Robert Hawes can’t remember a time when chickens were not a part of his life. But he sure remembers his first show chicken — a light brahma that brought home a blue ribbon when Hawes was around 10 years old.
That was 76 years ago, and while that champion chicken is long gone, Hawes still has that blue ribbon hanging in his home office along with dozens of ribbons, trophies and awards he’s collected over the years showing poultry from Maine to the Midwest.
Hawes, 86, is what is known as a poultry fancier — a person who breeds, raises and shows poultry. He’s on the board of directors of Central Maine Bird Fanciers and he holds a doctorate in chicken genetics. While these fancy show birds lay eggs, mate, cluck, crow, quack, honk or fly like their barnyard brethren, that’s where the similarities stop. Show birds are subject to intense scrutiny by judges, and they’re only allowed to reproduce if they meet every exacting standard of the breed.
For a show bird, it’s all about the look and temperament. It’s breed specific and codified from the tip of its beak to the end of its plumed tail in “The Standard of Perfection.” Called simply “The Standard” by fanciers, the book was first published in 1874 by the American Poultry Association. It’s currently in its 44th edition and includes 60 breeds of poultry.
Poultry shows are serious business, according to Hawes.
Prior to the start of judging at a show, it’s common to see poultry owners bathing and blow drying their birds. Some owners use a lotion on the birds’ combs that expands the blood vessels to make them redder. They also rub the legs with olive oil to give them a nice shine.
“It makes a big difference in the bird’s appearance, and most any bird can benefit from a bath,” Hawes said. “Of course, nothing looks worse or smells as bad as a wet chicken.”
It takes only about a half hour to primp a chicken for judging. The trick, Hawes said, is keeping the bird clean until it gets shown and scored.
Hawes, who has been a registered poultry judge since 1958, said all it takes is one errant feather or slightly crooked beak to knock a bird out of competition. Worse yet are those times when an otherwise show-ready bird would suddenly decide to molt — the natural process in which they shed multiple feathers all at once — just before the judge could size them up.
“When that happens, you have this bird and a cage full of feathers,” Hawes said. “There’s nothing you can do but just take your bird and go home.”
Champions are not created overnight, according to Hawes. Every winning chicken, his own included, is the result of years of careful selection and breeding.
“It takes time,” he said. “You need to buy good breeding stock, and that can be hard because people who have the good stocks tend to keep their flocks in small numbers and don’t have a lot extra to sell.”
Hawes has been in hundreds of shows as both a competitor and judge around the country. In 2002, his Columbian rock chicken took top honors at the annual National Poultry Association show in Iowa — the poultry equivalent to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
He no longer has chickens, though. Two years ago, a weasel got into his flock and killed five birds. Rather than risk losing the remaining chickens to predation, Hawes gave them away to fellow breeders. He keeps connected to all things chickens with his membership in the Central Maine Bird Fanciers Club. He acknowledges his status as a leading expert on poultry in the state, and often thinks back to those boyhood days when his love for poultry was born.
“The other kids in the neighborhood collected baseball cards,” he said. “I collected pictures of chickens.”