For most people, if you ask them to picture a chicken, they will paint the mental image of a white chicken with a big red comb on its head and a strange looking piece of skin under its beak. And that’s no surprise. Think of the last time you saw a chicken in a movie or an advertisement and that’s exactly what you’ll see. Funny thing is, most people associate the big red comb with a rooster…which leads one to wonder, do hens have combs and wattles too?
Though they differ greatly from breed to breed, hens do have combs and wattles just like their brother roosters. But you could be forgiven for wondering. In the case of lions, males have manes while females generally don’t. So there are instances in nature where males and females are just different, beyond the necessary biology for reproduction.
Chicken: What Are Combs and Wattles?
The comb is the easiest of the two features to remember because it’s on their head – exactly where you would run a brush or comb. Making it easier yet is the fact that most chickens have what’s called a ‘single comb’ which has a single row of spikes, actually resembling a comb that you’d use on your hair.
The term wattle however, designating that piece of skin hanging underneath the chicken’s beak, can be a little more difficult to remember. But try using association.
Every time the chicken moves its head, that little piece of skin ‘wobbles’, which for me, is pretty close to wattles. Easy enough?
What Do Combs and Wattles Do?
The primary purpose of a comb and wattle is to dissipate heat. That’s not to say there is only one use for these features, but it’s the most obvious.
Chickens do not sweat like humans so heat management falls to a different means. Those big fleshy appendages have the capacity to push a lot of blood through them. And much like a heat sink on a piece of electronics or the radiator on your vehicle, the more surface area you have, the bigger the capacity to dissipate heat.
It’s pretty impressive to realize that these two colorful little features are able to regulate the temperature of 10-13lb. feathered, crowing-machine bird like the Jersey Giant.
But like a lot of things in nature, combs and wattles are multifunctional, especially in the case of a hen.
Apparently, from the rooster’s perspective, bigger is better. And a group of scientists in Sweden think they have discovered why. They believe that the larger more colorful appendages indicate a strong healthier mate.
Combs also are a very good indicator of the birds health. A comb can go from bright red which is the healthy color, to pink, purple and sometimes black – each color warning of a unique health issue. Also, be wary of any spots that show up on your chicken’s comb or wattle as these can be an indication of frost bite or disease.
Are All Combs And Wattles Red?
Now that we’ve established that a bright red comb and wattle are good and that black on these appendages are bad, I’d like to introduce you to the Black Sumatra. This particular bird has a black comb all the time. So be sure to research your breed before jumping to conclusions. Not all combs and wattles are red.
When Do Chickens Grow Their Combs?
Depending on the breed, chickens can start growing their combs as early as 2 weeks, but the majority of birds will have the beginnings of a comb at between 6 to 9 weeks of age. Remember, the combs and wattles help regulate body temperature so you should look for some sign of growth before moving them out of the brooder where the temperature is controlled.
Of course, if there is a mama hen doing the rearing then you shouldn’t have to worry about it to much. Her instincts should be well equipped to raise the chicks right.
Do Chicken Combs Grow Back?
Any significant damage to a comb or wattle is most likely permanent.
Raise chickens long enough and you will inevitably end up with a bird who’s gotten hurt. Fighting among chickens is not uncommon, especially if you haven’t taken precautions, and a comb is an easy target for an ornery bird.
A rooster’s default setting, especially in the company in hens, is to be the ‘only one’. So two adult roosters should never be kept together as they will try to kill each other.
Hens are generally fine and can be kept together in large groups with relatively little trouble. But watch out when introducing new birds to your flock as there will be a reestablishment of the pecking order.
And for the record, everyone gets cranky when it’s hot. So watch for signs of fighting or someone is going to get a comb tip torn off.
But as rough as it is when the temperature is hot, the damage caused by predators can be much worse.
Last summer, I chased a hawk off one of our hens. That sleek winged hunter had flipped my girl on her back and was in the process of going at her throat when I arrived. Fortunately, her wattle took most of the abuse and not her actual neck.
Remember, there is a lot of blood flowing through those red appendages, so any damage to them can really bleed.
The site was pretty gruesome and I was convinced that my hen was dead. Incredibly, when I rolled her back onto her feet, her eye’s popped open and she managed to take two steps before collapsing. And there she sat for a couple of hours.
Fortunately, she managed a pretty good recovery; albeit after a couple of days. And while her strength and happy demeanor returned, her wattle did not. Chickens are incredibly hardy creatures, but those temperature controlling appendages are not able to regenerate.
Chickens With Floppy Combs
A floppy comb can be a sign of dehydration, but that isn’t always the case. Some birds are prone to have floppy combs, so it’s good to know a little history of the animal before jumping to conclusions.
When considering the state of health for your chicken, look to see if there is any discoloring associated with that floppy comb. If the comb turns pinkish or purplish color, then further investigation would be wise. However, if it is still a healthy red, then chances are the bird is fine. There are several non-illness related reasons why the comb is leaning to one side.
1) A chicken’s age
A chicken’s comb is somewhat like your ear in that it continues to grow. It’s not uncommon for older birds to have their combs lean over, no longer able to sustain its own weight.
2) A chicken’s breed
A floppy comb is also more prevalent with breeds of chicken that have the single style comb – the comb with a single row of spikes. The Leghorn chicken, from the white to dark brown versions (and whole bunch in between) is a bird where floppy combs are quite common.
Notable Chicken Fact; the Leghorn chicken was immortalized by the infamous Foghorn Leghorn first illustrated in 1946. For the record, I loved that cartoon!