What Is The Difference Between Fowl and Poultry?


Domesticated Chicken: You’re doing it wrong!

It’s not uncommon for people to use the terms poultry and fowl as if they were synonymous. And from a certain point of view…they kind of are the same thing. But for those who work with these birds, there is a subtle difference.

Poultry is any domesticated bird kept for consumption (meat and eggs) or for feathers. Fowl is a subcategory of poultry that is specifically related to either waterfowl (ducks, geese, ect) or landfowl (chickens, turkey, pheasant, etc.).

A good example of the difference between fowl and poultry is the ostrich. This feathered livestock is kept for the sale of its meat and eggs – which falls under the category of poultry. However, it is not a member of either the waterfowl or the landfowl family. It belongs to the Struthionidae; a unique class of flightless birds. And as such, does not constitute as fowl.

So while it would be correct to refer to a chicken as either poultry or fowl – as it is a domesticated bird kept for consumption, it would be more correct to call it a fowl, as fowl is a specific subcategory of poultry.

What Is A Waterfowl?

A waterfowl is a class of bird that is generally a good swimmer and lives in an aquatic type of environment. This can be anything from small rivers to large lakes or even oceans.

Of the two categories of fowl, waterfowl is probably the easier of the two to get right. Ducks and geese are the most often associated with this as they produce both meat and eggs for consumption. However, there is a small nuance to the definition of waterfowl that should be noted. Not all ducks and geese are domesticated. And as poultry deals with domesticated birds, the class of waterfowl does not lie completely within the poultry definition.

So to hammer this home, let’s do a hypothetical.

The penguin is a swimming bird that lives in an aquatic environment. If I kept penguins for their eggs, would they be considered waterfowl and poultry?

With regards to waterfowl, while the penguin’s activities may fall within the definition, the penguin is actually in a class of its own. Hence, penguins should not be considered a waterfowl.

With regards to poultry, while there are no penguin-for-food farms that I am aware off, should there actually be one, then the penguin would fall into the category of poultry as it is a domesticated bird that is being kept for consumption.

What Is Landfowl?

The name landfowl is a little more tricky as it is not really an accurate term. The Merriam Dictionary defines fowl as ‘a bird of any kind.’ Clearly that’s a pretty broad category. By this definition, even the tiny hummingbird would be up for grabs as it lives on land and not the water.

The correct term for what we refer to as landfowl is galliformes. Galliformes are ‘heavy-bodied’ ground feeding birds – think chicken, turkey, pheasant, ect.

Now this is where things get tricky.

It’s hard to imagine a heavier ground feeding bird than the ostrich. Yet we already know that the ostrich is not considered a landfowl. Why? Because it comes from a different family of fowl – the Struthionidae.

An easier way to think of it is like this. The Struthionidae are a class of flightless birds. We all know an ostrich can run like mad, but they don’t fly. A chicken, however, can fly. Admittedly, it’s not a majestic thing to witness, but they can fly – hence the difference.

What Is The Difference Between Poultry And Game Birds?

At first glance, this might seem like a confusing question. After all, we’ve already established that turkey is landfowl and ducks are waterfowl – both of which fall under the term poultry. But there is a difference and it’s fairly easy to understand.

Game birds are fowl that are hunted for consumption. Poultry is a domesticated fowl kept/raised for consumption.

Should you feel inclined, you could purchase a poult (baby turkey) to raise for consumption. This clearly falls under the category of poultry. However, the wild turkey that runs free through the woods is not a fowl that you are raising – hence it is not a poultry bird but a game bird. Both of them are worthy of Thanksgiving Dinner, but the way the bird was acquired makes the difference.

The same thing is true for ducks, however, there is a hiccup to this game bird concept. There are many breeds of both wild and domesticated ducks – with the domesticated falling clearly into poultry. However, the mallard duck, which is normally a wild bird, can also be purchased to raise.

For the record, I am not recommending anyone run out and buy one as there are legalities to consider. But the only difference between a mallard from the wild and a mallard that you purchased will be that the purchased mallard will have its tiny ankle claws clipped in order to indicate it was hatched commercially. Otherwise, there is no real difference between the wild mallard that swims at the lake and your mallard at home, which is busy providing you eggs.

This is important because should your kept/raised mallard fly south for the winter, it could become some hunter’s dinner. In this case, the poultry mallard became wild game.