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Silkie: A Comprehensive Guide to the Furry Chicken

I am an online writer with a love for animals. I've been a contributor to many sites including eHow, Xomba, Helium, and HubPages.

Silkies are a unique breed of chicken. Read on the learn about what makes them so special.

Silkies are a unique breed of chicken. Read on the learn about what makes them so special.

Silkies Are Unique

Silkies are a very unusual breed of chicken for many reasons. Below I list the traits that separate them from the rest of their species. Some of these unique characteristics include having feathers that resemble fur, having black skin, and having five toes instead of the typical four toes on each foot.

These birds are sweet and friendly, and they make wonderful pets for just about anyone. This is a chicken you would want to cuddle, and luckily for us, most silkies have such complacent personalities that they wouldn't mind it at all.

In this article, I will address the following aspects of silkies:

  • Physical features
  • Personality
  • Other information
  • Life cycle
  • How to raise
  • Interactions with other animals
Pretty Pullets

Pretty Pullets

Physical Features

In this section, learn more about the following physical characteristics of these fluffy chickens.

  • Size
  • Feathers
  • Crest
  • Eyesight
  • Beards
  • Skin
  • Feet
  • Toes
  • Combs and wattles
  • Feather patterns
  • Coloring
  • Flight

Size of Silkies

Silkies in America are fairly small (about the size of a rabbit). They are all called bantams (a term that means "miniature chickens"), and in general, they are between 8-14 inches tall. In other countries, however, there are two sizes of silkies: one that is a bit smaller than ours and a standard version that is a bit bigger than ours.

Overall, silkies are a fairly compact breed with short legs and roundish bodies.

silkie_chickens

Silkie Feathers

Silkies have feathers that are different from most chickens.

If we look at a single chicken feather, typically we will find thick hairs growing on either side of the main shaft. These hairs are called barbs, and in most feathers, the barbs look neat and straight. If you look really closely, you can see that these barbs branch into things called barbules.

These barbules are lined with tiny hooks called barbicels which act like Velcro and keep the feathers smooth and straight. If you have ever played with a chicken feather, you will notice that even when you pull the little sections apart, you can make the feather whole again by brushing the barbules back into place.

But silkie feathers are different. They lack the barbicels that keep feathers in that neat, smooth appearance. The individual feathers, hence, wisp around which makes silkies look messy and furry. Silkie feathers are, therefore, similar to down, the undercoating that most poultry have. These birds look like rabbits or balls of fluff. My favorite is when people describe them as fluffy slippers with feet.

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Young silkie's crest

Young silkie's crest

Silkies' Crests

Silkies have a fun tuff of feathers on top of their heads, which will eventually grow out and just barely start curling around their faces.

Underneath this little mound of hair lies a vaulted skull. Good show chickens and some pet-quality silkies have skulls that are actually arched up at the top of their heads which leaves a vulnerable spot. If another chicken gives the silkie a good, strong peck on top of its head, it can actually cause neurological damage or even kill them.

Silkie Eyesight

Silkies often have difficulty seeing because their puffy, feathery crest and other facial feathers occasionally obscure their eyes completely.

Breeders usually handle this in one of two ways.

  • They trim or pluck the feathers away from the Silkie's face if it does not need to be in top shape for a show.
  • They pin the crest back using a hair tie. Done gently, this does not harm the feathers but still allows the chickens to see.

Do Silkies Have Beards?

Silkies come in two varieties: bearded and non-bearded.

Some silkies have a group of feathers on their chins which resemble beards, and others do not it. It all depends on the breeder's personal preference. Some people like the added fluffiness that the beards add to the chicken's face and others do not.

silkie_chickens

Silkies Have Black Skin

Unlike most backyard chickens which have yellow skin, silkies have black skin. Their skin is very dark, and this makes them a popular delicacy in some Asian countries.

It also makes them wonderfully colored. If their feathers are black, then the black skin underneath makes the feathers look blacker. If the silkie is white, the black skin underneath makes the white deeper.

They also have dark, purplish-black combs and wattles. This shade is called mulberry. It can sometimes be difficult to see the combs and wattles against their black skin, but I think it makes them look really cute.

A silkie's feathered feet

A silkie's feathered feet

Silkies Have Feathered Feet

Silkies have feathers growing on their feet. This can sometimes be a problem if they regularly walk into muddy areas or have a non-wired cage bottom.

They will clean their feet feathers as they do all their feathers, but show birds need to keep their feet clean at all times. Even if they aren't going to be shown, it's best to keep them in a somewhat clean area and provide a perch for them to sleep on at night so their feathers stay clean.

