A History of the Silkie breed
Silkies are one of the oldest chicken breeds known and for many years especially in the United States and parts of Europe the Silkie was known as the Japanese Silkie rather than the Chinese Silkie. We are unsure why the mix up as the silkie does originate in China and probably entered Japan via Chinese merchant ships. For many years silkies were used in Chinese medicine where it was thought that they had curative properties. The Silkie is known as Uokkei in Japanese and as Wugu-ji in Chinese. In Asia and the interior of South America they go by the name of Karaknath. Other names which have been given to them over the years and some are still used are negro-fowl, rabbit-fowl, black-boned chicken and woolly hens. There are six sub species of the Silkie- Japanese, Siamese, African, pink skin, buff and tail-less. All of these sub species differ in appearance from the Silkie we know.
The silkie fowl could very well be the oldest pure breed in existence today and there have been several references to them in old text books. The breed is said to be a very old Chinese breed discovered by Marco Polo (1254- 1324) near the south Chinese town of Quelinsu. Additionally, The mention of silkies in western History is by Marco Polo in his book about the Orient, written in 1298-99. In his book he mentions exotic Oriental chickens that “have hair like a cat, are black, and lay the best of eggs.”
It is known that the silkies history goes back even further than the first century as the breed was mentioned in writing as early as AD 1555 in a book called “Animal Book-Section Birds”, written by the Swiss Professor Konrad Gessner. He described the silkie as a woolly snow white fowl with blue skin without tail feathers and rose combed. The German Dr M Bechstein described the breed as the wool fowl and stated he had seen the breed in the Netherlands, Germany and France around 1800. The silkie was also mentioned by Darwin who called them Negro fowl and described them as having four varieties being called Siamese, African, Cafferfowl and Rumples. Silkies were thought to have been imported into England by a captain Finch possibly 1852 although there are conflicting reports which suggest it was later around 1860. The actual silkie breed club was formed in 1898 with a Dr Campbell being the clubs first secretary.
The following are a few dates where silkies are mentioned in literature history.
The silkie was mentioned in detail in a book of Chinese medicine this book being written during the time of the Ming dynasty 1368-1644. The book also suggested that the silkie breed originated in Asia.
The silkie was mentioned by Professor Konrad Gessner in his “Animal Book”. A Chinese encyclopaedia compiled from much older sources mentions “fowls with black feathers, bones and flesh”.
Aldrovandi of Bologna found a picture in a margin of an old map showing a wool bearing hen. Then in his book “Ornithology,” he describes Silkie chickens as “white as snow, with wool like sheep.” Because of their unusual fluffy appearance it was rumored then that they were produced by crossing a rabbit and chicken (of course an impossible feat!) This was the first reference to silkies being referred to as “rabbit-fowl” by some.
Glanius in “A New Voyage to the East Indies” mentioned fowls in Java “whose flesh was black yet very good meat”.
The great French naturalist Count de Buffon included in his 44 volume “Histoire Naturelle” 68 pages relating to domestic chickens. He mentions the “Poule a duvet Japan” (downy chicken of Japan) and the “Coq Negre” which have black skin, feathers and penosteum. The “Poule a duvet Japan” he states is found in Japan, China and other countries of Asia. The birds feathers are white and to propagate pure both parents must be downy. The barbs of the feathers are detached from each other making them look like down, wool or hair. They are feather legged and the foot has feathers along the outer edge as far as the toe nail of the outer toe. 1776 A silkie was exhibited in Brussels Belgium and was labelled a “rabbit fowl”. Two men a clergyman and a merchant stated this was an impossibility scientifically a rabbit mating with a chicken!
Dutch author M.T emmick wrote a book in French called “Histoire general des Gallinaces”. In the book he describes the silkie as Coq a Duvet(downy fowl) with the scientific name Gallus Lanatus. He also describes a similar fowl with black skin and black feathers as the Coq Negre Gallus Mono (blackamoor fowl) but this fowl is not downy like the silkie. He also believed that the silkie, frizzled and rumples breeds came from other species other than from the jungle fowl.
In C .N.Bennent’s book he mentions both Negro and silkie fowl and shows a terrible picture of a silkie. H.D.Richardson made a brief mention of the silkie in his work saying “for any practical purpose they are quite useless”.
T.B.Minor says “some splendid white silky fowl were exhibited at the fair of the New England Poultry Society in Boston in 1852”.
D.J.Browne makes a comment calling them “monstrosities”.
W.B.Tegetmeier wrote a short chapter in his Poultry Book about the silkie fowl. This book was highly thought of and was much quoted by Darwin. Tegetmeier was the first to distinguish between the white bird with black skin and silky feathers and the black feathered bird whose plumage was not of silkie character. He showed that a Spanish cock crossed with a white silkie hen produced female progeny which was black skinned and black feathered but not silkie feathered. He thus accounted for the Negro fowl of the early writers as not a pure breed but a cross in which the black skin persists but the silkie feathering is lost. Other people like Davenport and Punmett who later experimented with crosses verified this inheritance of the cross. Darwin also recorded that the male progeny of such crosses resembled the wild jungle fowl.
In his book “Illustrated Book of Poultry” Lewis Wright shows a colour plate of a silkie showing longer legs than allowed in the silkies of today.
Silkies were mentioned in the first American Poultry Association Standard and in all succeeding American Standards.
The Silkie Club of Great was founded
T.F.McGrew in his “Bantam Fowl” says Silkies are very “scarce” and repeats this in the 1903 edition. A silkie was exhibited at the International Fair of Panama and won a gold prize.
Breed standards state that regardless of feather colour Silkies must have dark blue or black skin. Adult Silkies look like they are covered in the same down as chicks, except for a few wing feathers. Their feathers are fluffy because they lack the barbules that tie most feathers together like velcro, to make them form the typical smooth feather appearance. Other unusual silkie features are: five toes, the legs are covered with downy feathers as well as the body, they have ‘mulberry’ dark skin on their faces, a rose comb, large round dark eyes, turquoise ear lobes, and either a round topknot or a round topknot with a beard, (both versions are acceptable.) They come in a wide range of colors: White, Black, Blue, Gold, Partridge. Although there are other colours in this breed like, cuckoo, splash, grey, red and buff.)
As a breed, silkie chickens are docile and trustful. Since silkies don’t fly well, they are easily contained and tend to not venture far. Their “down jackets” help them tolerate winter weather well, but wet conditions are not really tolerated well. Silkies can become quite affectionate toward their owners, and make excellent pets. They do tend to be long lived, and productive into old age, living upto 8 years and have been known to still be laying and brooding eggs.
Silkies are legendary as excellent mothers and brooders of eggs. They are often used to hatch other bird’s eggs, like game bird or peafowl eggs. A silkie hen is never happier than when she is sitting on a clutch of eggs – even when the eggs are not her own!