Judges search for the perfect chicken For purebred poultry, it's style over substance

September 01, 1997|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

Bill Gladhill needs only about 40 seconds to judge a chicken.

He's not checking to see how well it tastes, but rather how good it looks.

For purebred chickens, the Maryland State Fair in Timonium is a pageant, and they are no more likely than a winner of the Westminster Dog Show to be on anyone's dinner plate in the near future.

"If it's a good bird, you know right away," said Gladhill, a licensed judge of purebred chickens for the past 35 years. "Soon as you've got it in your hand, you know it's a good bird."

More than 50 types of chickens were on display yesterday for the contest, which has become a tradition at the fair over the past two decades.

"People don't know that most chickens can be friendly," said Angelique Livezey, 15, of Bel Air, who has a chicken in the competition. "They don't know that there are so many types, and they're not just used for meat and eggs."

Gladhill must make his decision purely on looks. First he checks the belly, then he lifts the top feathers back to look at the skin condition. Then the feet, the eyes and the wattle.

To make sure that the birds are looking as close to perfect as possible, the people who raise them do as much primping of the birds as anyone else would while preparing for a show where style takes precedence over substance.

The chickens are given baths in days preceding the contest. Oil is mixed in with their food to increase the sheen of the feathers. Petroleum jelly goes on their combs and wattles to amplify their red color. Bread is added to the birds' diet in hopes that it will add weight to make the breasts look rounder.

Sometimes, said Charles Wabeck, director of the fair's poultry division and a food and poultry specialist at the University of Maryland, owners cheat by putting lipstick on the wattle. "That's what we call faking," he said. "A lot of the old-timers will try to do that."

Purebred chickens were only a portion of the more than 100 birds on display at the fair yesterday, including chickens of the more conventional sort, the ones for meat and eggs.

For those chickens, beauty is not much of a factor in the judging.

"These are for feeding people, so they aren't going to be well pampered," said Nick Zimmerman, judge of the egg-laying chickens and an associate professor of animal and avian sciences at the University of Maryland. "I'm looking for how well she lays."

But the purebred chicken contest doesn't have a talent portion. The standard for beauty is spelled out in the American Poultry Association's handbook, which is the guide for all judges of birds. And according to Gladhill, the birds are up against tough standards.

"The perfect specimen hasn't been bred yet," Gladhill said. "You get good ones, and outstanding ones occasionally, but that perfect one hasn't come along yet."

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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