Who let the birds out?

A fowl prank closed a Philadelphia high school today, canceling classes for 3,600 students.

Eighty-five "full-blown live chickens" - identified later today as Rhode Island Reds - were discovered roaming the halls of Northeast Philadelphia High School this morning as faculty arrived before dawn.

"They've created quite a mess," said Fernando Gallard, spokesman for the school district. "It's going to take us at least a day to clean up."

The flock was let into the school on Cottman Avenue over the weekend.

Now several agencies are involved in investigating the poultry prank: the Philadelphia School District, the Philadelphia Police, and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Video surveillance shows that multiple culprits gained entry into the school about 9:30 p.m. Sunday to release the hens and spread chicken feed on the floors, Gallard said.

Any break-in is supposed to trigger an alarm, but the caper was not discovered until 5 a.m. by a janitor, Gallard said. How the perpetrators got into the building and why the alarm apparently did not go off is still under investigation.

"We believe we're going to be ready for school tomorrow," Gallard said.

The birds were all taken to Fox Chase Farms in Philadelphia, where they are being cared for by staff of Swenson Arts and Technology High School, which operates vocational training programs in agricultural industries and environmental science.

Although the farm has a small poultry program, it is unclear what will happen to the Rhode Island Reds.

David Kipphut, principal at Swenson, said the hens have to be kept in isolation until their health can be assessed. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture is scheduled to inspect the flock tomorrow.

Kipphut said his goal is that the hens will "be returned to their rightful owner."

If not, Kipphut said, his goal is to have them adopted.

Who is behind the prank is still unknown but Kipphut said Philadelphia Police Department is reviewing the surveillance video.

"They let them loose and spread chicken feed all over the place to keep them fat and happy, I guess," Gallard said.

Happy enough to roost?

"I don't know if they laid eggs," Gallard said.

"They were so cute," said Joy Deltoro, a secretary in the college counseling office, who saw the birds in two wire crates before they were taken away.

"You had everybody laughing," she said of the reaction among other staffers. Deltoro said it was wrong to release the hens at the school, but, she added, "It's better than hearing about a shooting."

The invasion of poultry forced administrators to send most students home at 9 a.m., Gallard said. But special-education students were taken to Woodrow Wilson Middle School for a full day of classes.

Corina Oxford, 16, and her sister, Destiny, 14, arrived to school around 7:30 to find a longer-than-normal line of students trying to get in.

The sisters were then directed to the auditorium, where they sat and waited for at least an hour before being excused for the day.

They then spent a half-hour in the freezing cold waiting for their mother to pick them up.

They were both happy to have hens show up.

"It got us out of school," Destiny said.

"We don't know where the chickens (hens) came from or who they belong to," Gallard said earlier today. "I'm pretty sure there is a very upset poultry farmer somewhere who wants them back."

"It was an expensive prank. There's the lost staff hours, the police hours and the cost of cleanup," Gallard said.

Whoever is apprehended will have to pay a pretty hefty fine, Gallard said.

"It's not going to be chicken scratch," Gallard said.

The students will come back to roost tomorrow.

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-4565 or at samwood@phillynews.com.