It’s Show Time! Picking the Best Birds to Show and Making Sure They Look Their Best

Learn How To Bathe A Chicken For Beautiful Results

It’s Show Time! Picking the Best Birds to Show and Making Sure They Look Their Best

Picking show-quality chickens, either to represent your breeder flock or from the sale cages at a show, can be challenging. As always, information is king, so be sure to read up on your prospective breed standards and choose accordingly.

Red Flags

Aside from reading up on breed standards, there are many red flags you can look for when picking birds. Disqualifications are unilaterally unacceptable traits across show chicken breeds, with few exceptions. Birds that display one of these disqualifications will not be awarded a ribbon, or considered in any placings, in a regulated show.


Breed standards of show quality chickens are created and maintained by two major organizations in the United States. The American Poultry Association (APA) sets standards and disqualifications for all poultry. Conversely, the American Bantam Association (ABA) sets their own standards and disqualifications for bantam chickens and bantam ducks. Despite being separate organizations, they generally agree on what should disqualify a bird from showing in a regulated event.


Nobody likes a cheater, and that includes poultry judges. Evidence of cheating or “faking” is grounds for immediate disqualification. Things like broken or crimped feathers, usually in an attempt to change the shape of the bird’s tail, count as faking; so does any evidence that you tried to color or bleach your birds to alter their natural feather color. Cut feathers, scar tissue from surgeries to correct a flaw and feather plucking to hide vulture hocks also count. If your bird isn’t up to snuff, don’t try to hide it!


Fanciers (people who breed and show chickens) don’t like competitors who act recklessly, especially when it puts their prized birds at risk. The quickest way to be uninvited at a poultry show is by bringing visibly ill chickens. Fanciers feel so strongly about this, they’ve even made it an actual disqualification. So, no matter how good looking your bird is, if it’s sick, it’s not getting a ribbon, and you will likely be told to remove your bird(s).

Beaks and Bills

Deformed beaks on show-quality chickens and malformed bills on ducks are also disqualifiers. Crooked beaks in chickens are easy to spot. If the bird’s upper and lower mandibles don’t align, they splay apart and make it difficult for the bird to eat.

In ducks, scoop bill is a deformity that presents as a deep depression along the dorsal side of the bill. Additionally, you may see crooked or misaligned bills. Both are disqualifications.


No Leaning

Combs can present several opportunities for disqualification. For instance, a comb that flops over, called a lopped comb, is a disqualification. Don’t confuse this with the acceptable standard of the Leghorn hen, which says the first point must be erect and the rest of the comb may gradually flop over. Single combs that completely flop over are a disqualification, as are any other comb types that flop or list to one side. Small comb types like the Araucana chickens rarely see this issue, mostly because they’re combs don’t have enough mass to flop over.

Sprigs and Spurs

Sometimes show-quality chickens are disqualified because of additional extensions of their comb. Comb sprigs and comb spurs are added projections that shouldn’t be there otherwise. If you have a bird with this issue in your flock, don’t try to do surgery to alter this since the scar tissue will disqualify you for faking.

Slipped Wings

Slipped wings occur when the last joint of the bird’s wing becomes twisted. This is an anatomical condition, not a mechanical injury to the wing, and usually manifests in both wings unilaterally. Slipped wings typically leave the last few wing feathers pointing out and away from the bird’s body, and in most cases are pretty obvious.

Lost an Axle

Split wings are usually a recessive genetic defect that causes the absence of an axial feather. Although less blatant than a slipped wing, you can spot a split wing by fanning the wing. If there is a noticeable gap between the primary and secondary feathers, you have a split wing.

No Squirrels

With exception to very few breeds, such as the Japanese bantam, no show-quality chickens should have a tail that curves more than 90 degrees. Using the back as your imaginary horizontal line, draw an imaginary vertical line at the start of the tail, around the uropygial gland. If your bird’s tail arcs back toward the head and crosses this vertical line, then it is said to have squirrel tail, which is another disqualification.

Split Tail

Split tails are only a defect on juvenile birds, but a disqualification in adults. If you look down at your bird from above and the tail feathers split to either side of the body, leaving a gap at the bird’s spinal mid-line, then you have a split-tailed bird.

Gone Awry

Wry tail is yet another potential tail disqualification. However, it may not be as noticeable as a split tail. I’ve seen instances of wry tail, but much like a lopped comb, it’s simply that the tail leans to one side of the bird. Like split tail, if you draw a line down the backbone, you can spot a wry tail easily. If the tail leans to one side of that imaginary line, it’s considered a wry tail.



With few exceptions, such as the Sultan breed, feathers that cover the hock joints and beyond are a disqualification. You may have seen feathers like this on some show quality chickens or pigeons before, but unless the breed requires them, they are still a disqualification. These feathery protrusions are known as vulture hocks.

Wet Feet

Most breeds of chickens have four toes, and some have five. In either case, one should be pointing toward the rear, like a heel. On occasion a chicken’s rear toe will twist to the front, making the foot resemble more of a duck’s foot than a chicken’s foot. Because of that, we call this disqualification “duck-foot.”

