PORT ANGELES — Ellie Olson of Port Angeles did her best to follow poultry judge Mary Napiontek’s instructions to show her the breast bone on the Barred Plymouth Rock hen she was holding firmly but gently, but it wasn’t easy considering the hen didn’t have any bones.
It didn’t have feathers, either.
Nor did it squawk, flap its wings or get squirmy as 7-year-old Ellie posed the bird for Napiontek and did her best to answer the judge’s questions in youth poultry showmanship on the first day of the Clallam County Fair.
Ellie and the five other 4H and FFA competitors had to leave their living poultry projects at home this year and instead showed plush stuffed birds after the state Department of Agriculture’s top veterinarian, Amber Itle, recommended that all live poultry shows, sales and exhibitions be suspended until at least 30 days after the last confirmed detection of avian flu in the state.
The most recent confirmed cases occurred in Jefferson (July 26), Walla Walla (Aug. 12) and Kitsap (Aug. 17) counties.
The fair’s resumption after a two-year COVID hiatus sees the return of the high point of the year for junior exhibitors, who have invested many hours breeding, raising, training and prepping the animals visitors will see over the four-day event, among them horses, cattle, sheep, rabbits, llamas, alpacas, dogs and cats.
But no chickens, geese, ducks or turkeys.
Enrollment numbers in the poultry program were already low due to young people dropping out of 4H and FFA during COVID, said Napiontek, who has been the poultry barn superintendent for about 10 years and stepped in to judge showmanship this year when the scheduled judge had to drop out.
“We usually have around 20 to 30 kids in the barn and, on average, 100 to 140 birds in the program,” she said. “This year we had just 32 birds.”
Napiontek said the young 4Hers and FFA exhibitors were extremely disappointed that they would not be able to bring their birds to the fair. But she wanted to make it a fun learning experience.
So, she went on Amazon and purchased three plush stuffed chickens — a Barred Plymouth Rock, a white silkie and a Buff Orpington — put them in cages, and the exhibitors, the parents, the crowd and Napiontek all tried to imagined they were real birds that laid real eggs.
“Carry it like you’re going to carry a real chicken,” Napiontek reminded Ellie, who wore the crisp white dress shirt and black pants required of 4H exhibitors. “Can you tell me what color of eggs it lays?”
(Brown, as it turned out.)
Ellie earned a participation ribbon and a little gold cup and said it was “fine” showing a stuffed chicken, although she would rather have brought her 1-year-old hen, Florence, to the fair.
Sarah Olson, Ellie’s mom, said the experience was a good one, even if they had to leave Florence at home.
“We did practice a little bit and she did really well,” Olson said. “I think it helped her confidence a little bit that she didn’t have to worry about a chicken moving around.”
Benjamin Anderson, 10, of Eden Valley won a grand champion ribbon showing the stuffed white silkie, the same breed of chicken he raises. Next year, he said he planned to bring his 2-year-old silkie, Snowflake, since he couldn’t bring his rooster, Knothead, this year.
“I like the egg birds,” Benjamin said. “So I’ve been learning a lot about them.”
As if COVID-19 and the avian flu were not enough, Napiontek said she learned Wednesday night that because of a different testing regulation not related to avian flu, turkeys and chickens would not be allowed on the fairgrounds for the Pacific Northwest Junior Livestock Auction on Saturday.
People still will be able to bid on the pen of three chickens and the 13 turkeys. However, they will have to rely on photographs of the birds in the poultry building.
Napiontek said she hoped that even though visitors couldn’t see the birds eye-to-eye, they would support the young exhibitors who had worked so hard to raise and care for them.
“These kids are not earning premium points because they can’t show their birds and they depend on the auction to help them out,” Napiontek said. “I want them to be able to have the real fair experience.”
The Clallam County Fair continues through Sunday at the fairgrounds, 1608 W. 18th St. in Port Angeles. Grandstand events, music concerts, a carnival and vendors are on site.
For more information, see https://www.clallam.net/Fair.
Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached at [email protected]