Six Sustainable Hens
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Hens of every class in the American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection have fed their keepers over the centuries. The American Poultry Association’s Standard of Perfection organizes breeds into six classes. Each breed has its special history. These six tell their own stories and continue serving today. American Plymouth Rocks, Asiatic Cochins, English Cornish, Mediterranean Leghorns, Continental Polish, and the Games, now in the All Other Breeds catch-all, are still leaders in small flocks, exhibition, and the hearts of all who keep them.
Plymouth Rocks were developed in Massachusetts after the Civil War and named for one of the state’s most famous landmarks.
The 1912 edition of Harrison Weir’s Poultry Book invited H.P. Schwab, experienced breeder and secretary of the American Plymouth Rock Club, to re-write its entire Plymouth Rock chapter. Weir, an Englishman, didn’t do justice to this popular American breed. “Their constitutional vigor appears to have no limit,” Schwab wrote. “They thrive anywhere and under all conditions.”
H.P. Schwab cites the origin of Barred Rocks as a single comb Dominique male on a Black Cochin (at that time, the clean-legged Shanghae), with others later adding Minorca, White Cochin, Black Spanish, Gray Dorking, Buff Cochin, and others.
D.A. Upham first showed barred Rocks in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1869. Upham was an influential breeder whose birds were used to develop several prominent strains that became important commercial birds.
Plymouth Rocks are useful, active, dual-purpose birds that have attracted many followers over the years. Their eggs range from lightly tinted to dark brown. Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Lindsborg, Kansas, considers it “the perfect bird for outdoor production,” along with New Hampshires.
Cochins now are big, round puffy chickens, masses of soft feathers creating a rounded silhouette. Their fluffy feathers make them look even larger than they are. Those soft feathers beg to be touched. Combined with their calm and friendly disposition, they make excellent backyard birds. The hens are often good broody hens and mothers.
The first Cochin-China chickens brought to England and America were tall, leggy birds.
These stylish birds attracted many breeders, and Cochins were bred into flocks of other breeds. Franklane Sewell, noted poultry expert and artist, wrote in 1912 that although style had influenced the development of birds with very short legs, the ideal is “one that will preserve all the vitality of the ancient Asiatic and prove, as they have with some fanciers who study their proper management, to be productive and profitable as well as exceedingly showy.”
Cochins are a dual-purpose breed, big for meat and good egg layers. Mostly they are shown as exhibition birds.
The Cornish takes its name from Cornwall in England, the Cornish coast. Originally, they were Indian Games, descended from Asils and Malays brought to Falmouth and other Cornish ports from India, and the local English Games. The breed was recognized in England in 1886, and at least a trio was bought to the U.S. in1877. Here, they became known as Cornish, perhaps to avert the whiff of cockfighting that comes with the name Indian Game. The APA recognized them as Cornish in 1893.
Legs planted wide apart, the Cornish is a bulldog among chickens, a roast chicken on legs. Their heads are strong, with a small pea comb and small wattles. They hold their short, hard feathers close, bringing out their vibrant colors and showing off their muscular physique.
Keeping those short, burly chickens vigorous can be a challenge. They are inclined to gain weight — the meat producer’s goal, but not any healthier for chickens than for people. See them active on pasture, where they can eat plenty of grass to keep their legs and feet bright yellow. Their natural inclination to develop muscle can also put on fat, which interferes with fertility and egg production. A fat hen lays fewer eggs. Cornish need exercise as well as nutritious but not high-calorie food to stay at their best.
Leghorns, with their yellow skin and prolific white eggs, originated in Italy. They take their name from the English version of the central Italian port city from which they were shipped, Livorno. Back in the 19th century, Italian egg-layers were popular all over Europe, where they were called simply Italians. They were usually white, black, and brown.
Leghorns were popular everywhere they came to roost, but breeders focused on different qualities. In American, the Leghorn became “America’s Business Hen” in the 1880s, setting it on the path to industrialization. Although Leghorns were respected egg layers when they arrived from Italy in the mid-19th century, Edward Brown, editor of the Fanciers’ Gazette (England), says, “To America first belongs the credit of discovering their value and developing their special qualities.”
Today, Leghorns have the most efficient feed-to-egg conversion ratio of all the Standard breeds. They produce more eggs in relation to the amount of feed they consume than any other breed. Standard quality Leghorns lay 225-250 eggs a year. Hens lay at that level for seven years.
Polish chickens aren’t necessarily from Poland, although some of these popular chickens undoubtedly were raised there. Italian Aldrovandi called them Paduan in his classic work On Chickens, published in 1600, which could have referred to the city of Padua. The name may also have referred to that knob, as in polled cattle, which have no horns, so their heads are round. Or it could have come from the custom of pollarding trees, the poll being the round knob that grows after branches are pruned back.
The crest is the distinguishing feature, sometimes called a top-knot or a top hat. It’s full and round. Polish may have no comb at all or only a small one covered by the crest feathers.
Polish chickens have been popular through the centuries as good layers of white eggs. Four varieties were included in the first Standard in 1874, with four more following in 1883.
Today, Polish chickens are raised in seven color varieties, bearded and non-bearded. A beard is the cluster of feathers on the throat, under the beak. Muffs are the feathers on the sides, joining the beard to cover the face from the eyes down to the throat.
Games, both Old English and Modern, are the classic chickens of history.
Old English Games are the chickens of the English countryside as well as early America. They are the homestead fowl, good layers, and tasty meat birds who could find their own food and take care of themselves. Busy farms didn’t have time to protect the chickens that added so much to their farm economy: eggs and meat for the family, the surplus for sale. In America, Old English Games were the utility small farm chickens into the early 20th century.
Old English Games are the chickens of nursery rhymes and chicken decor. Their feathers glisten. Flowing feathers of orange-red, green, and iridescent black that catches the sun, shimmering with flashes of red, purple, blue, and green, “as if the very color lived,” wrote editors Willis Grant Johnson and George Brown in their 1908 Poultry Book.
Modern Games have been around since the 1800s, and eight color varieties are included in the APA’s first Standard of Excellence in 1974. Only one more has been added since, in 1981. So “modern” is relative to the ancient heritage of other game chickens. Breeders who loved their games when they were fighting cocks turned their attention from the pit to the show ring. They bred Malays with Old English Games and refined the result to produce the Modern Game.
Modern Games are different from all other chickens. They stand tall and graceful, whether large fowl, which weigh up to six pounds, or the tiny Bantams, at no more than 22 ounces. Their shape and the way they carry their body is called “station.”
They are adequate layers, and some are good broody hens, but those who love them keep them for showing. They were developed to be admired. They are curious and friendly and make good pets.
Originally published in the 2021 special issue of Backyard Poultry — A Natural and Sustainable Flock — and regularly vetted for accuracy.