Cornish Game Chickens: Heritage Poultry Breeds

Cornish Game chickens are a heritage poultry breed that was once a popular bird for show. An active chicken breed, Cornish Games are more commonly raised for their meat rather than their egg production. Far to the southwest in England, Cornwall has long maintained a sense of separateness and independence. Here the Cornish farmers took three breeds of chicken and created a new, uniquely different bird that has had tremendous impact on modern commercial poultry breeding.

The Old English Game Fowl was the native fighting bird, available in many recognized strains. To a particular strain of the Game Fowl, the Black-breasted Red Game, the Cornish farmers crossed the Red Aseel and the Malay by the 1840s.

The Aseel or Asil is an ancient pure breed from India with a distinctive appearance. It was brought to England by the seventeenth century for use as a gamecock. The Aseel is an upright, aggressive, bold bird. The neck is substantial in width with very small wattles and a pea comb. The shoulders are prominent and broad, the hips wide. The stern is narrow, but the bird gives the strong impression of being hard and muscled. The thighs are thick and muscular, and the legs are strong. Interestingly, the Aseel possesses a smaller intestinal tract than other breeds. The cock weighs about 6 pounds and the hen about 5 pounds. The hen is broody and lays tinted eggshells but is not raised primarily for meat or egg production in Britain, where it is kept by fanciers.

The colorful English Game Fowl itself was probably already changed by the Aseel. The Old English Game differed considerably from the Modern Game, which is seen today only as an exhibition bird. The older gamecock had a compact, muscular body, a shorter neck and legs, and a longer hackle and tail. Breeders of the Old English Game keep their breed separate from the Modern Games, which are small, slender, and exceedingly tall. The Black-Breasted Red Game strain was an extremely colorful bird with a bright orange head; lighter orange hackle and saddle; black breast, body, shoulders, tail, thighs, and stern; red wing bows; and willow-colored shanks and feet. In the early nineteenth century, this game breed was still a table fowl and a layer of medium-sized eggs.

From the Aseel, the new Cornish fowl received thick and short legs, large thighs, a deep, broad chest and shoulders, a sturdy neck, and a projecting eyebrow. The Malay Game, which was available in England in the eighteenth century, was added to this Aseel-Game cross. The Malay is also a very old type. A tall bird, the Malay has long legs, a low-held tail, and a prominent eyebrow that gives it a cruel expression. The Malay has short and scanty feathers and a yellow skin. Malays are heavier than Aseels.

The Cornish breeders were concentrating on producing a bird with short, thick legs and a wide, meaty body. Sir Walter Raleigh Gilbert claimed credit for the initial development of the Cornish Game in 1849. Fanciers were probably using this and other crossbred types for cockfighting. Although they were slow to strike, the cocks remained somewhat pugnacious and impressive.

The breed rapidly gained great popularity as a table bird, first with Cornish miners but later far beyond Cornwall. Throughout England, the breed became known as the Indian Game or Cornish Game, and the Cornish Game Club was formed in 1886. In the 1880s, Cornish Games were popular show birds, and they were used to crossbreed on the Light Sussex, Dorking, and Orpington to produce excellent market chickens. As a yellow-skinned bird, their popularity as a meat bird was reduced in Britain, where white was preferred, but they flourished in North America after they were imported in 1887.

The imported Cornish Indian Game was also called the Dark Cornish. It was crossed on the White Malay in the 1890s, creating the White Cornish. Selection was made for faster growth, and the white plumage was standardized. The White Cornish became a meat specialist of immense importance to the broiler industry. Later, the Cornish and White Plymouth Rock cross created the popular Rock Cornish Game hen. A White-Laced Red Cornish was also developed in North America as an exhibition bird. The Cornish Game has also influenced the Chantecler, Buckeye, and Partridge Plymouth Rock.

The Cornish Game or Indian Game is classified as an English breed because of its development in Britain, but it owes much to its Oriental heritage. The Cornish has a thick, compact body with a wide back and a broad, deep breast. The muscle development and arrangement makes the Cornish the ultimate meat producer with a large proportion of white meat of an excellent texture. Mature cocks weigh up to 10.5 pounds and hens about 8 pounds. The legs are spaced widely apart, giving the Cornish its typical stance. The legs are large in diameter and strong. The eyes are deep set and sheltered by projecting brows. The feathers are short and scanty, so much so that their skin is sometimes exposed, especially along the breastbone. The Cornish is not well insulated and requires protection against the cold.

The coloring of the Cornish cock is a lustrous greenish black with dark red highlights. The beak, shanks, and toes are yellow. The pea comb and small wattles are red. The hen has a black hackle with penciled bay and black feathers on the body and tail.

The cock’s short, wide-spaced legs can make breeding so difficult that artificial insemination is sometimes needed. The hens are not good layers, which also contributes to fertility problems. Both hens and cocks are active and need space to move. Although the hens will brood, their higher activity level and sparse feathers made successful hatching difficult. Cornish hens lay brown eggs.

The RBST breeding program for the Cornish Game intends to preserve a naturally mating, utilitarian type. Due to breeding for exhibition, many Cornish Games are very short-lived, suffer heart attacks, and have difficulty mating. The trust supports the conservation of a smaller, healthier strain of Jubilee Cornish Game that was conserved by one of its members. The Jubilee was originally developed in Britain in 1886.

The Dark Cornish is raised in the United States in only very small numbers as a home meat bird or for show. Three Cornish lines have developed in America: the commercial or industrial stocks used in the Cornish-Rock broiler cross, exhibition birds, and the traditional Cornish Game.

Our thanks toYale University Press for their kind permission to post this profile from The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds (Copyright 2001 by Yale University), by Janet Vorwald Dohner. This 500-page book is a definitive reference about heritage livestock, describing the history and characteristics of almost 200 breeds of poultry, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and horses.TheEncyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breedsis available from Amazon.