SHOW PREPARATION SERIES:
BIRD SELECTION & PREPARATION
KRISTEN REEVES, MEADOWLARK FARMS AVIAN SUPPLY, INC.
Folks often ask what it is I do to prepare my birds for a bird show. Preparing the actual bird is the easy part. Choosing the birds to show is a bit more tenuous. In this article I will discuss how I go about choosing the birds I show, and then how I prepare those chosen birds for the show bench.
Selecting Birds to Show
The VERY first thing I do is research and know the standard for the species I intend to show. I use the standards created by the National Finch & Softbill Society as a start. From there, I have a very specific conformation in my mind - everything from head shape & stance to size of the eye & depth of color - that I think is the perfect bird. I spend the entire year watching ALL of my birds closely. I watch their movements, their stance, their overall shape and size, their color. Because each species is known by the judges to act a certain way in the show cage, so I also watch how they respond individually in a small cage. By the end of summer, I typically know which birds I will pull to show.
For Gouldians, I typically prefer to select "normal" varieties with good substance. This means a good sized bird with a broad chest, nice line from chin to tail coverts, neat round head, and an overall tight appearance. These birds are typically "at" standard size or slightly larger. They are not slim or long. I don't want "carrots with legs", I want a nice, fit, compact bird. Other species have their own specific qualities; for instance, In my Redbilled Firefinches, I prefer a neat and slightly rounded bird. I'm not a fan of the flatter head and body. Cock birds must have an intense red color with definite white spots on the flanks. Hens must be a uniform reddish brown with red tail & underparts. In most cases, I look for "self" American Societies, though if I have a really nice pied in good feather, I'll show one or two of those as well. Shafttails and Masked should have good tail length & width. Size is nice, but not always necessary - a smaller Shaft or Masked with excellent conformation, tail wires & plumage will outshine a big bird every day of the week. Stars should be in good feather and have intense color. They are naturally an "odd" shaped bird - this oddity is not reflected in the standard, so I tend to choose a robust bird with intense color and impeccable plumage. Other African species tend to be very flighty in the show cage. Training them not to thrash around goes a long way to getting them to top bench.
The Chosen Ones
Once I've chosen the birds I'd like to show, I remove them to their own cage – or with only one other bird in the cage. The perches are set so that the bird's tail will never touch a cage wire, they can sit fully UP on their legs, and have ample room to fly away from the other bird in the cage. This cuts down on feather damage and prepares them for sitting up on the perch in the show cage. I make sure the birds I place together are fully compatible and do not fight. The last thing I want to see are missing or broken feathers or injuries from a fight. Because the shows I attend are often in the middle of breeding season, many of the birds I'll pull to show will be in breeding condition. Birds who are not compatible as cage mates or those who are in breeding condition will often fight. They see the other bird as a competitor. They will pull each others’ feathers, peck at their opponent's face, and get pretty nasty. I have to be extremely vigilant and move any bird that can’t get along with its cage mate.
Once I've gotten the birds into their holding cages, I offer them bath water daily, sometimes more than once per day. Bathing is one of my birds’ favorite pastimes. But it also promotes good preening. When the birds preen, they clean each feather and smooth it. They pull oil from their preen gland and smooth it over the feather as well. Clean, well oiled feathers glow and shine and stay neat and tidy against the body. Daily baths can actually turn a less conditioned bird into a smooth stunner. The more they preen, the smoother their feathers will be (smooth feathered species, that is). Being able to see the birds in good plumage really helps to "see" whether they will do well in a show. Feather condition is imperative - condition - it is the first thing most judges look for.
Placing in Show Cages
Once I’m certain I have the birds I wish to show pulled from the various cages into holding cages, I then place each bird in a show cage individually. Pulling cages with like species, I line all of the cages up on the bench and compare one to another. I look for size, shape, feather quality, and overall condition. As I compare birds, I follow a procedure much like the one a judge would use to place birds. I look for behavior as well. While African species and Softbills are often flighty, Gouldians and other Australians should NOT be. If a bird I've chosen is still molting, I can usually "guesstimate" fairly accurately whether the molt will be done in time for a show and don't worry too much about pin feathers early in my selection process, however, if it is within a week or two of the show. As I compare my birds to one another, I remove those that probably won’t do well on the bench or those of lesser quality until I have only the best birds from those selected to show.
