We were seven hours past sun-up, but you never would have known that on Thursday afternoon as the roosters began to crow.
Over and over and over again.
The noise started just after 2 p.m. and by the time it stopped, the dozen or so roosters in front of me would stretch open their mouths, extend their necks and cry out with insistent, shrilling cock-a-doodle-doos more than 100 times collectively.
And while it sounded like one, wretched, wild alarm clock that wouldn’t stop going off, this Kentucky State Fair competition was all in good, loud fun.
The rooster crowing contest is one of the oldest contests at the Kentucky State Fair, according to the fair’s crowing commissioner, John Ball. Fair lore credits the odd competition’s origin to a “disagreement between two old farmers,” Ball told me. The earliest mention of the cock-crowing contest in The Courier Journal archives appears in the late 1960s. Now, decades later, Kentuckians young and old still bring their roosters to the fair to see who can crow the most in a 15-minute stretch.
The stakes are as high as the afternoon sun. The winning rooster’s owner takes home a $5 prize and a bag of chicken feed.
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Three years ago, Ball says one young girl’s rooster crowed a remarkable 67 times between when the timer started and stopped.
Would we hear that kind of crow this year?
I was about to find out.
It was about a half hour until the crow-off began when I settled into a seat in the Kentucky State Fairgrounds’ West Wing Pavilion across from a small stage full of cages. That’s where I met Ball, who beamed excitedly about the whole shrilling affair to come. The crowing contest was open to children and adults with roosters of all ages and breeds. Over the years, he’s seen children as young as five and adults into their 80s give the contest a try. The only real rules are you have to bring a rooster and that you can’t egg it on at all during its 15 minutes in the spotlight.
I wondered how on earth you train a rooster to crow in the afternoon, and fortunately, nine-year-old Ben Miller had some insight to share. When I introduced myself to him, he was already covering his rooster’s eyes gently with his hand.
“Now he thinks it dark,” Ben told me.
Part of the trick was to make his rooster, Martin, believe the sun hadn’t risen yet. That way, he’d be ready to cry out as soon as he saw the light.
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As I looked around the room, I saw that a few other roosters had joined us in the Pavilion. Some were tucked away in crates that were covered in fabric. Others contestants were holding their roosters by their bellies with their feet kicking in the air while they conceal the birds’ eyes in their shirts.
One-by-one the competitors placed their roosters in the cages in front of the audience, and the judges took their seats directly across from them. Ball assigned each judge two birds and instructed them to tally their crows on a clipboard.
Then he asked everyone who had packed into the audience and crowded around the spectacle to keep incredibly quiet, so we could hear the birds.
He started the timer, and I smiled.
We weren’t going to have trouble hearing them at all. They were loud.
First came the chuckles, the “buck buck bacaws,” which sounded like birds were laughing at the delightful absurdity of it all. This, however, was just chatter. The judges’ pencils didn’t move.
For it to really count, the rooster had to put his whole body into making the sound.
Then another bird ruffled his feathers and made a half squawk, and the crowd giggled eagerly. That wasn’t quite right, but we were almost there.
As the seconds ticked by, the roosters seemed to build off the enthusiasm of each other.
Finally “Cock-a-doodle-doo,” came from one cage. Then another “cock-a-DOODLE-DOO” and a roaring “COCK-A-DOODLE-DOO” from the another.
Each crow seemed louder and bolder than the next, and the more the birds cried out, the more birds joined in this weird, loud, alarm-like, song.
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I watched the judges’ pencils move in tallies and the birds fluffed their feathers, stretched out their beaks, and screamed out as if to say “DO YOU HEAR ME.”
Yes, yes, we did, but as the minutes ticked by, I began to notice that not every bird had such fervor about him.
The two women sitting to my left kept their eyes focused on a pair of stunning roosters with brown and blue feathers near the center of the throng.
“Which ones are yours,” I asked.
“Five and six,” one replied, as the two birds sat regally. “And I don’t think they’ve said much.”
A few more minutes passed and another bird began picking at its feathers instead of singing along.
“It’s grooming itself,” someone said. “He must think this is a beauty contest.”
The crowing continued for the full 15 minutes, and the song went on and on even after Ball’s timer went off.
As the judges showed off their scores, it became clear that Sam Lamb, 15, and his rooster won the bragging rights for Thursday’s competition. He’d crowed 37 times, just a little more than half of that record-setting-67 crows from a few years before.
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But honestly, what I found most impressive was that in the middle of all that chaos, three birds didn’t make a peep. Their beaks stayed quiet amid the roaring chorus of the rest of the roosters’ song.
Ball, however, has been around the crowing contest long enough to know that’s not completely out of the ordinary.
“Some of them, like me, wanted to take their afternoon nap,” Ball said, laughing. “Roosters can be chickens sometimes.”
Features columnist Maggie Menderski writes about what makes Louisville, Southern Indiana and Kentucky unique, wonderful, and occasionally, a little weird. If you’ve got something in your family, your town or even your closet that fits that description — she wants to hear from you. Say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org or 502-582-4053.
Kentucky State Fair 2022
WHEN: now through Aug. 28WHERE: The 2022 Kentucky State Fair is held at the Kentucky Exposition Center, 937 Phillips Lane in Louisville.COST: Fairgoers can save when purchasing tickets online now through Aug. 28. Online tickets are $10 per person and include parking. Advance admission tickets are only available online through kystatefair.org/tickets. Children 5 and under are free. Admission at the gate is $10 per person and $10 parking per standard vehicle. Single-day Thrill Ville/Midway wristbands are $35 when purchased online between now and Aug. 28. This does not include general State Fair admission.MORE INFORMATION: Visit kystatefair.org for more information.