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Chapter One: Getting Started
Chapter Two: Acquiring Your Birds
Chapter Three: Raising Birds to Show
Chapter Four: Raising Healthy Birds
Chapter Five: A Month Ahead: Getting Ready
Chapter Six: The Week of the Show
Chapter Seven: Showtime
Chapter Eight: Poultry Showmanship
Chapter Nine: Post-Show Follow-Up
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This book was written for families and youth competitors, and other entry-level amateurs. It is not intended for professional breeders at American Poultry Association shows.
Showing poultry can be an exciting experience for anyone at any age. The challenge of raising show-quality birds and the competition itself are most rewarding, providing opportunities for the first-time exhibitor to acquire a great deal of knowledge. It will be even more rewarding if you plan ahead. Attending a show a year before you exhibit lets you simply observe and learn how things work. If you cannot attend the show you plan to enter, there are usually others nearby that will at least give you a feel for the process and can take the edge off that first experience.
What to Show: Species and Breed
Deciding what to show may be your first challenge. Start with the species of poultry that you are passionate about, but do not be afraid to branch out as you acquire knowledge and skill.
Typically, a first-time poultry exhibitor will begin with chickens because the stock is readily available. Although they may be the most common, chickens are not necessarily the easiest way to start. Instead, I always recommend waterfowl to first-timers. Waterfowl are more forgiving of learner mistakes when it comes to the raising process, and for showing purposes they are easy to get ready for the show. In fact, if you give them their own water container to clean up in, ducks and geese almost get themselves ready.
Turkeys and guineas are less common show specimens and thus have a good chance of winning because of the lack of competition. They do require considerable effort, however, both in raising and in preparing for the show. Before you venture into showing turkeys or guineas, it would be best to have a few years’ experience of both poultry raising and poultry showing. Both of these wonderful fowl have a few quirks in the raising and showing that can be a bit overwhelming for the beginner.
DUCK PAIR. Though often overlooked, ducks make an excellent poultry project.
Where to Show
Deciding where to show can be challenging in some areas of the country and easier in others. Nearly every county fair in the United States has a place for 4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) showing, and many also have open class (non-4-H, non-FFA members) shows in conjunction with these youth events. State fairs are also an option for many and the competition will be stiff, and the divisions and classes large.
Other show options are the ones that are sanctioned by the American Poultry Association (APA) or American Bantam Association (ABA) and are put on annually or semiannually by area fancy poultry clubs. (“Fancy” in this sense does not mean ornamental, but different breeds that are not typically used by large commercial operations.) With regional, state, and (often) national meets for specific breeds, these are great opportunities to see, literally, the best of the best. These shows are routinely advertised in poultry publications and promoted in the magazine/newspaper The Poultry Press, which has been reporting on show results for well over 100 years.
Don’t expect top results the first time you exhibit at an APA- or ABA-sanctioned show. This is where the pros show their birds. And don’t be discouraged if you do not do well; just consider it a learning experience and start preparing for the next year.
As early as possible, find out the requirements for the particular show you’ll be in, as these can vary among states and even among counties in the same state, whether the show is 4-H, sponsored by a poultry club, or professional. For example, limitations on the age of the birds will vary from show to show. In some cases, the birds must all be hatched during a specific time frame, and you will need to provide verification of that. Other shows will require specific breeds, and non-listed breeds will not be allowed.
How Many Birds?
A key issue is the number of birds allowed per entry. Many 4-H fairs require pairs, or pens of three; others will allow single-bird entries. Here you must follow show guidelines. You may have an outstanding male or female bird, but the contest may require that you show either a pair or a trio or, in some cases, a pen of three of the same sex.
For many years, interest in showing was low and most shows did not have a maximum number of entries an individual could enter. Increased interest has led to limits for many shows. Before you raise 50 birds of top show quality, check the maximum entry limits. Most fairs have an entry fee, which can be as small as 25 cents or as steep as $3 plus per entry. All of this information can be found in the show entry guidelines and, in many cases, on a website.
Entry forms are usually self-explanatory. They require information such as band numbers, gender, and whether your bird is in the pullet/cockerel grouping or the hen/rooster grouping.
Terms to Know
APA. The American Poultry Association, the umbrella organization whose mission is to promote and protect the standard-bred poultry industry and to maintain its standards via publications, shows, and other educational efforts
ABA. The American Bantam Association, a national organization that promotes the breeding and exhibiting of all kinds of bantams
fancy. The act of raising chickens for pleasure; or, a name for a group of enthusiasts who raise chickens or other poultry
Acquiring Your Birds
Once you have decided to show and you understand the requirements, it is time to find a source for your birds. This must happen a considerable length of time before the show: if your show will take place in mid- to late summer, you must decide where you are going to get your animals — either by purchasing started stock or acquiring day-olds — prior to the first of the year. These days, you can browse the Internet to learn which breeds and varieties are acceptable for showing and which are not. That research will help you decide how much you want to spend, and how deeply you want to get involved with the activity.
Breeder or Hatchery?
The first step is deciding whether to use a breeder or a commercial hatchery. A breeder focuses on the perfection of a breed and aims to retain all of its recognized American Poultry Association (APA) traits. A commercial hatchery’s main purpose is to produce production birds, which may well resemble the APA-recognized breed but not be the correct size or have a few other minor imperfections in the body, such as in the comb and eye color. You may not notice some of these minor differences at first, but as you start showing they will become more and more evident.
Buying from a Breeder
A breeder’s primary focus is to maintain the breed’s size and physical characteristics. A breeder will sacrifice and go with a lower hatch rate to get a better example of a bird, which a commercial source may not be willing to do. Many production qualities can be lost in an effort to maintain the breed’s true desired traits. The best example here would be Runner ducks. Runner ducks that come from a commercial source will frequently appear to have the correct upright stance needed for showing, but in many cases their bodies will not be at the correct angle. It is very disappointing to see a commercially bred Runner duck that walks at a 45-degree angle and has a short, fat neck.
Breeders’ birds will be more expensive and may not grow as fast as, say, birds that are bred for production. Purchasing them will require advance planning on your part: you may need to buy them earlier to have time to fatten them up a bit before they compete against heavier production birds.
It is not uncommon to spend $25 to $50 each for breeders’ chicks. The price is directly related to how that person’s stock has performed at shows. I hesitate to recommend that beginners in the show scene get started with this expensive stock, unless you have had considerable experience raising poultry.
Buying from a Hatchery
For the first-time show person, I strongly advise narrowing down your choices for breeds and varieties and obtaining stock from a hatchery. The costs there will be considerably less, and you will learn proper ways to raise the birds. Also, if a chick or two perishes because of your learning curve, your losses may be $5 instead of $100.
This first year, your biggest challenges will be learning how to raise the poultry properly for showing and educating yourself about the show process. Once you have your techniques down, you can search for breeders of the poultry that interest you most.
Breeding Your Own
As you increase your involvement in the showing world, you may decide to develop your own breeding pens. Although this requires more work, it can be the most rewarding part of the show experience because you are selecting and working with the birds that you have found to be the best. You will have a great deal of pride and a sense of accomplishment when you see the results of your selection process, first with the breeder’s poultry, then by selecting the best from their offspring.
Bird Type: Commercial or Heritage?
Another aspect of the showing process is choosing a poultry type, which relates to your purpose in raising birds. Are you raising birds primarily for hobby interests and the aesthetics of their beauty and mannerisms, or are you looking for meat or egg products? Many fairs for youth center around 4-H or FFA and involve two different philosophies. Some are set up with a commercial or production focus, and heritage breeds are either not accepted or will not do well against the established criteria. Make sure that if you want to show your favorite heritage breed in these commercial egg or meat production categories, you are aware of the competition and how various judges will view your exhibit.
More recently, shows have begun offering two distinct divisions: a commercial production category for modern egg- and meat-production birds, and a separate division for fancy poultry. For the exhibitor, this setup is the best of both worlds. You can dabble in production birds, where the main emphasis is on production, and you can concentrate on fancy poultry, where true show techniques are brought to the forefront with breed traits and conformation.
