Feathers Hard and Soft
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Feathers, the crowning glory and most recognizable aspect of chickens! Hard or soft, hairlike in Silkies, they are both beautiful and useful. Feathers are the first thing you see on poultry. Their color and condition are defining characteristics. Clothes make the man, and feathers, to a great extent, make the bird.
Feathers are poultry’s plumage. They come in many colors, solid and patterned. They vary in size, from the downy feathers of fluff through short head feathers to long, thin sickle feathers to the primaries on the wings.
Feathered dinosaur fossils have been discovered, perhaps adding to the discussion of which came first. Feathers make it possible for birds to fly, although most chickens are too large for their wings to get them off the ground. Small birds may be good flyers, though.
What are Feathers?
Feathers are living tissue, the same protein that makes hair and nails. Each one grows out of an individual follicle in the skin. The end of the feather in the skin is the quill, and the rest of the shaft is the rachis. The delicate strands of fluff near the quill are soft and downy. The rest of the feather has pairs of barbs growing out of each side of the shaft. The barbs web together with tiny hooks to form the rest of the feather.
Hard and Soft Feathers
Feathers vary on different breeds. They may be hard or soft, held close to the body, like Brahmas, or loosely, like Cochins.
Most chicken breeds have moderately long, broad feathers fitting close to the body.
Gamefowl have hard feathers. The shaft of their feathers is tough, and the feathers themselves are narrow and short. The barbs make a tight web. They don’t have much fluff, the downy part near the skin.
Cochins have soft feathers, more like downy fluff, with loose webs.
Silkie feathers lack the barbicels, or little hooks, which make feathers connect in a web. Their hair-like feathers require special care. They don’t resist water the way other chicken feathers do. Silkies can get soaked through, get chilled, and die. Keep them dry and out of the rain. Silkies’ hair-like feathers are unique to their breed.
Some breeds have more feathers than others. Naked neck chickens have bare necks, and about half the feathers overall compared to other breeds.
A beard is the cluster of feathers on the throat, under the beak. Muffs are the feathers on the sides Beard and muffs join together in a fluffy face from eyes to throat. Some breeds have feathered crests on their heads. Some breeds have feathered legs.
Frizzle feathers are curled, giving the chicken or goose an exotic appearance. The frizzle gene can be bred into a line of chickens, so frizzled chickens are judged separately from their breed class.
Sebastopol geese have frizzled feathers.
Feathers are not only beautiful and distinctive in appearance. They keep the chicken warm and dry, protect her from injury. They are such good insulation that duck and goose down are used in cold weather clothing.
In 2002, researchers bred a featherless chicken, with the idea in mind that it would make industrial chickens cheaper to raise and easier to process if they didn’t have feathers that needed to be removed. This sad idea didn’t get traction.
Chicken feathers are water-resistant, and waterfowl feathers are water repellent. All poultry preen their feathers frequently, at least once a day. Preening means that they dip their beak into the oil secreted by the uropygial gland at the base of the tail and spread oil through their feathers.
In waterfowl, the oil makes the feathers repel water so that they can swim without getting waterlogged.
Color and color pattern feathers are poultry’s crowning glory. Colors may be solid, such as white, black, and buff. Color patterns include striped, barred, laced, mottled, penciled, and spangled feathers. Each has its own distinct characteristics and may be combined with background colors, such as Silver Penciled and Golden Laced. Check the American Poultry Association Standard of Perfection for details and illustrations.
Patterns also specify different colored feathers on different parts of the bird. Columbian-pattern birds are white with black feathers on necks and tails. Blue color pattern birds have blue feathers with black heads and black-laced feathers.
The nuances of feather color, and the many genetic, environmental, and nutritional factors that can affect it are the focus of many hours of breeders’ attention.
Feathers are an indication of overall health and condition. They are the visible indicators of other problems: poor diet, parasite infestation, behavioral problems such as aggression.
Because feathers are made of protein, birds need adequate protein in their diet to have beautiful feathers. Hens that are laying well need the support of enough protein in their diet to continue laying those high-protein eggs.
