The Silkie (sometimes alternatively spelled Silky) is a breed of chicken named for its atypically fluffy plumage, which is said to feel like silk, and satin. The breed has several other unusual qualities, such as black skin and bones, blue earlobes, and five toes on each foot, whereas most chickens only have four. They are often exhibited in poultry shows, and appear in various colours. In addition to their distinctive physical characteristics, Silkies are well known for their calm, friendly temperament. Among the most docile of poultry, Silkies are considered an ideal pet. Hens are also exceptionally broody, and make good mothers. Though they are fair layers themselves, laying about three eggs a week, they are commonly used to hatch eggs from other breeds and bird species.
It is unknown exactly where or when fowl with their singular combination of attributes first appeared, but the most well documented point of origin is ancient China (hence another occasionally encountered name for the bird, Chinese silk chicken). Other places in Southeast Asia have been named as possibilities, such as India and Java. The earliest surviving written account of Silkies comes from Marco Polo, who wrote of a furry chicken in the 13th century, during his travels in Asia. In 1598, Ulisse Aldrovandi, a writer and naturalist at the University of Bologna, Italy, published a comprehensive treatise on chickens which is still read and admired today. In it, he spoke on “wool-bearing chickens” and ones “clothed with hair like that of a black cat”.
A Black Silkie hen and a non-Silkie chick. The breed is renowned for its broodiness and mothering abilities.
Silkies most likely made their way to the West via the Silk Route and maritime trade. The breed was recognized officially in North America with acceptance into the Standard of Perfection in 1874. Once Silkies became more common in the West, many myths were perpetuated about them. Early Dutch breeders told buyers they were the offspring of chickens and rabbits, while sideshows promoted them as having actual mammalian fur.
In the 21st century, Silkies are one of the most popular and ubiquitous ornamental breeds of chicken. They are often kept as ornamental fowl or pet chickens by backyard keepers, and are also commonly used to incubate and raise the offspring of other chickens and waterfowl like ducks and geese and game birds such as quail and pheasants.
Silkies are often mistakenly called a bantam breed, and although they are considered bantams in some countries, this varies according to region and many breed standards class them officially as large fowl; the bantam Silkie is actually a separate variety most of the time. Almost all North American strains of the breed are bantam sized, but in Europe the standard-sized is the original version. However, even standard Silkies are relatively small chickens, with the males weighing only four pounds (1.8 kg), and females weighing three pounds (1.36 kg). The American Standard of Perfection calls for males that are 36 ounces (1 kg), and females that are 32 ounces (910 grams).
Silkie plumage was once unique among chicken breeds, however in recent years silkie feathering has been developed in several breeds, mostly notably Chabo, where it is now standardised in Britain and the Netherlands. It has been compared to silk, and to fur. Their feathers lack functioning barbicels, and are thus similar to down on other birds and leave Silkies unable to fly. The overall result is a soft, fluffy appearance.
Silkies appear in two distinct varieties: Bearded and Non-bearded. Bearded Silkies have an extra muff of feathers under the beak area that covers the earlobes. They also are separated according to color. Colors of Silkie recognized for competitive showing include Black, Blue, Buff, Grey, Partridge, and White. Alternative hues, such as Cuckoo, Lavender, Red, and Splash also exist. The standards of perfection call for all Silkies to have a small Walnut Comb, dark wattles, and turquoise blue earlobes. In addition to these defining characteristics, Silkies have five toes on each foot. Other breeds which exhibit this rare trait include the Dorking, Faverolles, and Sultan.
All Silkies have black skin, bones and grayish-black meat; their Chinese language name is wu gu ji, meaning “black-boned chicken”. Melanism which extends beyond the skin into an animal’s connective tissue is a rare trait, and in chickens it is caused by fibromelanosis, which is a rare mutation believed to have begun in Asia. The Silkie and several other breeds descended from Asian stock possess the mutation. Disregarding color, the breed does not generally produce as much as the more common meat breeds of chicken.
Silkies lay a fair number of cream-colored eggs, but production is often interrupted due to their extreme tendency to go broody; a hen will produce 100 eggs in an ideal year. Their capacity for incubation, which has been selectively bred out of most fowl bred especially for egg production, is often exploited by poultry keepers by allowing Silkies to raise the offspring of other birds. In addition to being good mothers, Silkies are universally renowned for their calm, friendly temperament. They do well in confinement, and interact very well with children. This docility can cause Silkies to be bullied by more active or aggressive birds when kept in mixed flocks.