Select your stock with care if you wish to do well. If you go to the local feed store, reach into a large livestock tank used to hold baby fowl, and randomly pluck out a dozen or so birds, you risk not getting what you want. I have encountered more than one unfortunate exhibitor who reached into the tank that was supposed to contain heavy layer pullets and ended up with a whole collection of assorted roosters. That doesn’t mean the hatchery goofed up, but it is not uncommon for feed-store workers to be unaware of the differences among types of chicks. It is also not uncommon for pranksters to “sort” a few chicks while they admire the cuties. I am not saying that you cannot get some high-quality production and meat birds from a local source; you just need to educate yourself and hope that you get what you think you picked out!
Stock selection requires research time — with books about poultry standards (see below) and with the help of the Internet. The best source of information for anyone, and youth especially, is a knowledgeable breeder who is willing to mentor and give high-quality information.
Use caution with Internet research: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Research your breed and become familiar with its characteristics before you start looking to buy. Then you can more easily evaluate statements made by source contacts and separate truth from exaggeration.
Chicks in a livestock tank. Here’s an example of what you will find in a feed or farm supply store.
Homework: The APA Standard
You will certainly want to know something about your breed and its proper characteristics, and the best place to start is with a good read of the APA Standard (full name: The American Standard of Perfection, published by the American Poultry Association). This will familiarize you with all the major points you might be asked about, such as comb type, comb shape, leg and shank color, feather color, eye color, ear lobe color, and size of the bird. It never hurts to know where the bird originated, its egg color if it is a hen, and the main points that make the bird unique. Knowing the APA guidelines is a must for all but a few remaining 4-H and FFA youth events.
Selecting meat birds has extra complications. While most shows only have separate meat classes for chickens, a few shows divide other fowl into meat and fancy classes. This is most common in ducks, but I have also seen it in turkeys as well, though many youth events still only provide a fancy category for naturally mating heritage turkeys, since their body mass is so much less than that of commercial strains.
If you are showing in the meat production classes for chickens, you must decide whether to be cautious and buy standard Cornish Cross broiler chicks that mature in 6 to 8 weeks, or go with one of the newer types such as Red Rangers or slower-growing broilers. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. There are distinct bloodline differences in the types of broilers, which affect their growth rates, immune system issues, and rate and amount of feathering, as well as other important factors that can have an impact on your success.
Cornish Cross vs. slower-growing broiler. Notice the distinct size and body build difference between a Cornish Cross broiler (right) and a slower-growing broiler (left), both at 6–8 weeks.
Home Production Stock and APA Standards
Another consideration when selecting stock is how the fair is set up with regard to common breeds such as Rhode Island Reds, Black Australorps, White Rocks, Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, and Silver-Laced Wyandottes, to name a few. These popular breeds are widely available in feed and farm stores and small hatcheries, and many people buy them for home production flocks.
If your show is set up with production classes, these are good breeds to have. If, however, your show is set up with APA standard classes, the above-mentioned birds, when chosen from production stock, will not do well. The main reason is that none of them will be of acceptable size according to APA guidelines. Production birds tend to be smaller and faster maturing than large exhibition fowl. In addition, there are color issues. Some examples with regard to chickens:
Rhode Island Reds. When they come from production fowl, Rhode Island Reds will be much paler than the APA guidelines. They need to be a very dark red, almost appearing black from a distance.
Australorps. Black Australorps will frequently have the wrong color feet — yellow bottoms instead of pinkish white. This is an indication of crossing (cross-breeding).
Rocks. White Rocks will be much too small, and Barred Rocks will not have the distinct clear barring.
Orpingtons. Buff Orpingtons from production lines tend to be too thin-looking and too tall, and in many cases will have large combs. All of those traits are not true Orpington traits. With Orpingtons, you want a broad body and a fluffy look, with short, stout legs. Slimly built Buff Orpingtons are considered very unattractive.
Wyandottes. Silver-Laced Wyandottes from production strains are almost always very small and of thin build, not blocky like a proper Wyandotte. The lacing is usually indistinct (see below), and poor breeder selection usually results in many individuals with single combs. Wyandottes should have a nice rose comb as indicated in the illustration on page 45.
More than one young exhibitor has been disappointed when told in a constructive way that his or her “pretty chickens” have many flaws that do not conform to the standards for a particular class of breeds.
With Silver-Laced Wyandottes or any other laced variety, this distinctive marking is the key. There should be a thin rim around each feather, with the main part of the feather a solid color with no specks or streaks or flecks of any other color.
Raising Birds to Show
Raising poultry for show can require different methods from what one might use to raise poultry for future production. Your goal is to produce birds, by showtime, that are not only healthy and clean but also excellent representatives of their breed and grown to an optimal size. You want these show birds to grow fast but remain in peak condition. In many cases, this will involve selecting different feeds and being careful about how confined and crowded your birds are. Take care to keep your birds growing at a proper rate and not to overdo it with treats and other items that might lead to future problems.
The Right Feed for the Breed
With many commercial meat birds, the true characteristics of the breed will appear only if you offer the proper feed that the genetic line is accustomed to. If you use homemade recipes for feed, you can run into serious issues with many lines of meat chickens, as I saw at a fair I judged.
Typically, in the area of the Midwest where I live, fairs require that all entrants get their chicks from the same hatchery on the same day, and all are wing-banded to ensure accuracy and integrity. Each exhibitor is then allowed to raise the birds as he or she sees fit, and on the day they are judged, the pen of three (as it usually is) is weighed and evaluated for health and growth rate.
In one such contest, with about 25 entries, the weights of the entries for three birds ranged from 9 pounds to more than 26 pounds. That variability may seem hard to believe, but after each exhibitor was questioned, it became increasingly understandable.
The pen of three that weighed only 9 pounds, while healthy looking, had been raised on a homemade food mix and on pasture. They were also not on continuous feed. The pen of three that weighed more than 26 pounds had had 24-hour-a-day access to feed and water, were kept in a small confined area, and had spent their short 8-week lives not moving more than 6 to 8 feet in any direction. Unfortunately, they couldn’t move at all anymore, with open sores on their feet and hocks. They had been ready to butcher 2 weeks earlier and were currently on a downward health spiral.
I always encourage young exhibitors to strive for the middle ground and consider the health and quality of life for the birds. Provide adequate food and proper care.
The First Few Days of Life
A good healthy start is crucial to a good finish at the show. For the first few days, a young bird’s system is getting established, so a proper feed ration is essential. If the birds arrive in the mail very stressed (stressed birds will be lethargic, droopy, and have a low, dull peep), start them out on a 50-50 mixture of hard-boiled egg and fine cornmeal. The egg yolk is particularly nutritious and will help get the chicks back on their feet. If all is well upon arrival, start out with a properly balanced food suitable for day-olds. Most feed stores offer a well-balanced poultry starter in the range of 23 percent protein.
It doesn’t hurt to start all species on a game-bird starter, which has a protein rating of 28 to 30 percent, and continue it for a few days. For waterfowl, it is particularly important to cut back on the protein within a few days (and definitely keep them on game-bird starter for no longer than 1 week). Waterfowl on too rich a diet will most assuredly develop angel wing. Turkeys, guineas, game birds, and small, frail bantams can be left on this high-protein feed for 8 to 16 weeks.
For most breeds of chickens and bantams, an average 23 percent protein starter feed should be fine; then as the season progresses, you can wean them down to 18 to 21 percent protein. If you do start chicks on game-bird starter, be sure to offer a lower protein feed after the first week or so. While it might seem like a good idea to keep chicks their entire lives on a game-bird starter, the long-term effect on the birds is harmful. Continuous high protein levels in adolescent birds can do some damage to the kidneys and slow the birds’ growth rate.
At 3 to 4 Weeks
The switch to lower-protein feeds happens at different times for different poultry. For chickens, give 18 to 21 percent; for ducks and geese, around 15 percent; and for turkeys, 23 percent.
