It’s (Chicken) Showtime! April 30, 2012
Chickens have been a lifelong obsession for me. Having chickens led to breeding chickens, breeding led to a desire to improve the chickens I had, and that desire eventually led me to showing. Poultry exhibiting, commonly known as “showing”, seems like another planet to many. In some regards it is; it has its own language, culture, and governing rules. (Do you show your own birds, or attend shows?)
For me showing is just as much a social activity as it is a competitive pursuit. I’ve made friends all over the country and usually shows or auctions are the only time I see them in person. It’s a chance to catch up, see who’s doing what with their breeding program, gawk at breeds we wish we had the coop space for, swap stories–and birds. It is also an invaluable learning experience. What pushed me to begin attending shows was the chance to see how my birds compared to others of the same type and how well they fit the show standard according to a trained judge. Even if you never decide to show you can learn a lot about general health and care just by visiting a poultry show. Walking into a show hall for the first time is an overwhelming experience to many. Rows and rows of birds, all in pristine feathers with men and women of all ages bustling about. Poultry supply vendors, breed clubs’ tables, seminars, club meetings, the junior show…..it’s truly a sight to behold.
How do I start?
Many who get into showing did so as kids, either in 4-H or FFA. You don’t have to start there–you don’t even have to start young. The first time my birds went to a show I was in college, and the first time I conditioned (the art of bringing your birds to the peak of perfection in health and appearance) my own birds for a show was after I graduated college. It doesn’t take much to get started. I’ll cover some of the more detailed aspects, as well as some tricks and tips in a later blog post, so stay tuned!
1. The best first-step you can take is to buy a copy of a show standard and memorize the written standard for your breed. If you show bantams, you can get a copy of the standard from the American Bantam Association. Largefowl, bantams, waterfowl, turkeys and guineas are covered by the American Poultry Association. Many other books can give you good information on raising poultry, checking their health and so on, but for showing you need to adhere to the standard of the head organizations. Once in awhile you’ll run into a breed that isn’t formally recognized yet, in which case you’d want to find a breed specific club and breed towards their show standard. An example of this is one of the breeds I show, the American Gamefowl. It is not recognized in large fowl (often called “standard” size) so I rely on the written standard of the United Gamefowl Breeders Association. If you decide showing is for you, you’ll gradually develop your own techniques, finding what works for you and your birds to bring out the best in your flock. TLC, proper pens, good feed and clean water are vital.
2. Ideally you’d want to separate the individual birds starting at the molt so their feathers can grow in without damage from other birds. When I begin the conditioning I inspect every bird to make sure they are healthy and treat each bird to prevent external and internal parasites. You will also want to trim the tip of the beak if it is too long, trim long toenails and blunt the end of spurs on your roosters. Finally, slick the legs and feet with a sulfa ointment to prevent leg mites.
3. For my first show I conditioned I used what I had. I put one or two birds in large pens I call “scratch pens”. These pens are 4′x4′x4′. Large dog crates (the folding wire kind) work too. I kept these pens in shaded areas out of direct sunlight and rough weather. Direct sunlight can turn white feathers yellow (think of it as a sun tan) or bleach out light colors like buff. In each pen I put clean straw about 6-8 inches deep in the bottom. I would throw their feed into the straw each day to exercise them (they will scratch through the straw to find all the goodies). The amount of feed you give depends on the breed, a good rule of thumb is to see how much feed they will eat from an empty cup in 15 minutes and to throw that amount into their straw twice daily. If a bird is not eating all its feed or wasting it, cut back on the amount. Wasted feed in a pen can go bad and if eaten lead to botulism. A roost was placed at least 2′ off the ground for them to fly up onto at night. Try to avoid using small wire (chicken wire, hardware cloth) on these pens as it will damage tail feathers. 2”x4” welded wire works ok to start, but it too can damage tail feathers. The scratch pens I used worked great to give the birds exercise and allow their feather to grow out, but it did have one major flaw. The flaw was they were so much bigger than the show coops that they would end up in that some birds were too nervous. The birds were also put closer to each other than they had been accustomed to.
4. You also need to get your birds used to being handled. The next time I conditioned birds I made my own set of show coops. I based these coops off the measurements that Keipper Cooping Company uses. Each morning I’d take my birds out of their show coops, put them in the scratch pens for the day, then catch them in the evening and put them back in the show coops. This also gets the birds used to being handled. Be sure to always take a bird out of its coop face first and calm. Tail-first can cause damage to feathers or cause the birds toes or wings to catch on the entry-way of the coop. A bird that is not calm may also injure itself, escape, or damage feathers. When holding the bird, cup the breastbone in your palm and hold onto the legs between your fingers of that hand. Think of it as holding a feathered-football. This gives you a firm hold without damaging the bird and allowing you to really look over and inspect your bird. You would place the bird into its traveling case (also called a carry case) the same way.
Showing chickens is a real blast for me, half the fun is trying new methods each time. Adjusting the pens, feed, and handling to try and get your birds to their peak of condition. With every new batch of chicks comes the anticipation of a new champion. Traci mentioned in her blog post that she agonizes over her eggs. I do too! But for me it’s worse, in a way; I know I can’t possibly hatch every egg my hens lay…..but what if that egg that went into the omelet would have been a national champion? To lessen this anguish I keep my hens and roosters in separate coops except for the ones I’ve purposely paired up. At the end of the day, it’s about having fun with my birds, seeing old friends, and enjoying the diversity of the poultry world.