Nothing in life prepares you for the moment when you agree to judge a rooster-crowing contest at the State Fair.

But when great responsibility is thrust upon you, a man can only swear to do his best, act in accordance with the truth and fair play, and suppress the urge to shout LET'S GET READY TO DOOOOODLLLE! in a boxing-announcer voice.

I wondered about the criteria -- enunciation, tone, duration, what? Am I supposed to be like an "American Idol" judge here? "Dawg, I loved you in the tryouts, but your doodle's a little pitchy tonight."

No. The rooster that caws the most in 30 minutes wins.

That's right: I sat there for half an hour, staring at the backside of a bird, waiting for him to issue his strangled screech so I could put a mark on a paper.

There were a dozen birds of various sizes. The crowd favorite was an obnoxious black boisterous rooster who kept picking a fight with the fellow in the next cage, like one of those boxing match weigh-ins that ends in a fistfight. It was a lesson in rooster IQ, too: When a piece of paper was placed between the cages, the rooster's brain said "ENEMY NO LONGER EXISTS" and he turned away, strutting, glaring at the spectators. YOU WANT SOME OF THIS? (Actually, yes, in fried form.)

I was judging No. 3, a scrawny fowl with the standard what-the-hell-is-going-on-here expression chickens have. Focus, No. 3. Focus. Find your inner chanticleer and let it free.

He craned his neck, opened his beak as if he felt a sneeze coming on, then issued a hideous, choking scream: CRAWORWOWAHEEEEE!

Did it count? It counted.

In the adjacent cage was No. 2, who cawed a crisp, passionless cock-a-doodle-doo every few minutes. Just phoning it in. His co-owner would puff up his chest in encouragement, and at first I considered this cheating -- but it was more like a coach in the boxer's corner, I suppose. That's legal. In fact, No. 2's other co-owner was judging rooster No. 4, which seemed dodgy. He could decline to mark the caws, after all.

But this is a gentleman's game. Honor matters.

I asked the co-owner if No. 2 had a name. "Sven," he said, adding, "He won last year. And lost the year before only by one caw."

Great. So we're up against a pro. Sven kept pace with my rooster for most of the half-hour, but stepped up his game in the last 10 minutes and practically cawed himself hoarse after the two-minute warning. Final total: 48 caws to my guy's 36.

The big jerk rooster everyone thought would win the event? One caw. One. There's a lesson for us all in this, isn't there?

It's not enough to walk the walk. You have to caw the caw. • 612-673-7858