Silkie: A Comprehensive Guide on the Furry Chicken
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Silkies Have Sweet Personalities
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Pregnant bunnies or brooding hens can be aggressive, and both will become territorial when raising young.
Chickens pant to cool off, but they don't sweat. The inability to sweat makes it difficult for them to adjust to hot weather.
Silkies in the Sunshine
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.
Silkies From Egg to Furballs
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.
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.
They live in the new box for about 6 weeks until they have lots of feathers and can handle cooler temperatures.
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.
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.
Caring for Silkies
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.
Dust Bathing a Silkie
Like all chickens, they need regular dust baths to keep their feathers nice and mite-free. They'll make their own spot, if allowed, near the dirt. If kept caged, it's a good idea to create a mini dirt puddle in an old box using either sand or dirt. Just be prepared — it's a messy business.
Silkies and Other Animals
Due to the fluffiness of their crest, silkies can have a difficult time in the world. With limited vision, it's very easy for them to roam too close to predators and be surprised by an attack. The most common predators that attacks chickens are our own pets, so care should be taken.
With that said, silkies do get along well with animals that are used to chickens and will often make friends very quickly.
Always be cautious when your silkie is near other animals. Sometimes, the seemingly friendly puppy could inadvertently go overboard when playing with your bird. One playful bite can chicken in an instant.
Don't loose a bird or get mad at your beloved dog. Supervise play time and everyone will be safe. Remember, it's your job to protect them.
Silkies With Other Chicken Breeds
There's a lot of debate over whether to keep silkies with other chickens.
Silkies, with their mild personalities, passive attitudes, and impeded vision, are extremely vulnerable to bullying by other chickens. That being said, mixing chicken breeds depends on a lot of variables. How aggressive the other breeds are, the birds' individual personalities, and how much room the birds will have all influence whether or not it will be a good situation. Most breeds do fine with silkies if given enough room to avoid each other.
I have never had any problems with silkies and other breeds getting along, and have had a great many breeds with them. But if you're worried, the best way, in my experience, is to introduce chicks of other breeds to your adult or half-grown silkies. You may have to protect the chicks for a while until they're accepted as part of the flock.
If you want a mix of chickens, it is best to raise other breeds with silkies. They get along better when they have grown up together.
Silkies are generally as easy to raise as other breeds of chickens, but there are a couple differences.
The most important difference is dealing with the poofy feathers. The feathers can get in the way of a hen and a roo, so it's best to trim back any feathers to make sure the rooster can make contact and leave his deposit.
Another difference is that it's okay, and even preferable, to have a few more roos per hen. One rooster per 3-4 hens is a good ratio. Often silkie roosters get along with each other fairly well, so it's not too much of a hardship, and their slightly lower fertility rates are offset with an extra rooster or two.
The roosters often make good daddies anyway, and the extra rooster can help watch the chicks too.
Learn More About Silkies
Silkies are very popular and there are numerous groups devoted solely to them, as well as some that are about bantam chickens or all chickens. For more about raising, breeding, or showing, check out the groups below.
Joining a group allows you to read advice from other silkie owners, lets you know exactly what to expect, and gives you a place to talk about these wonderful little birds. Some groups are solely online, others are by mail, and a few are groups that regularly meet.
1. The American Silkie Bantam Club is the original Silkie Club in the US. The ASBC is a large group devoted to raising and breeding silkies. Show breeders and pet breeders both find a place in this organization.
2. American Silkie Bantam Discussion Group is a free email list. The list includes members from Europe, Australia, and a few other places. Participation in the discussion group is free to any silkie fancier registered with the discussion group, not just American Silkie Bantam Club members. Silkie fanciers of all degrees of knowledge and expertise are welcome. The list includes a large number of show breeders as well as those who keep them solely as pets.
1. The Silkie and Poland Club of Germany Good photos, breeders list, contact information, and lovely sketches. Be sure to check out the website of the club secretary, Friedel Schwager. It is listed further down the page under "Great Silkie Sites From Around the World."
1. Silkie Club of Australia, Inc. has no official web page. However, the link is to an "unofficial" page with some useful information about silkie breeders in Australia and the Silkie Club of Australia. To contact them write c/o Secretary, Sue Scott: 6 Colville Rd; Yellow Rock, Australia 2777 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Silkie Breeders Yahoo Group is for breeders and exhibitors. This list is for serious silkie breeders and people interested in exhibition.
2. The Awesome Silkie Bantam Chat is a large friendly list with an extensive archive. This group is a good source of information for beginners.
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© 2009 Alisha Vargas