Malaysia's serama chicken breed, a prized pet, is spreading its wings
Tiny serama chickens fetch big money and make new friends worldwide
Marching imperiously with a puffed-out chest and soldier's ramrod posture, Mohamad Hatta Yahaya's tiny chicken strutted its rich yellow plumage for a stone-faced judge.
"Yes, my hero, puff out your chest!" Mohamad Hatta cried out above the din of fellow fowl-owners as his US$10,000 bird pranced to victory in a "beauty contest" for serama chickens outside the capital Kuala Lumpur.
The breed - among the world's smallest chickens with adults weighing less than 500 grams - has been a favoured pet in its native Malaysia for decades.
But its popularity has spread as far as Europe and America, with enthusiast clubs proliferating as owners celebrate the decorative breed's distinctive characteristics.
These include attractive and richly coloured plumage and a unique bearing marked by a protruding, heart-shaped chest and wings that hang straight to the ground, giving the pigeon-sized bird the air of a goose-stepping soldier on military parade.
While the Asian bird flu outbreaks of recent times and subsequent poultry restrictions have hamstrung breeding efforts, the serama has been sustained by the efforts of ardent enthusiasts who will pay several thousand dollars for a prize bird.
"There are people who want to buy my bird. But I am not selling it. It is part of my family," Mohamad Hatta said.
Believed to be a cross between the Malaysian wild fowl and Japanese bantam, the serama first emerged decades ago as a decorative pet for Malaysia's state sultans. Its name is thought to derive from "Rama" - a term referring to Thailand's royalty.
Many Malaysians eat serama, believing them an aphrodisiac that also fights asthma.
But the bird's attractiveness and good-natured, manageable disposition have pushed it up the pecking order of Malaysian pets.
"These beautiful tiny birds give you great pleasure to own," said Norzamini Tukiban, a 54-year-old banker who heads the district chapter of Malaysia's serama association.
"They are warm and tame and this allows you to hold them, making serama birds adorable household pets."
Ahmad Fauzi Mohamed, president of the Malaysia branch of the World Serama Federation, estimates there are about 250,000 serama in Malaysia, and there are nearly as many overseas, he said. The world federation has a membership of 35,000.
A 2004 regional bird flu outbreak gave Malaysian breeders a scare, as the government culled hundreds of serama along with other fowl to contain the contagion, though there were no reports of flu-infected serama.
"Many owners hid their birds in the jungle, trying to save the species," said Ahmad Fauzi.