October 19, 2008

Fine Feathers

By Freda Cameron

I never expected to walk into the poultry barn at the NC State Fair and fall in love with a chicken! I’ve been going to the State Fair for a very long time, but I suppose I’d somehow missed Silkie Bantams.

These chickens are so beautiful that I hesitate to post pictures of silkies for fear that the Hollywood celebrities will think these are the newest designer pets! I can see Paris Hilton carrying a silkie around instead of her little dog. In fact, silkies, being so gentle, can be trained to walk on a leash. An H-style small cat harness fits just fine, so parading silkies could be the next style of the stars. The silkies come in a nice range of designer colors such as white, black, blue (lavender), buff, gray, partridge and splash.

Seriously, I had to know more about these beautiful bantams. Chickens are very popular with cottage gardeners as well as folks who want to raise their own fresh eggs. In researching silkies, I found a breeder with a very informative website and great photos. Deb Steinberg of Fawkes’ Feather Silkies in Gainesville, Texas graciously provided the photos and much of the information for this article.

According to Deb, the silkies that are shown on Fawkes’ Feather Silkies website are primarily exhibition birds, and therefore the crest, foot feathers and overall fluffiness is exaggerated for success in exhibition, much like a champion show dog doesn't usually look like the one in your backyard. Although silkies are fabulous little chickens and can be found in backyard flocks all over this country, they usually have a smaller crest, less foot feather and are not quite as stocky in appearance. A show bird would have a tough time fending for itself and steering clear of predators if it were free-ranging! Those large crests really inhibit their vision.

Silkies that need to live in backyard flocks and spend some time free-ranging as nature intended can be purchased by mail order as day old chicks from any hatchery. They won't look like a show bird, but they'll still be sweet, beautiful, and won't cost as much either! Silkies are one of the best chickens for families, as they are sweet-natured, they enjoy attention and even cuddling, and they are usually great with kids. As for the history of silkies, these are old birds! Marco Polo wrote about these beautiful chickens from his travels in the 13th century. The feathers look more like hair than the standard feathers of a chicken or bird. Over the centuries and even in the last 30-40 years, silkies have been bred to specific standards to improve the crest, leg feathers and colors.

The American Silkie Bantam Club was established in 1923. According to the Club’s website silkies have a frequent inclination towards broodiness (the hens like to sit on their eggs until hatched). Because of this broodiness, "they are not prolific layers as such breeds as Leghorns or Rhode Island Reds, as chickens do not lay while in the "broody cycle." However when they are in their lay cycle, which seems to vary with each individual hen, they are very dependable layers. Since the American Silkie is a bantam (small breed) the eggs are not huge - about medium in size ranging in colors from white to light brown."

The idea of keeping laying hens in the backyards of homes in cities and towns has been in the news quite a bit lately in my area of North Carolina. Raleigh and Chapel Hill allow hens, but not roosters. The number of hens that may be kept varies as does the type of hen house you may use. Some ordinances require that the hens be kept 50 feet or 100 feet from neighbors. Others require a minimum lot size of one acre. Some towns prohibit any poultry. It’s best to check the laws in your city or town before buying any chickens. Not only that, but you also have to check the rules and covenants of your home owners’ association. For example, even though our neighborhood was created from a 200 year-old dairy farm and the lots average over 4 acres, poultry is prohibited. We're out in the county, not in town.

For more information about the proper housing for chickens, a good online resource is Backyard Chickens. The website has photos of cute coops, information on keeping a backyard flock and a number of other worthwhile topics on keeping chickens. The website also includes information on other chicken breeds.

If you’re contemplating adding chickens to your backyard or garden, I think these Silkie Bantams are worth a close look! After all, they are just gorgeous birds!

Freelance travel writer. My current fiction writing projects include a completed manuscript and several works in progress.

By the way, my name is pronounced fred-ah, not freed-ah. Thank you.

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