Old English Games
Chickens were originally domesticated for three reasons: meat, eggs, and sport. Only recently has exhibition come into the picture. While the Old English Game can also be a good provider of the first two, as well as a lovely exhibition bird, its fame comes as a provider of sport, and Games have been pitted against each other for thousands of years. The Old English Game is an ancient breed, and some strains have been kept so pure over the centuries that the cocks still go into an eclipse molt during the summer (where the long hackle feathers are shed for small black feathers), in the manner of its ancestor the Red Junglefowl. The OE is a variable breed, due to its widespread distribution over the world. Games have been prized for their spirit and physical prowess in ancient Rome, Persia, Japan, India, the Sunda Islands, and in England, France, Spain, Australia, the Phillipine Islands, various South American countries, Mexico, and the United States.
While the typical OE is a medium sized Black Breasted Red, with fiery orange or red eyes, slender dubbed head, compact, muscular body with broad shoulders that taper to a beautiful, well furnished tail, with a bold, springy step and arrogant carriage, there are also: Streaky Breasted Ginger Reds, Brown Reds, Light Reds, Crow Winged Reds, Dark Greys, Black Breasted Birchen Duckwings, Smock Breasted Bloodwing Pyles, Marble Breasted Spangled Pyles, Dun Breasted Blue Duns, Furnaces, Polecats, Cuckoos, the better known Golden & Silver Duckwings, Silver Blues, Lemon Blues, Blue Breasted Reds, Whites, Blacks, Blues, Spangles . . . and more. For variations other than color, OEs can also be Muffed (bearded), Tasseled (with a small lark crest), or Henny (cocks are hen-feathered). Hens are often a variation on the wild bird color--BB Red hens are stippled brown, with black striped gold hackle, black tail, and a salmon breast. Birds are often straight combed but some may be pea combed as well; cocks must be dubbed (comb, wattles & lobes removed) prior to one year of age, or it is a show disqualification. It is also a disqualification if a cock is missing his spurs. Some countries' breed standards allow for more variation than others--check yours carefully before taking your bird to a show.
Old English Games are active foragers, hardy, athletic birds that do well in free range situations, and formidable mothers. If allowed, they will roost 10 to 20 feet up in a tree at night (which makes it difficult to catch them). If penned, a roof is a necessity. This breed is gorgeous, spirited, intelligent, graceful--and does not believe in sharing. Plan on much more roost space (some at least 6 feet off the ground), and more nests than one might think. Roosters must be kept separate from other roosters, in such a way that there is a visual (4 foot high plywood works well) or a distance barrier (4 to 5 feet) between them. They will fight through wire fence, to the extent of severely damaging their mouths, and shredding or removing their back toes and spurs. Penned hens should have visual barriers between their pens, as well. Small houses with the roosters individually tethered to a stake in front of each of them are an economical way to keep extra males for breeding stock. Check the tethers for fraying, as the roosters will spend a good bit of the day tugging against their leashes, trying to attack their neighbors. Spurs should be kept sawn short (1/4 to 1/2 inch works well), so that the birds do not get tangled in their tethers. I usually free range my hens, except during breeding season. If hens are spurred, these should also be clipped short, in case of a quarrel with another hen.
Keeping large Games is more like raising pheasants, than like raising most sorts of chickens--they are active, quarrelsome, and good fliers--but their dazzling array of colors, classic form, and unique personality is worth it. Game hens have hatched all of my chicks for years--far more reliably than any incubator. I have had birds live for 10 to 14 years, and have heard of others living longer. While OE bantams share the breed name and many of the colors, they do not seem to be quite the same kind of bird, so I cannot say much about this type: from what I've seen, they seem to be a bit less pugnacious, and easier to handle. However, the large Game is in that class of animals where functionality and competitiveness have combined to create a breed that poets have written about, people have argued over & admired--much like a good Thoroughbred horse.
The English Game Cock
"Small head, and strong and lofty neck,
Hooked beak, and bold large eye;
His breast, and back both broad & flat,
Short round and lusty thigh;
With strong clean shanks, & tapering toes,
And strong tail carried high.
Wings that are powerful, large & long, thin sharp spurs, set on low;
And lofty mein that indicates
Desire to meet the foe.
In hand so hard, and strong, yet light
Balanced in every part,
Belly, & fluff he's next to none,
Yet amply plumaged too,
That glows & glistens in the sun,
With many a beauteous hue;
While every action shows a grace, agility & pride,
And courage that will last as long as flows life's ebbing tide,
As it has shown in countless sires of ancestors beside."
H. Atkinson, Oct. 24, 1913
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