I start backing off the protein level on chickens at about 3 to 4 weeks, on average. There are a few frail types that can be kept on high protein for a longer time. It would be best to keep the frail ones at the 18 percent level until showtime.
Waterfowl are the most sensitive to very high levels of protein, starting at 21⁄2 to 3 weeks of age, when their previously small, undeveloped wings start to grow at a rapid pace and they begin to feather out with adult feathers. Prior to this time, they are covered with down. Feathers are mainly protein, so a high-protein feed will spur the growth of large feathers in the wing area that will cause a condition known as angel wing or airplane wing, in which the feathers outgrow the bone support underneath and the wings tend to flop outward. Though this is not painful for the bird, it will prevent you from successfully showing the bird at a fair or an exhibition.
For waterfowl, the key is to offer them plenty of fresh green feed when they begin to feather out, preferably by letting them graze on a lawn or specially planted pasture mix for poultry. They will balance out their diet properly between your prepared feed ration and the greens they acquire from the pasture. The alternative is for you to cut green goodies for them every day and deliver them. While this works, it is more labor intensive and not nearly as effective as when the birds can pick and choose what they want to eat. Geese in particular will daily increase the grass and green feed part of their diet as they get older.
Angel wing. This is an unfortunate defect which prevents birds from being show quality.
When raising young males for showing, you will need to closely monitor their growth and maturity. As they reach sexual maturity, they can damage the feathers of both young pullets and other males in their desire to show dominance. Crested fowl, too, will require special care and maintenance. The crest always seems to be a target for other birds to damage.
Turkeys and Guineas
Turkeys and guineas need a higher-protein feed for a longer period of time than do any of the other species of poultry. I would not cut the protein level down to 23 percent until they are at least 12 weeks of age. In nature, their wild counterparts have a diet very rich in insects, and the birds are genetically programmed to need the higher levels of protein.
Getting Birds Used to Handling
When your future show winners are 3 to 4 weeks of age, it is crucial that you handle them properly. It is easy to be affectionate and cuddly with little fowl — whether chicks, poults, ducklings, or goslings — but once they start getting their feathers, the cuteness disappears and the handling tends to decrease. You must handle your birds frequently if you intend to show them, because the birds need to become familiar and comfortable with human contact if they are to develop the desirable show traits of being calm and relaxed.
Calm, relaxed birds that are used to human contact will always perform better. If you are a youth showing at a 4-H or FFA show, you will be judged on showmanship and how you handle your birds. A good juvenile-fair judge is often strongly impressed by a young exhibitor who has good handling skills and birds that appear relaxed in the owner’s hands. This sends a clear and distinct signal that the exhibitor has control and has truly done the project of raising the fowl.
Handling, Bird by Bird
Each type of fowl handles the show experience differently. Chickens and bantams are perhaps the easiest to show. Some varieties of bantams even appear to enjoy the experience and the extra attention they receive. Ducks generally deal well with shows but are far more comfortable when not confined in a cage. Geese simply tolerate the experience and can’t wait to get home to their water and pasture. Turkeys will most likely not look their finest at a show except in late fall, when males will strut their stuff if other males are present. Hens will usually cooperate but not enjoy the experience.
In showmanship classes for youth, judges will ask young exhibitors to remove their birds from the cage. When doing this, it is important to understand each bird’s individual adaptation to the show scene. First and foremost, always try to take the bird out of the cage head first and with as little struggle as possible. The more struggle, the less desirable the bird will look.
Chickens and Bantams
Reach into the cage and bring one hand down on top of the bird and with the other hand grasp the feet. With the hand on top covering the wings, and one on the feet, bring the bird out. The top hand should prevent the wings from flapping around.
How to hold a chicken. Support the feet and lower body to give the chicken a better feeling of security.
Ducks and Geese
Ducks are another story. You must not pick them up by their feet, and their wings can be sturdy and might hurt a small exhibitor. It is best to grab the back and hang on to the wings. Then, with your hands under the body at the base of the feet to give support (not hanging on to the feet), bring the bird out of the cage.
Geese are handled similarly, except the birds are so large that they will need a bit of care to make sure that their wings aren’t damaged on the way out of the cage and, once out, do not harm the exhibitor. A goose’s wings are very strong and the ends can be snapped if the exhibitor holds too tightly as the goose squirms. This is usually only a problem in geese less than 1 year old, which have more fragile bones.
How to hold a duck. Place your hand and arm under the body at the base of the feet to give support.
How to hold a goose. Hold the bird against your body with one hand, and hold the outside wing with the other hand.
Turkeys are a real challenge for small exhibitors; in fact, their size, particularly with commercial meat turkeys, makes them very difficult for most exhibitors. Commercial turkeys in most cases should probably not be picked up to be evaluated; you and the judge should examine the bird while it’s in the cage, checking the breast, legs, and thighs for defects. These birds can have challenging heart and respiratory issues (see box below), and a lot of handling in a hot summer show can be a life-ending experience for the birds.
Traditional heritage turkeys do not generally have the health problems of their commercial cousins, but they are more active and tend not to like the handling experience, trying to flap and squirm. Some judges will expect you to remove your heritage turkey from the cage, if nothing more than to check to see if you have any experience handling it. This can be a challenge with the bird’s large size, especially if the exhibitor is small. If you can, reach into the cage and grab the bird’s legs with one hand and cover the top of its body with your other arm to provide security to the bird and protection to yourself from the wings. It is not terribly hard to handle turkeys, and once they feel secure they will not flap. All of your advance preparation will help, but still, at the last minute the show experience can frighten them, and they may not react as expected.
How to hold a turkey. A firm hold on the wings and feet will prevent injury to both the bird and the exhibitor.
Health Problems of Commercial Turkeys
Modern commercial turkeys have been genetically changed to the point where their body mass is so great and out of proportion that they cannot handle being carried by their feet or held on their backs, as their mass will press against their lungs and they will struggle to breathe. They are also prone to weak, flabby hearts that can give out easily if placed under stress. As an even further complication, their bones are weak and break easily.
To handle guineas, you must use a great deal of patience and care when you reach into the cage. If you grab at the back to catch one, it will release its feathers and you will end up with a bare-backed bird. Instead, you must catch it by the feet and then carefully, without tugging or pulling, cup the top of the bird to make sure you do not cause it to release its feathers.
Guineas also have the unique trait of striking out at the person that has hold of them. They have long necks and sharp bills, and they can inflict serious damage if they get near the face and eyes. They will panic, as is their nature, so be prepared for that.
How to hold a guinea. Care must be taken to secure the legs and wings.
Game birds, such as Bobwhite quails and Chinese Ringneck pheasants, are a true challenge to show, and the exhibitor needs lots of hands-on experience with them to make sure the fair day is a positive experience. They will not respond well to being in cages, and in many cases you will need to put a cover on top of the cage to make sure they do not fly up and hurt their heads on the roof. It is their nature to try to escape, and they will do that frequently. For this bird, you will want to lock the cage so no one opens it up and you accidentally lose your project.
This is one case where you will have to spend considerable time with the birds to be able to handle them. Raising game birds for show is not for the person who wants an easy, maintenance-free project.
If you will be participating in youth shows, just picking up and carrying your birds around is not all that is needed: you must also be proactive and practice taking them in and out of a cage. I always recommend to young exhibitors that they frequently practice this as the birds are growing. Most fairs have their own cages, but you will do better if you have something similar of your own to practice with at home prior to the show. The easiest method is to acquire some wire cages, which you can purchase at many farm stores. Rabbit cages are excellent for this purpose.
Bantams are usually the easiest to train, followed by most breeds of chickens, then ducks. The least happy of the common show fowl will be the geese and turkeys. Guineas and game birds are far worse, and you have to take special considerations when showing fowl such as pheasants and quail. You will need to have a fairly secure cage with a top. Prepare to have a lock, and in some cases you will need to provide something to wrap around three sides to prevent fright and injury. Some shows even allow peafowl, and they need a large cage to allow the males to roost and maintain proper tail conformation.
