Our household can now claim to have the fourth-finest flock of Rhode Island Reds in all of the Big Bend. In the parochial realm of local chickendom, this is a gratifying, if small, achievement. The honor of fourth place and its accompanying pink ribbon, now hanging from the knob of the kitchen door, was bestowed on my son, Huck, at the Big Bend area’s annual livestock show, held recently in Alpine.
Want to know a secret? At the risk of ruffling feathers or jinxing our own luck, raising chickens is on the easy end of the show-animal spectrum, at least on this local level. All livestock show animals require work, but some require a great deal more effort than others. The children who raise steers, for instance, spend half a year or more honing, conditioning, and training their animals for livestock contests. It takes money, sometimes big bucks, to buy and feed a calf that will grow to be a contender in the show pen. Goats and sheep have to be thoughtfully fed, exercised, and sheared. And each of these animals must be trained to stand with their weight stacked evenly on all four feet in order to show off their balanced conformation. The showmanship of hogs is its own skill set; for a zing of astonishment and a lesson in controlled mayhem, go watch the swine classes at a fair, where children—sometimes quite tiny children—armed with only a long prod, guide their 250-pound charges around a pen filled with ten or twelve other competitors and their hogs, all while trying to maintain a pleasant expression and watching the eye of the judge. Show animals must be trailered, shampooed, and clipped and, in the case of goats and sheep, must don special-fitting sweaters so that they stay clean and don’t shiver off too much weight in the cold snap that invariably happens each livestock show weekend.
That’s why Huck shows chickens. No clothing, regular bathing, or expensive feed supplements are required for poultry. Big Bend children who want to exhibit chickens sign up in the fall, and on an appointed day the one-day-old chicks arrive at the local post office. A county agent picks up the boxes of chicks and distributes the birds among the young exhibitors; in this way, everyone starts with the same variety of chicken, all of which are the exact same age and from the same hatchery. And it’s relatively cheap (cheep!): the minimum show order of ten chicks costs $25.
Such it was that on a windy October afternoon, Huck came home from school to greet ten teeny, delicate, downy chicks. They are remarkably cute and vulnerable to just about everything at first. Cats are a menace. Bigger chickens can peck them to pieces. Cold can kill them. They can drown in their water container. The Rhode Island Reds’ first weeks were subsequently spent in a metal horse trough with a homemade mesh top built especially for this purpose three years ago, when Huck first forayed into poultry showing. We lugged it into our bunkhouse, where the chicks could exist relatively safe from peril, though their presence there was a source of intense focus from our Russell terrier, who cocked his head at the peeping and stared at the trough with deep longing, his drool pooling on the floor.
After a while, once their adult feathers grew in, we moved the chicks outside to a pen Huck built with his father. Huck kept the birds’ water free of ice and their feed bowl full. A sneaky varmint, perhaps a skunk or a fox, tugged a hole in the pen’s wiring and audaciously gutted two chicks in the span of a single morning. Repairs ensued and Huck was careful to shut the chicks into their coop every night. We set a live trap baited first with raw chicken, then peanut butter, then chocolate, but the killer did not return.
The young hens, called pullets, did require a bit of training. Chickens are shown by holding their feet in one hand and flipping them upside down. This may be a natural position for a bat but it’s not for a chicken; they tend to flap violently and emit an urgent-sounding bwap! during this process, as though they are being pushed off a cliff. Weirdly, by pressing gently downward on the breast of a hanging chicken, you can make it go still and quiet, and it will generally stay that way until it is tilted upright again. The act of flipping a chicken on show day is better achieved with practice, so Huck dutifully trudged to the pen and picked up and flipped each bird nearly every day in the weeks preceding the show.
The raisers and handlers of animals at the Big Bend Livestock Show are composed of 4-H and FFA kids from Presidio, Jeff Davis, and Brewster counties. The show is a pleasingly mild chaos of moos, oinks, squawks, and bleats, amid which these animals are shepherded by children wearing plaid Western shirts and championship belt buckles the size of dessert plates proclaiming some past win: poultry showmanship, fine-wool lambs, heavyweight swine. Some of these critters and their child owners go on to compete in the state’s major livestock shows in places like San Antonio and Houston, where a pen of chickens can fetch $150,000 or more at auction. Our family’s ambitions are not so lofty; Alpine is as big-city as our chickens get.
