Some kids have dogs, some have cats and some even have parakeets or gerbils.
Thirteen-year-old Wade Richardson – his friends call him the “chicken master” – owns 19 free-range chickens, three chicks and five exhibition birds.
The North Collins youngster has raised chickens since he was 6 years old and last year showed a few of them at the Erie County Fair.
But you won’t see his or anyone else’s birds at the fair this summer.
Wade’s chickens have faced predators before – raccoons and foxes, to name a couple – but nothing as threatening as the avian influenza that has directly or indirectly led to the deaths of more than 50 million domestic birds in the Midwest.
In response to the worst outbreak of the virus in U.S. history, New York State has banned chickens, geese, turkeys and other birds from all fairs.
“It’s very disappointing because I can’t interact with people and my birds,” Wade said.
But he understands the ban.
He keeps in his bedroom a heavy paperback edition of “The Joy of Keeping Chickens.” He turned to page 213 during an interview with The Buffalo News.
“We have it right here: avian influenza,” Wade said.
Then he read aloud about the virus that has alarmed poultry owners as well as officials at the state Department of Agriculture and Markets.
“Much like the virus that causes the flu in humans, avian influenza is highly contagious in birds,” he read.
The current strains, H5N2 and H5N8, are not a threat to people but can wipe out an entire flock of birds in less than a week.
That is why New York joined West Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Dakota, Minnesota and other states in banning poultry exhibits at fairs, even though avian influenza hasn’t been detected in New York, according to the Agriculture Department.
Now, Wade and others across the state are coming up with alternative plans, like selling their poultry through photo auctions or showing llamas instead of birds.
Caring for his birds
Wade is one of 97 Erie County 4-H youths with birds to exhibit. In the open class, about 110 exhibitors were set to show roughly 500 birds.
“It was looking like our poultry barn was going to be full this year,” said Tammi Kron, an Erie County 4-H livestock educator.
Wade planned to enter one of his three white turkeys. He also was looking forward to showing his two award-winning bantam chickens at the fair.
Last year, Wade entered the 4-H showmanship contest for the first time and won top awards. His rooster, a fluffy black-and-white chicken called Pepper, was named overall male champion. His hen, a white chicken named Salt, took second place in her category.
A couple of years ago, Wade got an Award of Excellence at the Erie County Fair for a “hen-atomy” poster that depicted the parts of a chicken. He made sure to include in his poster that chickens are the closest relatives to the T-Rex.
Wade is knowledgeable about his birds, said his grandmother, Roseanne. That comes in handy, because all fowl exhibitors must pass a short test on poultry knowledge at the fair.
Although Wade is not showing his chickens this year, he continues to take care of them. Every day after school, he replenishes the food and water feeders, and cleans them at least once a week, not minding the birds’ angry flapping when they touch water.
Before dark, the boy puts the chickens back in their respective houses. The 19 free-range fowl live in a coop behind the family’s barn; the five exhibition birds stay in two cages in one of the horse stalls.
Filling the void
Fairgoers enjoy poultry shows, and the fair will have to make adjustments, said Assistant Fair Manager Jessica Underberg. Children enjoy looking at birds because they’re small and “not very scary,” she said.
The fair has experienced bans before. Last year, sows and piglets didn’t make an appearance because of an outbreak of PEDv, a virus that causes diarrhea and dehydration in pigs, Underberg said. So the fair set up educational booths to teach the public about the disease and explain the absence of the swine.
This year, 4-H members will set up displays to inform visitors about the avian flu and biosecurity, said Kron, the 4-H educator.
“This challenge has definitely reinforced our 4-H motto of ‘learning by doing,’ ” Kron said. “We are looking forward to focusing on the educational aspect and allowing our youth to be the teachers. After all, they are the future of agriculture.” Members of 4-H will still be able to sell their market birds through a PowerPoint presentation with pictures of the fowl for sale. 4-H participants will then transfer the live fowl to the processor their buyer selects, Kron said.
Erie County 4-H is also encouraging market class exhibitors to donate their chickens to the Food Bank of Western New York. Last year, participants donated 55 birds, Kron said.
This year’s poultry building will feature the “Virtual Chicken,” an eight-minute video depicting how eggs hatch into chicks. Kron is also hoping to set up a barn called “McGregor’s Garden” for children to pull carrots out of the ground and dig up potatoes.
The chicken costume contest, a 4-H favorite, is still on. The submissions will be done through 30-second videos of chickens playing dress-up.
Many fair activities will continue as planned. “Little Hands on The Farm,” a 16,000-square-foot interactive exhibit to educate children about agriculture, isn’t hurt by the ban because it doesn’t feature live animals.
Baby birds might still hatch out at the Agriculture Discovery Center’s chick hatchery. Underberg said she isn’t sure about the hatchery’s fate yet, but there may not be a problem if the eggs come from the same source and the chicks don’t go to a farm within 10 miles of a commercial operation.
Still, officials recommend that visitors wash their hands with soap and water before and after handling farm animals to avoid the spread of bacteria.
At the fair, which runs Aug. 12-23, birds and bunnies usually share a 62-foot-by-140-foot barn. This year, the rabbit exhibit will be more spread out to fill the empty space. A rabbit-hopping demonstration will replace the daily rooster crowing contest.
Trista Kuhn found out about the bird ban from a classmate.
“I was like heartbroken that we weren’t going to be bringing them this year,” said the 17-year-old high school student from Camillus, near Syracuse.
Trista owns 35 birds, and she likes being around people who enjoy raising poultry. She takes pleasure in talking about birds and in going through the chaotic process of finding suitable partners for her chickens.
For five years, Trista and her chickens have competed at the New York State Fair. She’s sad she won’t be able to show her birds this year, but she’s OK with the ban.
“I think we should have the ban because birds are so susceptible to disease as it is,” she said. Trista might butcher the birds she’s been raising for her own consumption.
The poultry barn at the State Fair will feature rabbits and guinea pigs instead of the more than 1,200 birds usually exhibited there. To replace the rooster-crowing contest, the State Fair also will hold a rabbit-hopping competition.
The exhibits don’t impress Trista.
“I think there will be kind of something missing at the fair,” she said. “I think just having rabbits won’t make it.”
In Orleans County, the local 4-H office has encouraged children to reach out to farmers to lend llamas and rabbits to people who want to participate in exhibits but don’t have the space or equipment to keep live animals. Robert Batt, the Orleans County 4-H educator, said the goal is to give children an opportunity to show at the county fair even if they can’t bring their poultry.
In Chautauqua County, the 4-H decided to hold a private poultry showing and auction on land away from the fairgrounds. At the fair, rabbits will replace birds.
Despite the ban, the Chautauqua County Fair is going to be “great,” fair president Dave Wilson said.
Chickens or no chickens, Wade still will be at the Erie County Fair every day of its run. His family owns three horses that usually take part in some events. And he already has made plans for next year.
“If the flu is gone next year I’ll show again,” he said.