Haly Combs stands in the middle of her living room with a small wooden TV tray and a chicken named Donald that is no taller than ten inches. Serama chickens are the smallest breed of chicken in the world, and that is exactly what makes Donald so perfect for the job he is about to perform—the smaller the chicken, the better. His coat shines like silk as he sits on the TV tray, the black iridescent feathers gleaning blue, his breast speckled white. Haly’s mom Lisa stands on the other side of the room, watching her daughter handle the chicken. A cat and German Sheppard walk in and out of the room, looking at Donald, but not entertained by his presence enough to bark or meow. With some sort of unspoken queue, Haly scoops up her chicken with her right hand and lets the left rest behind her back.
“Show me the right wing,” Lisa says. Without a moment of hesitation Haly’s left hand comes forward and splays out the right wing for her mom to see. And not a moment later, playing judge, Lisa says, “Show me the left wing,” and the chicken is being turned, its left wing now on display. It goes on and on; undercolor, width of body, vent, breast, all the while the bird at hand is making no attempt to fly away. Haly herself makes it a point not to look at her chicken. Instead her job is to smile at the mock judge.
Donald is Haly’s model in poultry showmenship, a competition where kids seven to eighteen show their knowledge of their animals. Though it is a poultry show, the competition has nothing to do with the chicken. The chicken has only one job to do, and that is to remain calm and docile—and Donald does it like an old pro. For Haly, the goal of the game is to show the judge the body part he is asking for as quickly as possible—all while holding Donald out to the judge and smiling. With a chicken as well behaved as Donald, and with her knowledge on her side, the only thing working against her is the fact that sometimes she can stand at attention with Donald in her hand for up to an hour, waiting for her turn with the judge to come. “You want to make sure you have a small chicken, or else your hand goes numb,” Haly says, running her fingers up Donald’s neck and tail to make him pose in the proper showmanship position.
The Combs family isn’t one to shy away from animals. In their backyard members of Donald’s flock strut around in their enclosure, ranging in different breeds of chicken. Meanwhile, Birch and Jace—Nubian goats that stand almost four feet tall—roam freely eating anything they can fit in their mouths. Growing up surrounded by animals, it only seemed natural for Haly to join 4H at her school where she can take part in the poultry showmanship and sponsor animals such as cows. At only fourteen, Haly has done things most people will never be able to do—including help a cow give birth. For Lisa, having her daughter in 4H means Haly will learn how to care for something other than herself while also meeting other kids in the program. Though 4H covers everything from healthy living to robotics, Haly’s favorite will always be the animals—and the few dozen chickens in her backyard will attest to that.
To say that Donald was breed for showmanship would be an understatement. There is no way of knowing whether a chicken will be calm enough for showmanship, but the key factor is handling. The more you handle a chicken when it is a chick, the more chance you have at it being docile. Donald himself was bred by a judge of the poultry shows and was given to Haly as a gift, so it is easy enough to see that he got the proper handling when he was young.
“Show me the feet and legs,” Lisa says, and just like that Haly turns the bird in one fluid movement so he’s on his back against her stomach, wrapping her fingers around his leg to show them to the mock judge. Donald makes small clucking noises as he lays nuzzled against Haly’s stomach, acting as if this position is something completely natural to him.
“That’s what the judges like so much about Donald; he makes all these noises for them.”
Donald clucks in response to his name as he’s placed on the TV tray, waiting for Haly’s command to move. His feathers shine from his vinegar bath the day before in prep for his show this weekend; and the week before that he had a dusting to help remove any bugs that may be in his feathers. Overall, Donald is as handsome as ever and ready to perform in a few days.
Haly and Donald work as a perfect team to bring home prizes. In their times they’ve seen what happens when the human and chicken don’t work together. In one instance it was a young boy standing in front of the judging table holding out his chicken. The judge was asking questions about the bird’s anatomy and the boy had all the answers—if he was nervous it didn’t show. Smiling, he turned to flip his bird but lost grip and within the next moment there was a bird on his head. There was a giggle from the crowd but the boy continued on, still smiling at the judge as he took the chicken from the top of his head and placed himself back in the showmanship position—right hand holding his chicken and left hand behind his back.
Judges will ask you to do many things in the show. When asking for you to show them the anatomy of the bird, they will do it as quick as possible to try to trip you up. They will also ask questions to test your knowledge of the bird. The questions can be endless, ranging from how to tell the difference between a male and female chicken, how to care for eggs in incubation, knowing how to look for disease in your animal, and naming the function of glands and specific feathers. They will ask you to walk your bird across the table and then you must coop your bird—making sure you have proper handling when placing the bird in their cage
Donald sits on the TV tray with Haly brushing her fingers up his neck and tail so he poses upright and perfect for their practice run. You can say Donald is spoiled compared to the other chickens that wait outside and hop around in the gardens, but none have a ribbon to their name like Donald. Outside in the coop Donald has his fellow Serama chickens wait for him to return to the coop. And who knows, maybe after another weekend hard at work he’ll have another ribbon to his name.