Asian Game chickens.
I discovered Asian, or Thai Game chickens, a couple of years ago, purely by happenstance, and so far they have proven to be a productive and colorful addition to the barnyard. This breed possesses characteristics that may appeal to the small homestead breeder who aims to become as self-sufficient as possible.
I've been keeping chickens for 38 years--that does not count the various pet chickens I had when I was a kid. I started with a small flock of mixed breed bantam-Araucana crosses, which included several hens that would set, hatch and rear their own broods of chicks. I've added new birds from various breeds such as Fayoumi, Speckled Sussex, Wyandotte, Dorking, Fighting Game, Leghorn and Minorca.
Over the years, I somewhat haphazardly selected for thrift--easy keeping, foraging ability, reproductive ability, and longevity. They have evolved into my own special "breed" of mongrel chicken, and the hens are fairly good layers, even those who take time off to raise a brood of chicks. I was quite content with them, and not really looking for any more chickens.
Enter the Asian Games.
Before 2009, I did not know the Asian Game breed existed. I found out about them when my stepson married a young Cambodian woman, and they live with her family in Fresno, California. Two years ago, the family stayed at my home for several days. They saw my chickens, and said they had a friend who raised Game chickens. I was curious about them. A few weeks later the family came to visit again and brought me a gift of two baby chicks, which turned out to be a cockerel and a pullet. I sometimes give my chickens names, and I named this little pair Hector and Mariah.
I had been told that cockfighting is a popular sport in some Asian communities, and that special birds were bred for this purpose. Thus, I hypothesized that maybe the kitchen is where the losers in the chicken fights end up, and possibly that's the reason Thai, Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurants have so many chicken dishes on their menus.
My stepson's wife's family had come from Cambodia as refugees, fleeing the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. They had been farmers in their home country, and the communist government had confiscated their farm. They had lost some family members and friends to starvation and war, so the journey from their native land to America had not been an easy one.
My next hypothesis was that these chickens had to be useful for something besides fighting. Being peasants from farms and villages, these people lived at a very basic level, with not much left over for frills. As I had guessed, the Asian Game turns out to be a good meat bird, and has some unique traits that you don't see in the commonplace domestic chicken breeds.
Hector and Mariah grew rapidly. I gave them a little Calf Manna to supplement their diet of scratch grains, along with plenty of green feed from the garden, chard, comfrey, zucchini, kale and collards, lettuce and other leafy greens that had bolted, grass and weeds. They were active, had hearty appetites and were not picky about food. Whatever I put in there, they ate. They did not sit around waiting for special formulated rations from the feed store.
Hector and Mariah definitely did not look like any type of chicken that I'd seen in the exotic breed exhibits at the county fairs, or the Murray McMurray catalog, or anywhere else. They also did not seem to be feathering out normally like my other chicks, and looked a bit scraggly. I wondered if this was due to a nutritional deficiency. My stepson said that all their friend's chickens looked like that.
So I got curious and began researching the Internet, Googling "Fighting Game Chickens," "Cambodian Game Chickens," "Asian Game Chickens," and so on. Finally I had a hit with "Thai Game Chickens." I found photos of chickens that looked just like Hector and Mariah.
I learned that they belong to a genetic line of chickens known as "hardfeather," indigenous to the tropical countries of Southeast Asia. This type of fowl has only the outer coating of feathers, and little or no undercoating of down, which is what makes most familiar chicken breeds look plump and soft. Compared to an Orpington, Cochin or Brahma, an Asian Game appears scrawny, but when you lift up a mature one, you'll be surprised to find that it weighs as much or more than a specimen from any of these other heavy breeds.
The Asian Game's lack of down feathers caused me some concerns about how they would adapt to winter conditions in Northern California's eastern coastal range, which includes rain, snow, and frequent temperatures down to the mid teens and sometimes lower. As it turns out, these natives of the tropics have done just fine in my regular chicken housing, which amounts to three-sided sheds which shelter them from the rain and wind but don't provide additional warmth.
