Anatomy Physiology

Chicken Combs & Wattles

If you remember Foghorn Leghorn you’ll know that his comb and wattles were iconic. Not all chickens have such memorable appendages that folks associate as normal for chickens. I have quite a few Easter Eggers – Ameraucana crosses – that have very small pea combs. That type of comb inhibits the growth of wattles so both my pea combed cockerels and pullets don’t have wattles. Some folks love big combs and drooping wattles. I have to say I’m not a big fan and happy that in my birds they are almost non-existent.

Combs

There are nine distinct types of combs and then a bunch more of what are called duplex or combination combs – all have evolved from the original rose and pea combs. So what is the purpose of those fleshy bits on the top of their heads that some folks refer to as cones?

If you’ve got a dog you know they can’t sweat and regulate their temperature by panting and through their ears. In chickens, both their wattles and comb are a means to control their body temperature.

The comb is made up of bundles of collagen fibers in the form of protein bundles, similar to a bungee cord, helping to give the comb its elasticity. It’s an organ consisting of a network of arteries, veins, and capillaries that form a mini circulation system that allow for rapid heat exchange between the blood vessels. Blood is pumped into the comb and temporarily held there through a network of shunts that open and close when needed. The network of blood vessels helps to maintain its body temperature during the heat of summer and the cold of winter.

I live in a temperate rainforest with few sustained weather extremes. If you live in an area with particularly hot or cold weather consider getting breeds that evolved in places with similar climates as yours. Mediterranean chickens (Leghorn, Minorca, Ancona) have larger combs, while cold-hardy birds (Icelandic, Ameraucana, Chantecler) will have smaller combs.

Both roosters and hens have combs and wattles, but both are larger in males. If you’ve had chicks you know that one of the ways you can sex your birds is by looking at their combs and wattles: cockerels will develop sooner and turn red before pullets.

Combs are a means of advertising a rooster’s health status. I’ve read lots of blog posts stating that the rooster with the biggest comb gets the most hens, but that is not borne out by research. One study demonstrated there is a relationship between comb size and color with sperm quality and viability. It turns out that colour is paramount and bigger is not better. The roosters with the smallest, reddest combs had the highest percentage of viable sperm. Hens that are influenced by a rooster with the biggest comb are actually choosing the rooster with lower fertility. So if you are out rooster shopping remember that the show off may be all talk and no action.

There is also a link between rose comb genetics and poor sperm motility. Again, if your rooster’s fertility is important to you consider a breed with another type of comb.

Interesting Fact: Hyaluronic acid, a naturally occurring sugar that traps water inside tissue cells, is also used in skin products and for arthritis and joint pain. Guess where the medical and cosmetics industry sources theirs? Rooster combs.

In hens, comb size is related to bone density and egg production. When your girls are laying, they draw calcium from their long bones for the manufacture of eggshells. The greater her bone mass, the more eggs she can lay. Hens with larger combs tend to have greater bone density and therefore increased egg production, which makes them more desirable mates by roosters.

 Wattles

Wattles – sometimes mistakenly called waddles – are the fleshy bits that hang down under a bird’s chin.

In conjunction with a comb, wattles serve as part of the temperature regulation system. Some studies have shown that in roosters they also serve to gain the attention of hens. If you watch you flock when they find treats you may see your rooster pick up and drop food and call for the hens. This behaviour, called tidbitting, is accompanied by the rooster nodding his head up and down, during which time his wattles sway, attracting the hens. I haven’t read anything that indicates additional functions of wattles in hens.

Interpreting Your Bird’s Comb

If you do health checks on your birds one of the recommended things to monitor is the colour of their comb, which 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.

So next time you look at your birds visualize their combs and wattles as part of a sophisticated mini heating and air conditioning system right on their heads. It’s also a way for us to spot sexual maturity, vitality or potential health issues.

Feature Image: Mary-Anne Bowcott

Stay tuned for an upcoming post on comb genetics.

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