Improving The Quality
Your Silkie Flock
by Inga Ladd Edited by Alan Stanford, Ph.D.
I purchased my first show quality Silkies five years ago in 1997.
After a bit of trial and error, I think I can safely say that the
best way to improve your Silkie flock does not involve spending more
and more money on better and better quality Silkies. Buy the best
you can afford but don't expect money to work miracles. I recommend
instead that you try keeping careful records on your flock. This suggestion
is not quite as simple as it seems. It takes quite a bit of patience
and a rudimentary knowledge of how some common Silkie faults are inherited.
I start with my breeding pens. In the past, I kept only Bearded Blacks,
Blues and Splashes and bred all these Silkies in a flock together.
This approach produced a large number of chicks but random results.
I bred one or two really nice birds but had no way of knowing which
individuals had produced them. I quickly abandoned flock mating in
favor of pair and trio mating.
Since Silkies do not fly, I manage to confine most of my breeders
in round pens that are two or three feet tall and four feet across.
I only breed about four or five pens at a time. (The rest of my Silkies
get to run wild and free in a fenced garden where they eat bugs, hide
eggs in the tall grass and roll in the dust. At night, my children
are only too happy to chase them inside the barn for safekeeping.)
Occasionally, when I find a Silkie that likes to jump out of his or
her breeding pen, I simply place a net across the top of the pen to
keep my rare, adventurous Silkie from getting away.
My breeding pens are very simple to build and easy to keep clean.
Each round pen is about four feet in diameter. I cut a piece of vinyl-coated
wire into twelve-foot lengths. I then roll it into a corral shape
and tie it together with hog rings or vinyl cable ties. Both the top
and the bottom are open. The design is wonderful in that when cleaning
day comes, I remove the birds, move the pen to the middle of the room
and sweep up the mess. I'm fortunate enough to have a concrete floor
in my breeding room so the sweeping is easy. I put quite a bit of
pine shavings in each pen to help keep the birds clean.
I use a permanent Jiffy wing band on each Silkie I own. I also use
a colored plastic #9 Bandette on each adult. Wing bands can come off
and leg bands can break off but I've never had a Silkie lose both
sets of identification. Knowing exactly which Silkie you are breeding
with is the first step to flock improvement. You cannot see where
you are going if you have no idea where you have been or how you got
When I set up a breeding pen, I record the wing band and leg band
numbers in my Silkie notebook. I assign the breeding pen a letter,
a number and a year. For example, my first breeding pen of non-bearded
whites was 2002W1 for this year. The second pen of non-bearded whites
was 2002W2 and so on. The pen is marked with the breeding code. Each
egg I collect from the pen is marked with the breeding code and the
date of collection on the large end of the egg. I use crayon to mark
the eggs and find that it works quite well. With two young kids around
the house, crayons are in abundance.
For hatching eggs from multiple breeding pens, I use the standard
GQF Sportsman hatching trays with simple wooden dividers screwed into
the tray. Once the lid is on, each pen has its own section where the
chicks cannot mingle until they are banded. I band each Silkie chick
with a numbered #4 plastic Bandette immediately after it hatches.
These bands are not expensive and they are reusable. In the past,
I used tiny colored cable ties. The ties are good for keeping chicks
from the various breeding pens separate but they have their limitations.
The colored cable ties can tell me which parents a chick had but not
when it hatched. For example, chicks from last year's pen 2001G1 were
marked with a blue band on the chick's right leg. I was not able to
distinguish one chick from another easily. Also, the cable ties needed
to be changes 2 or 3 times before the chick was old enough for me
to apply a wing band. The #4 leg bands are much gentler on the chick.
The #4 bands expand a bit and rarely cut into the chick's leg if allowed
to get too tight. A cable tie left on a chick too long turns into
an ingrown mess that can cripple a nice Silkie.
Two common faults, single combs and four toes are simple recessive
traits. If one single comb chick hatches from a breeding pen, you
can be certain that both parents carry the trait for a single comb.
The single comb "gene" is recessive to the normal Silkie
comb so two Silkies with correct combs can produce a single combed
chick quite easily. If you have a pair produce a single combed chick,
you need to decide whether to continue using the parents in your breeding
program. You must weigh the problems of introducing the undesirable
trait into your flock against your breeding goals. Sometimes it is
acceptable to use Silkie with a "bad" trait if that Silkie
has other excellent qualities. Knowing which Silkies carry the trait
is the first step towards eliminating it. With single combs, I would
like to point out that with careful inspection, it is very easy to
see if a chick has a single comb the moment that it hatches.
Another annoying fault is the Silkie that hatches with less than the
required five toes on each foot. Having only four toes is another
recessive trait but be warned that it is not a simple recessive. The
five toed trait is only incompletely dominant so the Silkie with four
toes can actually carry the five toed trait. Confusing? Definitely!
However, if one four-toed chick hatches from a breeding pen, you can
be certain that both parents carry the trait for four toes - to a
Again, this "gene" is basically recessive to the normal
Silkie five-toed condition, a condition that has the scientific name
of polydactyly. Polydactyly simply means "many toes" and
frequently involves too many toes! (However, six and seven toed Silkies
are an entirely different story for another article.) So, restating
the obvious, two Silkies with the correct number of toes on each foot
can produce a four-toed chick quite easily. As with single comb producers,
if you have a pair that produces a four-toed chick, you need to decide
whether to continue using the parents in your breeding program. Decide
whether you want to introduce an undesirable trait. No Silkie is perfect
in all ways. It might look nearly perfect but odds are that it will
have some genetic flaw that you do not like.
I look at each chick that hatches, band it and mark down its down
color, whether its comb is correct, how many toes it has on each foot,
whether is has a vaulted knob on its skull, and whether it has good
foot feathering. Some breeders are quite particular on the degree
and quality of separation of the 4th toe from the 5th toe.
Traits like crest size, overall type, and adult color are important
to track also. These details must wait for a Silkie too mature. Once
the Silkie in question has grown a bit, you should record these details.
Having a good notebook to keep all of these pieces of information
in is a must. I keep a bound notebook for each year. My notebook gets
carried to the barn daily. I note changes in my breeding pens, who
goes broody, who has mites, who gets sprayed or dusted, etc. in my
notebook. Everything goes into the notebook. I also record the band
numbers and the parentage of my Silkies in a Microsoft Access 2000
database that I've built. MS Access is a great program for this type
Careful record keeping has done wonders for my Silkie flock. I feel
like my Silkies have come a long way in just a few years. Such improvement
is not an accident. Improvement comes from working hard, from really
knowing one Silkie from another, from knowing the background of my
birds and from knowing their strengths and weaknesses. Breeding a
Silkie may be a lot like making a pie. It is simply a matter of having
all the right ingredients. No one that I know bakes a pie without
looking a recipe and checking the labels on the spice bottles first.
Cinnamon and chili powder may look a lot alike but who wants an apple
pie made with chili powder? Think about it! Record keeping makes sense
if you are serious about breeding Silkies to the Standard.