A branch of this chicken family is an ancestor of our modern Cornish cross, which is the universal commercial meat chicken in this country. The Asil, a cousin of the Thai Game, developed on the Indian subcontinent, and from there, some were imported by the British, who originally called them "Indian Games." These birds became the foundation stock for the modern Cornish.
The characteristics that make the Asian Game an ideal breed for a small homestead flock include meat of good taste and texture, good bone, foraging ability, reproductive vigor, and the ability of the hens to hatch and raise their own chicks.
Their meat is excellent in flavor and is fairly tender even when the young cockerels are butchered at five to six months. They might mature faster on a higher protein commercial grower ration, but my point in raising my own chickens is to get away from the use of commercial feed, so I don't mind feeding them out longer. They are hearty eaters, but easier keepers than the Brahmas, Orpingtons and Cochins that I've raised.
The Asian Games do not have the skeletal problems that plague commercial meat birds. The modern Rock Cornish cross is bred to develop muscle tissue at an optimum rate. As a result, the immature bone structure can't support the weight of the growing bird. Many years ago I raised Cornish crosses for the table. I did not feed them the very high protein commercial grower feed. Instead, I fed my own ration including corn, oats and barley soaked in soured goat milk, additional calcium from oyster shell, and large amounts of leafy greens and legumes. They grew more slowly and were not ready to butcher until about 12 weeks of age, but even so, I still found occasional crooked breastbones or bum legs in the flock. I have not had this problem at all among my young Asian Games.
In the short two years that I've been breeding these chickens, I've found them to be vigorous and prolific. Joel Salatin says, in his book The Sheer Ecstasy of Being a Lunatic Farmer, "If we were going to pick one trait as the most important in a genetic selection process, I would pick reproductive ability. After all, if something can't reproduce, it doesn't matter how big it is or how fast it can grow. If conception doesn't happen, or if live birth doesn't happen, everything else is useless."
Mariah began laying eggs in the fall, at about six months of age, and continued during the winter months. In early April she wanted to set. I had already fostered a dozen of her eggs with one of my crossbred broody hens that hatched out and raised all 12 of them. I had five of Mariah's eggs left, that I'd been saving in case she got broody, and she did, so I gave them to her. She proved to be an excellent mother, hatching and rearing all five. So far I've had a 100% hatch rate from my Asian Game eggs.
Hector and Mariah were quiet and friendly from the start--very different from my spooky, semi-wild Araucana-banty-crossed-with-everything-else flock that my daughter refers to as Ballistic Chickens, because they flap, squawk and scatter if you move too quickly around them.
The 12 Asian chicks that were raised by the wild Araucana hen turned out to be wilder and much less docile than Mariah, their biological mother. By contrast, the five chicks that Mariah raised were quiet and easy to handle. Note: I have fostered Asian chicks with hens of other breeds, but I haven't yet tried cross breeding the Asians with my small, eclectic mixed breed chickens.
Because Asian Games are allegedly bred for fighting, I naturally wondered if they would fight with each other, and whether they would become aggressive towards humans. So far, I'd say their behavior is just about average. If you let any two roosters into the same yard, they're going to try to fight each other. It's what roosters like to do. Because Asian birds are large and athletic, they have the potential to do a whole lot more damage to an opponent than say, a banty rooster. Hector is over two-years old and his spurs are still undeveloped and less than an inch long. But because of his superior size and strength, he was easily able to whip an older crossbred rooster who wandered into his territory and started courting his hens. I'm happy to report that there were no injuries other than superficial scratches. The other rooster turned chicken and ran.
The young roosters started fighting among themselves about the same time they were ready to butcher, at approximately five months. I kept a couple of the largest and best-developed young cockerels and butchered the rest. One of the roosters I kept made an attempt to fight with me when he was about 10-months old, so I butchered him, too. But I've had Rhode Island Red roosters who were a lot more aggressive. Hector, and his son Junior, a yearling rooster, have not shown any aggression towards people yet.
