous poultry farms with a total of 700 chickens were surveyed. Data were collected for a period of three months starting in April 2004.

Information on ownership and management of the birds were collected through semi-structured interviews and the use of a questionnaire. The 700 birds in the study population were sexed and described phenotypically. The phenotypic descriptions included plumage colour, plumage feature, anatomical features (skeletal variants), body length, shank feature and comb feature. Production records included number of eggs per lay and egg descriptors included egg colour and shape.

A subsequent study B, was carried out on 358 farms to gather information on management, ownership, production performance and feed types available for indigenous poultry in Botswana.

Data were analysed using the SAS computer package (SAS 1997) to calculate frequency of distribution and correlations.

Results and discussion

Demographic details
Purpose of keeping chickens

In Botswana, the purpose of keeping indigenous chickens at household level in the rural areas was mainly for home consumption (49.6%), source of income (49.6%) and lastly for status (0.8%). This is in agreement with the study of Aini (1990), Gueye (1998) and Moreki (2000).

Ownership of birds

In 98% of the farms surveyed, women were the owners of the chickens and also made decisions on the sale of their birds. There were some reports of common ownership between women and their children. Men owned the chickens in only 2% of the farms where there were no women. Similar observations were made in Kenya where Ndegwa et al (2001) reported that indigenous chickens are little regarded and often considered to fall within the woman's domain. The results suggest that if properly harnessed; chickens could be a tool for the empowerment of the rural women. Gueye (1998) also reported that approximately 80% of the chicken flocks in some of the African countries were owned and largely controlled by women. Thus improving the production of this agricultural resource would have positive impact on rural women income.

General husbandry

A total of 230 (64.3%) indigenous poultry farmers surveyed did not provide any housing for their chickens, while only 128 (35.8%) of the farmers provided housing of some kind. The chickens were reported to roost on the treetops and sometimes on any raised item that could be found in the homestead. Of the reported houses (shelters) provided, 2.8% were made of corrugated iron, 5.3% thatch, and 29.6% other materials including plastic bags and netting. Of the farmers that housed their chickens, only two (0.6%) housed their chickens throughout, 120 (33.6%) only at night and about six (1.7%) occasionally. Numerous reasons were advanced for not housing chickens, such as the belief that housing chickens will predispose them to parasites, predation and diseases. This is possible since McAinsh et al (2004) reported that materials used for houses as well as nests could make good living and hiding conditions for external parasites such as the fowl tick, mites and fleas, which live a great deal of their lives off the host hiding in cracks and crevices in buildings. However, it is important that chickens are housed so that their productivity could improve, as long as they are managed properly.

Feed types and feeding practices

Indigenous chickens mainly depend on scavenging for their food, with only 57.1% of the farmers feeding their chickens once a day, 41.7% twice a day and 1.1% never. Most farmers (91.9%) who feed their chickens use unbalanced feed supplements such kitchen waste (3.4%), maize (70.1%), sorghum (10.3%), millet (2.4%), sorghum bran and maize bran (3.5%) and sunflower (2.2%). These supplements are either fed individually or in combination. In all the regions maize was the commonest feed resource base used on chickens and overall the results suggest that feeds for chickens are mostly cereal based.

Table 1. Feed supplements offered to indigenous chickens

Feed type









Home refuse






Use of commercial feeds was found to be minimal with only one (0.3%) farmer using broiler finisher, 25 (6.9%) farmers using mixed fowl feed and one (0.3%) farmer using layer mash. The results further showed that 22.4% of the supplements given to chicken were seasonal. However, grains and their by-products were available throughout the year (77.6%).

The findings in this study are in agreement with those of Mwalusanya et al (2001) who reported that scavenging was the main source of indigenous chickens food, despite occasional supplementation with kitchen leftovers, cereal bran and small amounts of cereal grains during harvest time. This type of feeding management results in the low productivity of indigenous chickens and thus the urgent need to address this situation in order to improve productivity of this resource.

In the same study water was reportedly provided sometimes and regularly. It appeared that most farmers did not know the importance of providing water for their chickens.

The management of indigenous chickens is mostly done by women (77.3%) compared to men (9.6%). Children cared for about 3.4% of the flocks, even though there were cases of combined management of chickens (9.8%).

Productivity parameters

Production parameters of indigenous chickens in Botswana are shown in Tables 2 and 3.

Table 2. Production of indigenous chickens in Botswana

Age at first egg, months









> 10



Do not know






The results show that most indigenous poultry farmers do not keep any production records for their chicken flocks, as shown by 57.8% of farmers not knowing age at first laying (Table 2). This implies that there would be no culling strategy as any unproductive birds can easily be unnoticed (McAinsh et al 2004). The results suggest the need for programmes to teach indigenous poultry producers about the importance of keeping records to improve productivity.

