Old English Games: A chicken breed across history

Think of the iconic barnyard rooster: brightly colored, standing tall and alert, curved tail flowing behind him. That’s the Old English Game. They, and other related European gamefowl, are among the oldest Western chicken breeds. They share the distinction with the Dorking, the Spanish group and the Polish. Their unchanging image appears in artwork over centuries.

Old English Games take their name from their fighting history, a ‘game’ bird being one that was willing to fight. They retain their energy and defend their territory. Roosters will fight each other and hens will defend their chicks. For backyard chicken flocks, this has its uses. A strong rooster provides leadership in flock organization and helps defend against predators. Hens teach their chicks to forage and protect them from danger. Multiple roosters at a single location may have to be fenced from one another, though. Their heritage is courage, agility and strength. Selection for strength is what has produced their excellent table qualities.

They are not naturally vicious or aggressive toward humans. On the contrary, OE Game chickens are docile and easily managed. The hens of the flock get along well. Their value as a homestead and utility fowl made them influential on American farms well into the 20th century. They are good layers, good mothers and traditionally ranked by connoisseurs as one of the tastiest table birds.

The APA shows bantam game chickens in their own class, divided into Modern, American and Old English. The ABA has a class entirely for Old English and American Games. The APA recognizes 24 color varieties, the ABA 34. They are the most popular bantam breed shown.

Such a popular chicken breed has been selectively bred into lots more colors and patterns. More than 170 have been documented, although some of those are minor variations. Conservationists still maintain many varieties that have not been recognized by any official standard. Purely Poultry offers 16 varieties of large fowl, 54 of bantams.

In addition to color varieties, OE Game chickens may be muffed, tasseled and henny-feathered . The tassel is often called a toppie, pronounced TOE-pee. Such birds are sometimes described as ‘lark-feathered.’ The tassel is not a true crest, but a small cluster of feathers at the base of the comb. Muffs and tassels hark back to barnyards of centuries past. Henny-feathered males have the same color and feather pattern as females. These variations are recognized by the British Poultry Club.

Show game roosters are dubbed, the comb and wattles surgically removed, to give them the traditional look of fighting fowl. The original purpose of the practice was to prevent an opponent from getting a grip and gaining an advantage. Unless intended for exhibition, OE Games don’t need to be dubbed.

Sam Brush, current president of the APA, also serves as contact person for the Old English Game Club of America. The Old English Game Bantam Club of America has a message board.