Would you travel many miles to look at a rare pheasant? Would you attend a poultry show to admire lots of unusually feathered chickens? Ever since 1884, British poultry fanciers have hosted popular shows for fans. Americans and Europeans soon took up the idea.
Now, at last, Israelis are also entering the ornamental fowl arena. The first poultry festival took place over Succot at the Wing of Love park, near Kibbutz Kfar Menahem, east of Kiryat Malachi, showing off various species of pheasants, chickens, bantams (small chickens) and quails. It attracted families looking for unusual yet educational entertainment for their children. But visitors also included many fowl enthusiasts, hobbyists who collect and breed choice birds with a passion for poultry.
Lots of Israelis, it seems, adore poultry. Not just the proverbial chicken soup, coq au vin, or McDonald's fried nuggets, but lively ornamental birds, too. Over Succot, visitors gaped at rose combs (combs that are almost flat on top with a tapering spike at the back), colorful wattles (the red rubbery flaps on a bird's cheeks) and spectacular eyes. Some also noticed the large variety of feathers, from hackles (around the neck) to saddles (on the lower back) and long curved sickle tails. The feet of such birds also generated interest, especially the spurs on some of the aggressive cocks, the unfortunately crooked toes of the otherwise elegant silver pheasant, and the profusely feathered toes of some bantams.
Visitors also looked for the tiny quails scuttling behind rocks and scavenging in the sand. They admired the Malaysian Serama bantams, tiny and black, that kindly laid a few eggs for the occasion. Kids were quick to notice the little Polish bantams with fluffy pompom crests on their heads, the small, fat and round Cochins that seem to have no feet, and the shockingly bare, red-necked Hungarian Turkens.
The larger birds - including the curassows, with their curly crowns, and the royal pheasant, with its very long tail - drew more wows. The spectacular Asian pheasants, such as the red-eyed Swinhoe pheasant from Taiwan - named after ornithologist Robert Swinhoe, who first described it in 1862 - and the Amazonian bare-faced curassows are now protected species, in danger of extinction in the wild. While some specialists inspected the large and somewhat rare Dutch Lakenvelder cock, a wild and flighty bird, the younger enthusiasts voted the East African vulturine guineafowl as the beauty queen of the park, and the gaudy golden pheasant as the handsome king.
YA'ACOV ZILKHA, "a walking encyclopedia on pheasants," according to a poultry fan from Yokne'am, spent a long time watching and photographing the rare Palawan peacock-like pheasant from the Philippines, which no other collector in Israel possesses. These small birds have an erectile crest, a white stripe over the eyes, and an iridescent greenish-blue plumage with peacock-like eyes on its tail feathers. The male engages in an elaborate courtship dance in spring, the mating season. He attracts the female's attention by offering her a choice tidbit, such as a sunflower seed, while prancing around her, bobbing his head and puffing out his neck feathers. If she appears interested, he goes on to spread his tail feathers into a fluttering sideways fan, to show off all the eyes in his peacock-like tail, while he sings to her. His song is actually only a long hissing sound, but she hears it. Members of Kibbutz Kfar Menahem brought these birds to the park many years ago. Recent efforts to breed these old but still beautiful birds have been unsuccessful so far, but Zilkha proposed a new diet, including cucumbers and vitamins.
"There are at least 50 poultry enthusiasts in Baka al-Gharbiya," said Abu Omar, who came with his brother. Their father is also a collector of pheasants and waterfowl, and the family expressed interest in buying baby pheasants next season.
Mahmud, a resident of Kafr Kasim who has a similar love for ornamental fowl, has long been a helpful partner to the Kfar Menahem park after a productive spring season. He has enriched Wing of Love's collection with his generous donations of fresh pairs of birds to strengthen the park's stock. In return, the park has given him some unusual birds.
Haredi Jews also came to the park, not for the first time. They, too, included some serious fowl fanciers and collectors. Age, ethnicity and socioeconomic status are irrelevant in this engulfing hobby that stimulates lively discussion as well as hospitality and mutual respect. Poultry enthusiasts know each other, encourage each other, help each other and travel miles to view each other's birds.
