“Each of us is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
James R. Schlesinger (1)
Pity the poor judge at a bird show. He or she is there to evaluate the birds according to the Standard for the breed and to score them according to the Scale of Points. During the morning there is an air of diligent impartiality as the judge works through the classes. Decisions are made and the winners are declared.
In the afternoon things can be oh so different. The show hall is now full of ‘judges’: people with opinions that may differ from those of the judge, and are all too willing to express them. Now it is the turn of the judge to be judged.
It’s unfair of course. The judge has done his/her best and assessed the birds as they appeared before him/her. A bird may look quite different by the time the exhibition is open to the public.
Some may be tired from a long journey; some take a long time to adjust to their new surroundings; others simply don’t have the right temperament to perform under scrutiny. A few hours later they have relaxed, their spangles have lined up, and they display their charms. That is the bird that the public sees, not the bird that sulked or became agitated when it was presented to the judge.
The reverse is also true. Birds can get tired as the day goes on, but the critics won’t have seen the bird at its best. We also have to acknowledge that some people are never satisfied unless they win. They are incapable of seeing the merits of any birds but their own, and are all too ready to lay the blame for failure at the door of the judge.
It is a popular myth that the only people happy with the decisions of the judge are the winners. In my experience, the leading Lizard breeders have no problem accepting defeat provided they can see that they have been beaten by a better bird. It is defeat by a manifestly inferior bird that leads to complaints, and when several knowledgeable people raise the same complaint, questions about the quality of the judgement are bound to be asked.
The subject was raised by Joe Coakley in his report of the 2019 World Show, and he was not alone. I received several messages from leading breeders sharing his concerns.
The World Show is a special case with its own unique circumstances, not least that the Lizard section of fewer than 300 birds was judged by a total of seven judges. It was hardly a recipe for consistency. Lest any British readers think that this is just a foreign problem, I have heard similar complaints about the inconsistency of judging in the UK in recent years.
The best way I can illustrate the problem is by describing the campaign histories of three Lizard canaries that impressed me during the 2018 show season.
The first was a broken cap silver cock bred by Danny Higgins, a bird that was almost guaranteed to divide opinion. His weakness was some over-year feathers in his tail. His strength was the depth of ground colour and the intensity of his rowings, a stunning display. Photographs don’t do him justice, but I used him as an exemplar at an all-Lizard show to demonstrate to novice exhibitors the standard they should be aiming for. It is for the judge to reconcile these differences (2). On this occasion he came seventh in his class.
Later in the year the same bird was judged by Tomas Hernandez at the East Sussex National and was awarded Best Lizard.
Next is a broken cap silver hen bred by Jules Etienne. I had a good look at her at the Lizarddag; a cracking bird with spangles that dazzled. She was awarded just 90 points (3). Two weeks later she won Best Silver at Liege; a show which attracts the highest concentration of good Lizards you’ll find anywhere in Europe. Alain Nottet judged.
I had expectations of a medal for her at the World Show, but again she was awarded a disappointing 90 points.
My third example is a broken cap gold cock bred by David Newton. A Lizard with brilliant colour, good rowings for a gold cock and super spangles that always, but always, lined up perfectly. I saw him a few days before a major competition and felt that we were looking at a potential Best in Show. He finished outside the top seven in his class.
A few weeks later he was awarded Best Lizard at the Midlands All-Lizard Show, under Joe Coakley’s adjudication.
Some variation in the performance of both birds and judges is to be expected, but in my experience a good bird will usually be in contention even if it doesn’t win. What makes these results stand out is that they fluctuated from one extreme to another; the judges either acclaimed the birds or dismissed them. Surely excellence deserves to be universally recognised?
How are we to explain such disparity of opinion?
The standard reply is that the judge has been asked to give his/her opinion, and he/she is entitled to it. That is not an answer; it is an excuse, a way of avoiding the issue. No one doubts that the judge tries to do his or her best, but the crux of the matter, as Schlesinger pointed out, is that “each of us is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
Where do we find the facts? In the Show Standard and the Scale of Points of course.
The judge is expected to have a good knowledge of these facts and to assess the birds accordingly. The evidence suggests that judges are, perhaps subconsciously, applying their own version of the ‘facts’, focussing on certain features at the expense of others. The Lizard’s balanced design becomes distorted. How else do we explain the award of prizes at major shows to neatly spangled birds with run caps (a ‘serious fault’ according to the LCA handbook), pale legs, incorrect ground colour, scant rowings, white vents etc?
Things are no better on the continent. I’ve seen prizes awarded to birds that fall alarmingly short of the Standard: dull ground colour, tramlines, greyish melanins, stripes on the breast, feather faults, an absence of eyelashes, and caps running on to the neck. I realise that OMJ judges are not expected to be specialists but exhibitors want, and deserve, a well informed judgement, not a lottery.
Every judge I’ve met, in Britain and abroad, is diligent and takes the task seriously, yet while most judgements are sound, these discrepancies keep recurring. The Lizard canary is a complex, but balanced, design and every detail counts, not just the ones that the judge likes. We need consistency, and that means judges should base their decisions on the facts, not mere opinion. Anything less is unfair on the exhibitors and the birds.
- Schlesinger was U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1973 to 1975.
- I can think of two occasions when I have been in a similar predicament: one bird bred by David Allen and another by Sharon Kendall. Both were the best birds in their respective classes, but both displayed an over-year feather. To my shame I allowed an accidental fault to outweigh their undoubted quality and placed them second. Fortunately other judges at other shows gave them their due rewards.
- For readers unfamiliar with the points system, 89 points is considered ‘average’.