The Cornish, first known as the “Indian Game” chicken, was developed around 1820 by Sir Walter Gilbert of England. General Gilbert claimed to have produced the breed by crossing a Red Aseel with a Black Breasted Red Game of the Lord Derby type. These birds resembled the rangy Aseel. The original purpose was to combine the power of the Aseel Game with the speed of the English Game for a superior fighting bird. Writers also reported that by 1886 any cross of English Games (also known as Old English Game) and Malay chickens were referred to as “Indian Game” and probably resembled the modern Sumatra.
The cross failed to keep much of the “Game” characteristics of the parent breeds, but did produce a unique fowl. In Devonshire and Cornwall, England, the “Indian Game” found supporters and continued to be bred.
Like so many breeds, the Indian Game was promoted during the 1800s as the ultimate, all-around chicken breed. But this misrepresented them, with some saying they “…are nearly, if not quite, the worst domestic fowls for ordinary use. The heart-shaped body type of the bird reduces room for egg production and the breed is only a poor to fair layer of tinted eggs.”
In America, the Indian Game was found to be neither hardy, nor prolific, nor fast-growing. The close feathering of the breed prevented them from handling exposure to the elements well making them a poor choice for northern climates.
The breed was accepted to the American Poultry Association’s (APA) Standard of Perfection in 1893 as Indian Games. In 1905 their name was changed to Cornish Indian Game and White Indian Game (a white variety being developed and recognized in 1898). But early American supporters of the breed felt that term “Game,” typically associated with cockfighting, wasn’t only inappropriate to describe the breed, but holding back its popularity as well. So, in 1910, the APA renamed the breed “Cornish” and moved it from the Asian class to the English class. “Cornish” is a much more appropriate name because the breed was created in Cornwall, England, and isn’t from India.
The Dark variety Cornish breed was the first recognized as an American Poultry Association standard breed. Other varieties were later recognized: White in 1898; White-Laced Red in 1909; and Buff in 1938. The Black variety is not recognized.
As breeders faced the challenge of successfully and profitably bringing Cornish to market, two niches were found for it. Due to its muscular nature, young birds could be harvested early to produce a small, tender, flavorful, and meaty one-pound bird – the well-known “Cornish Game Hens.” The second changed the meat poultry industry permanently. Cornish chickens were ideal for crossbreeding with American breeds to produce extremely fast-growing market poultry. For example, the backbone of today’s commercial poultry industry is the “Cornish Rock” broiler, a cross of White Cornish and White Plymouth Rock chickens that can be harvested in only six weeks.
In appearance, Cornish chickens are very close feathered with little or no down apparent. The feathers are short and quite narrow. Their size is deceptive as the close feathers make them look lighter than they really are. Their feathers have a variety of colors that may include iridescent greens, brown and blue, and they can also be solid white and buff.
The body of the Cornish chicken is muscular and strong in appearance. No other poultry breed more closely represents the ideal of an “Atlas” or “Hercules” equivalent. They have very wide skulls, only medium-length necks, thick, short shanks, and their legs are set wide apart. They have small pea combs, small wattles, pearl-colored eyes, red earlobes, yellow beaks and shanks, and yellow feet. Their bodies, when viewed from above, are heart-shaped with the broad part of the heart being the front of the bird and the tail corresponding to the tip of the heart. Unique to the breed is that the type of the male and female are identical. Males weigh 10.5 lbs. and females weigh 8 lbs.
Although Cornish chickens are not among the beautiful breeds of chickens, they are unique in their own ways. Cornish chickens are excellent meat birds with their extremely large breasts, and they can provide a large amount of tender and flavorful meat. However, they also have large appetites and grow slowly, though once they are mature, they will have a market weight of 6.5-8.5 pounds.
Although Cornish hens lay fewer than 160 small/medium cream or light brown eggs a year, they can go broody and make doting and protective mothers. Unfortunately, with their massive bodies and shorter legs, they are known to accidentally break eggs as they are not physically well-built to sit.
Their game bird heritage tends to show itself if you try to keep them with other more docile breeds. The hens will want to be at the top of the pecking order in any flock. Cornish hens and some roosters can be friendly, but other roosters can be downright aggressive with both people and other chickens. Cornish roosters do not require a large flock and do well with a couple of hens. As they have short legs, they may not do well with breeding. The short legs may also cause other problems, especially if the birds become very large. They do best in temperate climates, but don’t do well in excessively cold or hot weather.
Cornish chickens cannot fly (due to their weight) and are slow-moving which makes them more susceptible to land predators. They need shorter roosting bars and larger nesting boxes. They don’t mind confinement but need plenty of space.
Did you know:
Heritage breeds are being raised on more than 4,000 farms, ranches, and backyards across America. Still, new breeders must be recruited to protect and expand rare livestock and poultry populations. America’s farmers are aging; future generations of breeds need future generations of breeders. That’s why Livestock Conservancy microgrants now include a Youth Division to encourage tomorrow’s breed stewards. Click here to invest in the future with a gift today.