Tame birds

Your Chickens - - Contents -

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.


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.


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).


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.


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

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