Show Chickens: The Serious Business of “The Fancy”
The secrets to choosing the right show chicken breeds for you
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Show chickens and the people who breed them are an intriguing lot. Show chicken breeders, typically self-labeled as “fanciers,” are serious about their craft. Some fanciers are passionate about preserving a dying breed. Some obsess over perfecting a breed that captured their imagination. Others are enamored with the genetic science behind it all, and as expected, even more, have a burning desire to compete. Regardless of what drove them to the “fancy” (the breeding of quality show chickens), you can rest assured that they’re … endearingly quirky.
Where I Started
I was a kid in 4-H showing goats and a friend encouraged (read: badgered) me into getting show chickens. He was the only kid exhibiting show chickens in the county at that time, and I’m sure having no competition was boring. It just so happened that a man was selling Golden Sebrights at the fair. I harassed my parents until they relented, and I went home that year with my first pair of show chickens.
Getting The Itch
Sebrights are a delightful breed of show chickens, but they’re not the only ones. I went on to collect all sorts of show chickens that captured my adolescent intrigue. A variety of Cochins, Rosecombs, Porcelains, Old English, Polish, and Belgians: all Bantams for the sake of space and “economy.”
4-H kids have a habit of collecting random breeds, but as I aged, I realized that it was an anomaly of youth showmanship. Adults competed not with the birds they purchased, but with the birds they produced. I began to collect Rosecombs from various breeders to make my own “bloodline” (family). Once I started winning local shows with birds I’d hatched at home, I finally understood what the fancy was all about.
The APA (American Poultry Association) and ABA (American Bantam Association) are effectively the AKC (American Kennel Club) of chickens. These organizations set the breed standards that show chickens are judged against; hence, they are vital to the fancy. These associations give the fancy its structure.
An Open Mind
If you want to join the fun, I encourage you to wander the regional ABA/APA sanctioned poultry shows for inspiration. Certified, professional judges judge these sanctioned shows, and these shows are where the creme of the crop will be. Most (if not all) shows run by breeder clubs are also judged professionally by certified judges, so don’t dismiss them either. Qualified judges do not always judge general agricultural fairs and 4-H fairs. The bird quality at these shows is hit or miss, so they tend to be a weak point of reference.
Look at what’s displayed. Note breeds and body types that pique your interest or spark your imagination. Take pictures of these birds and the coop card associated with it for future reference.
Some show chickens are more straightforward to breed than others. I advise passing on any notably problematic breed for your first time out, such as Araucanas. Araucanas have a lethal gene that makes for poor hatchability, which can frustrate a new fancier. Cochins can also be challenging due to low fertility because of their excessively fluffy plumage.
Look for your breed of preference, and if available, search them out in solid colors or simple feather patterns. It’s far easier to get a good looking solid colored bird than an intricate coloring. Intricate colorings like Mille Fleur (French for “thousand flowers”), barred, and laced colorings are challenging to master from the start, despite their attractive appearance.
If you’ve found a feather-footed breed you love, don’t buy them in white. It’s quite problematic when you have white birds with terribly stained booting. It’s a frustrating reality of booted breeds and maddeningly painful to remedy with white plumage.
Do Your Research
Don’t be an uneducated consumer. For standard-sized breeds, buy a copy of the American Standard Of Perfection issued by the American Poultry Association. If it’s Bantams you’re looking for, find a copy of the Bantam Standard published by the American Bantam Association. These books will spell out the standard for each breed in great detail and will reveal all the disqualifications in show-quality chickens.
How Not to Buy
Don’t buy from hatcheries. Commercial hatcheries produce birds that kinda sorta look like the breed, but almost all hatcheries disclaim “not for show use” in their catalog. Never buy juvenile birds from anyone. If they’re not old enough to show mature feathering and confirmation, keep looking.
When looking to buy breed stock, I go to sanctioned shows and wander the “for sale” section. Most shows will have a designated area for breeders to display their extras they’d like to part with. These are not the breeder’s absolute best birds, because no breeder will ever part with their absolute best, but they are a great place to start. If you don’t find what you’re looking for, see if what you seek is in the show at all. If it is, find that breeder. They may have birds they’ll be willing to part with back at home.
Fanciers, especially the older generations of them, love chickens. They love chickens almost as much as they love talking about them. If you ask the right fancier about their breed and give them your undivided attention, you’ll find yourself inundated with priceless information, some of which no book will ever offer you. These pros can teach you everything about grooming and bathing chickens for a poultry show, keeping show chickens healthy after a show, chicken genetics, incubation and beyond. Learn from these seasoned pros, because they have a strong desire to encourage the next wave of fanciers because, without them, the fancy would die. Rub elbows with these characters at the shows, because who knows, you may find your personal Mr. (or Mrs.) Miyagi.
Becoming A Fancier
The world of show chickens is a colorful one that attracts a myriad of unique characters. Thankfully, the fancy is less Best In Show and more akin to the documentary Chicken People, both of which are worth a watch in your downtime. Generally, I find fanciers to be a warm and welcoming lot, be they mechanic or medical doctor, author, or arborist. A marvelous mishmash of people all attracted to the same oddly satisfying hobby. Surely, you may find a rotten egg here and there, but rest assured the fancy is a great place to be.
Have you ventured into the world of show chickens? Are you looking to start a show flock? Lament your trials and tribulations in the comments below!
Originally published in the February/March 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.