Prize poultry rules the roost

by Andy Bryenton

At this time of year, fluffy baby chickens are everywhere, at kids’ pet days and for sale in the classifieds. If you’re living the rural ‘good life’ it’s a good time to get acquainted with the history of keeping your own flock, which all began with events like the poultry section at the forthcoming Courtenay A&P Show.

There’s far more to the humble chicken than many people may expect. First of all, its proper name is Gallus gallus domesticus, and it’s the most common bird on earth, thanks to our appetite for them. Taste alone means there are 50 billion hens and roosters out there today, but showing the best of the species, across a multitude of very different-looking breeds, only began formally in the 1840s.

It was then that the first poultry shows were organised, largely by gentleman farmers who legitimately felt pride and affection for their prized birds. These feelings didn’t move the farmers to vegetarianism, but they did use their influence to end the barbaric sport of cockfighting, petitioning the government to make it illegal. It’s one of the first-ever cases of animal rights activism, and poultry shows replaced the fighting pits from 1849 onward. Queen Victoria was a patron, (in the same way as she was for highland dancing, on the preceding page), which helped the movement grow. Her particular fowl of choice was the stately, chubby Cochin, an example of pets resembling their owners, perhaps.

Another patron of the poultry shows was Charles Darwin, who had an understandable fascination with the changes and variants seen across breeds of fowl. Breeding pigeons, which were included in English shows, helped him to work out the details of his theories of natural selection and evolution. The Americans got in on the action in 1849 with a great Boston poultry show. However, there were no judging criteria given, and the exasperated poultry judges could not find a winner ‘without cooking and eating each one’ — something that was not going to happen.

Today, the modern poultry show is a place to appreciate the quirky and the exotic breeds, which take pride of place next to our national favourites, such as bantams, Orpingtons and leghorns. While most of those who keep chickens do so for the eggs, and a handy disposal system for food scraps, it’s nice to see so many varied and interesting breeds out there, being preserved for their unique traits.