It can be quite traumatic for a young bird to be thrust suddenly into a show cage with a wire bottom suspended above open air if it had been on a wood, concrete, or dirt floor for its entire life. Poultry have a natural fear of falling, so seeing the ground some distance underneath for the first time may cause a temporary paralysis or make them start flying frantically and uncontrollably. This can make for a very bad show experience. I do not deduct for this when I am judging, but I give the exhibitor tips on how to avoid the problem in the future. Many judges do deduct for this behavior, especially in a showmanship category.
When you first start training to caging, it is best (especially if the birds are used to being on the floor) to slip either some straw or a piece of cardboard into part of the cage so they can retreat to what is more familiar and gradually become accustomed to the new type of environment. As they adapt to this type of living situation, the fear will dissipate, and there will soon be no need for anything in the cage except the feed and water.
Geese and Turkeys
Geese and turkeys usually are shown in floor cages, so getting them used to the cage is more of a relaxation training to make sure the birds do not climb and flap around inside. To start training larger fowl, you may need to cover the top of the cage with a piece of cardboard or something similar that gives the bird a feeling of security. Contrary to fowls that are afraid of falling, the large birds are more afraid of what is above.
Pheasants and Quail
Pheasants and quail will constantly fly and crash against the top of the cage. In some cases they may kill themselves by beating their heads so many times they will first lose their feathers, then eventually either bleed to death or suffer severe brain damage from the experience. Beginners should avoid these birds until they have some experience under their belt. The key here is to spend time with the birds and familiarize them with their surroundings.
Getting a turkey used to a cage. Make sure to start cage training with the top of the cage covered.
Easy Does It
When youths are showing any poultry, it’s a big plus if the judge sees that the bird is at ease in the exhibition cage. While it is easy to eventually cage-train most breeds of bantams, chickens, ducks, and even geese and turkeys, game birds and some guineas will never be at ease in a cage. If you are able to accomplish such a feat and make it look as though they are in total relaxation when in an exhibition cage, you will undoubtedly impress any judge with your showmanship skills.
Raising Healthy Birds
One of the most important parts of the showing process is the general health of the bird. A weak, sickly-looking bird will not place well even if it is perfectly marked, colored, and of proper size. Judges will carefully evaluate a bird’s overall health, from comb color and texture to the condition of the feathers and legs. Birds that have respiratory problems also tend to have a particularly unpleasant smell that a trained judge can notice rather quickly.
Parasite prevention is crucial during the growing-up period. Waterfowl will nearly always take care of themselves with their constant bathing, but it is still important to check for lice and mites. In all my years, I have seen lice and mites on waterfowl only once, and those birds had been deprived of the ability to bathe daily and keep themselves clean.
Turkeys and guineas will also, in most circumstances, keep themselves clean and bug-free. Occasionally lice will be an issue, but give the birds a good place to dust-bathe and they will, in most cases, take care of the issue.
Lice, Mites, and Fleas on Chickens
Chickens have the biggest issue, as lice and mites will find them with little or no difficulty. Periodically check the vent areas and under each wing for signs of lice and mites. The creatures will leave their telltale traces: rough or damaged tissue, missing feathers, and/or egg cases on the feathers.
It is easiest to check for lice by picking up the bird, holding it in one hand, and then carefully parting the feathers around the vent area with the other hand. Look quickly, as the lice will scurry away — they will be a pale, creamy orange color, and they move fast. There are other species of lice that are larger, slower, and various shades of gray. Most lice will leave egg cases that look like gray matted areas in the feathers.
Mites can be of several different species that will in some cases resemble fine grains of pepper. They tend to appear in large masses and will crawl very slowly. The damage they do can be extensive, both to the individual bird and to all members of the flock, and they are harder to kill than the typical louse.
Sticktight fleas, which typically gather around the eye, can be a problem in some of the warmer areas of the country. I have no personal experience with these creatures, but the friends I know who have to deal with them indicate they are very hard to manage.
The best way to control mites is to find a spray that works, and gently, and on a regular basis, do a maintenance check and spray as needed. There are a number of good sprays on the market, and many more are constantly becoming available. Use care and make sure you read the directions as to how toxic each product is. Most important, do not overuse. It is also a good idea to alternate between two types to keep the parasites from developing resistance.
As a natural approach to control lice and mites, and to a lesser degree sticktight fleas, fill a large metal tub with woodstove ashes or diatomaceous earth, or a combination of the two. Place the bird in the tub so it can sit in the material and fluff it up into its feathers. This will be somewhat effective for a large infestation, but it is far more effective when done before the mites and lice become thick and plentiful on the bird.
An increasing variety of sprays is available, ranging from all-natural ones to those that contain harsh chemicals. You have to decide which approach you are most comfortable with and which one works to eradicate the pests from your flock.
Louse. This is typically what you are looking for.
Scaly Leg Mites
If you are able to carry over birds and show year-old or older birds in hen and rooster classes, another parasite you may encounter is the scaly leg mite. These obnoxious creatures spend their lives making both chicken and owner miserable — not that they get into the owner’s skin, but the frustration from dealing with them brings on a great deal of stress. Though tiny, they can cause great damage to the bird they choose to live on, burrowing into its leg and creating large, crusty areas. Eventually they can kill the bird.
For years, the only commercial treatments available for the mites were for caged birds, and the prices were not user-friendly for poultry raisers. At last there are several commercial remedies for sale at lower prices. The old standby homemade recipe still works great, however: mix 50 percent raw linseed oil or motor oil and 50 percent kerosene, then, wearing gloves, use a paintbrush to paint it on the chicken’s legs. Raw linseed has become hard to obtain, so I have switched to using motor oil in place of raw linseed oil, and that is just as effective.
Scaly leg mites. These are usually a problem only in birds older than 1 year.
Internal pests are rarely a problem for most exhibitors, but this can be an issue for free-range fowl and those raised on soil where previous flocks were raised. Things to watch for include poor feather development and thin birds without much energy.
If this becomes a problem, you will need to use a deworming medicine. These can be harsh, and your birds will need a nutritional boost following such a treatment. It is always best to add a probiotic or vitamin supplement once you have wormed poultry.
There are a few things to watch out for with each species of poultry, but waterfowl require the most attention, as you need to watch for proper wing development. Too rich a feed (that is, too high a protein level) will cause major feather and wing development issues in young ducks and especially young geese. Watch that the feathers are forming properly and the bone structure beneath is sturdy enough to carry the feathers; if they get so large they weigh the bird’s wings down, the bird can get airplane wing or angel wing. This condition will end the bird’s chance to become a show champion.
Other waterfowl issues to watch for involve the feet. Waterfowl raised on concrete or gravel will have rough feet, which in some cases develop raw, red sore spots that will also decrease show potential. These birds do best when they are given a good balanced diet, can walk on grass or soft soil, and are allowed to be in the water frequently.
Foot issues in waterfowl. These are the feet of a bird that needs softer landscaping and a more balanced diet to keep its feet in better condition — for its health and comfort, and also for showing.
Turkeys and Guineas
Turkeys and guineas are a bit more of a challenge for the show person. Heritage turkeys grow slowly, and you need a good four months prior to the show for them to look their best. (Three months is okay but not ideal.) Commercial strains of turkeys for meat classes will require less time but have additional issues. They require a high-protein ration of feed and frequent cleaning of their living area, more so than do the heritage birds.
Commercial turkey strains tend to sit down a lot and do not move around and roost the way the heritage types do. Heritage turkeys will start flying around at a young age and like to roost when they are 3 to 4 weeks old. Roosting keeps birds cleaner and more show-worthy. Commercial strains of turkeys rarely (if ever) roost and therefore spend most of their time with their breast area next to the floor.