Anybodv who has let a broody hen set, hatch and rear her own babies, knows that mama hens can be protective of their offspring. Riddle: When is a chicken not a chicken? Answer: When she's raising a brood of chicks. I've had banty and Araucana hens who would attack a horse, a human, or anything else that came too close to their precious babies. Asians are not much different; they are just bigger and stronger. Mariah did not show any aggression when I went in to feed and water her and her chicks, but two of the younger hens got pretty belligerent defending their nests. I hold a feed can over the setting hens' heads when I'm feeling around underneath them for eggs. This makes them mad, of course, and they will reach out with their long necks and strike at my ankles as I'm leaving the coop. Now that they are no longer sitting on a nest, they have ceased to be aggressive. I will probably end up culling those hens. Note, however, that aggressiveness can be useful at times. A large, athletic, fearless chicken is going to be less vulnerable to predators.
As far as egg production goes, I don't know how the Asians would compare with other heavy breeds, because I wasn't keeping production records back then. Asians lay medium to large cream or light brown eggs with a strong shell that does not crack easily. The hens want to go broody periodically.
You can either let a broody hen hatch and rear chicks, or let her sit on dummy eggs for a month until the instinct runs its course and the hen gets off the nest of her own volition. The third option is to put the broody hen m a wire bottomed cage where she can't get too comfortable. This will usually break up her nesting instinct within a few days. Any time a hen goes broody, it will interrupt the laying cycle for a while. So this breed is not going to produce eggs equal to a Leghorn or any other breed that does not have the tendency to brood.
During an eight-month period, from October, 2010 through May, 2011, my four Asian Game hens laid a total of 391 eggs, for an average of 97.75 eggs per hen. If anyone has egg production records on similar sized heavy breeds, it would be interesting to compare.
Because they are such active foragers, I think these birds would do very well on irrigated pasture, although I haven't tried it myself. My small half-acre pasture dries up early in the summer, and I don't have the capacity to irrigate. I intend to build a portable range shelter next year so that the young and growing birds can take better advantage of the grass while it's green. I routinely give them any sort of refuse from the garden, including weeds and clumps of grass, and leftovers from the kitchen. After Halloween, I glean pumpkins from the local farmers' pumpkin patches and feed these throughout the winter.
Asian Games look so different from the chickens that we're used to seeing in this country, that people's reactions to them can be entertaining. My 30-year-old son said, "They have the longest legs of any chicken I've ever seen." Their intense, reptilian gaze made a friend comment that perhaps they are the missing link between flying dinosaurs and birds. Another friend regards them as "creepy." A local taxidermist likes them for their athletic, elegant carriage and bright and varied color patterns. She is happy to butcher them for me in return for the feathers and a small portion of the meat. I don't mind doing my own butchering, but she does a nice, clean job, and her museum-quality mountings are a sight to behold. During hunting seasons, she mounts pheasants, quail, doves, ducks, geese and turkeys for local hunters.
This breed has more dark meat and somewhat less breast meat than what mainstream American shoppers are accustomed to, so I'm not sure that a commercial market for this type of meat bird could exist outside of the Thai/Cambodian community. A farmer friend who has sold produce at the farmers market in Oakland, California, said that the people waiting to buy live poultry was the longest line at the market, but I live far from the nearest Asian community, and had minimal responses to my advertisements on Craigslist. For the organic free-range market, it's possible that the Asian Game could be a good cross with the Rock-Cornish or Freedom Ranger. Marketing potential could be there for breeders and poultry producers who have a temperate climate or irrigation capacity to produce green pasture all season, and have a strong local customer base for organic pastured poultry.
For anyone interested in Asian Games, one of the links below is to a breeder in North Carolina. I have a few birds for sale from time to time, but I do not ship them, so transportation would have to be arranged by the buyer. Poultry fanciers' associations might have information on breeders. You're not likely to find them at the feed store, but someone who has contacts within any of the Southeast Asian communities in California and other states might be able to find them. In spite of their unusual appearance and their intimidating reputation as fighting birds, Asian Games are a thrifty, low-maintenance all purpose fowl that thrives in a homestead setting.
These are some of my information sources:
BY FRAN RANSLEY
LAKE COUNTY, CALIFORNIA