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Improving Your Silkie Flock

By Inga Ladd

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 there.

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 certain degree.

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 of information.

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.

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