O is for or­na­ments

Your Chickens - - Contents -

The Fancy - it seems like an odd term, and might even draw a chuckle, but it is the term used to de­scribe the ‘hobby’ of breed­ing chick­ens for exhibition. Prior to the mid 1800s poultry com­pe­ti­tions tended to be small af­fairs held amongst the work­ing com­mu­nity, with prac­ti­cal prizes like cop­per cook­ing-wear be­ing on of­fer, rather than sil­ver cups and rosettes. The first sig­nif­i­cant poultry show was held in the UK in 1845, in the grounds of Lon­don Zoo. This marked the be­gin­ning of the ‘hen fever’ that grabbed the at­ten­tion of roy­alty, aris­toc­racy and the work­ing per­son alike. It was at this point that the rel­a­tively hum­ble farm­yard chicken be­came a prized pos­ses­sion, in­creas­ingly or­na­men­tal and ex­ag­ger­ated in ap­pear­ance, at­tract­ing huge at­ten­tion and sig­nif­i­cant price tags.

To­day, pas­sions re­main for this hobby, and the com­pe­ti­tion is as

strong as it ever was, though the pres­tige now tends to out­weigh the prize.


The di­ver­sity in chicken breeds is huge, and sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent to the com­mer­cially cre­ated breeds whose pri­mary pur­pose is the ef­fi­cient con­ver­sion of feed into ei­ther the pro­duc­tion of eggs or meat.

Some breeds, such as the tiny Serama, were cre­ated purely with the end game of ex­hibit­ing in mind, and this is re­flected in the value placed on the breed’s pos­ture and size, rather than wor­ry­ing too much about its plumage colour. Oth­ers, how­ever, such as the Brahma and the Or­p­ing­ton, whilst be­ing glam­orous in their ap­pear­ance, were orig­i­nally de­vel­oped with a prac­ti­cal edge to them, such as pro­vid­ing meat for the ta­ble.

To­day the exhibition scene fo­cuses on the or­na­men­tal value of all but a hand­ful of breeds. Sadly, in some cases the orig­i­nal pur­pose of the breed has all but been lost from the bloodlines and gene pools avail­able. A beard on a chicken is a dense clump of or­na­men­tal throat feath­ers that oc­cur just un­der the beak. For some breeds it is an es­sen­tial el­e­ment of the look of the breed, such as Owl­beard, Faverolle and Arau­cana, whereas in oth­ers, like the Poland or the Silkie, there can be beard and non-beard va­ri­eties.

Beards al­ways ap­pear in as­so­ci­a­tion with muffs; these are feath­ers that pro­trude out of the side of the chicken’s face just be­low the eye and usu­ally cover the ear lobes.

In some breeds of chicken (usu­ally the large fowl) the beard and muffs form three dis­tinct clumps eas­ily vis­i­ble at a dis­tance. In other breeds (and pre­dom­i­nantly ban­tams) the beard and muffs merge into a single full beard ef­fect. Some breeds of chicken have pro­fuse head plumage. This is a ‘ball’ of feath­ers that oc­curs on the top of the head, and is some­times re­ferred to as a top­knot. These crests can be of a sig­nif­i­cant size, and can cause re­stricted vi­sion, mak­ing the in­di­vid­ual more vul­ner­a­ble to attack from other chick­ens or preda­tors. The crest can also pro­vide an ex­cel­lent breed­ing place for ex­ter­nal par­a­sites, so breeds with large crests of­ten re­quire ad­di­tional lev­els of hus­bandry.

Fer­til­ity in crested breeds is also thought to be an issue, al­though this is more likely to be due to the fact that limited vi­sion im­pairs the abil­ity of the male birds to catch (and sub­se­quently mate with) the fe­male mem­bers of the flock.

Breeds par­tic­u­larly known for large crests are Polands and Sul­tans, both of which have a high or­na­men­tal ap­peal. Foot and leg feath­er­ing is com­mon in a num­ber of breeds. Some, the French Marans, for ex­am­ple, carry a rudi­men­tary amount of leg feath­er­ing, whereas other carry far more, such as Pekins or Brah­mas.

The more pro­fuse the feath­er­ing the more dif­fi­cult it can be to keep the breed, as the feath­er­ing can be a mag­net for mud in wet con­di­tions, and cause mud balls to build up on the feet of the chicken.

In a sim­i­lar way to crested breeds, the feath­er­ing on the feet and legs can eas­ily dis­guise ex­ter­nal par­a­sites, in par­tic­u­lar scaly leg mite.

On the up­side, ob­ser­va­tions have shown that feath­ered foot breeds tend to scratch more care­fully, pre­fer­ring a sweep­ing ac­tion. Whilst this doesn’t mean the feath­ers don’t get dam­aged, it can re­sult in less dam­age to pas­ture and gar­den bor­ders alike.


There are a group of chicken breeds that are specifically bred to grow ex­ceed­ingly long tails. This is purely for their or­na­men­tal value, with tail lengths be­ing known to ex­ceed 30ft.

Nor­mally chick­ens moult once a year and the tail feather would be lost. How­ever, some of these breeds carry a non-moult­ing gene that stops the tail feath­ers from be­ing dis­carded. The feath­er­ing, though, does need sig­nif­i­cant ef­fort from the keeper, along with spe­cialised hous­ing, if it is to be kept in pris­tine con­di­tion and not bro­ken.

Man­ag­ing such breeds has be­come a fine art in Ja­pan, where they have also de­vel­oped breeds that carry a fast feather growth trait en­abling the tail feather to grow al­most 1 me­tre a year.

Com­monly known breeds that fall within the long­tail groups are Yoko­hama, Phoenix, and Su­ma­tra. How­ever, there are few breed­ers in the West­ern hemi­sphere that have the skill and ded­i­ca­tion to en­able the breeds’ tails to grow beyond a cou­ple of me­tres.


This group has been se­lec­tively bred for the cock birds’ ca­pac­ity to crow. The tone and du­ra­tion of the crow is im­por­tant, and, as with the long­tail breeds, it is the Ja­panese who have pi­o­neered their de­vel­op­ment.

The crow should last more than 15 sec­onds, though in some cases it can be as long as a minute. It starts with what we would recog­nise as the usual cock crow, known as the ‘dashi’, or be­gin­ning. The fi­nal note of the crow, though, is held for longer. This is known as the ‘hari’, or stretch. Even­tu­ally the crow closes off, pe­ter­ing away as the cock runs low on breath. This is known as the ‘hiki’, or fin­ish.

In longcrow­ing con­tests, points are awarded ac­cord­ing to the ABOVE: A Bra­ban­ter with beard and crest BE­LOW LEFT: An Owl­beard BE­LOW: Or­p­ing­tons qual­ity of the dashi, hari and hiki, rather than just the du­ra­tion of the crow.

The Totenko breed of chicken com­bines both long crow and long tail, which, if qual­ity is achieved in both, can cre­ate a highly prized bird.

A soggy Su­ma­tra trails its tail

ABOVE: Foot feath­er­ing on Sa­belpoots BE­LOW: An Owl­beard chick

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