A silkie's five toes.

A silkie's five toes.

Silkies Have Five Toes

Most chickens have four toes, but silkies have five toes on each foot. Some, however, are born with fewer toes, or as is often the case, fused or partial toes due to a common genetic mutation.

If you are keeping them as pets, it doesn't matter how many toes they have. But silkie breeders have to work hard to make sure their chickens have the right number of toes, otherwise they will get disqualified at shows.

Most hatchery-breed silkies are lower quality, and the majority of them have improper toes.

Young silkie cockerel

Young silkie cockerel

Combs and Wattles

Silkie roosters have walnut-shaped combs. Dark skin is an important breed characteristic, but wattles and combs vary a little bit. They should be mulberry in color, but it's not uncommon for hatchery birds to have poorly-shaped combs.

Some silkies have earlobes with a beautiful turquoise sheen.

Silkie Feather Patterns

Aside from the regular solid colors, they come in several patterns, including cuckoos, partridge, and splash.

Cotton candy colors

Cotton candy colors

Coloring Silkies

If you are not happy with the way your silkie looks, you can color them with food coloring. As long as food-safe colorings are used, it doesn't hurt the bird and is really fun. I think the chickens even get a bit of enjoyment out of it too because they get more attention and cuddles.

Silkie Flight

Silkies aren't well known for their flying. At best, it's usually more of a controlled fall, though some don't even do that well.

All silkies are somewhat capable of flying, but it takes quite a bit of energy, and most don't bother or know how.

It's always best to place perches low so they can get up and down without straining themselves. Also, never drop them onto the ground as this will hurt them. It's better to set them down gently.

Personality: Silkies Are Sweet

Though they may not be the most intelligent of the chicken breeds, silkies make up for it by being the most gentle and sweet. They are extremely laid-back and easy-going, so they make great pets, even for those who are not used to chickens. This is why they are one of the most common chickens for 4-H kids and petting zoos.

If they are used to being handled, silkies will often let you do just about anything with them. Some people even leash-train them. I have personally taught them to ride in the car and get carried around.

Silkie Hen

Silkie Hen

Silkies Can Be Very Broody

Silkie hens are often wonderful mothers. They love to sit on eggs (this is called broodiness or being broody), even ones that are fake or aren't fertile. This can be a problem if you learn to expect a lot of eggs from your silkie because she will stop laying when she is being broody.

There are various ways to break this broodiness. One option is to place the hen in a wire-bottomed cage away from the flock for several days. But often, it is better to just let her be broody and give her some eggs to hatch. The eggs can be from other chickens or even other poultry.

Those fluffy bottoms make great egg-sitters and in less than a month, you'll have cute little chicks with a beaming mama leading them around and showing them the world.

Other Silkie Information

Learn about various aspects of silkies in this section, such as the following:

  • Origins
  • What they're like as pets
  • Molting and dust
  • Relationship with bunnies
  • Temperature needs

Silkie Origins

Although their origins are shrouded by time, we know they originated somewhere in China or Asia a very long time ago. They may look like a new-fangled fad breed, but silkies are one of the few ancient chicken breeds we still have around today.

It is believed that Marco Polo spoke of the silkie when he wrote about fur-covered chickens during his travels to the Far East, back in the 13th century. Those fur-covered chickens were not a rarity or novel thing back then, so we can deduce that they had most likely been around long before the 13th century. Silkies truly are an heirloom chicken breed.

silkie_chickens

Silkies Make Wonderful Pets

Silkies make absolutely wonderful pets for most people. Their easy-going and mild personalities, in addition to their hardiness and pretty appearance, make them easy to care for.

Also, because silkies are bantams, they're small enough to easily house. In fact, I had one that lived in a rabbit cage in my house when she wasn't roaming free in the house. Children also feel comfortable with them because they are small.

Molting and Dust

Silkies, like all chickens, produce a lot of dust. They will produce dust all year long, but there are certain times when they produce more dust than others.

As you may already know, chickens produce more dust whenever they're growing in their feathers. Dust is created when the shafts protecting the feathers flake off as they grow out.

Springtime is the time of year when there is an outbreak of feather growth, but the main time for molting (losing feathers and replacing them) is in the fall. In the fall months, chickens usually replace most, if not all, of their feathers, and thus, produce lots of feather shafts which in turn flake off and produce lots of dust.

Young silkies also go through periods of molting as they grow and gain their adult feathers.