Illness may affect feather condition. Worms may cause nutritional deficiencies that show up as ragged, broken feathers. A healthy bird will have strong feathers.
Infestations of mites and lice will affect feathers. The pests lay their eggs along the feather shaft. Birds may preen excessively due to irritation.
Crowded birds may pick each other’s feathers. It’s a nasty habit that can be hard to break.
Too many roosters for too few hens can result in torn up feathers. Some roosters are just too aggressive. Hens with torn-up feathers need protection.
Feathers last only a year. Poultry generally molts in late summer or fall. Their feathers fall out, usually gradually but some lose alarming numbers in a short time. New feathers appear in sheaths that fall off to allow the new feather to unfold.
Special powder down feathers have sheaths that disintegrate into keratin powder. The bird spreads it with her preening, helping waterproof her feathers.
Feathers for Showing
The most important thing an APA judge is looking for in judging a bird is broad feathers of firm structure. Feather color is second only to breed type, followed by condition.
Feathers keep birds safe and comfortable. They are beautiful and inspiring. Feathers have inspired poets and artists.
Emily Dickinson wrote:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
Faking encompasses any deliberate changes to a bird to deceive the judge. Evidence of it is grounds for disqualification. Many techniques are allowed and even expected to prepare chickens for shows, but dying or plucking feathers or making any surgical changes to comb or wattles is strictly unacceptable.
Occasional small minor feathers growing from legs and feet of clean-legged breeds can be tweezed out.
Plucking main feathers is grounds for disqualification. Some birds have one or two feathers in the wrong color. If you pluck them out, they may grow in the correct color, but it will take two or more months.
Poultry competition was cutthroat in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Faking feathers and other characteristics were a problem for exhibitions. In 1934, George Riley Scott wrote The Art of Faking Exhibition Poultry, which condemned the practice while giving precise instructions on how it could be done. Practices such as grafting perfectly marked feathers into the cut-off quills of undesirable ones were common.
A facsimile edition is currently available.
A Feather Glossary
Axial feather: the short wing feather between primaries and secondaries.
Back: base of the neck to the base of the tail, including cape and saddle.
Beard: fluffy feathers on the throat.
Cape: the short feathers that form a cape where neck and back meet.
Tail Covert: curved feathers at the front and side of the tail.
Fluff: the downy part of a feather.
Hackle: feathers on the back and sides of the neck. Hens’ have rounded edges, roosters’ have pointed ones.
Muff: feathers around the throat.
Primaries: flight feathers, the long wing feathers, concealed when the wing is folded.
Secondaries: long, broad wing feathers visible when the wing is folded.
Saddle: the rear part of the back extending to the tail.
Sickle: the two top feathers on the tail.
Tassels (topins) feathers growing from the back of the head behind the comb.
Ear tuft: feathers on a little tab of skin below the ear.
Wing bow: upper portion of the wing between the shoulder and the coverts.
Wing covert: double row of broad feathers in the middle of the wing.
Hard feathers closely webbed and have little fluff. Typical of game breeds.
Soft feathers are loosely webbed and fluffy. Typical of Asiatic and some other breeds.
Close feathered: holding the feathers close to the body.
Frizzle: curled feathers
Hennies are varieties in which the roosters resemble the hens in plumage. Ideally, the henny rooster is identical to the hen in plumage but larger in size. Henny roosters may vary from the ideal plumage — a rooster might have cock-like sickle, hackle, or saddle feathers.
Molt: the process of replacing old feathers with new ones. Most species change feathers once annually but some change twice. Long-tailed breeds molt only every two or three years.
Condition: the state of a bird’s health, reflected in its bright comb, earlobe, and face color. Clean plumage and feet. Show preparation.
Defect: a quality that makes a bird less than perfect but within the scope of competition.
Disqualification: a defect so serious that the bird will not be judged.
- Self, solid
- Barred and cuckoo
- Columbian or belted
- Mottled, spangled, millefleur
- Other colors, some recognized, some not, include Salmon, Birchen, and more.
Originally published in the Backyard Poultry Special Subscriber 2020 issue — Comb to Tail Health — and regularly vetted for accuracy.