A chicken comb is the fleshy protuberance on top of the head of a chicken, it is of course larger on the cockerel than the hen chicken. There are several forms or shapes of combs including buttercup, cushion, pea, rose, single, strawberry and v-shaped.
Combs are often a distinguishing characteristic that helps identify various breeds and varieties of chickens. In some breeds such as Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds, there are both single comb and rose comb varieties. In addition, the colour of the combs vary from bright red to purple, again depending upon the breed.
The scientific classification of a chicken is Gallus domesticus, where the Latin word ‘gallus’, means comb. So what is the purpose of the chicken’s comb? There appears to be two main reasons. The first is that the combs act as a cooling mechanism for the birds. Chickens cannot sweat to cool themselves, instead, birds are cooled by the blood flowing through the comb and the wattle, which are both externally situated. As the warm blood circulates through the comb, it is cooled and returns to the interior parts of the body, thereby acting as a cooling mechanism in hot weather. This obviously has an adverse effect in cold weather when it is necessary to take precautions to ensure that your chickens do not get frost bite in those areas.
The second reason is that the large combs on males attract females as chickens can detect colour and are very attracted to the colour red.
At one time, many of the commercial poultry farms routinely removed the combs from all birds at an early age to prevent injuries and subsequent infection later in life, which would reduce the commercial value of the bird. Thankfully this is rarely practiced now.
The comb also serves as an indicator of the bird’s health. If it appears lighter or darker than usual or seems to be shrivelled or lopped, it is usually a sign of illness. Certainly it is a sign of whether a bird is in ‘good condition’ when observed at a show. The shape and colour of the comb carries a total of 5 points out of 100 in a judge’s evaluation. In addition, a bright red comb on a developing young female (pullet) normally means that the bird is ready to begin her laying cycle.
Types of Chicken Combs
The single comb is by far the most common of the comb types and the one that people think of when they think of a chicken’s head. The single comb is a moderately thin, fleshy formation of smooth soft surface texture, firmly attached from the beak along the top of the skull with a strong base. The top portion shows five or six rather deep serrations or distinct points, the middle points being higher than the back or front, forming a semi-oval shape when viewed from the side. The comb is always upright and much larger and thicker in males than in females. It may be lopped or upright in the female. This depends on the breed. The comb is divided into three sections: the front, the middle and that extending past the rear base of the skull, the posterior or blade.
One of the major problems with single combs is that the points tend to freeze and fall off in extremely cold weather. This does not normally affect the health of the bird but does drastically reduce their value as an exhibition bird. Many exhibitors protect their birds by covering the comb with petroleum jelly during times of extreme cold. The petroleum jelly insulates the comb and prevents freezing/frostbite. This is also something that a lot of chicken keepers do as a matter of course to protect their birds in extreme weather even if they are not exhibitors
The males of some breeds of chickens such as the Old English, Modern and American Games, are required to be ‘dubbed’ in order to be shown. These are all single comb breeds. Dubbing consists of the removal of the head appendages such as comb, wattles, and ear lobes. This is similar to the docking of tails on certain breeds of dogs. This procedure is usually conducted using surgical shears and takes place when the males are six months of age or older. These appendages do not grow back so it is only necessary to perform the procedure once on each bird.
The rose comb is a solid, broad and nearly flat comb on top. It is a low, fleshly comb that concludes in a well-developed tapering spike at the back. It may turn upward as in Hamburg breeds, be nearly horizontal as in Rose Comb Leghorn breeds, or follow the contour of the head as in Wyandotte breeds. The top surface of the main part should be slightly convex and studded with small rounded protuberances. The general shape varies in the different breeds.
The Strawberry is a low comb that is set well-forward. The shape and surface resemble the outer part of half a strawberry with the large end nearest to the beak of the chicken.
The cushion comb is a low, compact chicken comb of relatively small size, it should be quite smooth, possess no depressions or no spikes and not extend beyond the mid point of the skull.
The buttercup comb consists of a single blade arising at the juncture of the chicken’s head and beak, rising up and slightly back to the cup shaped crown, set squarely on the centre of the skull. The rim of the cup should bear an evenly spaced circle of points and be closed at the back. Points emerging from the centre of the cup are considered to be a serious defect.
The pea comb is a medium length, low comb, the top of which is marked with three low lengthwise ridges, the centre one being slightly higher than the outer ones, the top of which are either undulated or marked with small rounded serrations. This is a chicken breed characteristic found in Ameraucanas, Brahmas, Buckeyes, Cornish, Cubalayas and Sumatras.
V Shaped comb
The v shaped comb is formed of two well defined, hornlike sections joined at their base, as in Houdans, Polish, Crevecoeurs, La Fleche and Sultans.
Thus a chicken’s comb serves a myriad of purposes from an indicator of health and vitality to a cooling agent to an attraction to the opposite sex. Finally, it seems to add aesthetic value to the overall appearance of the chicken and a big, bright red comb signals that a bird is indeed the ‘cock of the walk’.