“…[the Cochins’] introduction was the most memorable event that has ever happened in the poultry world; there has been nothing like it before or since.”
The Power of Poultry
Chickens are all the rage….once again. Yes, again. If you wait long enough, things come back into fashion. Well, chickens sure beat bell bottoms and bee hives by a long shot. We may have had to wait 173 years, but chickens are climbing back onto their hard-earned roost – umm, pedestal.
There are 300 breeds to pick through. All are descended from those wild species of pheasant that impressed our ancestors in the exotic tropics of Southeast Asia. Though breeds like the Cochin changed the way people around the world thought of poultry, these stunning birds still stalk the verges and borderlands of their indigenous homes.
Those wild chickens (Gallus gallus) look like the birds we are used to seeing. The rooster is noble and so charismatic that we are forced to stop and watch him in awe. Darting figures of intelligent hens pop up from the bush. Curious eyes glance into our own reminding us to not underestimate their abilities cloaked under that delicate femininity. These ladies are cunning and tenacious.
A Walking Garden
Chickens are like moving flowers. Their ornamental characteristics bloom with industry, perspicacity and creativity. None of these aspects flew over the heads of our forebears. Chicken breeding has been practiced for centuries. The Egyptians actually ran incubation “factories” that hatched hundreds of eggs – all before electricity.
A Little History For You
The age of science and reason encouraged the amateur thinker and tinkerer. While 18th century scholars sometimes raised the hackles of theologians, discoveries in the fields of natural science (now divided into biology, zoology, horticulture, chemistry and more), were all herded together with eager passion. Galvani showed the world that animals ran by bioelectricity and Priestley gave us carbonation. Who can forget Linnaeus tracking down taxonomy?
Breeding desirable traits into livestock was not a modern concept. Agriculture as a study and “skill” that can be improved upon emerged as a true science in the 18th century. Risking animal health for random traits had not entered the picture and there weren’t any GMO’s yet!
The Cochin Sets the World Ablaze
Chickens flew into the picture as celebrities during the great age of sail. Winds were right for blowing in some novelties. Trading vessels plied the waves carrying a wondrous variety of raw goods and luxurious wares. One 19th century English merchant ship carried unique passengers that had boarded in the Orient.
In 1834, the gates of Canton were opened for trade. The irresistible and near magical goodies of China had only been available to the wealthiest citizens of Europe (hard to imagine today!). Porcelain’s alabaster lightness was a prized item that had set Western desires alight for centuries. In that same year of 1834, a much more endearing event made the news.
The ship sailed from Canton with its sights set for England’s shore. On board were living treasures – Cochin (or Shanghae) chickens. They became instant curiosities. Twenty years later much controversy would follow anyone trying to import birds from China, according to American George Pickering Burnham. He successfully managed to get the fowl by purchasing two trios from Lord Heytesbury for what today would be over $2,000.
Public Interest is Piqued
The desire to improve the poultry breeds of Britain spurred the interest in introducing new traits. The Cochins imported were housed in the Royal Aviary, causing public curiosity to rise. In the early summer of 1845, the London zoo at Regent’s Park held the first poultry show. While the entrant list was modest, the repercussions hatched were not. Anyone and everyone who could afford them wanted Cochins, and the trading vessels obliged by packing on more feathered travelers. Birds were often selling for the modern sum of one thousand a piece.
Popular media, like the Times and the illustrated publication Punch, reveled in lampooning the “poultry mania.” Excitement was brimming across the Atlantic as well – Boston’s Public Garden hosted an extravaganza of politicians, public figures (including Daniel Webster), and citizens to the first poultry show. In November of 1849, the poultry event was attended by over ten thousand fans that came to marvel at the 1,023 primped and preened birds on display. People were a- flutter and at a loss to comprehend, as one visitor noted, the “magnificent” meeting. The Boston Poultry Show still exists today – although it doesn’t receive quite the same fanfare, even if the birds are just as spectacular!
Boston and the Queen
After successfully breeding impressive Cochins, the American G. Pickering Burnham presented some as a gift to Queen Victoria. This excerpt is from W. B. Tegetmeier’s The Poultry Book, published in 1867 .
• To H.M.G., Majesty, Victoria (1852), “The Illustrated London News”:
“By the last steamer from the United States, a cage of very choice domestic fowls was brought to her Majesty Queen Victoria, a present from George P. Burnham, Esq., of Boston, Mass. The consignment embraced nine beautiful birds — two males and seven pullets, bred from stock imported by Mr. Burnham direct from China. The fowls are seven and eight months old, but are of mammoth proportions and exquisite plumage — light silvery-grey bodies, approaching white, delicately traced and pencilled … The parent stock of these extraordinary fowls weigh at maturity upwards of twenty-three pounds per pair ; while their form, notwithstanding this great weight, is unexceptionable. They possess all the rotundity and beauty of the Dorking fowl … They are denominated Grey Shanghaes (in contradistinction to the Red or Yellow Shanghaes), and are considered in America the finest of all the great Chinese varieties. That they are a distinct race, is evident from the accuracy with which they breed…the whole of these birds being almost precisely alike, in form, plumage and general characteristics. They are said to be the most prolific of all the Chinese fowl.”
Cochin fans speak up! If you live with this world-changing fowl, let us know why you love them. The Cochin, as observed by 19th century poultryman, S. H. Lewer, is the “father of the poultry fancy.” Standard or bantam, Cochins heralded the beginning of the chicken craze. But we do need to save some praise for the Brahmas, they played a special role as well – but that’s a story for another time.
Let’s celebrate chickens – but this time we won’t take that pedestal of honor away.