Cornish Chicken – Breed Profile

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Breed: Cornish hen vs chicken—what’s the difference? The Cornish chicken is a pure breed, previously known as the Indian Game or Cornish Game. In contrast, “Cornish hen,” “Cornish game hen,” and broilers are fast-growing hybrids that are harvested young. On the other hand, the Cornish chicken is a slow-growing heritage breed, rather than a hybrid.

Origin: Cornwall—in 1886, a general of the British East India Company claimed that he had developed the breed in Cornwall from Red Aseel he brought from India with Black Red Old English Game.

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Cornish Chicken — Recognized Variety of Heritage Breed

History: First appearing in British national shows in the late 1850s, the breed originally resembled a rangy Aseel. During the 1870s or 80s, breeders crossed in birds known as “Pheasant Malay”, probably similar to modern Sumatra, to confer glossy black coloring. These crosses formed the basis of the breed known by then as Indian Game.

No doubt the original goal was to produce a superior fighting cock, for which the new breed showed poor quality. However, its unique appearance gained supporters, who formed the Indian Game Club in 1886 to support breeders and develop a standard. The birds became prized for their wide breast, giving abundant white meat. Males were crossed with other table breeds to produce large meat birds.

Province of Ontario Picture Bureau image of hen and rooster, circa 1920.

They were soon exported to Europe and America. The American Poultry Association (APA) accepted the Dark variety in 1893, and the White in 1898. The APA renamed these “Cornish Indian Game” and “White Indian Game” respectively in 1905. To further align the breed with its origin and qualities, the APA renamed it “Cornish” in 1910, and moved it from the Oriental to the English class.

The Rise of “Cornish Hen” vs Chicken and Development of the Broiler

Despite its potential for the table, popularity was limited by low fertility and lack of cold-hardiness, requiring experienced husbandry and breeding techniques. However, two marketing niches were captured due to its unique musculature. Young birds could be harvested early for a tender, meaty delicacy, which became known as “Cornish game hen”. Similarly, birds crossed with American breeds produced faster-growing hybrids. The Cornish crossed with White Plymouth Rock found a commercial market in the 1930s, although growth was still much slower than modern broilers.

In the 1940s and 50s lines from several breeds, including Cornish, were combined to increase the fertility, appetite, and growth of the broiler within highly managed systems. These were refined into a few tightly selected genetic strains, all now owned by two multinational companies, that are crossed over several generations to produce the industrial broilers of today.

While broilers are often known as “Cornish Cross” and “Cornish Rock”, further genetics and selection have gone into broiler development and their exact breed make-up is an industrial secret.

Cornish Hen vs Chicken: What Do The Terms Mean?

– Cornish
– Indian Game
– Cornish Game
U.S. and European names for the heritage breed of chicken
– Rock Cornish
– Cornish Rock
– Cornish cross
cross between Cornish and White Plymouth Rock
also incorrectly applied to commercial broilers
– Cornish hen
– Cornish game hen
young cross between Cornish and White Plymouth Rock
– Broiler cross-bred industrial strains developed with genetics from various breeds
Dark Cornish chicken. Photo credit: Mary Pahlke/Pixabay.

Protection of the Heritage Breed

Conservation Status: In the UK, it is a rare breed maintained by hobbyists—in 2002, there were 500 females recorded. The Livestock Conservancy status is “watch” on their Conservation Priority List. The FAO records 2825 head in the U.S. in 2015, and lists the breed not at risk internationally.

Biodiversity: A composite breed from different foundations. The breed offers higher diversity than commercial broilers, which are limited to few strains. This gives the breed the ability to adapt and avoid health issues through careful breeding.

Characteristics and Recognized Varieties

Description: Broad and deep breast, well-muscled, and compact. Short, thick legs are wide-set. Skull is wide with deep-set eyes, prominent brow, and stout curved beak. Close, short and narrow feathers with little or no down. Tail carried low. Male and female body type is similar, with minor sex differences. Beak and nails are yellow or horn-colored. Legs are yellow. Wattles and ear lobes are small and red.