On show day in early January, we arrived at the ag barn near Alpine Middle School with six chickens and a container of baby oil, which is rubbed on the pullets’ yellow legs and feet to make them look cleaner and less scaly. As is the 4-H way, we went around to other competitors who might not have known the ropes of chicken presentation and passed around the baby oil, reminding the younger, newer exhibitors to look the judge in the eye and say “yes, sir.” Each participant showed three chickens at a time. It’s difficult for an adult to hold and flip three birds, and it’s an even more difficult feat for a child. In Alpine this issue is circumvented by drafting family, friends, strangers, and even fellow poultry contestants to hold the extra chicken(s). A blond child named Tristan, whom we met that night, held one of Huck’s birds. “Today’s my birthday,” he announced. “Oh, how old are you?” I asked. Tristan regarded me studiously. “I believe I am thirteen years old,” he said.
The judge, a kind-looking mustachioed man appropriately named Mr. Fryar, made his way through the rather extensive line of birds. He felt their chests and legs. He mentally measured the consistency of one bird against another. He rocked back on his heels and squinted in concentration. This took a long while. “Which of yours is the best bird?” he asked Huck. Though Huck had memorized a trove of chicken husbandry information for just this moment, he’d never considered this question. “Ah, I’d choose that one,” he said, nodding at the pullet Tristan held. “I like its weight, I think its feathering is pretty, and I think it has balance.” When the judge moved on, Huck shot us a grin and shrugged.
Huck’s pullets, as comely as they were, could not beat those of his best friend, whose birds earned third, or a brother-sister duo whose chickens took first and second places last year and this year. Those siblings are tough to beat; they’ve got the chicken thing down. Their birds are calm, with beautiful dark-russet feathers and a size that clearly outclasses everyone else’s chickens. A total of $18 in cash was clipped to Huck’s fourth-place ribbon, which helped pay for a celebratory dinner at Pizza Hut.
The final event of the three-day Big Bend Livestock Show is a livestock auction, and several hundred people braved the cold and the ice-riddled roads to converge on Alpine’s Civic Center. The evening began with an invocation from Logan Boswell, the extension agent for Brewster and Jeff Davis counties. All hats came off and riotous children were stilled. “Thank you for the moisture you sent, and we pray you continue to water this thirsty land,” Boswell said. Amen. As the auction got under way, a clutch of boys, having already doled out congratulatory handshakes to friends who’d earned prizes, hunkered down on the floor behind the dessert table and started dealing cards for poker. The plushy dun-colored grand champion steer was led out by his handler, a Fort Davis senior rocking a seventies-throwback headband. The ring men yipped to signal bids from the audience, whose members were packed shoulder to shoulder. The massive steer stood rock steady, and the auctioneer goaded and cajoled the price from $3,000 to $4,000, past $5,000, $5,500, and beyond. “All in, all done, sold for $6,000!” he sang. Then came the grand and reserve lambs, the goats, and the pink-and-black swine. Take care not to catch the eye of the ring man. Now $1,500, $2,000, $2,750, give me $3,000! Heyyyyip! By the time we left, our heads were full of the clatter of numbers. Huck emerged from behind the dessert table, and we walked to the truck in biting wind. “Boy,” he announced guilelessly, “I’m really bad at poker.”
Their show career over, the little Rhode Island Reds were put in with the established flock in our yard soon after their Alpine debut. When they’re older, they’ll join the others in laying eggs almost daily, each egg so perfect, smooth, and brown. I fed 31 chickens this morning, which is quite a lot of chickens. They are an energetic bunch, optimistic and cheery, and when I open the door to their coop every morning, they tumble out with the enthusiasm of kindergartners let loose for recess. Our chickens are life-lovers, interested in all manner of investigatory pursuits. Any new object engages their curiosity and prompts a stare from their queer, round, orange-y eyes; a quick, questioning peck; or a scratch from their long, fingerlike toes, which in truth are a little creepy. Most of these birds are Huck’s 4-H show chickens from past years, like the big Jersey Giants, so black that they glint green, or the stripy Barred Rocks, who tend to clannishly scratch, eat, and sleep near one another.
Huck says he wants to raise a pig next year, but we’ll see. I’m not sure pigs have the charm of chickens. The hens mutter and gossip all day, take dust baths near the dozing horses, and search for grasshoppers in the hay shed. The silver Phoenix rooster, the one whose tail feathers trail behind him like a waterfall, stalks among his lady friends, then hops on the fence rail and busts out a sustained, trilling crow. It’s not hard to guess what he’s saying. “My girls, my girls, my beautiful girls.”