The comb sits on top of the hen’s head and in a healthy hen is likely to be red, plump and glossy, this often denotes she’s in lay. Different breeds of hen have different shaped combs like the image below. They can be Rose or Buttercup, Walnut or Strawberry, Pea or V-shaped. Most ex-caged hens have a typical single comb with five or six points. A single comb is the most common type.
Young birds have smaller combs than mature birds and some breeds have specific comb characteristics. Silkies for example have dark combs while commercial hens have single combs with five or six points leading up to a thicker blade .
The purpose of the comb is to keep the hen cool in hot weather; chickens do not sweat. Smaller combs are beneficial during harsh winters their smaller surface area being less prone to frost bite.
As well as denoting a hen is in lay the comb is a good health indicator.
- A pale but plump comb is likely to mean the hen is healthy but off lay.
- A dry, shrivelled or flaky comb may be an indicator of poor health (Figure 1)
- A comb with a blueish tinge, purple colouring or dark tips may indicate a circulatory problem. (Figure 2)
- An adult hen with a tiny comb may indicate the hen has a serious health issue.
- Greyish white spots on the comb can be caused by fungal conditions.
- Nodules on the comb may be a symptom of fowl pox.
Newly adopted caged hens usually have large, pale and floppy combs which have acted as heat dissipaters whilst in a cage environment. It is common for combs to hang over one eye, and once a hen is allowed to free range her comb will slowly shrink and become vibrant red.
During pecking order squabbles the comb and wattles are usually the first part of the hen to be grabbed and will bleed profusely if pecked or cut.
When merging new hens applying a thick layer of Vaseline to combs will help protect a hen and ease the merging process as beaks slide off greased combs more easily.
In frosty or extreme weather, similarly, a large floppy comb will benefit from the protection of a thick layer of Vaseline. Frost bite can occur and early signs are comb tips turning black; this is particularly noticeable with cockerel combs.
Wattles are fleshy flaps of skin that hang either side of a hen’s throat starting just behind the beak (see above). Wattles are more obvious in cockerels who use them in courting (the larger the wattles, the more appealing to hens); large wattles in a cockerel are a sign of good nutrition, high testosterone and a potentially successful mate!
Wattles also help to cool birds down. Blood circulating from the comb to the wattles is cooled and helps to lower the temperature during hot weather. In a laying hen healthy wattles should be large, glossy, soft and waxy.