Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Ins and Outs of Showing Poultry

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So Fair happened. A whole week of running crazy, surrounded by animals and good friends, full of life lessons in sportsmanship, community, and agriculture. For our family, the county fair is made of up three parts: poultry show, the livestock sale, and indoor projects.

In some ways it was a rough year for The Oldest, who is, for the last year, the only one in 4-H. (Littlest One is still just a bit too young, though she participates in much of what we do.) Out of the five chicks that we ordered this year, only three survived, and one of those got hurt pretty bad and couldn't go to fair this year. We also take older birds to fair, but here's our reality: we live on a farm. We have farm chickens, not show chickens. They free range, eat table scraps, and do whatever it is that chickens do all day when they aren't kept in indoor cages with supplemental lighting. They aren't in perfect condition - they are missing tail feathers and have broken feathers, the roosters fight sometimes and leave each other a little beat-up. For heaven's sake, they spend half their day digging in the manure pile. So when they go to show, it can be a little rough. Showing poultry is a whole different world than farming poultry. Real show birds are kept in separate cages. They are fed specific diets and are kept in pristine condition. If a feather breaks, it is immediately pulled out so a new one will grow in its place. (Broken poultry feathers do not grow back unless they fall out or are removed.)  All that said, The Oldest still walked away with a few blue ribbons, a few red ones, and even a Reserve Grand Champion rosette for the single comb clean legged bantam class.

A note on classes - there are standard chickens, and there are bantam chickens. Bantams are like mini versions of standard ones and are essentially worthless except that they lay tiny eggs and make great little pets. Of those two groups, each one is broken down into five or six smaller groups. Standards are divided into classes based on where the breed originated - Mediterranean, American, Asiatic, etc. Bantams are divided into classes based on their physical characteristics - single comb clean legged, single comb feather legged, rose comb, etc. At a poultry show, all the birds in one class are judged against each other. The judge is looking to see how well they fit The Standard. What is The Standard? It's a $60.00 book you order from the American Poultry Association that essentially tells you what your chicken is supposed to look like. It's really specific, too. It tells you what color their eyes should be, how many points should be on their comb (that red floppy thing on top of their head) what color legs they ought to have, and how many mis-colored feathers they can have for their color and breed. Some of those things, if your chicken doesn't have them, are considered a "defect" - they aren't perfect, but they can still be shown. Others are called "disqualifications" and mean that your bird isn't even allowed on the show table because essentially, it's a failure. So during a show, all the chickens from one class are brought up to the table (divided into even smaller groups of adult and young male and female birds) and the judge looks at each of them, deciding which one is most perfect according to that big, fancy book. He also looks at their condition - how perfect their feathers are, how clean they are, making sure they are as perfectly groomed as a chicken can possibly be.

The other aspect of showing poultry comes in the Showmanship part of the competition. The kids spent countless hours studying The Standard and other publications, learning all their is to know about poultry. They can define defects and disqualifications. They can identify breeds and colors of chickens just by looking at them (and there are hundreds!) They learn to identify poultry diseases and how to treat them. They learn the parts of a feather, an egg, the wing. They study the history of their chosen breed and can tell you exactly how that type of chicken got to be what it is. And then they spend even more hours training their chosen showmanship bird. The chicken must stand still and pose in a specific way for as long as it is expected to. It must accept being flipped onto its back, held upside down, held above the shoulder, having its mouth opened and its wings stretched out. The child must learn how to thoroughly inspect the bird, looking for any signs of defect or illness, and learn to show these things to the judge. And they have to get really good at talking to a perfect stranger about everything they know (which can be the hardest part for some kids.)

So poultry show isn't just taking your bird to fair and having a judge look at it. It's months of preparation and studying and practicing speaking skills and really, truly managing a poultry flock. When The Oldest decided she wanted to try showing poultry, I had no idea what we were getting into. When I see a chicken, I see a farm animal that provides fresh eggs for the family. She sees beautiful birds, some bred purely for ornamental purposes because they only lay about five miniature eggs a year. And of course, those are the ones she loves the most. We have more worthless, miniature birds running around this property eating and pooping and not laying eggs than I can count. But she has them each named, can tell you their strengths and weaker qualities, and many are tame enough to be picked up and carried around. I've learned a lot right along with my kids in the past three years of doing this. As the resident Poultry Quizzer, it's my job to come up with questions to ask them to test their knowledge. As a result, I can tell you off the top of my head which class a bantam sebright falls into even though we've never owned one, how many days it takes for a muscovy duck egg to hatch, and what a side sprig is. And here's the kicker: I really, really  don't like chickens. They stink, they are noisy, and they are just sort of creepy. And yet despite that, there's often a rooster sitting at my kitchen table, nibbling at tortilla chip crumbs and crowing away while my  kids do their math.

So that's what poultry show day actually entails. And to say that my kid walked away with fourth place in poultry showmanship in the intermediate division (ages 11-13) as one of the youngest kids in a group of twelve, I think is pretty amazing. I'm darn proud of her, and I never cease to be amazed at all the hard work she so willingly puts into raising these birds and learning about them. And her handful of other ribbons are pretty impressive too, considering her birds spend the majority of their time digging for bugs in a manure pile.

And Littlest One was able to do showmanship in the pee-wee open class division, where she got Grand Champion out of five kids ages 5-7. She memorized a speech that lasts about 6 minutes, and the judge told her she could give some of the junior and intermediate kids a run for their money in poultry showmanship. To hear a seven year old little girl talk about things like a uropygial gland and discuss pencilling of neck feathers is pretty incredible.

It wasn't a perfect year - there were some difficulties. But both girls showed their hearts out, loved their birds, and learned a lot. So I think we can call it a success.

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