Cheep Thrills
Raising ornamental poultry is hard work. The rewards -- a first-place show fowl will rarely win more than $50 at competition -- are small. So why do thousands of people devote their lives to it?

By Christina Breda Antoniades
Sunday, July 29, 2007

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.

Sachs, whose dedication to showing poultry isn't quite what St. Amour's is, has stayed in Darlington. "He can look at all the chickens for three or four hours and then go home," says St. Amour. "I can spend the entire day talking." In fact, last December, amid the chaos of moving in together, Sachs gently suggested St. Amour take some time off from attending shows.

"The hackles went up on my neck like a rooster," she says. "I do think I'm addicted to the shows. If I miss one, I'm really in despair." If the decision came down to human versus bird, she laughs, "It's bye-bye, Carl."

Wearing a sweat shirt that reads "Royal Society of Egg Layers" and sporting chunky, chicken-shaped earrings, St. Amour finds her coops in the exhibition area and gets to work bringing in her birds. She has with her eight Cochins -- five white, two black and a blue. The birds are big -- the Standard calls for Cochins to be from 8 to 11 pounds -- and their feathers make them look even bigger.

St. Amour carries them in one by one, tucked under her arm in a modified football hold.

There are familiar faces here, human as well as avian, and St. Amour nods, waves and occasionally stops to chat. As she catches up with one woman, a casual friend she sees only at shows, the talk turns to a fellow fancier who died during the winter.

"I'm dealing with my own loss right now," the woman reveals. Her grown son recently died. "They say it gets easier with time, but I don't think so."

"It takes a long time, but it does start to get easier," St. Amour reassures her. St. Amour's own daughter, Susan, then 22, was killed in a car accident in 1978, just months after moving to Arizona to continue her education.

The women chat a little more, but there are birds waiting in the Toyota, so St. Amour heads outside.

Once the birds are in their new homes, St. Amour steps back for a quick assessment. There is the white pullet that won "Best of Breed" at the Susquehanna Poultry Club's smaller show a week ago. A black hen who won "Best of Breed" at a show in December. And the blue Cochin that St. Amour declares "a beauty" despite a clearly visible flaw: While, according to the Standard, every feather she boasts should be laced in a darker blue, this bird lacks the distinctive outlining.

"I was going to take a marker and put lacing around every feather," St. Amour jokes, then trails off. Faking does happen -- cake dye is used to disguise discoloration, lipstick applied to brighten a comb -- but it's rare. And, at this point in her competitive career, St. Amour just doesn't care that much about winning. Back home, her living room holds a few trophies, but most of her plaques are still waiting to be put up. When she was still in the old farmhouse up the hill from her bungalow -- St. Amour's family lived there before it fell into disrepair in the waning years of her marriage -- the walls were covered with ribbons, which are usually given for lower-level wins. Now, "I don't even bother to pick them up anymore," she says.

She's got time to stroll, so St. Amour decides to check out some of her 68 competitors. There's John Burgess, who worked in Fort Belvoir's Army night vision and electronic sensors lab until 1995 and has been raising birds in Fairfax County for 10 years. Two of the 16 birds he's brought today have been grand champions at other shows. And not far off is Tom Roebuck, an energetic, 41-year-old retired Marine who is president of Cochins International and will compete against St. Amour with his large Cochins.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't competitive," he says. "That's just the nature of being a Marine."

Toward the front of the hall are Melissa Sobolewski, 17, and Shannon Fiedler, 12, both relatively new to competitive poultry shows. They met St. Amour at a state fair last year, and regularly e-mail her for advice. Shannon stops to introduce her grandmother.

"This is Miss Kay," she says. "She's our poultry leader."

BY 5:30 P.M. THE HALL IS ABUZZ WITH ACTIVITY, as competitors carry in chickens, ducks and geese and settle them down for a night away from home. With her birds all in, St. Amour joins a few friends in heading off to a nearby steakhouse. Over dinner, they talk about shows past, vexing poultry problems and who will be in attendance this weekend. Nobody orders the chicken.

Many poultry aficionados seem to have tried showing other animals -- dogs, cats, goats -- before crossing over to chickens and ducks. For St. Amour, it was Morgan horses, which the then-stay-at-home mom and military wife raised first while living in Texas and then on her farm in Maryland.

"Then I came to my senses," she says. "A lot of these people are moneyed people, and they're real snobs." She felt alienated, hated the cutthroat attitudes she saw around her.

"I once saw somebody drop their curry comb on the ground and somebody else, a competitor, kick it out of sight. Just very petty," she says. "Riding around the ring, I always felt like my mouth was sort of full of sawdust."

It was her son, then 14, who drew her to poultry. He and his 15-year-old sister had been raising chickens since St. Amour, on a whim, had bought them both pet chicks at the local feed store. At a county fair where her son was showing his laying hens for 4-H, "there was a judge there who told him, 'You can really make money showing chickens,'" says St. Amour. "I wish I could remember who that judge was, because I'd like to ask him how."

In fact, in all but a few cases, it's hard to imagine raising fancy poultry as a moneymaking proposition. A 50-pound bag of chicken feed costs $8 to $10 and lasts St. Amour only two days, and then there's gas, food and lodging for travel to shows, plus entry fees and other supplies. There's also the cost of the birds themselves, which ranges from $25 to $500, although a decent show bird usually goes for $50. Winning isn't much of a financial bonanza, either. The top-tier winners at the Delmarva show, for example, will take home $100 each, a prize that's considered generous in poultry circles.

In the beginning, though, St. Amour didn't quite know what she was in for -- or what she was doing.