Show-Quality Chickens

These are some of the major, obvious, and common disqualifications you may see when looking for show quality chickens. This is not, however, an exhaustive list, nor did I even mention any of the numerous defects the APA or ABA recognizes.

If you’re in the market for new birds, consider buying a book of standards, or consulting a knowledgeable, impartial breeder for advice. Even if the breed in question is not their specialty, an experienced fancier can easily spot glaring defects and disqualifications. Don’t be shy, ask around!

Grooming and Bathing Chickens for a Poultry Show

Grooming and bathing poultry before a show is very common in the world of 4-H and other youth shows, but even seasoned veteran breeders wash birds when they get dirty. It’s all about keeping Fluffy clean and, well, fluffy. Here are a few tricks you should know so your birds look their best.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

Unlike a dust bath for chickens, we need to get our birds wet when grooming and bathing chickens. If you take issue with using the kitchen sink to wash chickens, set up three muck buckets as bath tubs. Use one for a pre-soak, one for soap and the last for the rinse. Let the water buckets warm up in the sun to avoid chilling your chickens. Also, avoid setting the buckets up inside your coop, otherwise you’ll be presented with the question of how to clean a chicken coop at the same time you’re cleaning your birds.


There are many show soaps out there for grooming and bathing chickens, but any “show and shine” will work, even if intended for another species. In a pinch, dish detergent will work, just be sure to give your birds a few days to re-oil their feathers again. If you have a dirty white chicken, use a whitening soap, but never use bleach on a chicken.

Check Before You Bathe

Before grooming and bathing chickens, check for chicken mites and lice. Look around their vent and under their wings for critters hiding in their plumage. If you find lice or mites, treat your birds with a permethrin based spray, or use a permethrin dilution from concentrate.

Get Wet

Once you’ve set up your bath tubs, soak your bird in the room-temperature pre-soak tub. Give the bird a good 30 seconds to a minute to get wet to the skin. You won’t be able to saturate the feathers yet, but get the fluff wet as best you can.


Grooming and Bathing Chickens

Move to your soap tub and work a handful of soap into the plumage of the bird. If your birds were infested, pluck feathers at the vent that have the telltale hard calcium-like egg deposits of mites. These will look like dense clusters at the base of the feather. No amount of soap will get them off the feather, so pluck the affected feathers. The warm bath water will help loosen the base of the feather so they should come out easily. Don’t cut the feathers off; they will take forever to regrow if they’re cut, and the bird will look terrible. It’s better to be missing feathers than to have sharp stubs of feather for a judge to find.


Use your third tub, or a gentle spray nozzle with variable water temperature to flush all the soap of the bird. Keep rinsing until no more bubbles come off. Otherwise, it will be challenging for them to reapply their preen oils later.

Dry and Wrap

Some people pat dry their bird and let it dry out naturally; others prefer to blow-dry their birds. Either way works, but for particularly fluffy birds or birds that need to deal with cool temperatures quickly, it’s better to blow-dry them.

Once you’ve patted or blown your bird dry, wrap it in an old bath towel. Wrapping a bird immobilizes it and comforts it, even though it will protest at first. Be certain you’re not wrapping the bird so tight that it can’t breathe. Check on your bird periodically and loosen the towel if it looks cyanotic (turning blue).

How to Trim Beaks

Now that your bird is clean and safely immobilized, take a seat and put it in your lap. Birds naturally sharpen and hone their beaks on stones and dirt, but not all birds keep ahead of their growing beaks. Now is a good time to trim a long beak. We are not “de-beaking” here; we are trimming the beak just like you trim your fingernails.

If your bird’s beak is hooked, or there is a lot of white tip at the business end, then use a human finger or toenail clipper to trim the beak. Bantams do better with a fingernail clipper, and some standards are so big that you’ll need a toenail clipper to get things done. Never use a cat or dog nail clipper on a beak, you’re likely to crack it right down the middle and cause incredible pain to your chicken.

I like to trim one side of the beak tip on a bias, then the other. This leaves me a point to trim at the beak’s apex. Clip the beak tip square and round the beak’s profile with a fingernail file. Leave a little white to the tip of the beak; you don’t want to trim too close.

The right tools and a safe restraint method are key. After an initial protest, this Silkie was content to sit still for me.

How to Trim Nails

Chickens scratch the ground naturally, so their nails are usually kept pretty short. Some birds, however, are either lazy, old or don’t have the opportunity to find something hard where they can scratch. If your chicken has long toenails, use a cat or small dog nail clipper to trim them. Just like a cat or dog, avoid clipping the quick, which is the blood vessel in the nail. If you do, use a clotting agent like Quick Clot or similar products. A bird won’t bleed to death from a toe bleed, but they do make a mess and present a potential for infection.

Keep Them Clean

Finding the fine line of washing too early and washing too late takes some trial and error. If you’re taking your birds to show on Saturday, I suggest washing on Monday or Tuesday. Don’t wash too close to the show. Otherwise, your birds won’t have time to preen themselves back into shape.

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