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The Mini Barn at Louisiana State University is open-air, concrete-floored, and, on this late April morning, adrift with motes of loose straw and hoots of jolly rivalry. Long rows of small cages hold even smaller birds, powder puffs of white and gray and gold feathers; their tails reach skyward like fingers, and when they squall in unison, their high-pitched cries reverberate in my sinuses. Limpid eyes glance out beneath fleshy red combs; these chickens look like they’re waiting to fall in love. I’ve brought a man who inexplicably adores show chickens to the Serama Council of North America’s 16th Annual Cajun Classic—a competition featuring a couple hundred seramas, the smallest chickens in the world.

I can imagine no fitter place for these six- to ten-inch Asian birds and the pomp and joy of their owners than this modest shed tucked away on the campus of Louisiana’s largest university. In this intermediate season of sublime, mosquito-free warmth that lasts in the Deep South for two weeks at most, I drive this man to Baton Rouge to figure out what he sees in them, and how these exotic puffballs became the pride of South Louisiana.

In the U.S., this is the heart of serama country. Jerry Schexnayder, a serama enthusiast from Vacherie, Louisiana, first introduced the miniature Malaysian breed back in 2001 and has since seen his passion spread. Catch a June show in Norman, Oklahoma, or Durham, Connecticut; join the 820 members of the SCNA Serama Table Top Shows Facebook group. The national show is here in Baton Rouge, and people have traveled from as far as Ohio and Illinois to Jerry’s turf, bearing their crates of birds so charismatic they’re the most popular house pet in Malaysia.

How to explain the frenzy? Laurel, a self-effacing serama enthusiast whose Blue Boy (“The name’s not very original”) has lost his long tail feathers in a recent molting (“He’s not going to do very well”), introduces us to the intricacies of chicken variation. The “silkied” birds are smooth and glossy, while the “frizzleds” seem to have just gone through a car wash. Today the birds will be judged by professionals on a handful of criteria—flattening these complex souls into such categories as “chest,” “tails,” “wings,” and “legs” (I thought all their legs looked nice)—but the summative categories of “character” and “performance” reveal their fundamental worth. For males, performance entails “standing tall, posing, strutting, wing flapping, crowing,” and for females, “standing tall, posing, talking, walking proudly.” Their smallness apparently belies their boldness.

Before we can see them freely self-expressing in their natural habitat—a two-foot-wide table under fluorescent lights—we must sit through lunch. Owners young and old grab bowls of fresh-made jambalaya stirred in a giant pot under the lip of the barn’s roof, adding slices of inexplicably out-of-season king cake. We try not to think too hard about the empty box of Burger King chicken nuggets resting atop one serama’s cage. Most everyone at the long lunch tables wears the gold and purple Cajun Classic t-shirts, though some have stepped it up: one woman’s shirt reads “Sorry, I Can’t. My Chicken Needs Me.” The man and I, the only tourists, stick out like a couple of Rhode Island reds. To while away the competitionless hour, the organizers throw a raffle: for a dollar a chance, you could become the proud owner of a big metal chicken, a pair of chicken plates or pots or placemats, treats for your chicken, a ceramic figurine set of three purple raccoons, or—the pièce de résistance—a particularly frazzled-looking frizzle, gray and white, donated by Angel, cage not included. I recommend bidding on the live chicken to spike your adrenaline. (Where would we put it??)

The afternoon resumes the tabletop judging. Owners line up with chickens babied in the crooks of their arms and then toss them like elegant shuttlecocks onto the three judging tables, where the birds will hopefully ruffle their feathers, walk around, pose pridefully, and—if they’re a hen—talk about their lives. The judges are pictures of sobriety; in white lab coats bedecked with badges, they furrow their brows for sixty seconds at each contestant. No smiles in this arena, not even when the owners circle their birds from a predetermined distance, flapping their arms, cawing, saying coo coo coo when they can’t caw, and, in the case of David Osuna, the fiercest owner of them all, clacking a loud hand-clapper at them in a rhythm that suggests long nights of arduous training, exhausted chickens begging for reprieve, David yelling, “Do you want to win? Do you?!

Seramas have a “lot of personality,” Laurel boasts, which is what the judges want to see from each bird inhabiting its tiny table in the Mini Barn. One cockerel stands so tall he’s almost entirely vertical, a narrow feathered vase emerging from two little legs, his head and tail parallel and nearly touching. With an extra hoist to his bottom, he releases a grape-sized pebble of poop. We compliment his lovely plumage. “Color doesn’t matter,” Laurel says, even though this is the only quality that strikes a newcomer at all—how pretty that dusty gray one is! What a fine burgundy comb! Foolish are the uninitiated. Laurel reveals that the serama’s scarlet comb turns dark when a bird gets nervous. One cage holds a gorgeous black silkied with a comb nearly indigo; “I know the one you mean,” she says. “It’s not going to show.”

There are nervous owners too, though their blushes aren’t disqualifying. As the judging stretches into the afternoon, they scan the competition, rattle at their birds to stand tall, taller, and shake their heads when a bird goes still. But these are quick interstitial moments in a day of silliness and celebration. Chickens crow at each other, some run loose, many nest in their owners’ arms in complete nonchalance. Owners talk feed, coops, breeds, eggs. (It takes five to equal a regular egg.) One woman’s sneakers are printed all over with chickens. The appeal in this exotic scene is personality—both chicken and human. If only Jerry Schexnayder could join us; ill health prevents him from presiding, but I imagine him as the P.T. Barnum of the bantam world, hands perpetually raised in Cajun benediction. The man I’ve brought also appreciates small things, and also knows the value of well-placed pride. The chicken show reveals us to ourselves.

Judging will continue for another few hours, but once the birds begin blurring together, it’s time to head home. I can promise that David Osuna will win Best of the Best, and that the young girl napping in a folding chair with her white serama tucked against her chest will be awakened in time by her mother, and that all three—girl and mother and hen—will watch the ceremony with pleasure and envy and hope. Next year, we’ll be back.

“Tiny Travels” is part of our weekly story series, The By and By

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Katy Simpson Smith

Katy Simpson Smith was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. She is the author of We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835, and the novels The Story of Land and Sea and Free Men. Her novel The Everlasting is forthcoming in March 2020. She is currently serving as the Eudora Welty Chair for Southern Literature at Millsaps College.