Lloyd Flanagan was spraying a chicken with olive oil in anticipation of a big event at the Stock Show.
But there was no oven being preheated and no table being set. This chicken, a magnificent Rhode Island red hen, was very much alive and being pampered for show.
“It keeps their feathers from drying out. And we use baby oil or Vaseline their legs,” explained Flanagan, of Leonard, who has been showing in the Stock Show’s poultry show regularly since 1965.
He and about 1,400 other exhibitors are trying to earn ribbons (and modest cash prizes) for their well-groomed chickens, ducks and geese in the competition that continues today, explained superintendent Monty Fitzgerald of Decatur, adding that 45 to 50 varieties of fowl will be judged in the event.
They include bantams (in single comb and rose comb varieties), barred rocks, Dominiques, Plymouth Rocks, silkies, Cochins, Ameraucanas and a somewhat exotic newcomer.
“Marans are a breed from France that is relatively new to this country,” said superintendent Steve Jones, who like Fitzgerald also judges poultry shows. “People originally brought them here for their eggs, but they are now being shown.”
That’s because Marans produce an egg the color of chocolate. The eggs taste the same, Fitzgerald and Jones said, but the shell is a deep brown.
And if that seems strange, think of the Ameraucanas, which must be fans of Dr. Seuss. The experts said they deliver green eggs.
“People call them Easter egg chickens,” said Fitzgerald, who started showing chickens when he was 10. He explained that Ameraucanas’ eggs can show a mix of blues and greens.
But egg color does not really matter at the Stock Show — yet.
“One of the new trends is egg shows. We haven’t set it up here yet, but we probably will in the near future,” Fitzgerald said.
In the meantime, the Stock Show poultry show is definitely for the birds.
“I tell people that it’s a lot like a dog show,” said Jones, of Poetry. “You have the breed type you are looking for, the varieties you are looking for, especially in terms of colors, and the condition [of the bird]. It’s like any other type of livestock.”
Getting a bird ready for show can require grooming in unexpected places.
“I know that back when I got married, the first time my wife saw me washing a chicken in the kitchen sink, I thought she was going to hang me,” Fitzgerald said.
That task can be accomplished with any laundry detergent, so long as “it is not oil-cutting,” Fitzgerald said. Otherwise, the feathers can become dry and brittle.
The poultry show has seen steady involvement over the past five years or so, Fitzgerald said, with only a slight increase in interest being attributed to the growing trend of urban chicken coops.
“With people going more organic, we are seeing more backyard chicken raising,” Fitzgerald said, adding that some of those who buy chickens as layers wind up becoming exhibitors.
But Fitzgerald and Jones stress that the hens that lay the eggs and the birds that win the ribbons are from different worlds. And a quick glance at the some of the show birds, which are usually twice the size of what most of us think of as a chicken and sport plumage that is amazing in both look and volume, clearly supports their point.
That is why Flanagan — who is showing birds this year whose lineage can be traced back to the original trio he started with in 1965 — has this advice for any newcomer to the field: “Go to a reputable breeder to get your stock. You can’t order from the hatcheries and expect to get a show chicken. They have production birds and laying hens.”
And they probably don’t even spray them with olive oil.