The breed of Silkie has over the last decade probably been the most successful breed of poultry in Great Britain.
They have a large membership in a very active and well organised club that holds an annual club show and regularly circulates interesting information to the membership. However, there are many more people who keep and breed Silkies purely for personal pleasure who have not become members of the Silkie club, but are always interesting in obtaining more facts and information about their beloved birds.
In writing this article I am hoping to give these fanciers some history about their breed, whilst at the same time outlining the breeds appeal to prospective new poultry keepers.
During the year my family help to organise several Poultry Exhibitions around the country where visitors can see displayed many different breeds and discuss with the stewards and breeds individual characteristics and virtues and you can be certain that the breed of Silkie will attract a lot of attention and praise.
In this day and age it is very easy to be accused of being ‘sexist’ or even worse by stating that in the past Silkies have been dominated by lady breeders and in the twenty first century that still appears to be the case when attracting new admirers.
The breed club was formed in 1898 and the first secretary was Mrs Campbell who possibly received some help by her husband, Doctor Campbell. The two of them were excellent stock people in different species and in 1901 created the Campbell duck.
The actual history of the breeds origin is not absolutely proved, but during the past centuries there have been regular sighting of these ‘special birds’ by historians and explorers, especially in the Far East. A brief selection of these descriptions read as follows;
In 1298, a Venetian called Marco Polo visited China and on his return he gave details of the more noticeable sightings and included in these was mention of hens with hair like cats that also had black flesh and laid eggs of the finest quality.
In 1555, a Swiss gentleman called Konrad Gesner wrote in an historic animalism the description of a Woolly hen without tail feathers.
During the 1700’s a French journalist called Count de Buffon visited the Far East and described seeing in Japan and China the ‘Coq Negre’ whilst in a book the ‘History of Java’ a fowl is again described as having not only black flesh but that the colour also penetrated their bones without having any detrimental affect to their beautiful tasting meat.
An Italian naturalist call Aldrovandi in a book published in 1599 describes seeing fowl with wool like sheep; he also mentions that they were white in colour. I would think that when living in natural conditions a mixture of the sunshine and damp from the foliage they were more of a light buff colour, which would blend in with their surroundings as apposed to the white birds which we now see at the shows after they have been bathed in a mixture of modern day shampoos!
In 1776 an exhibition was held at Brussels with a Silkie hen on display with the description of being a cross between a fowl and a rabbit. It is only in more recent centuries that the theory of crossing different separate species has been proved to be impossible. The first Transylvanian Naked Necks to be introduced to this country were claimed to be the result of crossing a chicken with a turkey and were often called ‘churkeys’.
At the present time the popularity of Silkies is sky high, but this has not always been the case. Just prior to the First World War several people expressed concern over the breeds future, but at the conclusion of the war and the resumption of the shows, their future was assured.
In 1925 at the Crystal Palace there were 80 entries of Silkies with 70 of them being whites; at this point int time the other colours were still very much in their infancy.
Unfortunately the recession in the British Isles during the early 1930’s again halted the popularity of showing any species of livestock, times were hard and at the 1934 Crystal Palace there were only 20 exhibits and it was not until the end of the Second World War that the full revival was able to continue.
In this article I do not propose to write a detailed description of the perfect specimen of a Silkie, but merely to mention a few of the main points to look for when contemplating buying new stock, some of these are not highlighted in the standard as being of great importance, but if you attempt to show your birds they will definitely influence the judges decisions.
I think that it would be sensible at this point to clarify the question of size in Silkies. In this country they have always been classified as being large fowl and in the light breed category and not, as many people wrongly imagine, to be Bantams.
In the 1990’s there was introduced from the European continent a miniature version, which is much more diminutive in all proportions and can correctly be called a Bantam but the normal sized bird is as it always has been, a large fowl.
The standard weight for the Silkie male is 1.81 kg and the female 1.36 kg with the bantam male being 600g and the female 500g.
In general when you are showing the birds you will find that most judges prefer the birds to be as large as possible providing that the other points are equal. The correct Bantams are really quite diminutive in every way and in no way should they be confused with the large fowl version. In spite of their size they are very strong and healthy and well capable of reproducing their own off spring.
If you simply want to keep the birds for your own pleasure and do not intend to show them then many of the faults that I am now going to describe will not alter your appreciation of the birds; but do remember that if you wish to see some surplus stock the better quality show birds will usually fetch higher prices and the old saying is that it does not cost any more to feed good show quality birds that the ones of a much lower grade.
