Preparing poultry for shows, by Grant Brereton
… won’t make for a successful bird in the show ring. In the second article in his series on showing,
Grant Brereton reveals why you should plump for a docile chicken (or duck or goose) and then work on handling it at home to ensure impeccable behaviour in front of the judge
Imagine that you are a judge at a show. Your day is going well and you have assessed a few birds in the same class from a row of show pens. You have your eye on a certain bird that looks like the obvious winner, but then, as you go to remove it from the pen, all hell breaks loose. Feathers fly, wings flap and the bird flings itself towards the top of its pen with reckless abandon, all the while squawking in terror. This is an unpleasant experience for all concerned. It makes the judge look incompetent, while onlookers are left wondering what on earth is going on.
It could all have been avoided, however, but the owner neglected to put in the necessary show preparation, which must take place months before the show even begins. It really isn’t just a case of a quick wash and blow-dry a few days prior to the fixture.
While I have already advised that a clean and friendly bird is desirable for any judge (Your Chickens, November), without doubt some breeds are much more placid by nature than others, but all breeds benefit from being handled from an early age and being comfortable around people.
SILENT OR A SQUAWKER?
Many breeds in the British Poultry Standards books have adjectives such as ‘sprightly’, ‘strutting’, ‘proud’ or ‘graceful’ used to describe them. But you won’t find any standard that calls for ‘wild and out of control’. It is well accepted that the temperaments of different breeds vary greatly, but this just means that some require more pen training and handling than others.
Certain poultry varieties get a bad press for their temperaments, which isn’t necessary always a true reflection of the facts. The Mediterranean breeds, such as Leghorns, are often labelled as flighty and wild, which could deter many potential keepers. This isn’t fair. Conversely, breeds such as the Pekin bantam are frequently thought of as tame and friendly birds, which is true in almost all cases. But there are many new colours now in that breed and not everyone has thought about retaining the correct characteristics; you will always get the odd aggressive male, but that is true for any breed. Such birds should not be bred from.
A wild bird isn’t necessarily a reflection of poor husbandry. In the past, due to time constraints, I have shown birds that have had little handling and, although not ideal, they have fared well in the show pen. But I have also had others from the same family who have shrieked and squawked as if they were being attacked by a fox when I’ve picked them up, so they were instantly disregarded as show potentials. However, any would-be
exhibitor will probably find that the same is true of their own flock. There will be birds that relish being picked up, while others will run a mile. Each bird is an individual, so no matter what the breed or variety (or even crossbreed), it is always best to assume that it will need taming to be shown.
THE BENEFITS OF FRIENDLY BIRDS
Even if you have no plans to show or even keep pure breeds, the benefits of having birds which positively enjoy being handled are many. When you have earned a chicken’s trust, it will happily sit on your arm, or your lap, or on your shoulder, as in Adam Henson’s case (see previous page), and enjoy being stroked. It can take some handling to get to this level, but perseverance is key, and it makes the whole poultry-keeping experience much more pleasurable.
When I refer to chickens that don’t mind being picked up, I don’t mean that they will be so tame that they will get under your feet like a dog or a cat. Very occasionally you get specimens that have no fear of humans, but most chickens retain a degree of natural cautiousness, so the best plan is to try picking them up when they are perching as dusk encroaches. By trying at any other time, you will find yourself chasing them around.
When your birds are happy to be handled, you can take your time assessing them, knowing that they won’t be stressed by the experience. Assuming that you don’t intend to show your stock, you will be aiming to keep your birds in good condition by looking for any types of lice or mite below the vent, as well as around the tail and on the back and neck areas. You will be checking for signs of good health: a bright eye, clear nostrils devoid of discharge, legs that have good scales (no sign of scaly leg mite) and no untoward cysts, tumours or excessive crop size. My personal yardstick is that a healthy full crop should be no bigger than a golf ball in most breeds. Any larger or signs of the crop not reducing overnight need to be monitored.
Anyone showing birds should conduct regular health inspections as outlined above, while also checking that the bird has good skeletal conformation, a straight breast bone, good wings (no gap between the primary and secondary feathers), a correct comb, eye colour, legs and plumage markings (all of which will be covered in greater detail in future articles).
HANDLING FROM DAY ONE
To ensure that a chicken is really tame, the best way forward is to handle it from day
one. Chicks will soon get used to the idea of being picked up, especially when they are reared under a brooder lamp. I handle all my chicks from a day-old onwards. The broody hen soon gets used to this, but you have to be careful in the early days that she doesn’t peck the chicks by mistake when instinctively pecking at your hand. If you don’t feel comfortable handling day-old chicks under a broody hen, then wait until they are a few weeks old, even though the mother will probably still be just as protective.
After a few weeks, the method of holding the growing chick will change from a protective shielded and cupped hand to securing the bird’s right leg between your middle and index finger and its left leg between your index finger and thumb (right-handed method) while its breastbone is flat on your palm and the bird is facing you. This allows the other hand to be free to inspect it.
TAMING ADULT BIRDS
Of course, it is not necessary to breed your own chickens to hit the exhibition circuit and anyone buying in birds should tame them by handling them in the same way you would any others — by removing them from the perch of an evening and spending around 10 minutes at a time with them. Even a complete squawker first time around should become much more relaxed in a short period of time. I like to gently remove any perching birds and stroke them for a few minutes in my arms, then assess their wings by fanning them out. Lastly, I place the bird(s) on top of a flat-roofed, chest-height chicken coop, with my arms placed loosely around them so that they can’t fly off. Being dusk, they are usually quite calm and their confidence quickly builds. I use this time to stroke them and talk to them, assuring them that all is well.
Therefore, while all breeds will benefit from early handling to make them calm and confident, all is not lost if you begin later. You just need to be consistent and persistent until a marked change in the temperament of the intended show bird(s) is noticed.
Next Month: Assessing stock for show candidates.
ABOVE: Countryfile’s Adam Henson finds how friendly some cockerels can be
BELOW: A Silver Pencilled Wyandotte being handled as a grower
ABOVE: A Buff Laced Wyandotte cockerel has his wings checked
BELOW: The late Will Burdett MBE correctly holding his Blue Orpington bantams
The taming process ideally starts from day one