Cochin Chicken: The Amazing Backstory of the Chicken That Changed The World

 The Cochin chicken changed the world. Its history is the juiciest and most interesting of any breed we've ever profiled. 

Technically classified as a "meat" bird, the modern Cochin is generally kept primarily as a pet because of its beautiful plumage, feathered feet and docile nature.  While not of commercial importance today, the Cochin is of incredible importance in the development of both commercial and backyard chicken keeping. What follows is the back story behind the bird.

White Cochin

Mutiny on the Chicken

The first Cochin was brought to England in 1842 by Captain Edward Belcher as a present for the newly married Queen Victoria.  

The character of Captain Bligh in Mutineers of the Bounty was
based on Edward Belcher.

Belcher was an experienced sailor, war hero and explorer. He was also one of the most disliked men in the Royal Navy -- hated by both men under his command and his superiors because of his harsh and abusive treatment of others. 

Charges were brought against Belcher by the crews of the Aetna in 1833, and the Sulfur in 1841. In 1854 Belcher would barely escape a court-martial for the loss of several vessels during an expedition in the Canadian Arctic where he stubbornly refused to accept the advice of subordinates with greater experience sailing in Arctic conditions. 

After returning from his command of the Aetna, Belcher was also in civil court accused by his wife Diana of knowingly infected her with venereal disease. During the trial (which Belcher protracted to punish his wife) a medical examination of Diana revealed that Belcher had also beaten her.

Diana didn't get the divorce she wanted, but she did even the score. In 1871, she published Mutineers on the Bounty, basing her portrayal of the cruel and tyrannical Captain William Bligh on her husband.

No Royal Welcome

Blecher was a miserable SOB, but his skills as a military commander and sailor kept him in the Navy despite all the controversy surrounding his commissions. 

After defeating the Chinese fleet and capturing Hong Kong for the British in 1842, he returned to England  bearing a gift five hens and 2 roosters for Queen Victoria. Captain Belcher had acquired the chickens somewhere along his voyage that included stops in China, Sumatra and Vietnam.

The gifts were accepted by the Queen, but  the loathsome Belcher was not greeted by her as would have been the custom for a returning war hero.  Belcher's reputation for cruelty and his scandalous behavior towards his wife made him unacceptable for polite company in London.

Her Majesty's Cochins - Engraving from The Poultry Book

Exotic animals and other "curiosities" fascinated the Victorians and the birds that Belcher delivered were unlike anything seen in Britain.  Three times the size of a standard chicken of its day and with with feathers on its feet, the Cochin was an immediate hit with the Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.  

The royal couple built a new coop at Windsor castle and began breeding the Cochin for both dinners at the castle and as gifts for other European royalty. 

A view of the coop built by Queen Victoria & Prince Albert

How the Cochin Changed The World

Then as now, people watch celebrities and Victoria and Albert were at the top of the watch list.  Their interest in the Cochin caught the public's attention and more people began to keep and breed chickens.  

Demand for exotic breeds skyrocketed after 1845, creating a price bubble that was similar to the tulip mania that gripped Europe two hundred years prior.  The money to be made in exotic breeds created a poultry ecosystem that included books on poultry keeping, poultry shows and exhibitions, breeding programs, and importation of other Asian chicken breeds. 

Queen Victoria & Prince Albert 

This fad, known as "The Fancy," spread to the United States where breeds such as the Rhode Island Red and Leghorn were developed by importing new stocks and cross breeding them to develop new breeds with desirable characteristics.

One of the characteristics was the size and weight of the bird. Prior to the 1850's, chickens were valued primarily for their eggs and for use in cock fighting.  

"The Fancy" resulted in new chickens breeds that could pack on more muscle mass with a lower investment in feed.  As the price of chicken dropped, it became much more affordable. Eventually, chicken replaced other poultry breeds such as ducks, turkeys and geese as the breed of choice.  Today, Americans consume more chicken than any other meat -- all thanks to the Cochin.  

Source: USDA


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