Showing Poultry 101
Where to Start When Picking Show Quality Chickens
Reading Time: 8 minutes
Picking show chicken breeds for your first foray into the world of fancy poultry can be as daunting as trying to understand genetics. But with a few simple pointers, you can be on your way to success.
First and foremost, don’t pigeon hole yourself by chasing the ideal breed. Finding good breeding stock can be difficult enough, being overly picky can make the difference between you wanting to get into “the fancy” and actually doing it. I suggest picking a general body type, going to a good-sized poultry show and seeing what piques your interest in the for sale cages. Being flexible is key, especially for your first time out.
Especially for someone just getting into show birds, I highly suggest picking a breed that’s easy to keep and easy to show. There are many breeds out there that are simply a chore to prep for the show or require certain things to conform to breed standard that will turn people off from raising them. I generally suggest beginners start with something small, clean legged, monochrome and devoid of undue complications.
Bantam birds are much smaller than your typical backyard bird and many standard-sized breeds have miniature counterparts in the bantam world. The bonus of keeping bantams for showing is that, well … they’re small. It’s easier to transport, handle, wash, and manage pint-sized chickens. They eat less feed which saves money and they’re adorable too. It simply makes life easier when your chicken fits the palm of your hand.
I suggest beginners start with a clean-legged bird, which means they don’t have feathers on their legs. A feather-legged breed like Cochin chickens and Brahma chickens are fun and appealing, but keeping their boots clean is a nightmare. Look for a clean-legged breed, like Orpington chickens, Rose Combs or Leghorns.
There are some beautiful color patterns out there to pick from. With all these gorgeous options, why would I tell someone to pick a boring monochrome variety? When you’re developing a line of birds for competition, you first work on your body type, then feather coloring, then you develop the color pattern. If you have a monochrome bird, you’ve cut out the third step. Cutting out that last step will save you lots of time and frustration. In the future, feel free to challenge yourself with a patterned bird, but for the first flock, keep it simple.
What I consider a deal breaker in a starter breed is complications that are inherent to the breed or breed standard. For instance, White Crested Black Polish are fun, quirky, and silly, but unless you’re willing to pluck their crest, you will have a hard time winning. These birds are notorious for growing too much black feathering in their white crest and these extra black feathers must be plucked until they grow back white. It’s a lot like tweezing your eyebrows, but not everyone is willing to do it.
Another deal-breaking complication is the Old English breed. The bird in itself is a fantastic bird, but the breed standard requires cocks to be dubbed, which effectively means their combs and wattles are trimmed off. This obviously does not sit well with many people.
Exceptionally fluffy chickens, like the Cochin, have a bad habit of making an absolute mess of their vent area. Because there is so much fluff at the “business end” of the bird, it has a habit of soiling itself. Cochins are also known for having low fertility rates because the fluff gets in the way.
Some complications are invisible, such as lethal genes. Araucana chickens are a terribly complicated breed to master since genetics is a crucial topic you need to understand. When breeding two tufted birds, about 25 percent of the offspring will never hatch, dying mid-way through incubation. This is a frustrating reality of that breed.
Before you buy into a breed, ask people who know the breed and find out if they have any peculiar needs you should know about.
Show Chicken Breeds
Rose Comb Bantams are one of the show chicken breeds I would wholeheartedly recommend without reservation. These majestic birds are not the smallest of the bantam show chicken breeds, but they are still a small, compact bird. Rose Combs fit well in the hand, which makes them easy to handle, transport, and control. These birds are a clean-legged breed with tight feathering, which simply means they’re not fluffy, but sleek.
Albeit not the flashiest of them all, Antwerp Belgian Bantams are a lovely and attractive bird to own. They’re a compact bird that carries easily in the hand and have an understated attractiveness about them. My experiences have been that they are a smart, friendly bird that keeps easily and shows well. I highly suggest an Antwerp Belgian for their clean legs and small size, which makes them easy to keep in good condition.
Don’t Be Shy
Books are a great resource and the internet has lots of information, but when it comes to learning about show chicken breeds, it’s best to go to the source. Talk to breeders that have been doing this for years. Nine times out of 10, as soon as you show genuine interest in what they do, the floodgates will open. If you’re wise enough to clam up and soak in the torrent of information they’ll bestow upon you, you’ll have a genuinely solid understanding of the breed you’re researching. Go out there, window shop a bit and pick the brains of the experienced breeders.
|Things Every Fancier Needs|
|What||Where To Buy||Why||How Much|
|Vet Rx||Amazon||Common Product used to brighten combs and wattles||$12|
|Leg Bands||Amazon or American Poultry Assn.||Numbered bands to identify your breeders (name tag)||$15|
|Transport Crates||Local Shows||Show crates are designed to keep birds in good shape||$45-$100|
|Bantam Standard||American Bantam Assn.||This book gives you exact requirements of Bantam breeds||$45|
|American Standard||American Poultry Assn.||This book gives you exact requirements of Standard breeds||$60|
|Trimmers||Local Shops||Fingernail and cat nail clippers for trimming beaks and nails||$5-$10|
|Baby Wipes||Local Shops||Great for last-minutes clean-ups||$5-$8|
Getting Your Foundation Stock
Once you’ve chosen your breed, you’ve got to acquire your chickens so you can start a breeding program to increase your chicken’s show qualities. This means you need to buy some birds to start off with from another breeder or breeders.
