The Silkie chicken is well named. Its soft, fluffy plumage is like silk to touch. It is a charming and beguiling fluffy bundle and comes in standard and bantam sizes.
The distinctive plumage comes about because of a recessive gene. Most chicken breeds have feathers which begin with a quill. The quill comes from below the skin and tapers off up the centre of the feather. This part is called the shaft. The web is the part each side of the shaft. The tiny strands of the web, each 50mm to 75mm long, are held together by barbicels or hooks. Silkie feathers lack these barbicels so the individual strands of the web go every which way. This gives the bird a soft and woolly appearance.
Silkies can be bearded or non-bearded. The non-bearded type has large wattles. The males in particular have this trait. The wattles hang as fleshy appendages 25mm to 40mm below the beak. The bearded silky has very small wattles. It also has a full, fluffy beard which puffs up round the face. Regardless of the type (bearded or non-bearded), all silkies have a lovely powderpuff crest and a fleshy comb normally known as a walnut comb.
The comb of the cock is much larger than that of the hen. It is not erect like many combs but resembles a wart-like lump. It is known as a walnut comb as the surface has furrows resembling the shell of a walnut. Both sexes have feathers down the legs and toes. Silkies have dark, slate-blue flesh and blue ear lobes. They are often not fancied as a table bird because of the dark flesh. Like the Dorking, the Silkie has five toes. There is a range of colours available in both the standard size bird and the bantam. White, black, buff, grey, partridge and splash varieties are recognised by the American Poultry Association and the American Bantam Association.
Although this breed is sometimes called the Chinese Silkie, there is no irrefutable evidence that it did originate in China. Japan and India are sometimes suggested as its place of origin. Marco Polo introduced the silkie to the western world between 1254 and 1324. At that time the birds were white, didn't have a crest and didn't have feathered legs.
Silkies make great pets. They quickly become tame and will tolerate being carried around and handled. Silkies always seem to be going broody and some chicken breeders keep a few Silkies for the sole purpose of incubating eggs from other breeds. Silkies make great mothers and foster mothers and can cover 6 to 8 eggs with no trouble. Silkies are also used to hatch quail and pheasant eggs and will foster the chicks quite happily. It is not uncommon for the cock bird to play his part and help teach the baby chicks to feed.
Silkies lay well but not all year round. Around 90 to 120 eggs per annum is about average. Because their feathers are so soft and have no substance, Silkies are unable to fly so perches and nesting boxes need to be low to the ground. Shavings and deep litter will help keep the birds clean. Silkies also drown relatively easily as the plumage becomes soaked and very heavy, weighing down the bird. They need protection from predators because of their inability to fly. The Silkie is ideal as a child's pet and will bring much pleasure to a family.