Arriving at her first show in the early 1970s, she took one look at the competition and cringed at the scruffiness of her so-called Cochins. A fellow exhibitor finally strolled over and gently explained her handicap: " 'They're half Plymouth Rock,'" she recalls him saying. "This was my competition telling me what I could do so I could beat them." She sold her mutts, replaced them with purebreds, and decided this would be her new hobby.

Over the next few years, the flock grew to 1,000 birds in 35 breeds and varieties. The family raised and showed the chickens together until the children grew up and moved away, leaving St. Amour and her then-husband to care for the animals. After their daughter's death, it was the need to take care of the chickens -- feeding, watering, tending to the baby chicks -- that pulled St. Amour out of bed in the mornings. That, and the community she's found in the poultry show world. "We went to a show, and everybody there said, 'We're so glad you're getting out,'" says St. Amour.

In 1994, her 39-year marriage ended in divorce, leaving her alone with the farm and the chickens. Suddenly, "I didn't have anything else to distract me," she says. Pulling up a bucket, she'd sit by the chicken pen "and just watch them run around and do their little chicken things. Sometimes one would come over and jump up on my lap and make those crooning noises, talking to me," she says.

One chicken in particular, Asia, became more of a pet than a project. "I'd have to go out and do the chores, and I'd sit down and say, 'Oh, Asia, I don't feel like doing the milking.' And she'd sit down on my lap and go to sleep," says St. Amour. "She was probably just looking for a nice place to sit and didn't care that she kept me from doing my chores. But I just think that was so nice."

Asia followed St. Amour everywhere, inside and out. She lived for 10 years. After her came Pucker. Of course, when St. Amour started dating Sachs, things changed a bit. "If Carl was coming over, I'd have to real quick put [Pucker] back in his cage. Carl doesn't think chickens should be roaming the house," she says. "We have a different set of values." When Pucker died in March, she says, "I spent half a day crying."

At 7 a.m. Saturday, the exhibition building is buzzing with activity. St. Amour is pouring water into her birds' cups from an old orange juice container. She'll scoop new wood shavings into their cages and straighten their feathers one last time, then let them be. When she first started showing chickens, St. Amour would spend hours getting every feather in place, every comb polished. But after 35 years in the game, she has largely abandoned the more intense prettifying efforts.

Not everyone is that blase. Near St. Amour, Shannon Fiedler and Melissa Sobolewski set up folding chairs and break out two large tackle boxes. "I've got Ivory soap, baby oil and lice combs, two for seven bucks," says Melissa, waving a hand across the bottles, tubes and toothbrushes tidily tucked in neat compartments. "The aspirin is for me, and the Tylenol PM because I can never sleep at these shows."

Judging time nears, and there is a flurry of activity as feathers are smoothed one last time and birds are returned to their cages. The judges work systematically, and by 5:30 p.m., they have assessed all the birds.

St. Amour has had minor success. Her black hen wins best of variety and best of breed -- not too surprising, since her only two competitors "weren't that spectacular-looking." The blue, with her missing lacing, was second in a class of two. Despite his bath, Stomper hasn't wowed the judges, either, also coming in second place behind the only other competitor in his group. "He was a little nutty acting. He was all uptight, standing too tall and not posing well," says St. Amour. "He's just not ready." One nice surprise: Among the larger birds, she's beaten out one of Roebuck's for best white Cochin. "I didn't expect that," she says, clearly pleased.

The class winners and reserves -- 26 birds in all -- are moved to Champion's Row, where they'll spend the night. Tomorrow, Delmarva show chairman Richard Barczewski, an agriculture professor at Delaware State University, will announce the grand champion.

ON SUNDAY MORNING, with the competition basically over, many exhibitors go shopping. St. Amour takes a moment to inspect a rooster she's thinking of buying from Roebuck. He's nicely feathered, though his legs are a tad paler than the Standard calls for and his chest has yet to fill out. She takes him, anyway.

She will also take home a second new rooster, this one offered to her for free by a fellow fancier and, not surprisingly, a little questionable in the genetics department. Imperfect birds are usually culled from flocks to be sold as pets or killed (they're rarely eaten). But St. Amour is admittedly a bit of a softy. When a friend once threatened to consign one of his birds to the stew pot, St. Amour offered to take him in. "He had greenish legs," she remembers. She showed him, anyway.

"When you don't have a rooster, anything is better than nothing," she says, leaning in toward the freebie's cage. "Sort of."

At 9:30, Barczewski grabs a microphone and stakes out a corner of the room to announce the show winners. A single-comb white leghorn bantam cockerel raised by the Delmarva club treasurer wins grand champion; second place goes to a black Old English cockerel from South Carolina. Amidst friendly clapping, Barczewski announces "coop out," unleashing an explosion of activity as exhibitors race to pack up their birds and get home. For a while, the ambient bird noise is at its cacophonous peak. By 11, the hall is empty.

In a few weeks, many of those who attended Delmarva will do it all again, this time at a show in New Jersey. After that, it's a 10-plus hour drive to Greenville, Ohio, and then two back-to-back shows in Virginia. In the fall, many will hit the national shows: Either Harrington, for the American Bantam Association show, which likely will draw 2,000 or more birds; or Lucasville, Ohio, for the APA. (Every few years these two double up; last year's blowout, in Indianapolis, drew nearly 12,000 birds.)

For now, St. Amour returns to Darlington with her poultry.

In her flock, a cockerel named Whiskers -- for the feathers that puff out around his face -- is starting to emerge as a potential replacement for Pucker. He's a diffident competitor, but a good companion. "Maybe a little less sweet than Pucker," St Amour says, "but with time . . ."

Christina Breda Antoniades, a frequent Date Lab contributor, is a freelance writer based in Baltimore. She can be reached at 20071@washpost.com.

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