Where Not to Buy
Commercial hatcheries, albeit convenient, are not good sources of high-quality breed stock. These hatcheries are focused on providing reasonable representations of a breed while preserving their ability to mass produce and deliver them. With few exceptions, this usually equates to pretty birds that look nice, but are not competition grade.
The world of poultry fanciers, much like most of our society, has evolved with the advent of the internet. Many quality breeders are out there on stock trading websites, auctions, their own websites and Facebook. Unfortunately so are the not-so-good breeders. I like buying things online, but chickens are individuals and the discerning breeder should visually inspect a bird before buying, so avoid buying online for your first breed stock.
Where to Buy
It’s challenging enough to perfect a fine example of a breed, so you should look for the best examples of your chosen breed from the start. The best place to find these is at a poultry show. Don’t confuse a poultry show with a local or state fair; look for a dedicated poultry-only show.
Many first timers really don’t understand how buying birds works at shows and tend to miss out the first time they go. The key to picking up great birds is to get there early, like at coop in time for competitors or shortly thereafter. There is usually a “for sale” section of show cages, find them and start window shopping.
Look at the offerings, meet some competitors and ask for opinions on birds for sale. It’s not uncommon for a competitor to say “Oh, you should check out what’s-his-name’s birds, he’s got some real top-notch stuff” or “Those birds are real close to type, I’d look into those.” This inside information is priceless and typically reliable. People may be there to compete at a show, but they really love sharing their passion and bringing new people into the fancy.
Don’t expect sellers to be standing there waiting for you. There hopefully is a name or exhibitor number on the cage. You’ll have to ask competitors or officials who that individual is and where to find them. Do not bother a judge! Unless they are clearly loitering, socializing or waiting in line at the food booth, never bother a judge at a poultry show (it’s the quickest way to become unwelcome).
If you’ve fallen in love with a bird in the sale cages, don’t dilly dally. Find that exhibitor and seal the deal, especially if they’re offering them at a reasonable rate. Also, don’t be shy about buying birds from multiple people, because breeding between blood lines keeps the genetic pool fresh.
A long-standing rule of thumb has been a minimum of $5 a rooster and $10 a hen for show-appropriate birds. When you’re looking at top-notch birds, up to $50 a pair or $75 a trio is fair. Anything richer than that, however, is out of a beginner’s league.
Remember that sellers don’t want to take these birds home, so there’s room to bargain. Keep in mind that they will likely be willing to bargain harder if you volunteer to buy more birds, especially roosters. Many times, I’d buy two or three pairs just to get the hens I wanted, even though I only liked one of the three roosters. The other two usually became gifts to 4-H kids for showmanship birds.
Understanding how do chickens mate will assist in your choice of housing. I suggest using a litter floor since wire mesh floors can cause foot problems. Use a pen large enough to for your birds to court and mate unobstructed by tight confines. For Bantam breeding pairs, a three-foot-square area or larger should be sufficient, but if you chose to breed chickens of a standard size, you will need more room than that per pair.
Now that you’ve bought birds worthy of your efforts, it’s time to start producing fertilized eggs for hatching. There are two schools of thought here, either you can start with a commingled flock or you can selectively breed birds pair by pair for finite control.
In the flock method, simply supply the group as a whole with an open floor and keep them together. This works as long as your density is around 10 hens to every rooster, otherwise, you will experience problems with rooster behavior such as fighting and domination of other males. This is the easiest way to keep a group of birds, making chores a simple affair. The downside is that you can’t control the pairings very well, and if you have more than 10 hens per rooster, fertility will suffer.
If you decide to breed chickens using the pairing method, you’ve made more work for yourself. Instead of checking one feeder and water dispenser for the group, you need to check each individual pen. The upside to this is that you have finite control over pairings and you can identify the exact parents of the resulting offspring. If you find that a particular pairing results in desirable offspring, you can repeat it at will, but in a group of birds, you’re just guessing.
The Poultry Fancy
Get out there and attend some regional poultry shows, I guarantee you will meet all sorts of interesting people who share your passion for poultry. Befriend these people, let them educate you, help you and guide you. I’ve never met a group of enthusiasts as willing to share as much knowledge as poultry fanciers do and it’s such an engaging hobby to enjoy. Go ahead, buy into a breed that catches your imagination and dive into a rewarding hobby loaded with friendly competition, camaraderie, and personal challenge.