COLUMBIA — Six finalists spent 30 minutes coaxing and provoking their roosters at the Missouri State Fair on Monday, trying to get them to crow more than the others.
The annual Rooster Crowing Contest was held between the cages and rows of birds in a roped-off alley, where the six finalists sat or stood in front of cages holding their prized birds. Around 30 people stood around the cages, watching as the competition unfolded.
Rachel Craig would have been inside the ropes if it hadn’t been for the raccoons. A few weeks ago, raccoon killed 26 of the Craigs' hens and roosters. Craig, 21, and an agriculture student from Columbia starting her junior year at Truman State University, was relegated to watching this year's competition.
The goal of a rooster crowing competition is to get your rooster to crow more than the others. Winners from the weekend rounds moved through to the final. During the final round, judges were assigned to count the number of crows from each individual rooster.
Three of the finalists were from the Cunningham brood, two from the Gillespie family and the sixth was Frank Torrey with his little Old English rooster Tony.
Preparations for the finals started Sunday night, said Jerry Hartel, Torrey’s friend and a previous competitor. To maximize crowing, roosters are covered in the dark and barely see light before they are let out for the competition.
Once the competition began, contestants employed different methods to make their birds crow. Several would bob and move hens and other roosters around the cage to exact a reaction, but other competitors such as Mindy Cunningham opted for a more gentle approach. Cunningham sat close to the bars of the cage talking gently to her Mille de Fleur rooster Axel Rosecomb.
For Tyler Gillespie, 9, this was his second time competing. His grandma Sue Gillespie watched her husband, Gene, and grandson compete with their roosters Stinky and Pacer, but she didn’t buy-in to the competition. "It’s for fun,” she said.
With five minutes left on the clock, 25-year-veteran of the competition Tory Perryman joked about using any final tricks left in the arsenal.
“If you’ve got any secrets left, I’d be pulling them out at this point," Perryman said.
Gene Gillespie took out his keys and started to strum the bars of his rooster's cage. Mindy Cunningham kept her voice low, continuing to coax her bird. Fred Torrey bobbed a hen and another rooster against his bird's cage.
But Mark Cunningham’s rooster had given up. “He’s done,” he said, sitting back in his chair.
Hartel watched his friend Torrey carefully. Hartel knows just how hard the competition can be. Three years ago his rooster refused to crow at all until the last minute.
“Thirty minutes without a crow is a long time, I can tell you,” Hartel said.
Even with training and the most strenuous efforts made by contestants, ultimately, it comes down to luck, Hartel said.
“Anything can happen,” Craig agreed with Hartel's assessment. “You never know who’s going to win.”
Despite the intense competition, the contestants held a potluck dinner on the eve of the finals.
“We’re all just friends,” Craig said. After the attack on her birds, Mark Cunningham had given her two of his roosters, so she could begin to breed again.
Ultimately, Barnyard Stud emerged triumphant with 57 crows in the half-hour. Mark Cunningham’s son Mitchell Cunningham held his trophy, ribbon and rooster with pride while his photo was taken. He was awarded $150 for first place.
Meanwhile, Craig’s plans extend beyond the fairgrounds in Missouri. She plans to study abroad in Greece, but if she can breed her new roosters, she plans to be inside the ropes next year, coaxing a rooster to make that classic barnyard sound that ushers in a new day.
Supervising editor is John Schneller.