Getting 4-H Chickens Ready for the Fair
Tips For 4-H’ers
Chickens, ducks, and turkeys are easy keepers. From the day they hatch they are ready to eat and drink on their own, unlike baby birds in the wild who rely on their mom and dad to feed them. Chickens are also different from wild birds because they learn to fly and roost on their own. As you learn more about these amazing creatures and prepare to show at the fair, keep these tips in mind.
When you bring your birds home, let them acclimate for about a week. Even though it’s really tempting to play with the chicks, early handling is stressful and can contribute to fatalities. The only interaction recommended is to feed, water, and clean cages/pens for that first week. After that first week, gradually increase your time touching and holding the birds. By the time they are three to four weeks old, you should be safe to handle the birds daily. The key to a great, well-behaved 4-H bird is to handle it each day.
As the bird grows, touch its wings, feet, and head. Be very gentle with the wings because they are very fragile.
Here is a safe way to handle an adult chicken that gives it a sense of security: First, put the chicken’s chest in your hand, with the bird facing your elbow, and support its back with your hand over its wings.
Chickens are flock animals and follow their flock leader. For 4-H, the birds need to see you as reliable. In turn, you need to meet their basic needs like food and safety. Birds need someone they can trust who treats them gently and respectfully. In fact, when the flock trusts you, they will follow you around the yard just like you see baby ducks following their mom. It’s fun when the birds play follow the leader!
Above all, practice your showmanship! Your 4-H leader and junior leaders will be your best guides and will teach you the ropes for your county or region. It will consist of knowing your bird’s body parts and being able to show a judge the location of each body part. If you have a rare bird, like a Silkie, the judge will be very impressed if you know that the breed’s bones and skin are black.
Before a 4-H show, you’ll be expected to dust your birds to ensure they come to fair parasite-free. Refer to your 4-H leader, junior leaders, and the Fair Book to learn when that should happen. Some areas are very specific.
In the late afternoon, a couple hours before dusk, bathe your birds. This will give the birds the benefit of a warm temperature and will be closer to bedtime so the birds can relax from all the excitement.
To bathe your birds, try to use two tall bins: one for washing and one for rinsing. Try to use bins that are opaque; bins the birds can’t see through. This setup works best for calming birds. Use tear-free dog shampoo if available. You will wash them just like a dog but be careful not to bend any feathers. A clean barn or coop will help ensure the birds stay clean overnight.
Once the birds’ feet and faces are dry, there are a couple of important steps to follow. First, cut their toenails, and then apply petroleum jelly to their feet, shank (the scaly part of the leg), beaks (be sure not to get it in their nose), wattles, and combs. If you have turkeys, be sure to get their caruncles and beard.
When you arrive at the fair, a vet will check your birds to be sure they are healthy enough to be shown. Don’t be offended if the vet doesn’t think your bird is healthy for fair. Vets really do care about your birds as much as you do!
Once you get the birds in their cage at the fair, then fed and watered, let them rest. There will be time for spot-cleaning in the morning after the birds have settled in.
About 30 minutes before the show, use a baby wipe on their feathers and body parts as needed. Apply petroleum jelly one more time to make your bird look their pop-star best.
Until you can take your birds home from fair, be sure to feed and water them twice a day. If it’s hot, have frozen water bottles the birds can snuggle up to in cages. And keep the cages clean according to the rules, usually once a day.
Enjoy your time at the fair. There really are no winners or losers. With nature and animals, you can never predict when they molt their feathers or how they will react to fair surroundings. It’s all about learning and having fun with your family and friends.
A solid understanding of your child’s 4-H experience and the goals of the program can guide your participation. At the heart of the project, whether it's a poultry project or something entirely different, is the 4-H pledge:
I pledge my head to clearer thinking
My heart to greater loyalty
My hands to larger service
And my health to better living
For my club, my community, my country, and my world.
Be there to support your children as they take on such worthy work (but only when needed) throughout the process of bringing birds home until they pass to the next life. Speaking of time commitment, poultry life expectancy is 3-5 years, but they can live much longer.
The experience for each child is different. Let your child enjoy his or her time in 4-H and have fun with leaders and peers. And, be there to help the leaders. It’s a big job to be a volunteer leader.
At the fair, the hardest part to remember is that your child is being graded on abilities and animal husbandry skills. This is the one time you can relax a little bit. It’s OK (and in many areas required) that only the kids care for their birds. And that’s OK! It’s a great bonding experience for the kids.