PREPARING SELECTED BIRDS – 8 WEEKS BEFORE A SHOW
Approximately 8 weeks before show season (which starts in October in Michigan), I pull each of the birds I’ve decided to show and trim their nails and beaks. I check their overall health and condition, and coat the nails and beaks with Carmex regardless of what I find. I file anything that needs to be smoothed out (See our Show Preparation Video Series here). I pull out each wing and remove any broken or frayed feathers. If either of the tail wires on cock birds are broken, I pull out BOTH so that they grow back at the same rate and are the same length by the time of the show. For Gouldians & Shafttails specifically, there must be TWO tail wires, and they SHOULD be the same length. Length of the tail wires isn't as important for Gouldian cocks as is the "quality" of the wires. They should be fine and smooth. For Shafttails, length and "breadth" at the base of the wires is important. Again, the wires should be fine and smooth. Pulling feathers early doesn't usually pose a problem because feathers are typically replaced within about 6 weeks when the birds are offered optimal nutrition. Doing this at 8 weeks gives them extra time before the show to replace the feathers in case they grow slower than average. If you have other species with especially long tails, it is important you know what those tail wires should look like per the standard and give the birds ample time to replace them should you need to pull broken feathers.
If there are any pin feathers, I use a soft toothbrush to brush them out. Sometimes the feather cuticle is not quite ready to come off, so I work at it over the course of several weeks. Other times, it takes a mere brushing to remove the cuticle. BUT if done too soon after the new feather forms, you can actually damage the feather. Be very careful when brushing out new pins!
PREPARING SELECTED BIRDS – 6 WEEKS BEFORE A SHOW
Now that I have pretty much decided on the birds I’d like to show, I place those who are young and not quite full size on a supplemented breeding diet – breeding seed, chitted seed, egg food, etc. This gives them a bit more fat to fill them out IF they need it. Those who are full size receive whatever diet they require based on their cycle. It is very important to know there is a very fine line between "filled out" and "fat". You don’t want a fat bird. If the abdomen hangs down below the rib cage or into the abdomen, it throws off the smooth line from bib to vent. But a little heft is good. If you feed fattening foods too soon, there may not be time for the bird to lose that fat. Be VERY careful feeding these high fat/protein foods!
I spend time daily “cage training” any that are super skittish. Judges know the personality of the birds they are to judge. They expect flighty birds in species such as some small Africans and most Softbills. But Gouldians should be relatively docile in a show cage. They aren’t hyper like some other species, and should sit fairly quietly in the cage. However, you don’t want them to be completely still – they should move around comfortably. They shouldn't be comatose, but you don’t want them so hyper that the judge can’t get a good look at them in the show cage. The bird should move with confidence from perch to perch, but not frantically. You want them to sit still long enough that the judge can get a good look at each side. The bird MUST move from perch to perch so the judge can see ALL sides of the bird.
To cage train, I capture the birds and place them in individual show cages. Once in the cage, I pick the cage up and move it around. I tip it forward and back, side to side. I stick a chopstick or pen carefully through the cage bars and lift the bird off the perch and its feet for a moment. I place my hand flat on the cage bars to see how they react. These are all things a judge may do while the bird is on the bench, so I want them to be ready for that interaction. The more I move them while in the cage, the more accustomed to the movement they become. The more I approach or use the chopstick, the less jumpy they are. They begin to learn this is what is expected of them. If I have one or more birds who are super skittish (usually unflighted birds who've never been shown before), I’ll often move them in their show cages to my living room where the kids, husband, cat & dog are all moving noisily constantly. I run the vacuum cleaner, bang pots & pans, make the dog bark, etc. Once the bird no longer responds crazily to these sounds and motions, I move the bird back to its holding cage. I really only do this with young birds or those that just don’t like attention. Luckily, because I already handle most of my birds daily, the bulk of them will sit nicely in a show cage without any training at all.