Are they rabbits or chickens?

Are they rabbits or chickens?

Bunnies and Silkies

It is sometimes difficult telling them apart, but bunnies and silkies get along great.

In the above picture, the little silkies and their rabbit pals are enjoying the nice spring weather while playing in the sunshine together.

It's best not to keep silkies and bunnies in the same cage, but they often do okay as friends outside of their cages. Care must be taken to prevent the bunnies from having to hop through the chicken poo. A wire base on the cage usually helps. You should also ensure that they will get along.

Silkies in the Sunshine: Temperature Needs

Like all chickens, silkies need some time outdoors where they can soak up the sun and eat bugs and grass.

Though their little bodies are fairly resistant to the cold, silkies are sensitive to high temperatures, so care needs to be taken to ensure they have enough cool water to drink and that they can retreat to shade if need be.

When the wether is about 100 degrees or above, they will need extra cooling. You can use a mister or a fan, but some people go the extra mile by providing air conditioning in the chicken house.

Life Cycle: From Egg to Furball

This is the life cycle of a silkie:

  • Egg
  • Hatchling
  • Chick
  • Chicken
Silkie eggs

Silkie eggs

Silkie Eggs

Silkies lay eggs that are slightly tinted with brown. These eggs are on the small side because silkies are bantams, but they still taste just as good.

Due to the silkies' tendency to be broody, there may be interruptions in egg-laying. So if you want a chicken just for the eggs, it may be better to get an egg-producing breed, such as a White Leghorn.

Just hatched silkie chick drying off in the incubator.

Just hatched silkie chick drying off in the incubator.

Hatching

Silkies take 21 days to hatch after an egg has started to be incubated, though there are reports of some taking a few extra days due to uneven incubator temperatures.

The chicks hatch out of their eggs slowly, pecking at the eggshell from inside using a small attachment on their beak called an egg-tooth that falls off a few days later. It is important not to help them while they are hatching since doing so can cause them to bleed to death.

Hatching is a very long process and often takes an entire day for the little one to peck a crack and then break out of the shell.

When the chicks are finally out of their shells, they are left in the incubator until they are dried and fluffy. This also helps keep them warm before they move to a box where they have chick feed, water, and a heat lamp.

Raising Chicks

They live in the new box for about 6 weeks until they have lots of feathers and can handle cooler temperatures.

Half-grown silkie

Half-grown silkie

Teenage Chickens

The chicks are then moved to their new home in the coop. Depending on the outside temperature, this may be delayed until spring when it will be warmer for them.

In the coop, the silkie chicks grow and grow and reach adult size at about 3-4 months. Along the way, they get tons of new feathers and will shed their old ones, as well as leave a lot of bird dander all over the place.

Adult silkie

Adult silkie

Sexing Silkies

Often times, you can't tell whether silkies are male or female until they start laying eggs or crowing at about 6-7 months.

Roosters usually develop a comb a bit earlier than hens do, but not always.

Silkie egg frying

Silkie egg frying

Raising Silkies

Explore the following aspects of keeping silkies:

  • Basic needs
  • Living quarters
  • Dust bathing
  • Relationships with other animals
  • Relationships with other chicken breeds
  • Breeding

Caring for Silkies: Basic Needs

Silkies need very little care beyond what all chickens need. Their basic needs include:

  • A safe, spacious place to live
  • Chicken feed
  • Clean, fresh water
  • Dirt to scratch around in
  • A safe enclosure to protect them from predators
  • It is nice to pin back or trim the silkies' crests so they can see better.

They are actually surprisingly hardy considering how fancy and delicate they look.

Silkie Living Quarters

Each silkie needs about 10-square-feet in their run area and about 4-square-feet inside their coop. More space leads to fewer problems, as cramped birds will pick on each other. They don't like perching, so will often make a big fluffy pile on the floor. Beware of these piles though — if it's too cold and they burrow too much, they can suffocate.

Rabbit hutches make adequate enclosures for a couple of birds, but it is a good idea to build an attached run onto them and make sure that the bottom of the cage is not completely wire as that can irritate the birds' feet after a while.

In my experience, I added a perch and a door to a dog house and placed that inside a chain-link dog kennel for a quick and easy chicken coop. Whatever you do, remember to consider predators. There are far more predators around your house than you think.

Another idea that works well is to keep the silkies as house pets. This way you can really bond with them. Otherwise, if you already have chickens or are planning to get a flock, they can simply live in the coop with everyone else.