F is for feathers
An eclectic alphabet of chicken facts with a difference Compiler: Andy Cawthray
FILOPLUMES – These usually become evident when a chicken is plucked, as they are the thin hair-like feathers left behind when the main feathering is removed. These feathers are connected to nerve endings within the chicken and are used to monitor the position of the main body plumage, e.g. when they are flat against the body or puffed out when keeping warm.
PLUMULES – These feathers are probably more familiarly known as ‘down’. These are the soft fluffy feathers on the chicken. They lack the barbs that would hold the shape like the feathers that cover the outermost profile of a chicken, but, as such, they are very good at trapping air and helping with the chicken’s temperature regulation.
WEBBED FEATHERS – These are the larger outermost feathers of the chicken and the ones that dictate the look of the breed and its plumage. They consist of a hollow quill which is nearest the chicken’s body. A central shaft carries barbs, which in turn have barbules and barbicels, which act to lock together the barbs into a web or vane. These types of feather make up most of the external appearance of the chicken, including body, wings and tail. A genetic mutation of this feather occurs in frizzled and silkied breed types.
Unlike a number of avian species, chickens do not bathe in water and instead make use solely of dust baths. Given any opportunity they will create a shallow bowl in any soft dry soil, sand, or deep floor litter and then begin to shuffle and thrash about. The objective
is to cover themselves in dust and to work it into their feathers. It constitutes a part of the feather care and parasite control regime built into their natural behaviour. It is also a socializing behaviour, and often a number of hens will share the same bath simultaneously, occasionally grooming each other.
With chickens, like many birds, preening is an essential part of hygiene, and is often performed socially and invariably following a dust bath or when they have been caught out in the rain. The purpose of preening is to ensure proper feather structure is maintained by straightening the feathers (using the beak) and then oiling the feathers (using the head, first rubbed against the preen gland at the base of the tail and then rubbed over the feathers being preened). It is also an additional way of removing parasites, dead skin and other feather dander.
THE FIRST FEATHERS
Generally feathers will develop in the more or less the same order. Wing feathers develop first during week one, as these will help with mobility. Tail (and shoulder) feathers appear next as these help with balance. Next comes the back and breast, usually around week three, then the rest of the body and finally the head in week five.
Late summer, early autumn sees the onset of the annual moult for chickens. If you are a first time keeper this can appear rather alarming when first encountered, especially when some breeds seem to literally drop all their feathers overnight. This dramatic transformation into an oven-ready bird can send the uninitiated keeper into a panic, but worry not, it’s a perfectly natural occurrence in poultry over one year old.
Hens hatched during the spring of that year will not usually moult until the following autumn but for those in their second year or beyond there is the need to replace their weather worn feathers before the winter.
It’s not a requirement to clip the wing feathers of chickens, and it should only be done if there are birds that persistently clear boundary fencing. Some breeds of chicken are reasonable flyers over a short distance while others are very good jumpers, and in both cases the clipping of wings can help reduce the amount of lift they get from frantically flapping.
FRIZZLE & SILKIE
The Frizzle & Silkies are breeds of chicken. By careful (and in some instances by accidental) breeding it has been possible to transfer the genetic traits for their plumage into other breeds.
‘Frizzle feathering’ is a genetic trait causing feathers to curl outwards and away from the body, giving the bird a fluffy look. Frizzle-feathered birds are flightless due to irregular feather structure, and can be a little more susceptible to the weather as they carry less protection then their flat feathered counterparts.
‘Silked feather’ means the chicken is covered in what appears to be fur. These are feathers that are structurally similar to the fluff found at the base of most feathers. The shaft of the feather is very thin, and the barbs excessively long and soft. The result is they are unable to lock together and form the web of a normal feather, giving the bird a very fluffy look. Like the frizzle-feathered chicken they are also flightless, and a little more susceptible to poor weather conditions.
In wild forms of the chicken, such as the Red Jungle Fowl, a moult can occur in two stages, effectively giving the impression of two moults. It is particularly evident in the males. Firstly, they will moult their brightly coloured body and head feathers, replacing them with more subdued tones more akin to the females’ colouring. This affords them a level of discretion and camouflage whilst they go through the vulnerable stage of moulting their wing feathers and primary flight feathers. When these have moulted, and not yet fully grown, the birds’ ability to evade predation by short flight is compromised, hence the ‘eclipse’ of their coloured plumage. Once the wing feathers have re-grown the second stage of the moult occurs, where the temporary, dull-coloured feathers are replaced by the bright breeding plumage. Moulting in this manner is more frequently seen in ducks, where the drakes on a lake seem to disappear. They are, in fact, still present but hiding in more subdued female looking feathering.
On occasion, and more often in some breeds such as Sebrights, males will develop feathering that not only matches the plumage colour markings of the female but also the female structure. This will mean the cockerel resembles, to all intents and purposes, a pullet.
A Frizzle Pekin
First feathers Dustbathing Plumage