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Primping poultry into show shape

Geraldine Haldner

Grooming a chicken for a showmanship competition, however, is a bit more like spending a day at the salon.Mild shampoo with vitamin E, glycerine, baby wipes and a warm bath followed by several rinses and a hair-dryer set on low are just a few of the recommended ingredients necessary to turn a chicken or rooster into a prime poultry specimen for the upcoming Eagle County Fair & Rodeo July 27 – Aug. 3.Hold the nail polish but don’t scrimp on tender loving care and primping, Joan Wescott, a licensed fair judge for the American Poultry Association, tells a small gaggle of 4-H kids who have come to practise handling and grooming their poultry projects in the dark and dusty expanse of the fairground’s livestock barn in Eagle.”I don’t want you to be scared. Remember this is fun, this is a learning experience,” Wescott says to the 10 attentive youngsters, each holding, cradling or clinging to a feathery friend of some breed or another – some looking downright scared.For example, 9-year-old Karly VanCampen tightly holding a buff Orpington hen, listens to Wescott wide-eyed and mouth slightly ajar with sparkle gel glittering on her nose. It’s her first livestock project – a right of passage of sorts for boys and girls growing up on ranches from Bond to Gypsum.For VanCampen, who has an older sister with a steer project under her belt buckle, the pressure of speaking up in front of a judge without a finger near her mouth is stiff.”I’m nervous,” she says.Ranging in age from 8 to 13, the proud poultry competitors have this summer to raise their picks to a healthy weight and learn how to handle them in front of a judge, who will pick their brains – the children’s not the chicken’s – all in the spirit of the 4-H credo “to make the best better.”A nationwide organization under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered by extension officers, 4-H aims to teach youngsters valuable skills for life via the “four Hs” – head, heart, hand and health. Livestock ranging from rabbits to steers are raised and groomed to perfection and then shown at local fairs before they are sold at a special livestock auction, with the proceeds going towards the competitors’ college education.Aside from grooming skills, participants are expected to keep track of a project’s feed and weight-gain, learning to compare it to the breeding standards.And then there are body parts to remember. For the chicken competitors, for example, it’s about beaks and beans, combs and caruncle, and snood and spurs – all parts of a chicken these children have to be able to identify.”I might have them mixed up,” a tentative Troy Carthy says, resettling his buff-colored, mild-mannered “top hatter” rooster from one elbow crook to the other.”I think these are the primary feathers and these are the secondaries,” he adds after gently pulling on his rooster’s wing and pointing to the longer front feathers and the shorter, fluffier ones.The top hatter – a chicken with a bushel of feathers sprouting from its head, looking like it needs its bangs trimmed – is unimpressed and nestles back into the 11-year-old boy’s chest.Wescott prods and points out deficiencies in each “bird” because, she says “if you want to breed them you want the best bird you got.”Michaella Noel’s hen needs to put on some more weight before the actual competition, in order to avoid losing points for overall appearance.Connie Carthy’s white long-tailed rooster, by contrast, has an issue with a scaly comb and yellowing plumage.”He didn’t winter too good,” she tells Wescott, who quickly and expertly says the comb at one time froze and likely won’t regrow.A bit of blue-in rinse – the stuff some lavender-haired ladies use too much of – may dull the yellow, but likely won’t get rid of it, she says. The comb’s shape and the yellow feathers will likely cost Connie between one and two points – not something Connie likes to hear, but accepts with a resigned shrug of the shoulder.Kraig Noel’s Black Cochin rooster is a “jerk” by name only, though Noel insists he was once as wild as his newest project – a majestic, multi-colored rooster angrily stalking around a nearby cage.The “wild one” doesn’t have a name yet says Noel, a bright-eyed 13-year-old whose favorite subject in the eighth grade at Eagle Valley Middle School is “recess” and “nothing.” He says he takes his time with his poultry projects.”He has to earn a name first,” he says, looking over to the cage, where the rooster is erupting in a feathery fury because someone stepped too close to the cage.Jerk, meanwhile, is nibbling on Kraig’s necklace, looking positively at peace while perched on the boy’s shoulder.”He was really mean. He would flutter all over me when I’d look for eggs,” Noel says, scratching Jerk’s wattles and causing the bird’s eyes to shut in sheer comfort.The “wild one,” meanwhile will need a lot of work, Wescott tells Noel.”He is a Mediterranean breed; that’s a trait they have,” she says as the rooster thrashes around. “Mess around with him as much as you can.”Noel smiles. Though he doesn’t want to be a rancher when he grows up – “I’m going to invent a video game” – it’s nice for a change that a 13-year-old can be told to “mess” with anything.Judging by Jerk’s behavior, Noel’s got the touch and the “wild one” will be silly putty by fair time.”I take pretty good care of them,” he says, a bit embarrassed by being put on the spot.After all he has been showing chicken and roosters for five years now.”They learn how to argue with me … about whose turn it is to feed them,” says his mother, Kris Whittaker, only half-jokingly, of the 4-H experience in which her children are engaged.”And then we figure out how to get along again,” adds her daughter, Michaella Noel, cramming under her mom’s arm, just like her hen did just moments earlier.


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