At least a decade before dog breeders first strutted their purebreds in show rings, poultry aficionados flaunted their beautiful birds.
Prize poultry, 1868. | (19th era 2 / Alamy Stock Photo)
By some accounts, the first American poultry exhibit was held in 1826 at the Rhode Island State Fair. It was a decidedly small affair — just one exhibitor and three Embden geese. A few regional, middling fairs followed, but the poultry show that marked the unofficial start of the grand tradition was the November 1849 exhibition in Boston.
Held at the Boston Public Garden, the show was a chance for bird owners and breeders to display their purebred domestic fowls — Golden Pheasants, Great Malays, Fawn Colored Dorkings, English Ravens, to name a few — for sale and competition. More than 10,000 people showed up to admire some 1,400 birds. By 19th century standards, the show was a hit: "The exhibition of poultry was large, varied, and generally excellent."
A Black Castellanas chicken is groomed before the Poultry Show at Crystal Palace, London. | November 1934 | (William Vanderson/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
A champion Wyandotte cock gets its nails trimmed before presentation in England. | September 1936 | (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Like other show animals, birds have to be trained and coaxed into competitive shape to impress judges with the right amount of personality and obedience. But perhaps nothing compares to the look of the feathered entries, which is why owners conduct a thorough pre-exhibit makeover. At minimum, the birds are typically bathed, their toenails are trimmed, and their cages are cleaned and laid with fresh shavings.
"The day of the show, they get a little spritz of hairspray with mink oil in it and oil rubbed on the legs and comb to make them shine," writes poultry breeder Jana Wilson. "By the time the judge comes around to look through this poultry beauty pageant, the birds are clean, fluffy, and glowing."
A White Crested Polish chicken, which won first prize, at the International Poultry Show in London. | December 1963 | (Keystone Pictures USA / Alamy Stock Photo)
A Phoenix cock at the National Poultry Show in Frankfurt, Germany. | December 1965 | (Keystone Pictures USA/Alamy Stock Photo)
A goose is inspected at the United Kingdom's National Poultry Show. | December 1948 | (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Depending on the venue — whether a dedicated poultry show or an exhibit within a larger livestock presentation — there are a wide range of prize-winning categories, including the Grand Champion of Show and Best of Breed (the highest honors).
For junior fanciers, the showmanship competition offers budding breeders the opportunity to show off their knowledge of raising and handling fowl.
Judges in such competitions are looking for a number of factors, including the health and cleanliness of the feathers; the condition of the combs, wattles, legs, and feet; the bird's color and overall size; and personality. If the bird is in the production category, the judge will be interested in the hen's past and current laying abilities.
But judging requires a nuanced eye. The smallest infraction — a bent feather, a funky spike within a comb — can disqualify an otherwise handsome specimen.
"It's hard because you're only going to make one person happy," Stephen Bash, a judge at the Eastern States Exposition in Massachusetts, told Country Folks magazine. "The novice would say that they all look the same. The differences that you are looking for in a bird are a challenge."
But for even the youngest competitors, getting a bird to show is half the fun. "To me, it was more about the experience," 2017 Wilson County 4-H Poultry Show and Sale competitor D.J. Scott told the North Carolina Wilson Times. "I was kind of hoping that I would have won something, but I didn't. It was just for fun. It is very, very fun. It teaches you a lot of responsibility, to take care of your community, and just make the world a better place."
Below, step into the endearingly bizarre and glamorous world of poultry pageants.
A rooster is cleaned with a cotton ball before a poultry exhibition at a state fair in Alaska. | August 2014 | (Design Pics Inc / Alamy Stock Photo)
A young competitor holds his Gold Partridge Dutch cockerel at the Scottish National Poultry Show in Lanark, Scotland. | January 2011 | (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)
A Japanese Bantam at the National Poultry Show in Telford, England. | November 2016 | (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Junior fanciers compete in the Poultry Showmanship event at the Tanana Valley State Fair in Fairbanks, Alaska. | August 2013 | (ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy Stock Photo)
A competitor holds her entry to the Old English game section of the Scottish National Poultry Show. | January 2011 | (Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)
A Silkie chicken at the National Poultry Show in Telford, England. | November 2016 | (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Judges inspect a rooster at the International Agricultural Fair in Paris. | February 2010 | (Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images)
A Belgian Bantam at the National Poultry Show in Telford, England. | November 2016 | (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
The National Poultry Show in Telford, England. | November 2016 | (Oli Scarff/AFT/Getty Images)
A Call duck at the National Poultry Show in Telford, England. | November 2016 | (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Poultry fanciers with their entries at the National Poultry Show in Telford, England. | November 2014 | (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)