O is for ornaments
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.
SERAMA TO BRAHMA
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