Plumage plays an important role, protecting the chicken from rain, cold and sun, and a chicken must spend a considerable part of its time maintaining it. This is done by preening. Each feather has an axis or shaft, on to either side of which vanes are fixed. Each vane has barbs on either side, which cling together but need to be “combed” by the chicken, who also applies oil from a gland at the base of its tail.
A cockerel can be distinguished from a hen by the fact that some of its feathers take on a different shape. Its hackle and saddle feathers are thinner and longer than a hen’s, and it also develop sickles, which are the spectacular curved feathers on either side of the tail.
Some breeds have much fluffier feathers than others, and game breeds have very tight feathering that often leaves a strip of bare skin down the breast. There may be feathering on the legs, and some breeds sport beards, muffs and crests.
Every year, hens molt, generally at the beginning of fall, and replace their old feathers with new. As feathers are largely made up of protein, this takes a good deal of the hens’ energy, and it’s important to give them plenty of replacement protein in the form of good quality layers’ ration at this time.
A hen will stop laying until her molt is complete, which could take anywhere between six and 12 weeks. If the days are growing shorter, she may not start laying again until they start to lengthen after the winter solstice.
An Illustrated Guide to Feather Markings
Barring: Two distinct colors appear in bars across the feather; they may be regular or irregular and the width can vary.
Lacing: Appears as a border of a different color right around the edge of the feather; it may be broad or narrow.
Double Lacing: Same as lacing, but this has a second loop inside.
Frizzled: Each feather is curled, causing the bird to look distinctly unkempt.
Mottled: This is being spotted in a different color in a random fashion.
Spangling: There is a distinct contrasting color at the end of the feather.
Splash: This appears as drop-shaped marks of a contrasting color in a random fashion.
Penciling: This is the tricky one as it goes more or less with the breed. Mostly it can look like a kind of barring, but it can also be fine lacing. Hamburg hens have stripes, and the dark Brahma has concentric lines around the feathers similar to lacing; both are known as penciling.
Peppered: Feathers look as if someone has ground pepper onto them, the specks being a darker color.
An Illustrated Guide to Chicken Wing Feathers
Birchen: hackle, back saddle and shoulders white; neck hackles narrow black striping; breast black with silver lacing
Black: male and female uniformly black with green sheen
Black mottled: male and female black ground with white v-shaped tips on random feathers
Black red: red hackles and black body and tail
Blue: male and female uniformly slaty blue; head and neck may be darker; lacing, if present, darker
Buff: male and female uniformly buff
Chamois: male and female uniformly buff with paler lacing
Columbian: male and female body mainly white; neck and tail black with some white lacing
Crele: male hackles, back and saddle barred orange on pale ground; body barred gray and white. Female hackles barred grayish brown on pale ground; breast salmon; body as male
Cuckoo: male and female dark gray to black indistinct barring on white ground. Female can be darker than male.
Exchequer: male and female black and white randomly over body in blobs
Gold barred: golden ground with distinct black barring
Gold spangled: male and female hackle golden red with dark vane; body gold ground with black spangles; tail black
Jubilee: male head, neck, body, legs and tail white; back and wings white with dark red markings. Female head and neck white; rest of body dark red with single or double lacing.
Lavender: male and female uniform slaty gray throughout
Mahogany: male and female rich mahogany brown throughout
Millefleur: male and female orange ground with black spangles with white highlights
Partridge: male hackle, back and saddle greenish black with red lacing; breast and body black. Female reddish lacing on black ground.
Pile: male head golden, hackle and saddle lighter; back red; front of neck white; wings mainly white. Female hackle white with gold lacing; neck and body white with salmon breast.
Porcelain: similar to Millefleur but bright beige ground
Quail: complicated coloring giving impression that upper parts are dark and lower light; gold lacing and shafts
Red: male and female bright red throughout
Silver barred: male and female white to pale gray ground with bright black barring
Silver cuckoo: male and female white to pale gray ground with dark gray to black indistinct broad barring.
Silver duckwing: male silver hackles and back; breast and body black; tail black with silver edging. Female silvery gray with salmon breast; tail and wings black with gray edging
Silver spangled: male and female gray ground with black spangles
Speckled: in Speckled Sussex male and female mahogany ground with white tips and black/green intermediate strip
Splash: male and female white ground with irregular slaty blue blobs, gray in places
Wheaten: male gold hackles, rich brown body and dark green tail; female shades of wheat from golden to chestnut with black tips.
White: male and female uniformly white throughout
Reprinted with permission from The Illustrated Guide to Chickens (Skyhorse Publishing) by Celia Lewis. Copyright 2011 text and illustrations by Celia Lewis.
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Chickens magazine.