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What do my hen’s comb and wattle tell me?

We see our hens’ comb and wattle every day, but do we really know what they do and how important they are as an indicator of their health? If your hen is feeling under the weather, her comb and wattle can often give an indication of this. 

If your hen’s comb and wattle becomes pale and / or floppy it can be an indicator that something might not be right with her. However, please note that this may not be the case when you first adopt an ex-commercial hen – all will be explained below. 

Secondly, for the purpose of this article we are talking about ex-commercials which are typically Warrens. Some other breeds have naturally dark combs and wattles like the Silkie. 

Combs

A healthy adult chicken comb 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. This may happen during a moult, for example. 

Different breeds of hen have different shaped combs like the image below. Most ex-caged hens have a typical single comb with five or six points. A single comb is the most common type.

comb variations

Young hens typically have much smaller combs, often resembling an inverted saw blade. So, if your adult hen has a tiny comb in her older age, it is likely that she is showing signs of health problems. 

A hen that has a dry, shrivelled or flaky comb also generally has an underlying health problem, whereas a purple or blue tinged comb is a sign that your hen 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 chicken comb and wattles are usually the first part to be grabbed during pecking order disputes and squabbles, and 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 as this can reduce the grip of the pecking hen so that when she pecks at the new hen, her beak won’t be able to grip as hard and will reduce the damage. 

You should also be vigilant during frosty or extreme weather as 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. 

Commercial hens’ combs 

When you first collect your commercial hens on rehoming days you will notice that their combs are usually large, pale and floppy; think of it as though she’s having a bad hair day. In fact, it is common for the comb to hang over your hen’s eye on one side.  In a warm farm environment, the comb acts as a heat dissipater to keep a hen cool around so many other birds. Once she goes home with her new family and is allowed to free range in the cooler air, her comb will slowly shrink and become a vibrant red colour. 

Wattles

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. 

We have lots more advice on hen comb and wattle on our Hen Health Problems page where you can filter by symptoms to see possible treatments and advice.

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