Behind The Scenes On Process

Something to Crow About: What Makes an Award Winning Chicken? | Paige Gainey

In Terryville, Connecticut sits a weathered wooden barn housing Dan Castle’s champion chickens. Today I’m playing the role of cub reporter, not the aloof niece with no idea what she’s doing out on the farm. The echoes of roosters crowing and hens pecking is hard to dismiss, but luckily for the neighbors, the yard is barricaded by thick forest and lush trees. In the entryway stands a dozen built-in chicken coops filled with dusty paper shavings. While awaiting their caregiver, the chickens roam the fenced area around their barn, hang out in the coop, or nest in wooden boxes.

Dan Castle, owner of an aerospace torque tool company called Advanced Torque Products, relieves his stress by taking care of his award-winning chickens. For twenty-six years, Castle has bred, raised, studied, and showed chickens—think Westminster dog shows for chickens. For many this is an oddity, but for Dan and other chicken breeders across the country, it’s a rewarding hobby. Here’s what I learned straight from the chicken rancher’s beak.

Photo Credit: Dan Castle.

Where It All Began…

“I started raising chickens when I was seven years old in my parents’ backyard in Terryville. My father randomly bought chickens one day, and I was the youngest in the family, so it was my job to take care of them. We knew very little about raising chickens, so my mom began taking me to 4-H to learn about them. 4-H has a competition each year, and that’s when I first started showing chickens. In college, I focused on neurobiology and behavior while I studied at Cornell University. Now, I am the president of the Connecticut Poultry Breeders Society. We put on an annual show where I give presentations to the 4-H club that I grew up in—this year’s show is Sunday, June 9th. I’m also an APA General Licensed Judge and Master Exhibitor. Each year I raise about 170 birds, primarily focusing on Black Austra Standards and Buff Brahma Bantams.”

The Number of Shows…

“It really depends on the year, how busy I am, and how many shows I am judging. I typically judge about seven shows a year. This year I am judging in Ohio, Arizona, Tennessee, and around Connecticut. I’m planning on showing at five shows this year in Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Rhode Island. My favorite show is in Columbus, Ohio. It’s one of the largest in the country. It has about seven thousand birds at the show and attracts people from all over the country. There is good competition there and it’s very prestigious to win.”

To Prepare For Poultry Shows…

“I have a written timeline that I like to follow; it’s extremely helpful. From about six months to one year prior to the show, I begin to condition the birds. I clean and dry the pens so they are free from the drafts in the winter and well ventilated in the summer. I also make sure the birds are not overcrowded in their coops. They must have access to fresh food and water at all times, be free of internal and external parasites, and get enough exercise. Two months before the show is when I choose which bird I want to show based on their temperament, health, and condition of their feathers. I work on grooming the birds that I have chosen up until the day of the show by trimming their beaks and toenails, treating for bugs, and washing and blow-drying. When the day of the show arrives, I do any last minute preparations. I’ll clean their legs, provide clean water, and feed them food in the morning. So as you can see, there’s a lot of preparation involved.” (Laughs)

Most Breeds Have Different Feathers…

“Some of the grooming techniques vary. Typically, I use an ivory soap or any hair shampoo and mix it with warm water in a large container. Then I dunk the bird in, fully cleaning all parts and letting the soapy water saturate the bird. If there’s an extra-dirty area, I put a little soap there and scrub. It’s super important to always move in the direction of the feathers and make sure their heads stay above the water. Often times, I only blow-dry the soft feathered breeds, like the Cochins and Silkies.”

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Photo Credit: Dan Castle.

My Favorite Breed Is…

“Definitely the Black Australorps. I’ve been breeding them for twenty-five years. I hatch about 130 eggs each year and only breed from the best 5 percent. I keep close track of their genetics and notes on how they grow. My favorite part of this hobby is trying out new mating combinations and seeing how my assumptions play out. The life cycle of a chicken is pretty fast; they only take three weeks to hatch from an egg, then only five months for them to mature. This way I can see the results faster than with other livestock, and chickens are a lot less labor.” (Laughs)

To Judge Poultry Shows…

“There are two governing bodies: the American Poultry Association (APA) and the American Bantam Association (ABA). Each bird is individually judged against their breed standard and the judge associates this to a 100-point scale in his head. The point systems differ for white birds and non-white birds. The type of bird makes up seventy-three points for white birds and sixty-three points for non-white birds. They also judge the color of the bird: twenty-seven points for white birds and thirty-seven points for non-white birds. The condition of the bird is extremely important and makes up ten points. The judge looks at health, cleanliness, if it’s free of parasites, and feather quality. Lastly, the temperament of the bird is analyzed. Most standards mention the ideal temperament, which in all cases a mean or crazy bird will likely not show or place well in a competition. So, let’s say one bird scores 90/100 and the next bird 85/100: the first bird gets first place and the second bird gets second place. There are very detailed lists and descriptions of traits that will either lead to disqualifications of a bird or point cuts for defects. Although different breeds fall within different categories, the judges also look at broader categories for advancement, like best of age and sex, best of variety, best of breed, best of class, best of category, and best of show.”

Dan Castle (right) at the Northeastern Poultry Congress. He won Best English, Best Standard, and Super Grand Champion of the Show. Photo Credit: Northeastern Poultry Congress.

There Are Many Aspects To This Hobby…

“Someone starting to breed should try to perfect the breeding process, raising and conditioning, selecting the birds, and preparing for shows. These tasks can be mastered by learning behaviors. There are two types of behaviors you should understand: learned behaviors and instinctual or innate behaviors. There are some innate behaviors ingrained in birds regardless of their environment, like foraging, dust bathing, roosting to avoid predators, and social living. Birds are mimics; it’s a survival tactic. They have some instinctive behaviors, but many are learned. When I hatch the chicks in incubators, to increase the numbers, they take on the role as “mom,” but there are some behaviors that need to be taught. Though the birds instinctively peck at bubbles in the water and specks on the ground, they need to learn what to drink and eat. I dip the beak of every chick in water so they will instinctively drink, and I place paper towels over the floor and sprinkle crumbles to show what to eat. When door training, don’t push them out of the door. I allow them to leave on their own, which helps them remember where to go back inside. If I change the location of the door, I have to repeat this step again. Chickens have bad short-term memories and they will go back to the location they are used to going to, even if they used the new door to exit that morning. I also teach the birds where to roost and nest. As early as three weeks old, the birds start looking to roost, and the crested breeds especially need help. I start with a lower roost and increase the height as they age. With nesting, I place boxes in the pens before they lay so they become used to them. Once they start laying somewhere, it’s hard to break and they prefer dark, quiet spaces.”

Helpful Tips For First Time Contestants…

“You must tame your birds. You should raise them as chicks in a location where they can see your face every day. The birds raised in a stacked brooder for four weeks are the calmest because they see you. Those on the bottom who only see your feet will be the most spirited, even when adults, so raising them at eye level will help. It’s crucial to train your birds to know that they can’t get out of your hands until you allow them. If they are able to get out of your grasp, they will try more the next time you hold them. On the show day or the show weekend, the females need to sleep and be well-rested, and the males need to settle and feel established. They must be fed when they are hungry, or they won’t show.”


Headline Photo Courtesy of Dan Castle. 

Paige Gainey is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine. 

Blue Muse Magazine is a general interest literary magazine published by the students of the English Department at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. We publish poetry, fiction, and a gamut of creative nonfiction on anything and everything the blue muse inspires us to write.

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