SLOAN, Iowa — All spring, Addy Johnson feared a repeat of 2015, when the poultry barn at the Woodbury County Fair featured none of her feathered friends.
“I’d go in there and look at the rabbits and the other side was empty and it was sad,” Addy said.
Avian influenza, or bird flu, had swept the state, forcing commercial producers to destroy millions of chickens and turkeys. To contain the spread of the deadly virus, poultry and bird shows across Iowa were canceled.
Addy and younger sister Brenna faced a repeat of that sad situation this year.
Bird flu again hit Iowa in March, eventually being confirmed at 19 sites, including seven in Northwest Iowa, and forcing producers to destroy hundreds of thousands of birds. On March 23, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship canceled all live bird exhibitions at fairs.
“It was weird. I had like an empty feeling,” Addy said.
She and Brenna already were raising dove and golden pheasant chicks on their rural Sloan acreage for their 4-H projects. It looked like they wouldn’t get the fun of showing them at the fair.
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“I was sad,” Brenna said. “Our hope was to wait and pray we would have one (a show).”
On June 3, those prayers were answered. The state lifted the show ban after more than 30 days had passed since a new confirmed bird flu infection. The girls, both members of the Willow Workers 4-H Club, found out a couple days later at a 4-H awards banquet. (Nebraska also has lifted a similar bird show ban.)
Addy and Brenna, who also show rabbits, horses and dogs at the fair and enter a number of other non-animal projects, will once again have a packed fair schedule, either showing their animals each day or helping friends with theirs.
“It would have been weird to have a day off without the poultry show,” Addy said.
Poultry and bird projects are among the most popular in Woodbury County, drawing approximately 190 entries last year, said Lujean Faber, the county’s Iowa State University Extension and Outreach youth development educator who also oversees the 4-H program. When there aren’t bird flu concerns, the poultry barn is filled with chickens of all colors and shapes, along with ducks, turkeys and other specialty birds like Addy and Brenna’s pheasants and doves.
It’s a popular roost for children and adults surprised to learn there are many more types of chickens than the stereotypical white hen and red rooster.
“I know when the public comes there, they enjoy seeing the wide variety of poultry,” Faber said.
So do Addy and Brenna. Their mother, Jamie, showed yellow pheasants when she was in 4-H, and their grandmother Peggy Davidson hatches golden pheasants and raises other birds.
Addy, 17, and Brenna, 14, were attracted to the colorful birds from their first year in 4-H. Addy’s shown bantams and fancy chickens in the past, and will show white doves and peach doves this year, her seventh in 4-H.
Brenna was attracted to golden pheasants when she began 4-H five years ago.
“I like the pheasants because I think they’re really pretty. I tried them my first year and thought they were pretty easy, so I kept with them,” said Brenna, who will be a Westwood High School freshman.
Both Addy and Brenna plan to show four birds at the fair in August, so there’s much feeding, watering and watching them develop champion-worthy plumage to be done.
It’s fun, said Addy, who will be a junior at Westwood, to hang out in the poultry barn answering questions from curious fairgoers who don’t have an agricultural background.
After facing the reality of being unable to exhibit her pheasants, Brenna said she learned not to take them for granted. Come fair time, she’ll be among the hundreds of visitors appreciating the unique qualities of the different bird breeds.
“People get to see crazy birds they don’t usually get to see,” she said. “I’m very excited. I love showing them.”
You could say it makes her proud as a peacock.
And, thanks to the lifting of the bird show ban, you might see a few of those, too, at this year’s fair.