GREENFIELD — She hid her face away from the crowd, burying it in the crook of Michelle White’s arm.
A little judging day jitters are normal, both for 4-H’ers and their animals, explained Nolan McConahay, whose duck kept her head nestled under White’s arm.
After all, she was about to make her debut at the Hancock County 4-H fair with Nolan, 7, as her handler.
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In all, 32 4-H’ers and their birds have returned to the fairgrounds this year after a state ban left the contest in flux in 2015. Just before the fair began last year, the State Board of Animal Health imposed a statewide mandate, prohibiting 4-H’ers from bringing poultry to county and state fairs in hopes of preventing the spread of bird flu, which had infected birds across the country.
Monday marked the first time Nolan, a second-year mini 4-H’er, had the chance to show an animal at the fair, a welcome change after last year’s ban, he said.
Throughout the morning, as his duck sat on his lap, he petted her, trying to calm both of their nerves as the sound of quacks, clucks and cock-a-doodle-doos filled the west arena at the Hancock County 4-H Fairgrounds.
Just a few weeks before the Hancock County 4-H Fair launched last summer, fair organizers announced the show would go on, but there would be no live birds participating.
That came as a disappointment for 4-H’ers like Nolan, whose animals were forced to stay at home.
Instead, 4-H’ers brought photos of their chickens, turkeys, geese and pigeons for judges to assess the animal’s size, coloring, feathers and general health. During the showmanship contest, which challenges 4-H’ers to show off their knowledge and handling of the birds, 4-H’ers carried stuffed birds rather than the live birds they’d been caring for all year.
White’s three sons showed ducks Monday. Her oldest sons, Brandon and Logan Francis, have been showing poultry for almost 10 years. Last year, it was hard to keep up enthusiasm for the contest when birds were prohibited from the fairgrounds, she said.
Last year was the first time Brandon didn’t pack up his birds and bring them to the fairgrounds for fair week, he said; the 18-year-old started showing poultry when he was 9.
Keeping the birds away from the fair last year prevented them from getting ill and taught 4-H’ers much about animal health, but the contest wasn’t nearly as exciting as other years, Francis said.
“It’s a lot nicer to have them here,” he said with his show duck perched on his lap. “It’s way more fun to show the animals than pictures.”
Lainie Lawrence, 13, felt nervous as she waited for her turn to show her chickens. She spent the days leading up to the fair giving them baths and preparing them to be on display for judges and fair crowds, who can stop by the poultry barn through Friday to see the animals.
More 4-H’ers signed up this year to compete in her contest than last year, make Lainie a bit anxious about bringing her birds into the show arena.
“I just hope they don’t fly away from my fingertips,” she said.
On Monday, judges rated the birds on their size, feathers and color. Seeing the bird in person made judging easier, said poultry judge Doug Akers.
Across the state, 4-H poultry clubs were forced to make do after the statewide ban, and many opted to have 4-H’ers submit photos, Akers said.
It wasn’t an ideal option, but there weren’t many choices, Akers said.
Show organizers say the ban gave 4-H’ers the opportunity to learn more about keeping their animals healthy, pointing out showing and selling animals is only one part of the 4-H experience.
And Mallory Harrison, a nine-year 4-H member who brought turkeys and chickens to the fair this year, agreed. The hardest part of contest season isn’t the actual show, she said.
“Have you ever tried giving a chicken a bath?” she asked with a laugh. “You get soaked, and there’s no avoiding it.”
The Hancock County 4-H Fair goes on through Friday.
Upcoming events include:
8 a.m.: 4-H sheep show at the 4-H show arena
5 p.m.: Carnival opens
7 p.m.: Wild Hogs at the multi-purpose arena
7 to 9 p.m.: Elkridge Bluegrass Band at the pioneer building
9 a.m.: 4-H llama show at the west arena
1 p.m.: Supreme showmanship at the 4-H show arena
4 p.m.: 4-H awards program at the 4-H show arena
5 p.m. Carnival opens
6 p.m.: Livestock auction
7 to 9 p.m.: Ripple Effect at the pioneer building