Birds of a Feather

Indian Games vs. Cornish

by E. S. Traverse

with permission from
SPPA Bulletin, 1998, 3(4):3-4

Breeders have done a good job of explaining and maintaining the distinction between the Old English Game and the Modern Game. While the latter was bred down from the former, no one -- not even the most inexperienced of Poultry enthusiasts ever confuses one for the other. Much the same holds true of Shamos, Malays and so forth. Mere mention of a particular breed name automatically brings to the mind's eye a clear and universal image of that breed. That is as it should be. In part, and in layman's terms, it's what "breed" is all about.

The same does not hold true when speaking of Indian Games -- or, er -- I mean Cornish. I acquired the foundation of my Indian Games from friends in Maine that called them Cornish (hello folks!). We were speaking of the same bird, and we knew it. If "Indian Game" is a misnomer (and it is, albeit that is what they are called in the United Kingdom), then so is the name "Cornish."

Turning to the older poultry books, one finds that the word "Cornish" designated the double-laced color pattern of brown over black and not the birds themselves, as in "The Indian Games are represented by two varieties, the Cornish and the White" (from Farm Poultry by L.H. Bailey, the Macmillan Company, 1901). A much more accurate name for them would have been the ANGLO-ASEEL.

When speaking of either "Indian Games" or "Cornish" in terms of the breed/variety as a whole, things are not as cut and dried. The original -- and therefore "true" Indian Game -- that is, "The Game of India" -- is the Aseel (also spelled Asil in older poultry books). Brought to England, principally around Cornwall, and bred to Old English Games and Malays, it gave rise to the "Indian Games" intended to be the focus of this article.

Long held in high regard for the quality and quantity of their flesh, and justly so, the older poultry books, without exception, classify Indian Games as general purpose fowl, listing them in the chapter with Plymouth Rocks, Javas and Dorkings.

They are an extremely hardy breed, quite active and able to fend for themselves through most of the year and the healthier for it. They are able fliers and roost in trees if kept on free range. Hens are fairly decent layers, producing fifteen to eighteen dozen large, firm-shelled brown eggs per year. The hens set, and make attentive mothers. The eggs hatch well, and chicks are lively right from the start.

Indian Games are in fact "more than a meat bird." They are a dual-purpose breed, well suited to the homestead or farm holding and especially adaptable to the free range system. Unfortunately, they are becoming increasingly rare.

The modern, exhibition type "Cornish," regardless of plumage color, is vastly different physically from the Indian Game of old. The Cornish bears no resemblance at all to its Anglican or Malaysian ancestors, but looks like a much exaggerated caricature of the Aseel. Modern Cornish, when compared to the Indian Game (or any Game, for that matter) is a clumsy bird if kept in confinement, and only slightly more graceful if allowed free range. Turning them loose is ill advised. Like the Dodo and Ostrich they cannot fly.

Hens are poor layers. Many modern strains of Cornish cannot mate naturally. Subsequent generations of champion stock are produced by artificial means. Poultry being maintained via artificial insemination brings up at least two relevant points. First, without man's intervention, there never would have been a need for AI as it applies in this instance. Second, without man's continued interference through AI, extinction of type would be an obvious certainty.

Given the antecedent breeds responsible for its creation (Aseel, Old English and Malay Game), the Indian Game could not have evolved naturally into anything else. The modern, exhibition Cornish evolved into its present form for three reasons: 1) Man's recognition of slight variation that exists within the genotype of any given race, 2) Man's exploitation of this variation, and 3) Man's affinity to maintain exaggerated features. What started as a defect was developed into a desired trait, bred for and retained each generation until the trait became fixed. Overly simplified, perhaps, but accurately stated.

Enthusiasts considering Indian Games or Cornish should first ask themselves what they are looking for in a bird. One bird will not (can not) fill the niche of the other because, after all, we are really talking about two different breeds.

If nothing else, I hope these brief scratchings will make fanciers aware that two types exist, and that the older, original utility type is in danger of extinction.


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