Varieties: In the original Dark, the male is mainly glossy beetle-green black with traces of bay; females have black lacing on rich brown. The APA also recognizes White, White Laced Red, and Buff. Bantam varieties included are Dark, White, White Laced Red, Buff, Black, Blue Laced Red, Mottled, and Spangled.

White Laced Red rooster and hen courtesy of Russell Roy of Pastime Farms, who has over 50 years’ experience of raising Cornish, and specializes in genetics.

In the UK, recognized colors are Dark, Double-Laced Blue, and Jubilee (white lacing on chestnut ground). In Europe and Australia, breeders have developed and recognized other colors, such as Blue.

Skin Color: Yellow.

Comb: Pea.

Egg Color: Tinted.

Egg Size: Medium to large.

Dark, Silver (Laced), and Lavender Bantam Cornish. Photo credit: Karen Johns/flickr CC BY-SA.

Cornish Chicken Production Potential

Popular Use: Meat and crossbreeding for market production of “Cornish game hens”. Although originally the latter were Cornish chicks harvested early, modern commercial practice favors a cross with the White Rock. Chicks are processed at 4–6 weeks old, when they weigh around 2.5 lbs, and can be of either sex. They are also known as Rock Cornish game hens.

Productivity: Chicks are slow-growing, ready for harvest at 7 months. However, this results in a good quantity of fine, white meat. The hen’s muscular body shape limits fertility to about 50–80 eggs per year.

Weight: Large fowl—rooster 10.5 lb. (4.8 kg), hen 8 lb. (3.6 kg); market weight: cockerel 8.5 lb. (3.9 kg), pullet 6.5 lb. (3 kg). UK minimums are 8 lb. (3.6 kg) for males and 6 lb. (2.7 kg) for females.
Bantam—rooster 44 oz. (1.2 kg), hen 36 oz. (1 kg). The Indian Game Club in Britain suggests that bantams do not exceed 4.4 lb. (2 kg) for adult males and 3.3 lb. (1.5 kg) for adult females.

Special Considerations

Temperament: Calm and easily tamed, although males can be belligerent and chicks are prone to cannibalism if not given space and activity. Active, but require plenty of space to remain so.

Adaptability: Suited to mild climates, due to lack of down and close feathering, traits which give limited insulation against the cold. Birds require space to exercise and develop muscle or their legs will become stiff. If males fall onto their backs, they may be unable to right themselves, leading to death. So, keepers must remain vigilant. Hens become broody and may hatch a small brood, but they have insufficient feathers to cover many eggs. They make protective mothers. Runs require good shelters, low perches, and large pop-holes to accommodate their unique body shape, short legs, and lack of natural insulation. These extra considerations make them more suitable for experienced keepers.

Dark Cornish hen. Photo credit: Mary Pahlke/Pixabay.

The Challenge of Balancing Breeding Goals

Breeders face the extra challenge of low fertility due to the muscular body shape. A large breast and short legs can limit the ability of the male to mount. Breeding goals must maintain natural mating ability, mobility, and health traits in the birds. These traits remain the great advantage of heritage poultry breeds. Mating strategies consist of balancing the weaknesses of an individual with the strengths of its mate, thereby maximizing fitness while retaining genetic diversity. Pastime Farms LLC, Amite LA, holds yearly seminars to support breeders in continual genetic improvement. Seminar speaker Don Karasek is an APA-ABA judge with 50 years’ experience in raising and breeding chickens. He is also a district director for the International Cornish Breeders Association and he welcomes inquiries.

Whereas broiler selection for rapid growth and high returns has prejudiced bird health, the Cornish offers an alternative path to more sustainable production. Modern broilers are ready for slaughter at six weeks old, but their bodies cannot cope with such rapid muscle growth, leading to huge health and welfare issues. In addition, broiler lines lack the genetic variation required to adapt to environmental changes. Sustainable farmers have successfully farmed Cornish and other slower-growing poultry to a large-scale market. One excellent example is Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Conservancy.

Photo credit: David Goehring/flickr CC BY.


Lead photo credit: © The Livestock Conservancy.

Originally published in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

Jubilee and Dark Cornish with Old English Game Bantam and Light Sussex

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