Choosing Chickens for Exhibition

Preparing poultry for exhibition at poultry shows has become both an art and a science.

Much can be learnt from attending a few shows and paying particular attention to what is going on. Talk to the judges, stewards and owners if you can. Admire a bird or two and before you know it, an exhibitor will be chatting with you. You will often gain more from such a conversation than you will ever learn from books or articles.

Obtain the breed standard for the breed you own and study it carefully. Birds need to be chosen several weeks at least prior to a show. Birds must be healthy and free of disease. They should be well grown with good plumage free of raggedness. They should match the body type and colour of the breed they represent. Each breed will have a range of traits which, if not present, may result in disqualification. Similarly some faults will result in disqualification. It is not possible to list all the various characteristics for each breed here but some generalisations are possible.

There are many breeds of chicken and depending on the size of the show, there may be a multitude of classes. Many breeds have multiple colourations. There may be classes for each colour, for each sex, as well as for age groups. Then there may be group classes as well. Choose a small show to begin with. It will be less intimidating, less bureaucratic, more forgiving if you make a mistake and possibly more fun than starting off at a bigger show. Again ask questions and chat to people. Networking is very helpful. In time you will get to know the preferences of the different judges. Some will like a particular 'type', others always pay special attention to legs and feet, etc and others may place great emphasis on size.

There is plenty to do well before your first show approaches. Good husbandry year round is essential. Birds won't reach their full potential if they are not fed well and setbacks to young birds can cause permanent problems. Larger breeds take longer to mature and cocks take longer still. It is exciting to watch a clutch grow and develop. Feed good quality chicken crumble, then growers' pellets and finally layer or breeder pellets as the chickens mature.

Ensure your poultry is free of lice and mites. At a show, these will spread quickly to other entries – not mention to the judge and the stewards!

Once hens can be distinguished from cockerels, the sexes should be separated. Young stock will bully and chivvy each other to establish a pecking order (pardon the pun) and once cockerels start mounting the hens and trying to mate the feathers can become damaged. Many exhibitors keep their show birds indoors. This will avoid issues like bright plumage fading and being dulled by the sun. White chickens in particular will get grass stains and can be particularly difficult to clean.

If a bird is not up to exhibition standard, don't show it. The best preparation in the world will not hide serious faults and you are wasting your time with a less than very good bird. You must have good stock to start with. If it is just a matter of condition or maturity, wait until the bird improves or cull it.

General faults that may result in disqualification include deformities of shape and deformed plumage. The beak should be correct and the back should be straight as opposed to crooked or otherwise at fault. A wry tail twists to the side and is a fault as is a squirrel tail where the tail feathers project forward over the back instead of going to the rear.

There should be no evidence of clipped feathers in the wings. A split wing shows a definite slit between the primary and secondary wing feathers and is a fault as is a slipped wing where the wing hangs down. Other faults are twisted feathers in the wing, sickles and main tail feathers.

Rhode Island Red Chicken(53053)Credit: Wikimedia

Rhode Island Red Hen (above)

The comb of a chicken is very important. There are different types of combs. A single comb such as that of the Rhode Island Red or Australorp should sit upright on the head and not fall to the side although a 'lopped' comb is acceptable (and mandatory) in some breeds. The blade of the comb should not be divided in the perpendicular plane. This is known as a 'split' comb. Single comb varieties should not have protrusions off the sides. Some breeds need five points on the comb, no more and no less.

Australorp Hen(53057)Credit: Wikimedia

Australorp Hen (above)

Birds with rose combs such as the Wyandotte and Hamburg should not have lopped combs. All rose combs should have a tapering 'spike' at the back.

The strawberry comb of breeds like the Malay should not extend past the midpoint of the skull. The Chantecler has a cushion comb and again this type of comb should not extend beyond the midpoint of the skull.

Malay Game Fowl HenCredit: Wikimedia

Malay Game Hen (above)

The Sicilian Buttercup chicken has a buttercup comb which consists of a single blade leading back to a cup-shaped crown, which is set firmly on the centre of the skull surrounded by a circle of evenly spaced points. In show birds, it is important that the circle be closed at the back. Points in the centre of the cup are a very definite fault.

Sicilian Buttercup Hen(53055)Credit: Wikimedia

Sicilian Buttercup Hen (above)

Colour is very important in show birds. The colour of the face, ear lobe, shanks and toes will vary from breed to breed and variations from the standard will result in the loss of points. A nice, bright red comb indicates good health too.

Plumage colour is also important. White breeds should not have any suggestions of black in the quills, or primary or secondary feathers. Black varieties should not have red or yellow in the plumage. Clean legged birds should have no suggestion of feathers on the legs or between the toes.

Sebright Bantam(53054)Credit: Wikimedia

Sebright Chicken (above)

Breeds with spangling, scalloping and coloured markings are a challenge to breed and hours can be spent among breeders debating how best to breed better and better birds. Wyandottes and Sebright bantams are two breeds where the colouring of each feather has a bearing on the outcome of judging.