When you think of ancient landraces of poultry, one breed should stand heads above the rest of the flock – the Malay chicken. Standing as tall as 26 to 30 inches, with cocks weighing 9 pounds and hens 7 pounds, Malays were said to be able to eat grain from the top of a barrel or dining room table.
The breed achieves its great height from a combination of its long neck and legs, and the upright carriage of its body. When Europeans first encountered them, Malay chickens were widely distributed throughout Asia, particularly from north India to Indonesia and Malaysia. The breed was unlike any other previously known, with its extreme height, heavy bones, broad skull, short-stout beak, and pugnacious nature.
By 1830, the breed had been brought to England where it became fashionable to include in a collection of poultry. By 1834, Malay chickens could be found in Holland and Germany and traveled to America 12 years later. The Malay, similar to India’s Aseel chicken, is an extremely ancient breed. It’s believed to have descended from the great Malay, or Kulm, fowls in India. While the Aseel breeds date back some 3,500 years, it’s not possible to know which breed is older.
The Malay chicken was the first of the gigantic Asiatic fowl introduced to the west. The breed’s unique appearance attracted attention, but it was found wanting as general fowl. Historically, as a meat-producing fowl, the Malay had as many detractors as followers. Some writers criticized the meat for being coarse and dry, while others extolled the firm grain and large amount of meat they produce. The breed tends to be lean, a benefit in tropical climates, and doesn’t lay fat on the breast.
Over the many years since it was first discovered, the most useful role that the Malay chicken has played is in crosses for other breeds. Many breeders have used the breed to regenerate lines of other Asian fowl – from Games to Longtails. Malays seem to impart strong vitality when used. Undoubtedly, its ancient heritage and unique characteristics make it a distinct genetic package and thus account for this useful feature.
The Malay chicken has many unique attributes. The crow of the cock is hoarse, short, and monotonous – reminiscent of a roar. It has small wattles and is inclined to be bare on the throat and breast. The comb is low and thick, being strawberry in shape. The beak is short, broad, and hooked. The expression of the Malay is snaky and cruel, its pearl eye color and overhanging brows contributing greatly to this appearance. Feathers of the Malay chicken tend to be very close to the body, lacking fluff, firm, narrow, and very glossy; with a lustrous sheen when viewed in daylight. The legs are also yellow with remarkably large scales.
The personality and character of Malay chickens are unique as well. They’re quite quarrelsome, which only gets worse in confinement. The breed is prone to eating each other’s feathers. Though the females are good mothers, the males can be quite cruel to their chicks. While chicks can be quite delicate, adult Malays are very hardy. The breed’s gait is heavy and they tend to rest their shanks on the ground when tired – often standing taller than other breeds while doing so. Hens are poor and seasonal layers. Malay hens brood well, but with their short, narrow, tight feathers, they can’t cover many eggs.
The Malay chicken was first recognized as a standard breed by the American Poultry Association in 1883 in the Black Breast Red variety. White, Spangled, Black, and Red Pyle Malays weren’t recognized until 1981.
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.