Picking show-quality chickens, either to represent your breeder flock or from the sale cages at a show, can be challenging. As always, information is king, so be sure to read up on your prospective breed standards and choose accordingly.
Aside from reading up on breed standards, there are many red flags you can look for when picking birds. Disqualifications are unilaterally unacceptable traits across show chicken breeds, with few exceptions. Birds that display one of these disqualifications will not be awarded a ribbon, or considered in any placings, in a regulated show.
Breed standards of show quality chickens are created and maintained by two major organizations in the United States. The American Poultry Association (APA) sets standards and disqualifications for all poultry. Conversely, the American Bantam Association (ABA) sets their own standards and disqualifications for bantam chickens and bantam ducks. Despite being separate organizations, they generally agree on what should disqualify a bird from showing in a regulated event.
Nobody likes a cheater, and that includes poultry judges. Evidence of cheating or “faking” is grounds for immediate disqualification. Things like broken or crimped feathers, usually in an attempt to change the shape of the bird’s tail, count as faking; so does any evidence that you tried to color or bleach your birds to alter their natural feather color. Cut feathers, scar tissue from surgeries to correct a flaw and feather plucking to hide vulture hocks also count. If your bird isn’t up to snuff, don’t try to hide it!
Fanciers (people who breed and show-quality chickens) don’t like competitors who act recklessly, especially when it puts their prized birds at risk. The quickest way to be uninvited at a poultry show is by bringing visibly ill chickens. Fanciers feel so strongly about this, they’ve even made it an actual disqualification. So, no matter how good looking your bird is, if it’s sick, it’s not getting a ribbon, and you will likely be told to remove your bird(s).
Beaks and Bills
Deformed beaks on show-quality chickens and malformed bills on ducks are also disqualifiers. Crooked beaks in chickens are easy to spot. If the bird’s upper and lower mandibles don’t align, they splay apart and make it difficult for the bird to eat.
In ducks, scoop bill is a deformity that presents as a deep depression along the dorsal side of the bill. Additionally, you may see crooked or misaligned bills. Both are disqualifications.
Combs can present several opportunities for disqualification. For instance, a comb that flops over, called a lopped comb, is a disqualification. Don’t confuse this with the acceptable standard of the Leghorn hen, which says the first point must be erect and the rest of the comb may gradually flop over. Single combs that completely flop over are a disqualification, as are any other comb types that flop or list to one side. Small comb types like the Araucana chickens rarely see this issue, mostly because they’re combs don’t have enough mass to flop over.
Sprigs and Spurs
Sometimes show-quality chickens are disqualified because of additional extensions of their comb. Comb sprigs and comb spurs are added projections that shouldn’t be there otherwise. If you have a bird with this issue in your flock, don’t try to do surgery to alter this since the scar tissue will disqualify you for faking.
Slipped wings occur when the last joint of the bird’s wing becomes twisted. This is an anatomical condition, not a mechanical injury to the wing, and usually manifests in both wings unilaterally. Slipped wings typically leave the last few wing feathers pointing out and away from the bird’s body, and in most cases are pretty obvious.
Lost an Axle
Split wings are usually a recessive genetic defect that causes the absence of an axial feather. Although less blatant than a slipped wing, you can spot a split wing by fanning the wing. If there is a noticeable gap between the primary and secondary feathers, you have a split wing.
With exception to very few breeds, such as the Japanese Bantam, no show-quality chickens should have a tail that curves more than 90 degrees. Using the back as your imaginary horizontal line, draw an imaginary vertical line at the start of the tail, around the uropygial gland. If your bird’s tail arcs back toward the head and crosses this vertical line, then it is said to have squirrel tail, which is another disqualification.
Split tails are only a defect on juvenile birds, but a disqualification in adults. If you look down at your bird from above and the tail feathers split to either side of the body, leaving a gap at the bird’s spinal mid-line, then you have a split-tailed bird.
Wry tail is yet another potential tail disqualification. However, it may not be as noticeable as a split tail. I’ve seen instances of wry tail, but much like a lopped comb, it’s simply that the tail leans to one side of the bird. Like split tail, if you draw a line down the backbone, you can spot a wry tail easily. If the tail leans to one side of that imaginary line, it’s considered a wry tail.
With few exceptions, such as the Sultan breed, feathers that cover the hock joints and beyond are a disqualification. You may have seen feathers like this on some show quality chickens or pigeons before, but unless the breed requires them, they are still a disqualification. These feathery protrusions are known as vulture hocks.
Most breeds of chickens have four toes, and some have five. In either case, one should be pointing toward the rear, like a heel. On occasion a chicken’s rear toe will twist to the front, making the foot resemble more of a duck’s foot than a chicken’s foot. Because of that, we call this disqualification “duck-foot.”
These are some of the major, obvious, and common disqualifications you may see when looking for show quality chickens. This is not, however, an exhaustive list, nor did I even mention any of the numerous defects the APA or ABA recognizes.
If you’re in the market for new birds, consider buying a book of standards, or consulting a knowledgeable, impartial breeder for advice. Even if the breed in question is not their specialty, an experienced fancier can easily spot glaring defects and disqualifications. Don’t be shy, ask around!
Do you have show-quality birds at home? Do you take them to shows? If you do, tell us all about them in the comments below!