Each time I move birds back to their holding cages, I again take each bird in hand and check for additional broken feathers and check on the progress of any I’ve already pulled. I want to see them growing in! I check again to see if nails need to be trimmed, and oil both beak & legs again. I pluck any additional stray feathers. BUT – this is the last time I will pluck strays. There won’t be time for them to grow back at this point if I do – unless it is a single back or head feather that won’t make a difference. Be careful, you don’t want there to be any “holes” in their smooth feathering.
WEEKS 5, 4, 3, 2, 1– continue cage training for those birds who need it, and continue conditioning beaks, feet & legs on ALL those to be shown
Over the last few weeks before the show, I consistently handle the birds I intend to show daily. I place those who need more cage training in their show cages and move them around a lot. I keep conditioning legs & beaks, and check for additional stray or broken feathers. I often pull birds over these few remaining weeks as I see they won't perform or their condition wanes. It is the last chance I'll have to decide which will really go to the show.
NIGHT BEFORE THE SHOW–or preparation to travel
When I actually place the birds in their show cages will depend on where the show is located and how far I need to travel – or whether or not they must be on the bench the night before the show, or the morning of the show.
For distant shows, I place the birds in spare show cages the night before I intend to roll. I try to keep the actual cage they’ll be shown in as clean as possible, so put them in a “travel show cage” for the trip if it is more than just a few miles away. In some cases, a clean cage can be the tie breaker if a judge is down to two birds for best in show. On these long trips, the morning of the show I take one last look. If the birds didn't have to be on the bench the evening before, I oil beaks & nails, allow the birds bath water, and transfer the birds to the cage they’ll actually be shown in. If they DO need to be on the bench the evening before the actual show, I do this before I hand the birds over to the Stewards.
For local shows that don't usually require the birds be checked in the night before, I place the birds in their show cages just before lights out. In the morning, I clean up any messes in the show cage. This might be poop on the walls of the cage or stray feathers in the bottom - or even the occasional stray egg. If time permits, I remove the bird and oil beak & nails and make a final last check for overall condition. Local shows allow me to leave birds home if they happen to do something crazy like go into a molt overnight (yes, it happens often!). I don't like to take birds that aren't in top condition, though I will sometimes pull every available bird just to fill cages and support the sponsoring club. Entries help pay for the massive cost of a show. I know those birds probably won't even get a second glance from the judge, but filling cages to bring up the numbers also helps those with great birds gain points toward National club awards!
ALL SHOW CAGES ARE FITTED WITH 2oz DRINKERS CONTAINING QUIK GEL (an electrolyte solution) for the entire amount of travel. Because Quik Gel turns the water golden, it MUST be removed and replaced with plain water before the birds are placed on the show bench. I bring water from home (the same water they drink at home) and fill their drinkers with it to avoid tummy problems due to water mineral content. Sometimes, even the slightest change in water can make or break your bird's performance. When I hand the birds over to the Stewards, I replace the 2oz drinkers with mini show drinkers. These hold approximately 1/2 oz of water each. A healthy Gouldian will drink approximately 1/2 oz of water per day, so these will only last through the show. If allowed, I check my birds' drinkers while they are on the staging to be sure they are full and will last for the entire day.
At this point, there is little more I can do. I’ve replaced all Quik Gel drinkers with tiny show drinkers filled with plain water I brought from home. It is now up to the birds to show the judge their stuff! I’ve done everything I can to keep the bird in the absolute best condition I can, trained it to perform well in the show cage, and fed it the best nutrition to give it a fine glow and good feather quality. Now I get to see just how well I’ve done not only choosing birds, but keeping them in good condition. Fingers crossed they make it to top bench!
AFTER THE SHOW
After the show, I immediately replace their plain water with Quik Gel treated water again, but I leave them in these same cages for travel back home. Once home, the birds are placed in quarantine cages away from the rest of the flock. While most birds at a show are healthy, there is always the chance that someone brought a bird harboring something airborne. We take NO chances. Our show birds are quarantined just like any other bird "new" to the aviary. This prevents infecting the entire flock in case of some picked up illness.