Sunday, February 9, 2014

The Sublime Silkie Chicken

The Oldest Pure Breed

Silkie Chickens are one of the oldest purebred breeds in the world.  Originating in Asia, the breed may have been first described by Chinese poet, Du Fu who lived between 712-770 AD.  The first apparent description of the breed in Western sources occurs in the Travels of Marco Polo published in 1300. 


The Silk Road From China To Europe of Marco Polo
While visiting the city of Kenjanfu in China, Polo observes and describes an unusual breed of chicken.  This chicken had feathers that looked like fur1:


“The people [of Kenjanfu] live by trade and manufactures and have great store of silk, ginger and galingale…. Their women are particularly beautiful. And there is a strange thing there which I need to tell you. You must know they have a kind of fowls which have no feathers, but hair only, like a cat’s fur. They are black all over; they lay eggs just like other fowls, and are very good to eat." - Marco Polo

Silkie chickens probably made their way back to Europe along the same Silk Road that Polo traveled and which was an important trade route for spices from the East. The breed was almost certainly in Europe by 1598 when Ulisse Aldrovandi, a naturalist at the University of Bologna, Italy published a book on chicken keeping where he described the Silkie as "clothed with hair like that of a black cat."2


Ulisse Aldrovandi


Weird & Wonderful

As noted by previous chroniclers of the bird, Silkies have distinct plumage.
That's one fluffy chicken
The unusually soft and downy texture of the Silkie's feathers occurs because the breed's feathers lacks barbicel. These tiny hook-like structures bind together adjacent filaments on the shaft of the feather to create a stiff structure. Barbicels occur on the feathers of most chickens, but not on Silkies. As a result, Silkie feathers have a downy texture and an appearance that does indeed look like fur.



Structure of A Chicken Feather


Silkies also sport a number of other unusual physical characteristics. The breed has five toes while most other chicken breeds have four. They also have feathers on their legs and both their skin and bones are black (actually dark blue) Not surprisingly, the Chinese name for Silkie is "Wuguji" () which means black-boned chicken.

Black skin of the breed is evident in this close of a Silkie chicken's face


Today's Silkies

Modern Silkies  come in a variety of colors and the APA recognizes black, white, blue, and buff varieties of the breed. All however have black skin, a fifth toe and lovely soft feathers. 

In the U.S., bantam silkies are common with roosters weighing about 2.25 pounds and hens weighing about 2 pounds. In Europe, standard sized Silkie chickens tend to be the norm, with roosters weighing 4 pounds and hens about 3 pounds.

Silkies are fair to good egg layers depending on which sources you consult. They are extremely docile and their ornamental plumage makes them a standout in a flock. 

Unfortunately, the breed's feathers are not particularly well insulating, so Silkies are not well adapted to cold environments.  Owners in areas with harsh Winters need to take special precautions to keep Silkies both warm and dry.


Sources: 

1 The Book of Ser Marco Polo The Venetian, Cambridge University Press Digital version, 2010, p. 180.

2 The Chicken Book, Page Smith & Charles Daniel, University of Georgia Press, 1975, p. 49.

The American Standard of Perfection 2010, The American Poultry Association, 2010, p. 307-308.

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