Montana 4-H students proudly pause to show off their beautiful birds.
Take a few tips from Kelley Phipps, Murdoch’s Finance Assistant and former 4-H poultry project leader. Kelley continues to support 4-H as a volunteer poultry judge on occasion.
Tips For 4-H’ers
Chickens, ducks, and turkeys are easy keepers. They are self-reliant from the day they hatch — ready to eat and drink on their own — unlike baby birds in the wild who rely on their mom and dad to feed them. Chickens are also different from wild birds because they learn to fly and roost on their own. As you learn more about these amazing creatures and prepare to show at fair, keep these tips in mind.
When you bring your bird(s) home, let it acclimate for about a week. Even though it’s really tempting to play with the chicks, early handling is stressful and can contribute to fatalities. The only interaction I recommend is to feed, water, and clean cages/pens for that first week. After that first week, gradually increase your time touching and holding the birds. By the time they are three to four weeks old, you should be safe to handle the birds daily. The key to a great, well-behaved 4-H bird is to handle it each day.
As the bird grows, touch its wings, feet, and head. Be very gentle with the wings because they are very fragile. Here is a safe way to handle an adult chicken that gives them a sense of security:
– Put the chicken’s chest in your hand
– The bird should face your elbow
– Support its back with your hand over the wings.
Chickens are flock animals and follow their flock leader. For 4-H, the birds need to see you as reliable. In turn, you need to meet their basic needs like food and safety. Birds need someone they can trust who treats them gently and respectfully. In fact, when the flock trusts you, they will follow you around the yard just like you see baby ducks following their mom. It’s pretty fun when the birds play Follow the Leader!
Above all, practice your showmanship! Your 4-H Leader and Jr. Leaders will be your best guides and will teach you the ropes for your county or region. It will consist of knowing your bird’s body parts and being able to show a judge where each body part is. If you have a unique bird, like a Silkie, the judge will be very impressed if you know their bones and skin are black.
Before a 4-H show, you’ll be expected to dust your birds to ensure they come to fair parasite free. Refer to your 4-H Leader, Jr. Leaders, and the Fair Book to learn when that should happen. Some areas are very specific.
In the late afternoon, a couple hours before dusk, bathe your birds. This will give the birds time to try while it’s warm and will be closer to bedtime so the birds can relax from all of the excitement.
To bathe your birds, I recommend two tall bins that you can’t see through; one for washing and one for rinsing. This setup seems to work best so the birds aren’t tempted to fly or be nearly as scared. Try to find tear-free dog shampoo. You’ll wash them just like a dog, but be careful not to bend any feathers. And be sure you clean the barn before you bathe the birds so they stay clean overnight.
Once the birds’ feet and faces are dry. There are a couple of really important steps.
· Cut their toenails.
· Then apply petroleum jelly to their feet, shank (the scaly part of the leg), beaks (be sure not to get it in their nose), wattles, and combs.
· If you have turkeys, be sure to get their caruncles and beard.
You’ll arrive at the fair for vet checks. The vet will check your birds to be sure they are healthy enough for fair. Don’t be offended if the vet doesn’t think your bird is healthy for fair. Vets really do care about your birds as much as you do!
Once you get the birds in their cage at fair, fed and watered, then let the birds rest. There will be time for spot-cleaning in the morning after the birds have settled in.
About 30 minutes before the show, use a baby wipe on their feathers and body parts as needed. Apply petroleum jelly one more time to make your bird look their pop-star best.
Until you are allowed to take your birds home from fair, be sure to feed and water them twice a day. Have frozen water bottles the birds can snuggle up to in cages if it’s really hot. And be sure to keep the cages clean according to the rules where you live, usually once a day.
Enjoy your time at the Fair. There really is no winners or losers. With nature and animals, you really can never predict if they will molt their feathers or how they will take being at Fair. It’s all about learning and have fun with your family and friends.
I’m not one to give parenting advice; only 4-H advice. Having a solid understanding of your child’s 4-H experience and the goals of the program can guide your participation. At the heart of their project, whether it’s a poultry project or something entirely different, is the 4-H Pledge:
I pledge my head to clearer thinking
My heart to greater loyalty
My hands to larger service
And my health to better living
For my club, my community, my country, and my world.
Be there to support your child as they take on such worthy work (but only as needed) throughout the process of bringing birds home until they pass to the next life. Speaking of time commitment, poultry life expectancy is 3-5 years, but I’ve known birds to be 12.
The experience for each child is different. Let your child enjoy their time in 4-H and have fun with their leaders and peers. And, be there to help the leaders. It’s a really big job to be a volunteer leader.
At fair, the hardest part to remember is that your child is being graded on their abilities and animal husbandry skills. This is the one time you can relax a little bit. It’s OK (and in many areas required) that only the kids care for their birds. And that’s OK! It’s a great bonding experience for the kids.