MOUNT VERNON — Alivia Zimmerman’s rooster makes the perfect pet.
He nestles in the crook of her arm when she scoops him out of his cage. He lets her put Vaseline on his comb to keep it nice and soft. Once in a while, she’ll put him in a harness and leash and walk him around the yard, but more often than not, she lets him roam free. After all, she knows he and the hens will trail her like puppies anyway.
This rooster is no ordinary bird. In fact, he’s a Belgian Bearded Mille Fleur d’Uccle. A fancy breed.
Unlike broilers or layers, fancy breeds aren’t often used for meat or eggs. Instead, these attractive fowl are often bred solely for exhibition or even as pets.
“Fancy breeds are mainly for show,” said Katie Lindeman, a member of the junior fair board and Country Critters 4H Club. “They’re birds you’d want to see on the cover of something.”
Zimmerman, 9, is a member of the Red Brush 4H Club. It’s her first year showing poultry at the fair. She speaks quietly, but with confidence, when asked about her chickens.
“He’s a bantam, that’s why he has small legs,” she said.
Zimmerman’s rooster has a bright red comb at the top of his head and tufts of black feathers that jut out around its feet. The majority of its feathers are a ruddy copper with black and white speckles at the tips. She pointed to tiny black flecks near the brim of his comb.
“Their comb will turn black if they’re stressed or excited,” she explained.
Like any good pet owner, Zimmerman knows her Belgians well. The rooster, for example, likes flying and munching on grass.
Knowing your bird is important not only at home, but at the fair as well. Most junior fair competitions involving animals are divided into show and showmanship contests. During the poultry showmanship competition, contestants are evaluated on their knowledge and demonstration of their bird.
“Showmanship is about you and how you handle your bird,” said Caroline Nash, 12, who won last year’s showmanship prize in the first year division. “Show is about how pretty your bird is.”
“And how close it is to standard,” added her friend Hannah Stover, 14. Both Nash and Stover are members of the Centerburg Centurions 4H club and showed chickens at this year’s fair.
During the showmanship competition, judges can quiz 4-H’ers on everything from the parts of the bird and how long it lays to where the breed originated and basic facts about other types of poultry. The girls agreed that the experience can be nerve wracking.
“Focus on how your bird’s doing and try to be confident in all the things you’re telling the judges,” Stover advised when asked how to stay calm during competition. Her methods have proved effective. She earned showmanship runner-up in the intermediate poultry division in 2017 and 2018.
Before the fair, students spend weeks or sometimes months raising and caring for their birds. Nash has had her fair entries for nearly 11 months. After winning the showmanship award with her layers last year, her father got her proper “show” birds as a reward. Her tiny flock of fancy chickens includes five Old English Wheaten Game Bantams and three chicks.
Bantam fowl are typically miniature versions of standard breeds and thus make great pets. Nash said her birds are generally very easy to handle — with one exception.
“They’re really hard to bathe,” she said. “Then they’re flying everywhere. They’re really flighty birds.”
Thankfully, they are also tiny. Nash’s rooster, Tiki, is small and light enough to perch on her shoulder.
“He loves attention,” she said. “At home, when he’s calm, he’ll sit on my shoulder forever.”