SITTING PLACIDLY IN A STURDY WOODEN CRATE ON THE FRONT DECK OF KAY ST. AMOUR'S HOME in the northeast Maryland town of Darlington, Stomper has no idea of the shock to come. He pecks at the floor, pokes his head through the slats, adds an occasional crow to the clucks and squawks coming from the chicken coops across the lawn. Standard operating procedure for a nearly 1-year-old rooster.
Nearby, St. Amour, 72, is preparing Stomper's bath, pouring water into four large plastic tubs and spreading a white towel on the deck. She adds a thin stream of Dawn dish soap to the first bucket, pours vinegar ("to cut the soap") into the second and, into the third, a capful of Final Touch -- a fabric softener that, in addition to promising deliciously soft sheets, is known in certain circles for putting the fluff back in chicken feathers.
Like the rest of St. Amour's 100 birds, Stomper is a Cochin -- a stout, fluffy, laid-back chicken originally from China, with a bouffant tail end and feathery booties covering its legs. Ideally, Stomper's plumage would be blindingly white, but at the moment, debris from the chicken coop clings to his wings, feet and tail. This is a problem, because, in three days, Stomper is set to make his debut at the Delmarva Poultry Fanciers spring show in Harrington, Del., competing against 750 of the region's flashiest ornamental -- or fancy -- poultry.
St. Amour sits down barefoot on an overturned plastic bucket and lowers the rooster gently into the first tub -- a surprise that elicits flapping and a frantic squawk before Stomper regains his Cochin calm. Using a bright pink kitchen sponge, St. Amour works away the mud and muck. "Your foot feathers are all broken up," she tells him. And then, because it never hurts to be honest with your poultry, "You're not in the best condition."
With a few exceptions, the chickens and waterfowl breeds that are entered in fancy poultry shows -- everything from whippet-thin Modern Game hens to wine bottle-shaped runner ducks -- aren't raised to lay eggs or provide meat. Instead, they owe their continuing existence to hobbyists such as St. Amour, who raise them for personal pleasure, exhibition or both.
St. Amour is somewhat of a fixture on the mid-Atlantic poultry circuit. She competes in roughly 15 shows annually, which means that if there's one going on locally, she's likely there. In fact, chances are good that she had a hand in putting it together: She's an officer for both the Susquehanna Poultry Club and the Maryland State Poultry Fanciers Association, poultry superintendent of the Harford County Fair, and a Maryland state certified tester for pullorum-typhoid and avian influenza. The onetime nurse has also developed a small sideline combing estate sales and secondhand stores for chicken-themed treasures to resell at shows.
"I must really love it, because I spend about half my time doing something with poultry," she says.
Even live-in beau Carl Sachs, 67, is a poultry perk. The couple met five years ago, when Sachs -- a retired machinist who's been raising chickens for 30 years -- saw St. Amour's photo on a hobbyist site and e-mailed her. When he moved in last December, he brought his own collection of birds, which live in two low, domed pens next to the two converted truck trailers that house St. Amour's.
"Someone once said, 'It sounds like those chickens are almost your life,'" says St. Amour. "They are my life. I can't imagine my life without them."
HOBBYISTS HAVE BEEN CULTIVATING ORNAMENTAL POULTRY IN THIS COUNTRY FOR MORE THAN 150 YEARS, crossbreeding domestic fowl -- the earliest of which were brought over as food sources, mainly from Europe and China -- into new breeds and varieties developed for their striking beauty.
The first documented U.S. fancy poultry show took place in Boston's public gardens in 1849, and drew more than 1,000 birds and 10,000 spectators. Twenty-five years later, the year-old American Poultry Association (which bills itself as the oldest livestock organization in North America) published its first edition of the American Standard of Perfection, a book that details ideal specifications for the roughly 400 recognized varieties of poultry. Decreeing everything from the 30-degree downward angle demanded of a Plymouth Rock's tail feathers to the oblong, medium-size ear lobes of a Dominique, the book remains a guiding beacon for the APA's roughly 3,200 members. Poultry associations and specialty clubs across the country and in Canada put on 1,000 or so contests a year.
Three days after his bath, Stomper and seven other birds are headed off to such a contest, stacked in the back of St. Amour's maroon 1991 Toyota station wagon for the two-hour drive to the Delaware State Fairgrounds. The competition doesn't start until tomorrow, but St. Amour is eager to get her birds cooped in and settled down. "Otherwise, they'll stand around looking all tight; they won't look their best," she says.