There are two different types of fault, one which if present in a bird is an automatic disqualification from the show pen. These include single combs as apposed to the correct almost circular shaped rose comb; other than the stipulated five toes on each foot and these legs and feed should also have the correct amount of feathering.
In addition to these there are faults that are described as being serious defects and their severity can influence a judges assessment of the birds.
These faults include ‘vulture hocks’ where the birds have long and strong feathers protruding from the hock joint of their legs. Any green colouring to the birds beak or soles to their feet is highly objectionable and should be avoided.
The birds should have five toes on each foot; three of them facing forwards and be placed firmly on the ground, whilst the two rear ones should be well, divided with the top one facing upwards. The usual faults in this feature of the bird is for the outer or inner toes to be short in length and curve round rather that be fully straight, whilst the rear ones have a tendency to be joined together and be almost one toe with two claws to it.
Referring again to the birds comb; any faults are more noticeable in male birds where the comb should fit neatly in the middle of their skull and not fall to either side, it should not have side springs but can have a slight hollow transversely across the middle of it. The birds comb and face are described as being Mulberry and any bird with a red comb is very strictly downgraded.
One of the most striking points about your first impression of a Silkie female is their headpiece, which has on top of it has a crest of soft feathering facing upwards. The correct size of this crest can be open to discussion. There is at the present time a trend for extra large sized ones to be very popular in the show pen but this feature does not want to be allowed to increase to the size where they become a hindrance to the bird and require special attention as can be the case with the breed of Poland.
It is essential for the crest to be in the centre of the birds skull and not fall to either side and spoil their vision thus bringing with it eye complications. These crests over the years often been called ‘pom poms’ and can be very attractive and without being extra large still be an outstanding feature of the bird.
The crest on the male bird is different in that the feathering slopes backwards with some longer feathers following the skulls contours. The birds’ body feathering should be soft and silky and not be hard to the touch. Their main tail feathers and wings should only be one half full feather with the other half gradually moulding into a much softer plumage which is described in the standard as being ‘ragged’ at the ends.
A final point to make is that the colour of their ear lobes is different to any other breed of domesticated fowl; it is described as being turquoise and contrasts beautifully with their correct mulberry coloured face and combs. The breed of Silkie has over the years earned for itself great respect from the exhibitors as being a top quality show bird, however there are a large number of the birds kept purely for their owners personal pleasure with no intentions of ever exhibiting them.
The breeds attraction to new fanciers can very often be instantaneous and as they acquire more information about the breed they will find more reasons for them to be chosen as being the perfect birds to grace their garden and lawns.
They only require low fencing to control the area in which you wish them to live, this being due to their lack of strong wing flights that also makes them very easy for the younger members of the family to be able to pick up and give them some affection.
They are layers of very good tasting eggs, which are more rounded in shape than most other breeds and have a very smooth textured shell, which is usually rather tinted in colour. For such a small sized bird the eggs are quite large bu they only lay a few of them before wanting to go ‘broody’ and incubate some eggs. This great mothering instinct is one of the main features of the breed and they have been used for centuries by game keepers and poultry breeders to hatch their delicate breeds of birds. Sometimes they are used in a pure bred strain, but in many cases they are crossed with other breeds and still retain this unique mothering quality.
Silkies may appear to be delicate, but they are not and can live perfectly well in outside conditions providing that they have clean dry housing areas and when possible kept inside during very wet conditions. Their diet is also the same as for normal fowl and they also appreciate the variation from your household leftovers and scraps. If you cannot offer the birds outside facilities they can be kept inside and when in these conditions any addition of green cabbage and similar vegetables will be a much appreciated extra to the diet.
The colour of the first recording sightings of the breed has mainly been white, with possibly a black version also seen. Whites are right up to the present time the most popular with self blacks and self blues also being standardised. The gold colouring was created by Mrs Fentiman; she spent sixteen years perfecting the new colour before it was accepted by the standards committee. The last colour to be officially recognised as a distinct colour was the Partridge.
Readers who wish to obtain a much more detailed account of the bred will enjoy reading the chapter on Silkies in the book ‘Stairway to the breeds’ which was written by my father with Sue Bowser penning the Silkie chapter, and contains many photographs of past and present birds. The whole book covers 101 different breeds and is illustrated by many pages of photographs. For more details go to www.poultryphotos.co.uk where you can even order a montage of some excellent past winners.
In concluding my summary may I say that I can personally recommend Silkies as being ideal for many new fanciers to consider keeping and if you do decide that they are the ones for you then I am sure that they will give you a great amount of pleasure.