The vast majority of chickens have combs, but why is that?
It is a very unique and important part of the chicken as we shall learn. The first ‘combs’ were found on the dinosaur remains of the Edmontosaurus (one of the last dinosaurs on Earth).
Today we are going to explore exactly why chickens have combs, what sort of comb types there are, and how to keep those combs healthy.
What Is A Comb And Why Does A Chicken Have One?
You may be surprised to learn that a chickens’ comb is actually considered an organ. Just like the heart, liver and kidneys, this red appendage serves a few very useful purposes.
Chickens cannot sweat, so they have to control their body temperature by some other method.
They control their body temperature with their wattles and comb.
It is the heating and cooling center of the bird. In summertime when it is hot, the comb will diffuse some of the body heat to the air, thereby reducing the temperature of the bird and in the winter it helps to prevent heat loss.
The color of the comb can tell you a lot about the health of a chicken. A normal, healthy comb will be red, purple or black depending on the breed. A pullet that has not yet reached the point of lay may have a small pinkish one – this is normal as her hormones have not yet started surging.
Combs that are pale or shrunken may indicate that something is wrong with your bird.
It may mean she is anemic (think lice and mites), is overloaded with worms, has heat exhaustion or is molting.
How do you tell with a black comb?
It is tricky, but get used to feeling a normal comb, it will feel a bit elastic, fleshy and the tissue will be malleable to touch. An anemic or dehydrated comb feels dry and flat.
Deciding what the problem is requires you to put all the clues together!
A blue comb can indicate circulatory problems, respiratory problems or coldness. A fire engine red comb that is hot to touch can be indicative of a fever. It may feel a bit dry.
Chicks all have small inconsequential combs to start with, but once the hormones start to circulate, the combs will grow. Testosterone for the boys gives them a noticeable comb and wattles. Estrogen for the girls will give them a smaller version of the same.
When selecting a mate, they want to mate with the strongest so their offspring have a best chance of survival. This is where the comb and wattles help to signal vitality and strength.
A rooster’s is big and eye catching – it is meant to be that way. It is his way of telling the ladies that he is fit and healthy and will produce healthy chicks with them.
Hens’ combs are smaller but still give the same message. A vibrant red comb indicates the bird is healthy and sexually mature.
Research has shown that hens with larger combs tend to have greater bone density and lay more eggs.
It is also thought that combs and wattles help chickens recognize their flock mates.
Various Types of Chicken Combs
There are nine distinct types of chicken comb. There are also some variations on each of these nine types, but we are going to stick with the nine today.
Single: This is the comb we all know and associate with chickens. The upright comb, with distinct points at the peak. Rhode Island Reds, Leghorns, Faverolles, Barnevelders and Ayam Cemani are all examples.
Walnut: This comb looks like it sounds. A large mulberry colored ‘walnut’ sitting forward on the head. This unusual comb belongs to Silkies and Orloffs.
Buttercup: Only one breed has this comb, the Sicilian Buttercup. The comb looks like a dual version of the single, but the points come full circle forming a crown. Sadly, the Buttercup is in critical need of conservation.
Strawberry: This comb resembles a strawberry. It sits forward on the head and looks like a large cushion comb. Malay and Yokohama birds have this type of comb.
Rose: Rose combs are flatter to the head than many other combs. This makes them ideal for harsh winter climates as they will not get frostbite as easily as others. It is kind of ‘nubby’ and should have a leader spike at the back of the comb. Birds that have rose combs are Dominiques Wyandottes and rose-combed bantams.
Cushion: The cushion comb is a much smaller version of the strawberry and looks more like a small cushion sitting forward on the head.
‘V’ Comb: This comb is not too common. The ‘V’ or Devils horn is found on a small number of breeds. La Flèche, Sultan and Crèvecœur are all members of this select little club. It really doesn’t need describing as it looks as it sounds!
Carnation: This is another very rare comb. It is a variation of the single comb where there are extra points sticking out at right angles from the back of the comb. Only two breeds have this kind of comb: the Empordanesa and the Penedesenca.
Common Comb Problems
The comb can suffer from a few different maladies – the usual one is being pecked! If a hen is overstepping her place another hen may take a well-aimed peck at her and cut her. The bleeding is usually not substantial but it looks like a lot since the wound will ooze for a while because of the ample blood supply. Applying pressure to the wound will stop the bleeding fairly quickly.
If flock mates have suddenly started pecking at one member of the flock, check her over. Chickens can sense illness long before we can see it and will attempt to ‘drive away’ a sick or ailing bird.
There are two types of fowl pox – we are talking about the dry type here. Fowl pox is a slow spreading viral infection. It is also known as Fowl Pox Virus or avian pox and is very contagious within the flock.
It only affects the non-feathered portions of the bird and it starts with small gray/white spots or lesions on the comb, face or wattles. These develop into wart-like nodules and will slowly turn into dark scabs.
It is not contagious to humans but it can be spread from flock to flock by infected clothing or equipment.
Apart from the lesions, symptoms include decreased egg output, weight loss, decreased appetite and lethargy. There is no quick cure, and it can last for months or years depending on circumstances. However it is not usually fatal.
Prevention in the form of good housekeeping is essential. The virus is spread by mosquitoes so try planting insect repelling plants such as mints and marigolds around the run/coop.
Quarantining affected individuals is a must and minimizing stress will certainly help.
Frostbite can be a big problem for chickens that are exposed to moisture and freezing temperatures, especially those with large combs. Prevention is the best cure. This means your coop should have proper ventilation, moisture reduction in the coop and no drafts blowing across the birds.
Once frostbite has attacked the tissues the damage is done.
A minor degree of frostbite usually does not do permanent harm to the bird; it will be uncomfortable for a few days but will eventually resolve itself.
When the damage is severe enough that the comb or wattles become blackened the bird will eventually lose that portion of the appendage.
If you want more in depth information about frostbite see our article.
The practice of comb dubbing seems to stem from the days of cockfighting. The dubbing process removes the comb down to the cushion and takes the wattles down to the skin. In a cockfight, these appendages would be a source of heavy bleeding for the bird.
This is being called into question in many countries and has actually been banned in others.
You know that the comb is a vital organ for the chicken, so removing most of the comb and wattles will have a detrimental impact on the chickens’ welfare.
How To Keep Chicken Combs Healthy
Comb health is an integral part of the overall care for your chickens.
You should keep an eye open for excessive pecking at combs.
If the pecking gets bad, put some Blu-Kote (or similar product) on the comb to make it less attractive to the aggressor.
The other common problem with combs is frostbite. Make sure you don’t pop blisters, trim edges etc. If the comb becomes infected you will need to apply topical or oral antibiotics until the infection is gone. Pain management should be considered as frostbite is very painful.
Any trimming of dead material should be done by a veterinary or experienced professional.
If you have hens and roosters with large combs you should cover them in Vaseline to prevent frostbite during winter.
Finally, any suspicious lesions should be carefully examined and checked frequently as should any change in color or texture that seems unusual.
Who knew chicken combs could be so interesting?
I hope this has been informative for you and that you will now look at those combs with a bit more wonder and admiration.
Remember the comb is a great way to check on the overall health of your chicken. A healthy diet full of essential nutrients and a stress free environment will keep their immune system in tip top condition ready to fight off illness.
Have any questions about chicken combs? Let us know in the comments section below…