Great for breaking down chickens, perfect for snipping twine or taking the tips off of squirt bottles and wooden skewers, essential for cleaning crabs or cracking lobsters, a good, solid set of shears is a kitchen powerhouse. Ideal for use when a knife is either too cumbersome or too dangerous, shears are most often pulled out for messy tasks, when your hands are liable to get slippery.
As such, the first criteria in a good set of poultry shears is that its handle is nice and grippy. Anyone whose ever tried to play a game of Guitar Hero after a full day of poultry-picking knows what I'm talking about. For me, that means polypropylene or silicone-coated handles are a necessity. The all-metal versions, like the Game Shears by Chef's Choice ($39.95) or the Stainless Steel Forged Poultry Shears from MIU ($51.95) are certainly flashy and pretty but run too great a risk of slipping out of your hands and into your foot, or worse—your dog. Lucky for us, they're also more expensive than their cheaper-but-better plastic counterparts.
And what about the shape of the handles? Of course, they've got to be comfortable, but equally important is that they've got to be easily grippable from either side (I.E. they can't have a top and bottom or be only suited to left-handers or right-handers). Asymmetrical designs, like the one on the Black Utility Shears by Messermeister ($19.95) are fine for office scissors used to snip paper in the clean, dry, and relatively relaxed environment of an office. But when you've got a slippery chicken in one hand and are reaching over your cutting board with the other for the shears, the last thing you want to do it have to flip them over and figure our how to get your thumb in that hole. I want grab-and-go usability.
This unfortunately also eliminates the Professional Poultry Shears from OXO ($24.95) which feature a clever notched blade design that helps it dig into chicken bones better than most straight-edged shears. It's a characteristic that's almost good enough to make me pick these as my favorite (indeed, if you do a whole lot of poultry-cutting, you should seriously consider the OXO in lieu of my personal preference below).
Equally important on the comfort front is that the shears only require me to apply force in one direction. The Kitchen Shears by Henckels ($15.99) and the Kitchen Shears by Wusthöf ($19.95, which features a neat come-apart construction for easy cleaning and resharpening) are both comfortable in the hand when closing down, but are more of a pain to re-open. Better are models with built-in springs that do that work for you.
In the end, it turns out that once again, my favorite happens to be one of the cheapest models available. The Kitchen Shears from Kuhn Rikon ($19.95) are a purely utilitarian affair with stiff, sharp, sturdy blades that are angled to be self-sharpening. My mother actually had a pair of these for over two decades that were still going strong the last time I saw them. It's got a powerful spring-loaded handle that pops the blade right back open after snipping and a built-in bottle opener to boot. Is there anything better than an ice cold beer when you've got your blade halfway through a duck's spinal column?
The best part is the class 2 lever (that's work then load then fulcrum for those of you who don't remember 5th grade physics) built into the handle that serves both as a herb (or wire) stripper, and a fantastic lobster claw cracker.
Sure, they're not the prettiest kid on the block, but I'd take functionality over good looks any day of the week (don't tell my wife I said that).