Marco Polo wrote about them. Sideshows exhibited them as a cross between a chicken and a rabbit. Some say it is the closest thing the bird world gets to a tribble. Others that it must be some kind of refugee from The Muppet Show. This is the Silky. It is quite probably the coolest breed of chicken on the planet, particularly when it comes to its fabulous plumage. The general fluffiness of the Silkie makes it unusual, not to mention attractive, but it has many other endearing qualities as well as an interesting history.
They are kept for pets but the hens are renowned for being wonderful mothers. As well as incubating eggs they have laid themselves they are quite happy to do the same thing for any other eggs you might wish to pop underneath their fluffy frame.
I said, BEHIND YOU!!! I can't look! You may not want to see the third picture in this sequence, reader. Seriously, rest assured that no silkies were injured in the creation of these pictures. In fact, cats and silkies have been known to share a crib.
However, back to the breed itself rather than interspecies mingling. The plumage of the Silkie is what instantly attracts and the feel of it gives the bird its name. It also makes the Silkie unique among chickens. The light and soft feathers, so reminiscent to the touch of fur, can appear in individual chickens as a result of a recessive gene. However, the Silkie is the only chicken to possess it as a breed.
They come in a variety of different colors, from white to black, taking in red, blue and buff in-between. What you can’t see, however, is their black flesh and bones below, very unusual among chickens. Other features that set them apart from most chickens are their five (instead of four) toes and those striking blue earlobes.
The species is thought to have originated in China and, true to say, there in something eastern in their look and certain inscrutability. They arrived in Europe (and from there the New World) via the Silk Route. The most famous European to follow that path was Marco Polo and his accounts tell of a furry chicken which was possibly the Silkie.
They certainly didn’t fly out of China. Their feathers, so soft and downy render them incapable of flight. You may have noticed that in some of these wonderful pictures the bird(s) seem to have a muff of feathers under their beak which covers their blue ears, while some do not. These are not separate breeds but varieties and are known as bearded and, you guessed it, non-bearded.
It took quite a while for the breed to be formally recognised in the US. In fact it was accepted in to the Standard of Perfection in 1874 (which was, admittedly the first time it had been published0. Yet despite this acceptance rumors about the Silkie have abounded and persisted.
One of the most unrelenting tales is that the Silkie is, in fact, a hybrid of a chicken and a rabbit. While you can see – obviously – while the more credulous people may have believed this in centuries gone by it is a legend which has proven fairly difficult to dispel. In Victorian times they were often shown in travelling shows and billed as such an interspecies cross, with people being told that they had mammalian fur. You can just imagine Barnum buying a dozen and crossing his fingers. You can see why, perhaps. Do these chickens have heads?
Today, however, the Silkie has become a popular breed of ornamental chicken. They are popular with smallholders not only for their looks but because the hen is about the broodiest bird on the planet. Any extra eggs from any breed of poultry will be gladly welcomed in to the brood to be of a mother Silkie who herself produces around three eggs each week.
Some of you are probably asking the question, yes, but what do they taste like? Perhaps because of their black skin (see a dead pair here if you must!) the breed has escaped intensive farming in the West – or it could be the simple fact that it does not produce as much meet as other breeds of chicken. Underneath that ball of fluff is quite a skinny chicken, believe it or not. In China, where they are known as wu gu ji – literally the chicken with black bones – they are regarded as suitable for gourmet tastes.
Although this is not a site that marks out animals as pets (or tells you where to buy them or how to look after them), it has to be admitted that if you want a chicken as a pet then the Silkie is an ideal. They are composed, amicable and sociable and they like children. In other words they are quite docile. Although this means that they can be bullied by other birds they tend to do well in human company.
We have now, hopefully, firmly established that the Silkie is not a rabbit – or indeed a tribble – but very much a bird. It has to be said it is an unusual looking winged, bipedal, endothermic, egg-laying, vertebrate but you know something? However, this, with apologies to EB White and Charlotte is some bird. Some bird indeed.