Unlike heritage turkeys, which have solid, dry stools, commercial strains tend to have a liquid and messy stool, so more ends up on the bird. This means if you are showing a commercial meat pen of turkeys, you must have excellent maintenance skills, frequently changing the bedding as they age and the show draws closer. Improper maintenance will result in poor feather development on the chest and a dirty overall appearance.
When showing commercial meat turkeys and modern commercial broilers, the same advice applies to both: keep raising the feeder a bit as they age so that they constantly have to move around and don’t get in the habit of sitting while they eat. This not only helps keep them slightly cleaner, but it also encourages better muscle development and proper feather growth on the chest.
Guineas are a breeze when it comes to preparation. Give them a dry, clean place and spend some time with them to calm them down. These birds also usually remain pest-free.
A Month Ahead: Getting Ready
It is a good idea to mark the calendar with a reminder 30 days before the entry day for the show. At this point, you must start getting a few things under control and in order. First and foremost, make sure you are registered for all the categories that you want. In many cases, you will have to do this well in advance, so double-check final dates and make sure you meet all of those requirements.
The 30-Day Countdown
In many states, the first thing to do is to make sure that your birds are properly tested to meet health requirements for the show. Many counties will have pullorum-typhoid testing as the birds enter, but some will ask that you have it done yourself within a month of the show.
Once you have your paperwork in order and are duly registered for the show in the categories that you want, it is time to start your bird check. First check for parasites. Carefully check the fluff around the vent area, then check under each wing. If there are lice or mites, spray now, then repeat in 7 to 10 days to make sure they are all gone before the show. This is a must, as many exhibitions will send you home if, upon entry, your birds have any evidence of lice or mites.
Feed changes are essential now to get the birds in prime condition for the show. Increase the quality of the feed by increasing the fat content for chickens and bantams; turkeys and guineas will benefit from more fat as well, though it is not nearly as critical. Increasing the fat content of the feed helps give a natural shine to the birds’ feathers. The easiest way is to start adding a cup of dry cat food, which usually contains animal protein, to every gallon of their regular feed. You can also spoil them and give them a little bit separate from their regular ration. This also works as a training tool to get the birds to do what you want them to do.
Some owners will not want to add animal protein to their birds’ diet with cat food. One alternative is to use black oil sunflower seeds, which are rich in fats and protein. It is also becoming increasingly easier to obtain mealworms in reasonably priced large quantities. Most poultry can be quickly trained to eat them and will receive added nourishment from these tasty bird treats.
Another essential issue to address during this last month’s countdown to the show is your paperwork — getting it all together, including double-checking what blood tests you will need. It also never hurts to double-check entry forms, check-in times, and any other requirements for the show.
Pullorum-Typhoid (P-T) Test
Pullorum-typhoid (P-T) tests are called whole blood plate tests, and results are obtained within 2 minutes of submitting the blood sample. Pullorum-typhoid has nearly been eliminated in the United States, so a positive test is rare. Sometimes a false positive may be obtained, and the bird or a larger sample of blood will have to be sent off to the state laboratory for further analysis.
Many states require a negative P-T test within 90 days of a show; however, many shows have stricter requirements. Some now test birds as they enter the show, for both security and simplicity. This policy ensures that you are bringing the actual bird that was tested and that it hasn’t been recontaminated back on the farm. It also means the exhibitor makes fewer trips with the birds to the show or testing area.
If you have never observed a P-T test and are fearful about what it may do to your bird, I assure you it is a fairly simple test. The tester holds the bird and takes a sample (a large drop of blood) from the vein under the wing. The blood sample is placed on a test plate and a drop of test solution is added from a controlled-size dropper.
An experienced tester will leave nothing but the smallest mark on most birds and little if any bruising. I have judged birds that have been tested by less skilled people, however, and they have large hematomas and severe bruising. Unfortunately, you are at the mercy of the tester. Hopefully, through experience, all testers will develop the skill to make sure the bird is not seriously damaged. Modern broiler chickens and commercial strains of turkeys are particularly susceptible to these issues.
All of these what-ifs are the reason you do not want to wait until the last minute to have testing done, just in case. While it is not good to procrastinate, it is also important to double-check the guidelines for testing established by your show.
Avian Influenza (AI) Test
Increasingly, more and more areas are requiring avian influenza (AI) testing. This is a more elaborate test and requires more time, so plan accordingly. When you enter a show, you should be told whether this is a requirement and how it will be handled.
Knowing Your Birds
With a month or less to go before the show, it is also time to start brushing up on your knowledge of the breeds that you are taking. Are you ready for the questions that may be asked about the birds? The judge may ask questions about breed characteristics, breed history, and bird anatomy to see if you are knowledgeable about your exhibit. It never hurts to know the basics about the breed, such as eggshell color, proper leg color, ear lobe color, points on the comb, if single-combed, or the type of comb.
Also, be prepared to answer questions about your routine when taking care of the birds. The more you can say about when you feed, how you feed, and what you feed, the better able you are to show the judge that you are in command of your project and that you have taken ownership.
Anatomy of a Turkey
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Anatomy of a Duck
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Anatomy of a Chicken
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Chicken Comb Styles
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The Week of the Show
A week to go: lots to do, and lots of nerves and anxiety. If this is your first show, your mind can play tricks on you as you anticipate what to do and what to expect. Ideally you will have everything under control at this point, and you will simply coast to the finish line. You should have all of your blood tests and paperwork ready by now, unless the birds will be tested as you enter the fair. If that’s not the case, get out your contact list, find a blood tester, and get the tests done ASAP!
Rules and Regulations
Check any show guidelines again so you won’t be surprised by something you did not understand. For example:
Double-check the rules regarding supplies. With some shows, you need to bring all of the feed, feeders, and waterers; others do not want you to bring your own containers or feed and will provide all needed supplies.
Understand when you will have access to your exhibits to take care of them. Many shows have specific times when you can check on your birds, and the rest of the time the area may be locked or off limits. Rules such as this may seem harsh, but they do help protect your exhibits.
Find out if you can place padlocks on your cage to prevent tampering with your birds when you are not present.
With a week to go, it is a good idea to do a trial bath on either your fair bird or another. If you have never done this before, I strongly recommend that you practice on a bird that you are not exhibiting to get your technique down.
Bath Needs Vary
Most ducks and geese will bathe themselves when provided with a good clean water supply and a mud-free, dirt-free place (preferably a fresh grassy area) to retire to afterward. They will stay fairly clean and will not need any extra cleaning if they have been allowed to range and forage. They must have a source of water that they can get into and bathe themselves in daily. A fountain-type waterer with a lip is not enough for ducks and geese to maintain good cleanliness and a suitable smell.
A judge does not look favorably upon being handed a duck or goose that has not had a chance to bathe. I tell the exhibitor how bad the “DO” (duck odor) is. A duck with a stale, dirty smell just doesn’t say much about the quality of the exhibit or the care the exhibitor has provided.
Geese are masters of cleanliness. A good caretaker will never have to worry about a goose not looking its best if it has access to water to bathe in.
Heritage turkeys, game birds, and guineas should not need a bath. Guineas in particular will become stressed out and drop their feathers when bathed, and you will have a wet, soggy bird with a feather-free back area. At this point, you can say goodbye to any chance of winning a prize.
Commercial Meat Birds
Commercial meat turkeys are another story, since they will definitely need a bath, as will commercial broiler meat chickens. Both of these birds, with their large chest areas and center of gravity, will tend to have either a very dirty breast area or a feather-free area. You need to use special bathing techniques if they are not raised on very clean bedding. It takes only one rainy spell and damp bedding that has not been maintained, and you will have very nasty-looking fowl that will not do well at the show.
Special care is needed to reduce the stress a bath will place on these fowl: heart attacks are not all that uncommon. It is more important here than with any other types of fowl that you provide warm bath water. These birds tend to be large and very heavy, and water that is too cold or too hot will threaten their very survival. Also, if you place the bird in a full tub of water, the stress on its heart can be great enough that it will quickly expire.