Table 3. Average number of eggs laid and incubated

Number of egg laid and incubated



About 10









> 20



Do not know






Though some farmers did not know and were unsure of their answers, it appears that the average eggs laid per clutch ranged between 11-15. This result agrees with the findings of Tadelle and Ogle (2001) who carried out a similar study in the Central Highlands of Ethiopia. In their study, the average egg production per clutch was 15-20. These authors however, stated that this depends on the size of the bird and season. Looking at the number of eggs laid and incubated; with proper management, indigenous chickens may multiply and increase income for the rural farmers. Further, the results might indicate that there is room for improvement because many eggs are laid with little input (Gueye 1998). The average egg weight for the indigenous chickens in Botswana is 48.5±5.7 g with a range of 35 to 65 g. The average egg weight found in this study was higher than that reported in Mali (Wilson et al 1987). These authors reported that there was no significant difference due to age of hen or system. The differences between Botswana and Mali data might be due to the size of the hens since differences in this parameter were recorded. Bigger eggs are important in any production system because on average they hatch bigger chicks, that can withstand the harsh conditions imposed by the production system and thus survive better.

Number of chicks hatched per clutch of eggs

The number of chicks hatched per clutch of eggs is presented in Table 4. Only 6.4% of the poultry farmers did not know how many chicks were hatched from a clutch of eggs. But the majority of the farmers (76.8%) indicated that about 6 to 15 chicks were hatched. Under good management, these chicks are a good replacement stock and can increase the size of the flock, but due to high chick mortality (61%) experienced in indigenous flocks, only a few are left for replacement (Tadelle and Ogle 2001). The causes of mortality were reported to be due to predation and Newcastle disease.

Table 4. Total number of chicks hatched per clutch of eggs

Number of chicks hatched



Not known


















The mean number of chickens hatched per clutch of eggs was 5-10 (41.9%) although there was a wide range from 6 to greater than twenty. Assuming that the number of eggs per clutch was 15, it then means that hatchability would be about 75%. This calculated hatchability is higher than that recorded by Wilson et al (1987) in Central Mali though these authors reported some significant (P< 0.01) seasonal differences. It will be important to carry out a study under Botswana conditions to evaluate seasonal variation in hatchability of indigenous chickens. According to the study by Mwalusanya et al (2001) in Tanzania, the hatchability recorded in this study is comparatively low as they recorded an average hatchability of 83.6%. These differences might be explained by the differences in the genotype and most probably the climatic conditions of the countries studied.


Chickens were weighed as they were evaluated for different parameters. There was a wide range of weights from 110 g to 3590 g for female and 340 g to 3900 g for male birds respectively (Table 6). The average body weights at an average age of 6 months are 1546 g and 1994 g for females and males respectively. In the study by Aganga et al (2000) it was reported that as a result of poor management, hens and cockerels of indigenous chickens take about 6 months to reach adult live weight of 2.0 and 2.2 kg. The study concentrated in one agricultural district while the present study captured all the six agricultural districts of Botswana thus the current data might be close to the national average. Mwalusanya et al (2001) reported that possible reasons for slow growth rates of the local chickens include genetic, nutritional and parasitic problems. In their study, the age at first lay ranged between 6 and 8 months, which was reportedly higher than the 4.5 months observed in commercial layers (Leeson and Summers 1991). It should be noted that the age at maturity reported in this study is comparable to those reported in other developing countries on local breeds (Wilson et al 1987; Gunaratne et al 1993). In Mali, the average body weights for both hens and cocks were lower than the ones recorded in this study (Wilson et al 1987).

Mortality of indigenous chickens

Out of the total number of 358 indigenous chicken farmers, 19 (5.3%) stated that they experienced higher mortality in their flocks when offered the feed supplements while the remaining 339 (94.7%) did not experience any deaths as a result of the feed supplements they were using. However, it became apparent that chickens died in these flocks because they were given treated cereal seeds. A total of 203 (57.5%) farmers reported high mortality of both chicks and adult chickens while in the remaining 155 farmers (43.2%) the levels were low. The main causes of deaths were reported to be due to New Castle Disease reported by 112 (40.4%), predation 149 (53.8%), other causes 9 (3.3%) and not known 7 (2.5%) farmers respectively. Mortality reportedly occurs mostly in the early life of the chicks. This is in accordance with the results of Wilson et al (1987) who found that from an average brood size of 6.1 young at hatching only 4.8 survived at seven days, 3.1 at 28 days and 1.7 at 56 days. These authors reported that the last figure is equivalent to only 27.4% survival at eight weeks. The study of Tedelle and Ogle (2001) in Central Ethiopia also reported high mortality of chicks at the age of 8 weeks being about 61%. However, these authors stated that it was difficult to associate the high mortality with a single factor as it was a result of a combination of several factors, including disease, predation, feed deficiency and the hostile environment encountered by the newly hatched chicks. In this study, farmers reported that most chicks died because of predation by either dogs or cats. It is apparent from these results that some form of housing at an early stage of life is important if the mortality rate is to be reduced.


