The Cornish, first known as the Indian Game chicken, was developed around 1820 by Sir Walter Raleigh Gilbert of England. General Gilbert claimed to have produced the breed from crossing the Red Aseel over a Black Breasted Red Game of the Lord Derby type. The original purpose was to combine the power of the Aseel Game with the speed of the English Game. 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.” The breed was developed to be a superior fighting bird, but failed to keep much of the “Game” characteristics of its parent breeds to achieve this. However, the cross produced a unique fowl. In Devonshire and Cornwall, England, the “Indian Game” found supporters and continued to be bred.
In appearance, Indian Games 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. Males weigh 10.5 pounds and females weigh 8 pounds. The body of the Indian Game 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. Their bodies, when viewed from above, are heart-shaped – 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.
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. The Indian Game was found in America to be neither hardy, nor prolific, nor fast-growing. The close feathering of the breed prevented them from standing exposure to the elements well, rendering them inapt for northern climates. They also have very large appetites and grow fairly slowly.
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 of fowls. Cornish is a much more appropriate name since the breed was created in Cornwall, England, and isn’t from India.
The Cornish breed was first recognized as an APA standard breed in the Dark variety. Other varieties were later recognized in: White, 1898; White-Laced Red, 1909; Buff, 1938. Black is not recognized. The extreme width of the Cornish’s breast and overall large portions of meat has intrigued many breeders for decades. As breeders faced the challenge of successfully and profitably bringing Cornish to market, two niches were found for it to excel in. Due to its muscular nature, young birds could be harvested early to produce a small, tender, flavorful, and meaty one-pound bird – the now well-known “Cornish Game Hens.” The second way changed the meat poultry industry indelibly. Cornish chickens were ideal for crossbreeding with American breeds to produce extremely fast growing market poultry. The backbone of today’s commercial poultry industry is the Corn/Rock broiler, a cross of White Cornish and White Plymouth Rock chickens, which can be harvested in only six weeks.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.