Bathing a Bird
This can be a challenge for both people and birds, as it can get messy when the bird does not cooperate. Things work best if you have two people: one to hold the bird and the other to wash and scrub.
Fill the tub the day before, so the water can come to a nice comfortable temperature. If the ambient temperature is too cold, you can always bring warmer water in buckets to help reach the desired temperature. You want it to be neither too hot nor too cold so as not to shock the bird. Then have all your supplies in order and ready to go before you fetch the bird to wash. If you intend to use a blow dryer, run it ahead of time to condition the bird to its sound.
It is best to do your final bath either early on the day of the show or the night before. Do not procrastinate and wait so long that the bird is still damp and soggy when being judged.
A shallow tub large enough to hold your bird (a small kiddie swimming pool works great)
Liquid dishwashing soap
An old toothbrush
Blow dryer (optional)
1. When the water is pleasantly warm, place the dish soap in the tub. Use about the same amount of dish soap you would use if you were washing dishes in a similar container.
2. Gently place your bird in the tub. Hang on tight, or you will get the bath.
3. Use the washcloths to gently clean the feathers; the toothbrush is for the feet and legs. Don’t scrub too roughly, but you need to get the dirt off. The age of the bird and the toughness of its skin determine how much scrubbing you can do. For example, a 5-year-old hen needs some deep cleaning, but an 8-week-old broiler has very tender skin and needs only a gentle wash.
4. Once you have cleaned the feathers as best as you can, rinse the bird with clean, soap-free water and gently dry it with a towel.
5. If you have a blow dryer, this is the time to use it. Some birds will tolerate it; others will never be able to handle the noise and confusion.
6. Place the bird in a warm, dry, clean place afterward, where it won’t become chilled.
In some cases, you may need to bathe the bird more than once. Last-minute heavy rains, for example, and the resulting mud can take a toll on free-range birds. A second bath may be the only way to go.
It can be tricky to get this right, but some people use a light solution of nontoxic bluing (a colloidal mixture of an iron compound) in a second “rinse wash” after the main bath. I don’t necessarily recommend this, because it takes practice to get the right concentration or you end up with a sad-looking bird with a blue overtone. Done properly, though, it can make a white bird very bright. Again, don’t learn this process on your best show bird; practice on another who is not going to the show.
The following items can disqualify you from an APA show or lower your placing.
Duck foot. The rear toe is bent forward and points to the front of the foot.
Side sprigs. Fleshy growths appear off to the side of the comb of a single-comb bird.
Split tail. The feathers above the tail region look as though they have been parted.
Split wing. The wing has a distinct separation between the primary and secondary wing feathers.
Squirrel tail. The tail tends to bend forward over the head, a trait considered unacceptable in all but Japanese bantams.
Stubs. Feathers appear either on the legs or between the toes of breeds that shouldn’t have feathers there.
Vulture hocks. The back feathers above the hocks grow at a 45-degree angle back toward the ground — acceptable only in Sultans and certain bantams.
Wry tail. The tail resembles a sail and is bent off to one side.
Specific to Feather Patterns
Mossy. Occurring in laced varieties, the feathers look smudged, not laced.
Frosting. Also in laced varieties, an extra lace appears around the feather edge.
Splashed. In spangled and mottled varieties, the color is not uniform.
Shafting. The shaft of the feather is a brighter color and stands out from a distance.
Mealy. Feathers look dirty, typically in red or buff color varieties.
One extremely important task for the last week before the show is to make sure you have properly identified your birds’ gender and entered them appropriately. This can be very tricky with some breeds, and more than one person has misidentified the gender. It can be disheartening to arrive at the fair and find you have wrongly identified your birds as male or female.
Large, single-combed breeds are a cinch. Leghorn males, for example, have large combs; the females’ combs are nice-sized but nothing compared to the males’. In some breeds, however, the males are slower to develop, and this can give an exhibitor fits. The worst case is Silkies, which are a challenge until they are almost fully mature. Some males are obviously male, but others are slow to grow and will look like females for a long time.
Here are some tips for telling male from female:
Chickens. The key to gender-checking chickens is to examine the feathers on the neck and just in front of the tail. In males, those feathers will develop a pointed look; in hens, they will remain rounded.
Confirming chicken gender. Pointed hackle and neck feathers always indicate a male, with the exception of hen-feathered breeds. In these breeds, the males do not have pointed hackle feathers.
Ducks. For ducks, it is simple: females make a loud quack and males a soft, almost silent qua, not even a real quack. Yes, you can look at the curled tail feather, but I have seen many drakes with no curled tail feather and hens with curled tail feathers.
Geese. Geese are a challenge, and the only reliable method is to vent-check. Even then, many young males will have a very small penis, and a beginner might not be able to tell with certainty what sex a bird is.
Turkeys. It is easy to distinguish male and female turkeys once they reach the teenage stage (at about 10 weeks), since the males develop many more fleshy growths on their heads and the snood starts to grow. If the bird is old enough, a “beard” grows from the chest. Beards can appear in old hens as well, though, so don’t rely on that as foolproof.
Guineas. These are also a challenge to distinguish based on physical characteristics, but not when it comes to their voices. Hens emit a continuous buckwheat, whereas the males’ voices are much louder and shriller.
Final Prep and Packing List
The day before the show is the ideal time to bathe the birds that need it and put the freshly bathed in a place where they can stay clean. Get your transportation containers ready. Chicken crates work okay, as do cardboard boxes with sufficient ventilation, but the ideal container is a portable plastic dog crate with a layer of newspaper on the bottom and then clean, dry pine wood shavings spread on top of that.
Gather the materials you will need to pack, including:
Water and food containers
Small pail to use for a quick cleanup of the bird
Toothbrush (old one for cleaning)
Show day is finally here, and all the work you put in has come to fruition. If it is your first show, you have awaited this day for a long time, and it will be eventful. Whether it is your first experience or you have a few shows under your belt, each and every show can bring something new to learn and something you have never encountered before.
Steadying Last-Minute Nerves
The day you have waited for is finally here, and you are at the show. Nerves can get in the way of success, and the last-minute panic often sets in. The what-ifs are everywhere: What if I forget this or that? What if I freeze up and can’t answer any questions?
For the first-timer, these fears are understandable, and of course they can occur to anyone. If you have been practicing and doing your research as you go, the issues will suddenly become minor bumps, and in most cases, be unnecessary things that you didn’t need to worry about to begin with.
Here are some ways to head off show nerves:
Take a few deep breaths on the morning of the show and visualize the routine that you established.
Arrive early enough to check your exhibit and make sure there were no last-minute accidents resulting in soiled feathers or a ruffled-looking appearance. Your birds will be happy to see you, and seeing a familiar face in the crowded circuit of passersby can significantly improve their attitudes.
Do your last-minute prep of the birds for the show, and take time to relax and prepare for the day.
Every show and every judge are different. Many 4-H and FFA fairs try to use different judges every 2 years precisely for that reason: so the exhibitor has something new to learn and can grow from the experience. A wise exhibitor soon learns what a particular judge looks for and can quickly adapt her showing style to look good for that judge. Throw a new judge with a new perspective into the scenario, and what you once considered a champion bird may turn into a red ribbon, out of the running for a prize (see below). Most shows use the APA standards as a guide, and the further you progress in the showing circuit, the more important that becomes.
Purple ribbons are used for the top of a division or class for a special, top-quality bird. Dark purple is usually for the champion and light purple is for the reserve.
Blue ribbons are for top prize, meaning the bird meets the requirements for the breed or variety.
Red ribbons are for second place. The bird has some positive qualities, but has some areas that need improvement.
White ribbons are for third place. They are usually given only in rare circumstances in 4-H or FFA shows, but they can be used often in larger shows where each bird is ranked in terms of all the birds there. In 4-H and FFA events, it means the bird does not meet enough of the requirements or the project is seriously lacking.