Morphological characterization of indigenous chickens in Botswana showed some variation in appearance (Table 5) and some recognizable strains and/or breeds.

Table 5. Phenotypes of local chickens in Botswana




Feather type:









Naked neck















Leg Feathers:


















Plumage colour:









Metallic Green












Brown Red









Comb type:
























The variations were observed in general in features such as crested heads, naked neck, frizzle and normal. From the results above it could be inferred that indigenous Tswana chickens are normally feathered (62.1%) with a few (31.5%) showing some crested head. These chickens are multicolored but predominantly black in colour (22.4%), followed by brown red colour (14.4%), silver (11.9%) and metallic green (11.4%) respectively. It was further found that the indigenous Tswana chicken in general has a single comb (90.4%) with a few having a rose comb. On average the Tswana chickens have no leg feathers but there are a few with sparse (4.9%) leg feathers. These findings are consistent with those of McAinsh et al (2000) who stated that the variation in phenotypes is exactly what characterizes local chickens. They further stated that this is probably an expression of high variability at genotype level. In this regard, it could be argued that within the Botswana indigenous chicken populations there might be presence of strains and/or breeds (Wimmers et al 2000). Since there is a high population of exotic chickens strains that are used for egg and meat production, there is the likelihood that some of the indigenous chickens are crosses. However, the extent of the crossing may not be known (McAinsh et al 2000). It is also postulated that in the early 1970s there were some cockerel exchange programmes taking place in Botswana especially in the south; however, this is not documented. The awaited results of DNA analysis should shed light on the issue and also indicate existence of breeds and/or strains.

Table 6. Variations in physical characteristics of traditional chickens in Botswana


Body length, cm

Shank length, cm

Body weight, g

Egg weight, g







Mean SE
















When chickens were assessed for variations in physical parameters, it was found that chickens in Botswana varied widely range in adult body and egg weight, and body and shank length. But when the chickens are taken as one group, the average value tends to mask the effect of individual region. These results are in agreement with the study of Msoffe et al (2002) carried out in Tanzania. In general, indigenous chickens in Botswana appear to be smaller in size than in other African countries. The most probable explanation is that the environment plays a crucial role in the phenotypic appearance of an individual. Probably in Botswana chickens have to walk short distances in search for feed during scavenging (Gueye et al 1998; Msoffe et al 2001) hence the recorded short shank lengths (Table 6). However, there were some differences in shank lengths among the ecotypes of Maun, Western and Central regions (Table 7) suggesting an existence of strains within the indigenous chicken flocks between the regions of Botswana.

Table 7. Comparison of phenotypic variants of local chickens between 3 agricultural regions of Botswana











Comb size, cm

5.6 2

3.12 0.9

5.6 2.7

3.0 0.7

7.0 2.0

3.6 0.9

Beak size, cm

3.0 0.4

2.7 0.4

2.9 0.4

2.7 0.3

2.9 0.4

2.7 0.3

Body weight, kg

2.02 0.8

1.6 0.4

1.3 0.6

1.3 0.3

2.03 0.8

1.6 0.4

Body length, cm

20.7 4.1

19.2 2.7

15.3 4.9

15.6 4.1

19.8 2.9

17.3 1.9

Shank length, cm

8.9 3.3

7.3 0.9

11.5 7.5

7.6 2.4

9.9 5.8

6.9 1.2

Tail length, cm

17.9 8.7

13.3 3.9

12.7 10.1

11.4 5.6

22.1 9.2

14.3 2.2

Spur length, cm

1.4 4.0

0.1 0.3

0.3 0.6

0.8 2.7

1.1 1.4

0.1 0.4


Male indigenous chickens were found to be superior in all the characteristics (Table 6, 7 and 8). The positive correlations between body weight and length were high in both males and females.

Table 8. Correlations between body weight, body length and shank length for both female and male indigenous chickens


Body weight

Body length

Shank length





Body weight




Body length




Shank length








Body weight




Body length




Shank length





The correlation between shank length and body weight though low was highly significant. This is an important finding because in the study of Gueye et al (1998), there was an observed strong correlation (P<0.001) between body weight of mature Senegalese indigenous chickens and other body measurements, while the body weight of females was only correlated to body length (P<0.01). It is then concluded from this statement that body measurements might be used to predict the body weight of mature indigenous chickens especially in males.



The authors are especially indebted to the villagers for using their valuable time and knowledge in undertaking this study. Appreciation is also expressed to the Government of Botswana (Ministry of Agriculture, Department of Agricultural Research) for its financial support, Miss Gabotepele Madisa for assistance with statistical analysis and Dr S.G. Maphanyane for editing the article before submission.


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Received 12 October 2005; Accepted 14 October 2005; Published 17 January 2006

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