By Barry Kent MacKay
Pheasants (a family that includes chickens and peafowl) and other gallinaceous (groundnesting) birds such as quail, grouse, turkeys, and guinea fowl are generally noted for elaborate breeding displays, which may include physical encounters between competing males. The term "fighting" does not capture the true essence of these encounters, implying, as it does, a pugnacious motivation to a function that really has, at most, the purpose of allowing dominance and subsequent access to females. But redefining "fighting" as "ritual showdowns" does not quite capture the essence of these displays, either, although the term is probably more accurate than "fighting."
The wild Red Jungle Fowl, which is a species of pheasant native to southeast Asian forests and the progenitor of the domestic chicken, like other Phasianids, engages in "ritual showdowns" which have the potential to cause injury. Cock-fighters have taken that simple fact to justify cock-fighting as a "natural" act: what the birds would do, what they "want" to do.
But I rather like the comment by William Beebe, who wrote, "The mentality of the domestic game cock is as much a product of artificial selection as is the physical character of a crest in the Polish fowl and the physiological function of increased fertility." (Pheasants: Their Lives and Homes, Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1936.)
In other words, domesticated strains of Red Jungle Fowl have been bred to enhance the "fighting" characteristic, to the degree that it is heritable. Male birds who fail to fight simply are not bred. Indeed, they are not allowed to live. Those who "fight" normally, are also avoided. It is only those who are truly abnormal in the manner in which they attack male competitors that have subsequently been used for breeding.
And even that does not satisfy the cock-fighters, so they augment the natural spurs on the birds' tarsi with artificial ones, prod the birds with close contact, and confine them in absurdly small spaces lacking in vegetative cover or complex visual stimuli in order to achieve the degree of injury and death that attends cock-fighting. It is an entirely contrived and artificial situation using birds whose behaviour simply does not exist in nature, except to a shadowy, nascent degree ' brief encounters with much apparent fury but little or, far more likely, no damage. Damaging the opponent is not the purpose of these encounters; it is the purpose of cock-fighting.
Selection (the determination of which birds successfully breed, thus passing their genes to the next generation) is largely sexual in pheasants. In other words, the successful male candidate is selected by the receptive hen(s). This choice is based not on "fighting" ability, but upon appearance and display, although "fighting" ability (probably better described as the ability of one male to obtain dominance over others) factors in, by helping to determine which males have the opportunity to be selected by receptive hens.
Males of many pheasants in breeding plumage have bright colours and/or intricate or visually arresting patterning; elaborately exaggerated size and structure of plumage; such visual addenda as combs, ruffs, wattles and crests; loud voices and highly developed displays. Red Jungle Fowl are no exception.
But humans have chosen other criteria to determine successful breeding, and because of the inherent genetic "plasticity" of the Red Jungle Fowl (and its congeners) have created unfortunate animals with absurdly impractical plumage characteristics, weird colours, propensity to grotesque production of muscle ("meat"), flightlessness, prolific egg-laying and so on.
Behavioural characteristics having also been affected, to an extent, by intensive breeding, I would expect the real test of the "fighting" instinct of the "gamecock" would not be what happens among a long-established feral flock, and certainly not what happens among wild birds, but what would happen among gamecock stock kept close to "normal" conditions, complete with the complexity of the natural environment, and the space.
Since killing one's opponent, or sustaining injuries, is not likely to enhance breeding success in a feral situation, it is probably safe to assume that a feral, free range flock of chickens initially derived from "gamecocks" would, in a few generations, revert to more normal, and productive, behaviour, with few, if any, injuries among competing males.
As it true of most extreme strains of this species, I suspect that the very characteristics that make them extreme would soon be lost precisely because outside of human interference they do not enhance the survivability of the species. On the contrary, in the case of many strains, or breeds, such as those birds with extremely long tails or oddly hair-like contour plumage, survivability would be so compromised as to lead to extinction.
But I also suspect that in the absence of the fighting pit, artificial armament and goading, that lethal interactions, even among the founding generation of feral "gamecocks" would be rare.
The people who excuse cock-fighting really don't know what they're talking about when they create an extreme situation of anthropogenic origin, and then imply that it is somehow "natural" and reflects the birds' own wishes or is a manifestation of their natural instincts.
Barry Kent MacKay
Animal Protection Institute
Barry Kent MacKay is an artist, naturalist, animal rights advocate, writer, activist, and unabashed animal lover. His column "Opinionatedly Yours" can be found at