The Learning Experience Is Most Important
I believe that a 4-H judge should give equal weight to the exhibitor’s knowledge of the project and to the quality of the bird. For the young people involved, 4-H should be a learning experience, and what better way to learn than to start with a day-old baby bird, raise it, show it, and learn what you did or did not do correctly.
As an exhibitor, you will learn far more from a project you have done yourself and earned a red ribbon for than from one where you purchased a bird from a professional poultry breeder a few weeks prior to the show and earned a blue ribbon or even best in show. In that case, you might ask yourself the following questions: What did I learn? Is this award really mine, or am I just reaping the rewards for someone else’s work? Each person has to decide for himself or herself what is the appropriate thing to do, but the judge will want to talk to an exhibitor about his or her project, and the more an exhibitor knows about the bird, the better he or she will look to the judge.
The Judging Process
There are many ways poultry shows can be conducted, and each has its own pluses and minuses. At APA-sanctioned events, the judge and the exhibitor do not interact. In these events, the judge is evaluating only the bird. At 4-H and FFA shows,the judge and the exhibitor interact in one of two common scenarios: the judge goes cage to cage, or all of the exhibitors and their birds line up in front of a judge and audience. If you’re showing at a youth fair, learn which approach will be used at your show so that you can prepare.
The Pen-by-Pen Approach
In this approach, the judge goes from cage to cage and visits with each exhibitor where the bird is located. This is probably the least threatening to the bird and the exhibitor. The bird has less stress than with other methods, it is moved one less time, and the exhibitor has slightly less fear of being in front of everyone and having to recall information. The downside is that the pen-by-pen method makes it difficult for the audience to grasp what is going on, so in many places it is losing popularity.
The judge will usually ask you to remove your bird (or birds) from the cage. Then you will hand off the bird to the judge for an evaluation. Always remember to take out your bird head first and have control of the situation. A good judge will know which breeds are a bit more active than others, but that is still no excuse for a bird to go flying off across the showroom or for you to spend 5 minutes trying to catch a bird in a cage. Confidence and showing the judge that you are in charge of the situation go a long way here.
As the judge begins to ask you questions or makes comments, feel free to discuss your bird. Point out some of the things you think make it a top bird, and don’t be afraid to mention an item or two that you think your bird might improve upon. Don’t go about this in a put-down or egocentric way, but the more you can tell the judge about your project, the more you are demonstrating your knowledge and command of the situation.
The cage-by-cage approach is great for the chance to chat with the judge about your project, your bird, and your goals. Your demeanor and method of handling the questions posed to you may be big factors in determining your ranking.
Pen-by-pen judging. A judge evaluates a bird’s positive attributes.
The Display Approach
An increasingly common method is the display approach, which allows all of the birds in the same entry class to be up in front of the audience at the same time. Usually the judge will have a microphone so that all can hear what is taking place. This method is great for attracting people to a show because it keeps the audience’s attention; they are right on top of things and can see how the exhibitors are doing.
Shows that have gone to this approach have nearly always seen a huge increase both in exhibit numbers and in the number of people in the stands. The more interesting the interactions are, the more exciting the show becomes for everyone. If lots of people are watching, more are coming through the gate and creating more dollars for the fair, which trickles down into bigger and better prizes for the exhibitors. It is truly a win-win situation.
Judges who are familiar with the display approach have no problem adjusting their method so that they still actively involve the exhibitor in the process, questioning and conversing with them. It can be more intimidating for the exhibitor to be in front of everyone, with their comments broadcast to the entire show arena, than back at the cage. If you have done your background work, you will expect this and will have prepared for this scenario.
This show setup allows for exhibitors to grow and learn from others around them, because they can learn from the tips given to others as well as to themselves. The good thing about this setup is that all the birds in the same class or grouping are on stage at the same time so an exhibitor can, in most cases, see many different varieties and how they are shown and evaluated.
Try to turn this into a huge learning experience for yourself. You can also use the downtime when you are not on center stage to learn and observe the judge’s mannerisms and how he or she responds to the other exhibitors and how they handle themselves. The key to success in this and any type of show is to observe at all times. There are many things to learn and many ways in which to acquire the knowledge.
Display judging. This approach allows the judge to see how well the exhibitor can handle her own birds, and it allows the judge to better compare the birds.
Many youth fairs include a category for showmanship, usually divided into various age categories. Typically you have a Junior division for those in grade six or less; Intermediate for junior high (grades seven and eight); and a Senior category for high school. Some fairs even offer a Master division for candidates that have won in their age group.
Every judge will evaluate showmanship in a different way. The tips that I am giving you here are the methods that I have used in more than 25 years of judging youth poultry shows. While all circumstances described will not apply to every judge or fair, none of the information should be harmful to your attempt to succeed at this part of the poultry-showing experience.
What Judges Look For
As a judge, I like to show up half an hour before the show to see which exhibitors are there checking over their entries and making sure all is going well. I also like to see that it is the exhibitor, not family members, doing all the work. It doesn’t bother me if parents or siblings are helping, but they should not be doing all the work. I then walk around to do a precheck to see if the cages are clean and if the birds are fed and watered. I don’t have to be writing down things that I notice, but I can be taking lots of mental notes on whose birds have been well cared for all along and whose birds are simply a one-day project event.
Once the show begins, most judges will evaluate you from the first bird you exhibit until the end of the show when the showmanship award is announced. How you present yourself is the first thing to consider. Most fairs have standard guidelines on what is acceptable apparel for showing. Violations of that code usually mean you will not qualify for showmanship.
Pay close attention to whether an official fair-issued shirt is suggested (or other guidelines as to what is considered acceptable) and whether shorts or sandals are allowed. It may be 100 degrees in the show building that day, but if the rules say no shorts and sandals, then don’t wear them — or face disqualification.
Other Tips for Success
Here are other points to consider, based on my experience as a judge.
Do not chew gum or eat while you are showing.
Make eye contact with the judge, and listen carefully as he or she goes over your bird with you.
As you become more relaxed and your confidence grows, initiate a conversation about your project with the judge. Mention key points about your bird, such as its color — good and bad points both.
Close-Up on Judges
Each judge has his or her own style and may or may not interact much with you. A good judge for youth projects will be a teaching judge who desires to help you with as many constructive comments as possible — stressing the good points but showing you the weaknesses as well. For youth projects, the focus should be on you and your knowledge of the project, and the bird should be of somewhat secondary importance.
The best show person doesn’t necessarily have the best show-quality birds. I have judged more than one fair where the showmanship winner was not the person with the best-looking birds. The person with the top-quality birds had near-zero knowledge of what he or she owned, had obviously purchased them from a top-quality show person, and had not raised any of them at all. A good judge can fairly quickly determine if you have raised your own project or purchased it.
Prepare for all types of judges. There are the teaching judges, the silent judges, the judges that forget that not everyone is a professional show person and that showing is supposed to be a learning project. Some judges will want to know your name and talk to you directly, and others will refer to you only by the fair number pinned on your shirt. There are probably pluses and minuses for each method.
I wholeheartedly support the teaching approach to try to help each exhibitor build a better project and to make each and every show a positive learning experience. Anyone with experience raising many breeds of poultry can take even the best specimen and pick out everything that is wrong with it, regardless of how great the bird is. An approach like that does not encourage the exhibitor to do better next time. It may build the ego of the judge by showing the judge’s knowledge, but the young, inexperienced exhibitor may be terribly discouraged.
In showmanship, each judge will be different: some will base the entire score on questions about poultry anatomy, others on whether you removed your bird from the cage properly. I have seen showmanship contests in which each person was asked to bring a bird, and the judge then asked the same question of each, following it up with a very technical question about the particular bird the exhibitor chose to bring. You may be asked about feeds, feeding times, growth rates, or just about anything poultry-related.
Overall, you should be prepared for any poultry-related question. If you are all asked to line up with your bird for question time, make sure you are attentive and present yourself as professionally as you possibly can.
I always encourage every exhibitor to try out for showmanship, even if he or she has public speaking fears or crumbles on the spot. It is a great learning experience and will help develop some essential life skills that you will be able to use in many situations.
