Silkies are distinctly different from any other chicken breed. They share a unique combination of genetic and behavioral features. In 2003, a group of Japanese researchers mapped the mitochondrial DNA of a Silkie to determine the breed’s genetic position in relation to other birds in the genus Gallus. DNA available at the time for comparison came from a ring-neck pheasant, Japanese quail, two species of partridge, a Redhead duck and a White Leghorn. Before we consider the results of their study, let’s look at eight features that make Silkies so different from other breeds of chicken. Good information to know before raising Silkie chickens!
Eight Unique Features of the Silkie Chicken Breed
1. Silkie Feathers
Their primary characteristic is their Silkie feathers, which look more like fur than like the smooth feathers of other birds. This feature is caused by the inability of the feather barbs to lock, making the feathers structurally similar to the fluff part of a normally webbed feather. As a result, Silkies can’t fly and are less well protected from wet and cold weather than chickens with smooth, webbed feathers.
While silkie feathering is a unique feature of the Silkie breed of chicken, silkie plumage occasionally appears in other breeds. For instance, in the Hedemora — an ancient landrace breed originating in the northern part of Sweden — silkie-feathered chickens occasionally occur, although in Sweden they are called wool feathered. Silkiness also has been introduced into other breeds as a variety, such as in Japanese (Chabo) bantam chickens of Britain and Europe.
Another interesting feature of the Silkie is the crest, consisting of a spherical puff of feathers on top of the head. Some Silkies have a vaulted skull, meaning the skull arches upward, giving it more surface area and thus making the crest more prominent.
Other breeds of chicken that have crests include Crevecoeur, Houdan, Sultan, and Polish. In fact, to increase the crest size, exhibition Silkies are sometimes crossed with Polish.
3. Turquoise Earlobes
Pale blue earlobes are not uncommon in chicken breeds, but the Silkies’ turquoise earlobes are unique. Not known is whether this color results from an interaction of earlobe pigmentation with the Silkie’s black skin and, if so, what the earlobes’ base color actually is.
4. Feather Legged
Feathers growing down the outsides of the shanks and on the toes is a feature Silkies share with a few other chickens, including Belgian Bearded d’Uccle, Booted, Cochin, Faverolle, Langshan, Sultan and Brahma chickens.
5. Five Toes
Most birds have four toes. A few chicken breeds have five, Silkies among them. The extra toe grows above the hind toe and curves upward. In most cases, it never touches the ground.
Other breeds with five toes include Dorking, Faverolle, Houdan, and Sultan. However, a different gene is responsible for the extra toe in Dorkings and other breeds originating in Britain and Europe, compared to Silkies and other breeds originating in Asia.
6. Black Skin
Silkies have black skin, along with black muscles and bones, and dark beaks, combs, and wattles. This uncommon feature, known as melanism, is seen in few other breeds. Most of them, like the Sumatra and the Ayam Cemani, originated in Asia. Melanism has been studied more often in Silkies than in any other breed.
7. Persistent Broodiness
Silkie hens are well known for their broodiness, and are probably used more often than any other chicken to hatch valuable eggs of less reliable breeds. Since a broody hen stops laying, Silkies tend to have low egg production. If you’re raising laying hens, it’s important to know they don’t lay much more than 100 eggs a year. Further, at least in my experience in raising Silkie chickens, the hens tend to brood more often, and thus lay fewer eggs, as they age.
8. Calm Disposition
A lot of chicken breeds are placid, or become so when raised in a gentle environment. However, Silkies are naturally more calm than most other breeds, tending to be friendly toward humans without any special effort to be tamed.
Silkie roosters tolerate other roosters in the flock more readily than most other breeds. However, they have an undeserved reputation for being easily bullied by more aggressive breeds. In my experience, they are not that readily intimidated. For example, I’ve seen a Silkie rooster attack a pugnacious guinea trying to horn in on his morning grain.
Although lots of other breeds share some of the Silkies’ unusual features, no other chicken combines these uncommon characteristics in one breed. Surprisingly, then, the Japanese scientists found that Silkies are 99.77 percent genetically the same as a White Leghorn — a bird with smooth feathers, no crest, white earlobes, clean legs, four toes, yellow skin, a red comb, pink muscles, doesn’t brood readily, and is notoriously flighty. Go figure!
Why are you interested in raising Silkie chickens?