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Musical Chickens

‘Bird up! Bird up!’ From dancing to exhibiting, youngsters hold their own in popular broiler show

The chickens are coming, the chickens are coming … in boxes and large rubber tubs, some being pulled on little red wagons, as families bring their birds into the Walker County Fair show barn for inspection. The broiler show—three guesses as to these birds’ fates—is the fair’s largest livestock show competition.

It’s pretty calm this morning, but in a few hours, 123 people with 123 chickens (youths are the official exhibitors, but they get bird-carrying help from family members) will pack the show ring for Monday afternoon’s big event. First, though, the broilers—all 41 days old today, March 28—must get past inspector Jacob Prukob of the Texas A&M University Poultry Science Department. Prukop is appropriately dressed for the job, with the rooster stitched on the front of his long, white coat standing upright and giving a big thumbs-up. The phrase “Gig ’Em” is emblazoned on the rooster’s chest.

Prukob calls out aluminum wing band numbers—“I got 36466”—as he screens the birds, checking them for injuries, wing condition and overall health. You don’t want the judge looking at birds “that look grotesque to anybody in the public,” Prukob explains.

After lunch, nervous energy practically crackles in the air. But before the competition commences, the youngsters showing chickens must test their wings: Yes, as judge Keith Staggs gleefully announces from the center of the ring, it’s time for the Chicken Dance. It’s a rite (or wrong, judging by the mortified expressions on some of the kids’ faces) of passage that pays homage to the history of chickens at the county fair and to East Texas’ thriving poultry industry.

The music starts, and the 40-year-old Staggs exhorts the youths, in so many words, to shake their tail feathers. As they shyly and awkwardly dance, he paces around the ring, clapping his hands and demonstrating dance moves: wave your hands in the air, crouch and wiggle, flap your arms. Some of the kids are standing against the fence, and he directs them with a circular motion of his hand: Grab a partner and twirl around.

The dance ends, and the competition begins: “Everybody bring your birds into the arena,” comes the call from announcer Hal Kooken. The 123 chickens entered represent 41 pens of three birds apiece. Officially, each pen is shown by a youth, but the youngsters can’t hold all three broilers during competition, so family members carry the other two birds into the show ring.

Staggs, standing at the open gate, inspects each bird as it’s brought into the ring. The correct presentation procedure is to hold your chicken upside down, breast side to the judge, with one or two hands clutching the bird’s yellow feet together. Like a police officer directing traffic, Staggs motions each group of six—three people and three chickens—to one of three sprawling, uneven lines of broilers being formed in semicircle fashion around the ring.

Wearing a serious expression now, and chewing hard on a piece of gum as he categorizes pens by size, Staggs zips through the ranks, gently squeezing the birds’ breasts to judge their meat and length and width of the breastbone.

It’s bad form to not be ready for the judge: “Bird up! Bird up!” a mother commands her young son, who’s struggling to keep his heavy chicken held aloft at forehead level. Proper holding techniques vary. If the judge is on the other side of the ring, it’s perfectly OK to tuck your chicken headfirst under your arm like a running back protecting a football. Or, you may let your chicken rest on the ground. But as the judge approaches, hold your chicken out and up, again upside down.

Such is the indignity of being a show chicken. But for that matter, Staggs doesn’t have it much easier. Let’s just say that during a broiler show, with birds being jostled about, stuff happens. It quickly becomes apparent why Staggs keeps a towel in the front pocket of his white coat.

Still, the show must go on. With lightning-fast crisscross hand motions, the judge rearranges exhibitors in line, sorting, shifting, moving the best and biggest birds forward and the smaller birds back in what resembles a game of musical chickens. The kids are no longer dancing, but they can’t afford to look down at their feet: At this stage of the game, awareness and nimbleness are everything.

One family keeps moving back, and finally, all the way back, as other families move forward. Staggs stoops to explain to the pen’s official exhibitor, an elementary school-aged girl, that her chickens as a group overall are simply too small to compete with the big birds.

“Hate to move y’all around like this, just wanted to explain what I was doing,” Staggs says. “She’s just learning,” the girl’s mother says, smiling, as her daughter nods in somber understanding.

Staggs dismisses the line of the smallest birds from the ring, giving those exhibitors a chance to soak up applause from spectators in the crowded stands. He then whittles down the remaining field to the top five pens, telling the youngsters, “I don’t want you exhibitors to look at me as your judge. I’m your customer. I need lots and lots of breast muscle.”

Anticipation builds as Staggs weighs his final decision. Then, the announcement that elicits whoops and hollers: The grand champion pen, containing what Staggs describes as a “monster bird,” belongs to Eric Koonce, a senior at New Waverly High School. His family’s secret to success? Make sure the chickens eat—a lot. “You gotta push ’em,” says Eric’s dad, Allen Koonce, explaining that means setting the alarm clock for the wee hours of the morning to feed and water the broilers and clean their pens.

Theoretically, Staggs explains after the show, each pen has the same chance of winning: The birds—all hatched on the same day—come from the same breeder and are distributed to the youngsters at the same time. The hens that lay the eggs are genetic sisters, and the roosters that fertilize the eggs are genetic brothers. Once the chickens are in the exhibitors’ possession, the race is on to produce the biggest and meatiest broilers in 41 days. That means keeping the birds happy and well fed, often in air-conditioned houses with gravity feeders.

The biggest show broilers typically weigh 8 1/2 to 9 pounds—twice the size of what an industry-produced chicken would weigh at about the same age, Staggs says.

Staggs, who works for Danisco Animal Nutrition in Kingwood, grew up showing chickens and turkeys. Now, he’s grooming his children, three daughters and a son, in the ways of the show ring. And showing what, precisely?

“Chickens! Of course!” he says. “What else is there?”

Camille Wheeler, associate editor