It was mid-afternoon, but there was a rooster crowing in the narrow barn tucked behind the restrooms at the Howard County Fair.
Justin Grosko paused to look at it. Though roosters can be territorial and aggressive, it's possible to keep several of them in the same flock, he explained. It's a matter of finding the right hen-to-rooster balance.
Justin, 16, had about 10 birds on display in the poultry barn at the fair, which closed Saturday. His were mostly hens and pullets, the term for a hen that's under a year old. His sister, Liana Grosko, had a rooster named Little Guy in a nearby cage.
Justin and Liana were among the 4-Hers who raise poultry to show – and frequently, sell – at this year's fair, which ran from Aug. 8 through Aug. 15 at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship.
Though other animals – pigs, sheep, goats, bunny rabbits – capture more attention at the annual event, many members of 4-H, a youth mentoring program that teaches agricultural and life skills, get their start with livestock by raising chickens.
"It's a jumping off point" for the group's younger members, says Beth Langvardt, the superintendent of poultry for the fair.
Kaitlyn Spicer, 9, was stationed outside the poultry barn Thursday, watching over a cage with three white chickens. The fourth-grader from Woodbine joined 4-H this year and raised the birds as a first project.
Kaitlyn's poultry were broiler chickens: birds that would be butchered for their meat. They took about 10 weeks to raise, she said. She decided not to name them "because they're going to market soon anyway."
Kaitlyn and her two older siblings, who had white broiler chickens of their own, caged in groups of three, planned on selling them off at the 4-H livestock auction. Langvardt said she'd seen a cage of three meat chickens sell for as little as $30 and as much as $1500.
Justin was selling his birds, too, but not to be eaten – his were intended for egg-laying.
With birds he's raised for more than a year, "you do start to grow emotionally attached," he said. "I used to grow meat chickens, but it was too hard."
The rising junior, who lives in Woodstock across the Baltimore County line, started raising chickens after caring for his next-door neighbors' flock while they were away on vacation. After a while, they offered to give him some birds of his own. He's been raising them ever since.
"I like the fact that they're not that demanding," he said of his charges. "All you have to do is keep them safe and give them clean water and food."
But while caring for a bird might be simple – Langvardt called them "the easiest animals at the fair" – raising poultry to show at the fair is much more complicated.
The poultry barn was filled with much more than the classic white hen.
There were blue Wyandotte pullets, with their dusty blue-gray and brown feathers; Egyptian fayoumi, their white feathers speckled with black as if splattered by a paint brush; the polka-dotted Silver-Spangled Hamburg pullet; and the Black Feather-Legged Silkie, whose face disappeared into the poof of pitch-black feathers, fine and fur-like, that cover its whole body.
Show birds are divided into a series of categories – class, breed, variety and gender – and are judged based on how closely their characteristics match an ideal specimen of each outlined in guidebooks.
"If one feather is caught awry, that's a disqualification," Langvardt said. "It's very technical."
A judge affiliated with the American Poultry Association comes down to Howard County from Erie, N.Y. each year to award ribbons for the 4-H show. He walks the kids through the judging process so that they know exactly what he looks for, Langvardt said.
This year, showing poultry at the fair had an added layer of complication due to caution about avian flu, which has killed millions of birds on the West Coast and in the Midwest, resulting in rising egg prices.
Though the flu hasn't been discovered in Maryland yet, fairs throughout the state have been required to test the birds for flu within 10 days of the start of the fair. Waterfowl, such as ducks and geese, were banned this year, and all poultry will be banned from fairs beginning after Aug. 25.
The bird flu didn't seem to be a hot topic for fair visitors, however, said Langvardt: "I expected it to be a common question, but no one has asked me about it."
The 4-Hers, too, stayed focused on the practical work of caring for their birds.
All day, from when the rooster crows at the morning sun to when it crows again in the mid-afternoon, and beyond, they kept busy, scraping the cages, feeding and watering the chickens and, sometimes, taking them out of their cages to show to a curious visitor.