The show is now over, and you are packing up and heading home. But just as you took some time to get ready for the show, there are responsibilities to address after the experience is done.
If you are bringing your exhibits home, it is essential that you do a post-show cleanup. The birds will have been out in public and exposed to any number of things that can harm your other birds back home.
Most fairs require only that the birds have a P-T test and that they be free of external parasites. There are many diseases your birds may be exposed to, however, especially at fairs where older poultry are shown or where birds have been to big shows all over the country. These individuals will not necessarily show illness at the show, but the stress and strain of a competition can activate many diseases and conditions that will most likely show up in your birds a few days to several weeks after you return home.
Quarantine. In all cases, have a place back home where you can isolate your show birds from the rest of the flock for a month. This may seem harsh and inconvenient, but the consequences of not doing it can be catastrophic to the remaining fowl that you have at home.
I once lost all 20 birds I took to a show because they picked up an untreatable respiratory condition. I am still thankful I did not introduce those 20 back into their breeding pens or I would have lost everything.
Parasite protection. This is the easiest thing to do. You can check for parasites with simply a quick glance, but it is better to spray each bird again as a safety precaution. Once you leave the show, immediately spray or dust your birds for parasites, then repeat in a week just to make sure no living creature made it home to your flock. Again, it may seem like a lot of work, but it can pay off in the long run. Shortcuts usually lead to long-term frustration.
Bringing Show Birds Back into Shape
There are two ways to bring your show birds back into good health. You can go the antibiotic route and give them a low dose of antibiotic for a few days. From a biological perspective, this can lead to lower effectiveness of antibiotics in the future; thus, my preference is not to treat unless a condition arises.
The best alternative is to put a higher dose of vitamins and a low dose of probiotics in their water for a few days. Probiotics help restore proper flora to the birds’ digestive tract and help support their own natural immune systems. The birds have had a shock to their systems from the stress of the exhibition time and need a boost to make things go smoothly again.
Watch your birds’ stools to see rather quickly if there are issues. Loose, watery stools in chickens are a clear indication of health issues, but in waterfowl runny stools are not a problem in most cases.
Off-color stools are also usually indications of stress in any type of poultry. A lot of deep green is a bad sign, as it means that kidney function is not at its peak. You will soon notice the difference between a stool that is deep green from eating lots of green leafy vegetables and one that is green from an impaired excretory system. A green stool caused by stress is almost a greenish blue, much brighter than a stool resulting from eating lots of green leafy vegetables.
Your birds need to recover from the stress they endured in the disruption of their routine when you took them to the show. Birds appreciate a routine, so the sooner you return them to their regular pen and food and water, the sooner they will resume being their normal, contented selves. If you were working with them regularly before the show, they will be less stressed than those that did not experience the cage practicing and people exposure, and they will recover more quickly.
Chickens and ducks, in most cases, will return to regular behavior soon. Guineas are easily stressed and do not do well in these situations. Geese will typically molt after a show, partly because of the season and partly from the stress of the entire event. Turkeys will frequently drop some feathers.
Game birds will usually be a mess when they return home. They will drop many feathers, and in severe cases will look as though they have been plucked. The best approach for guineas and game birds is to get them back into their normal routine as quickly as possible and reduce their stress load.
If you choose to bring your birds back to health with the natural method, this is the time to get them out on pasture and give them lots of deep-green leafy vegetables, special treats such as sunflower seeds, or other foods to get their systems regular again.
Selling Your Birds
In some shows there is a championship show sale, and you may be lucky enough to get a large sum of money for your project, should you choose to part with your top prizewinner. There are several things to think about when it comes to parting with your bird.
If you are in a meat or commercial class, it is probably a great idea to reap the benefits and get the cash, as the birds cannot be used for breeders anyway.
If you are exhibiting heritage birds or have just been awarded top prizes for standard-breed birds, you may want to keep them and exercise one of two options. Many shows now allow two ages of birds to be shown: those less than 1 year old and a separate class for older birds. If your show has an older bird class, you should consider keeping those that won top of their division or class and either using them as breeding stock for next year’s show or showing them in the older class the following year.
I recall judging one show for seven or eight years straight, where one young exhibitor had a superb Blue Cochin cockerel her first year of 4-H. She took fabulous care of the bird and brought him back for the next six years. He did well every year, but toward the end he started to be outclassed in the finals by his children. This is a perfect example of a high-quality bird that can win again and produce winners as well. In fact, I even ran into his outstanding offspring in neighboring counties.
The Learning Experience
Remember to take good notes on what you learned and what you plan to do for the show next year. While the experience may seem unforgettable now, a year can cause a slip in the memory and you may have forgotten by the next season.
If you have reached the point where you are ready to move to the next level, start planning your breeding pens and figuring out which male should go with which female or females. Once you start doing well at shows, it is time to consider moving to that next level and start breeding your own birds.
Each and every year, keep working on the areas that you did not do as well in and keep working toward the next level, either by breeding your own lines for showing or expanding to new and different types of fowl.
Another great way to learn is to attend as many seminars on raising and showing poultry as possible. There are never too many opportunities to learn, and you never know when or where you will pick up a great piece of information.
Take the time to get involved with any local poultry clubs and learn from the masters. Many poultry clubs have longtime poultry enthusiasts who are eager to share their knowledge and tips with a young person to carry on the fancy. In some cases, they will even donate some of their prize-winning stock to a young person to help get them started.
One Year before the Show
❏ Attend shows to decide which you want to enter.
❏ Familiarize yourself with the options and regulations for the show(s) of your choice.
❏ Do your research on species, breed, and type, consulting the APA Standard, the Internet, and experienced breeders, as needed.
❏ Attend seminars or poultry club meetings to learn about showing.
❏ Decide what birds to show and where to obtain them.
Nine to Six Months before the Show
❏ Acquire your birds and raise them with appropriate feed rations.
Three Months before the Show
❏ Register your birds for the appropriate youth shows and classes (for professional shows, birds are registered about 6 weeks prior to the show).
❏ Find out what health tests are required and when those must be completed.
❏ Handle your birds frequently so that they remain calm and relaxed with human contact.
❏ Practice taking your birds in and out of a cage.
❏ Check for and treat parasites.
❏ Check that your birds are growing normally and not exhibiting anatomical flaws.
❏ With commercial meat birds, raise the feeder as they age to force them to stay active.
One Month before the Show
❏ For professional shows, double-check that you have registered your birds for the appropriate shows and classes and that all paperwork is complete (this should already be done for youth shows).
❏ Familiarize yourself with show logistics: what you need to bring (feed, etc.); how often you can check on your birds during the show; necessary supplies.
❏ Have your birds tested for pullorum-typhoid unless the show tests them upon entry.
❏ Increase the quality (particularly the fat content) of your birds’ feed.
❏ Prepare for judges’ questions by reading up on your breeds and paying attention to how you care for your birds.
One Week before the Show
❏ Double-check all show guidelines.
❏ Do a trial bath, and if it’s your first time, practice on a bird that is not attending the show.
❏ Be sure you know the gender of your birds.
❏ Prepare a place where you can isolate your show birds from the rest of the flock for the month following the show.
One Day before the Show
❏ Bathe your bird(s) again and check them over.
❏ Arrive early.
❏ Make sure your birds are cared for properly and not lacking food or water.
❏ Talk to the judges as they examine your birds.
❏ Enjoy the experience, and if the results are not what you hoped for, make sure you know how to improve things in the future.
❏ Keep notes on your show experiences and results.
❏ Immediately spray or dust your birds for parasites, then repeat 1 week later.
❏ Isolate your show birds from the rest of the flock for a month.
❏ Give your birds a higher dose of vitamins and a low dose of probiotics in their water for a few days to restore their natural health.
❏ Get your birds back to their familiar routines as quickly as possible, and keep an eye on them for signs of stress and poor health.
❏ Review your notes, and begin planning for your next show.
Comments & Observations:
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January 27, 2016
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