IN ADDITION to the many varieties of pheasants, the Wing of Love park has a remarkable collection of chickens, most of which are the result of breeding experiments. Sir John Saunders Sebright (1767-1846), who bred cattle as well as chickens and pigeons, was an early pioneer in crossing different breeds to achieve desirable specimens that could reproduce themselves exactly. He wrote a pamphlet, The Art of Improving the Breeds of Domestic Animals (1809), that impressed Charles Darwin, who cited Sebright's experiments in On the Origin of Species (1859). Sebright and other contemporary fowl fanciers tried pairing different birds to produce bantams that had a black edging to each feather. This resulted in little golden chickens apparently dressed in fine black lace, with a rose comb and without the usual sickle-shaped tail feathers in the male. These pretty birds have been popular winners in poultry shows since the 19th century. Some golden Sebrights were on show at the festival.
Another chicken on show was the Black Minorca, a common Spanish domestic bird that the British favored for egg production. It has a large red comb and a striking white ear lobe that contrasts brightly against the black feathers. The cock's comb is upright, but the hen's comb flops down to one side. The soft, smooth ear lobe should measure at least 7 cm. by 3.8 cm. This sturdy bird has a strong personality in George Orwell's Animal Farm: Three Black Minorca hens refuse to give up their eggs for the good of the farm when there is a severe shortage of food in mid-winter. After nine hens die of starvation, the survivors have no choice but to do as they are told.
Of course, not all ornamental fowl are as assertive. The large Brahmas are gentle and submissive, easily tamed, and the fluffy Polish bantams are quickly frightened.
Many children came to the festival with parents or grandparents and decorated eggs for their succot, painted paper cockscombs - which they donned as they listened to chicken-inspired stories - learned about how eggs develop into chickens, played games and ate omelets.
The nonprofit Wing of Love runs not only the 30-dunam park at Kfar Menahem, but also a hostel in Gedera for teenage boys who are referred by the juvenile courts. Wing of Love aims to help the boys enter the workforce and find their place in society as upright citizens. The boys work and study in the park five days a week. At certain times of the year, such as the Succot poultry festival, the park opens its gates to visitors as a business enterprise, giving the otherwise secluded and sheltered boys a chance to earn money and to interact as equals with normative society.
The boys' families were among the visitors at the festival, where the boys had renovated the the quails' living quarters. They had laid out new cement bases and cut, fitted and secured fresh wire fencing and roofing. They had also learned about the natural environment of quails and collected sand, rocks and branches to make the birds feel at home.
Every day, in addition to doing schoolwork, the boys clean the enclosures and provide the animals with fresh food. They also clean the duck ponds, mend rusting fences, rake leaves and make labels for the cages. They were especially proud to don the bright yellow shirts that labeled them as park staff. In their new role, they proudly showed visitors, including their happy families, the fruits of their labor.
"I am 16 years old," said one of the boys. "I used to hang around in the street, and I got into trouble with the law. When I got to the Wing of Love framework for youth at risk five months ago, my life changed drastically. It's fun for me here, I enjoy it and my overall feeling is that I have changed. I hope that in the future I will be able to put all the chaos of my former life behind me and join the army."
His friend is six months older and has been in this therapeutic framework a few months longer.
"This is not my first time working with visitors in the park's business project," he said. "From this experience I can see my way ahead in life. I was a quiet, introverted boy, and now I speak more and understand the nature of the work. I have met many new people who are guiding me and helping me to move forward in life - to get away from crime, to live a happier and better life without crime. Now I work instead of stealing; I earn money honestly. I earned more than NIS 1,000 this summer by working in the summer camps in the park. Wherever I am placed now, I will manage to work."
The enthusiasm of the visitors at the festival raised the enthusiasm of the boys for their feathered friends and also increased their motivation to take pride in their work.
"This poultry festival, the first of its kind in Israel, was a pioneering event for our organization," said Boaz Miller, director of Wing of Love. "It raised the status of the chicken from being 'only a chicken,' while empowering the boys whose parents consider them 'a disappointment to the nation.'"
The first Israeli Poultry Festival was a long shot from the standardized and judgmental American and European poultry shows, but the Israeli version had a social mission. Vive la diffÃ©rence.