Feathered Fights of Fancy

No ordinary fowl, these birds have been bred for visual delight. For many an owner, they are just too pretty to eat

A cock and a hen roosting together
A cock and a hen roosting together Wikimedia Commons

The barnyard objets d'art on these pages and the cover are treasured breeds, many of them centuries old, that are raised by hobbyists here and in Europe. Descended from the same jungle fowl as their supermarket brethren, these are now bred mainly for show (although a few owners enjoy the best of both worlds).

Chickens were first domesticated about 5,000 years ago in India, apparently as much for the production of fighting cocks as for meat and eggs. They were in Egypt by 1400 b.c. and in the British Isles by the time the Romans arrived. The origins of the show breeds are less well known. The Cochins, for example, notable for their feathered legs and the puffy bustles on their backs, came to England from Shanghai in 1845. The crested Polish dates back to at least 1600.

Chickens in the supermarket no longer belong to any recognizable breed. They are hybrids, bred for meat or egg production. It is the hobbyists who have kept the old commercial breeds — the Rhode Island Reds, the Plymouth Rocks, the leghorns — alive. And it is they who perpetuate the ornamental breeds for little more than show ribbons, modest cash prizes and the proceeds from selling breeding stock.

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