Combs and wattles. We see them every day, but do we really know what they do and how important they are as an indicator of our hens health?
For the purpose of this article we are talking about ex-bats (some other breeds have naturally dark combs and wattles – the Silkie is a good example of this).
A healthy comb on an adult hen should sit on top of her head and be red, plump and glossy. A healthy comb is often a good indicator that she is in lay, therefore If the comb is pale, but plump it probably means that she is healthy, but off lay.
Young hens typically have much smaller combs, often resembling an inverted saw blade. So if your adult hen has a tiny comb it is likely that she is showing signs of health problems.
When you first collect your colony hens you will notice that combs are usually large, pale and floppy (think bad hair day). It is fairly common for the comb to hang over your hen’s eye on one side. In the warm cage environment the comb acts as a heat dissipater, so once she is allowed to free range her comb will slowly shrink and become vibrant red.
A hen that has a dry, shrivelled or flaky comb generally has an underlying health problem. Whereas a purple or blue tinged comb is a sign that she has cyanosis due to circulatory problems.
Fungal conditions can cause greyish white spots on the comb and nodules on the comb can be a symptom of fowl pox.
The comb and wattles are usually the first part of your hen to be grabbed during pecking order disputes and squabbles, both will bleed profusely if pecked or cut. We advise a thick layer of Vaseline be applied to combs when merging new hens with existing ones.
Be vigilant during frosty or extreme weather. A large floppy comb can easily be affected by frost bite and you may notice the tips of the comb turning black – this is particularly noticeable with cockerel combs.
Wattles are fleshy flaps of skin that hang either side of your hen’s throat starting just behind the beak, we tend to notice them more in cockerels where they are used as an ornament for courting potential mates. Large wattles in a cockerel are a sign of good nutrition, high testosterone and a potentially successful mate! Wattles also help to cool your birds down. Blood circulating from the comb to the wattles is cooled and helps to lower the chicken’s temperature during hot weather.
As with combs, in a laying hen the healthy wattles should be large, soft and waxy.
If you would like to ask Gaynor a hen health question please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call Hen Central on 01884 860084.