Chickens have what we call ‘combs’ and ‘wattles’ adorning their faces. The wattles hang from the bottom of the beak and the comb adorns the top of the bird’s head. Not all chickens have both combs and wattles… In fact, wattles are often absent in bearded varieties (like some Easter Eggers, Silkies, Polishes and Crevecoeurs). Also, some chickens have some pretty unique comb variations. However, though they may appear a little strange at first, combs and wattles are really neat and can also tell us a lot about chicken health. In this article, I will be explaining more about chicken combs and wattles…
The Purpose of Combs & Wattles
Chickens originated in warm, humid climates. Similar to an Elephant’s ears, it is speculated by bird biologists that the comb and set of wattles adorning the chicken’s head allows the blood to come in close proximity of the air, thus reducing the bird’s body temperature… Combs are also quite eye-catching and a big comb and a long pair of wattles can make the cock look bigger than he is. This would, of course, intimidate rivals.
Different types of Combs
There are many different kinds of combs. Silkies have ‘Walnut’ combs. Polishes, Sultans and Crevecoeurs have ‘V’ combs (also called horns). Welsummers, Australorps, Turkens, Dorkings, Belgian d’Uccle Bantams and Sussexes have single combs. Easter Eggers, Faverolles and Ameracaunas have pea combs. Some breeds come in multiple different comb variations. In fact, Wyandottes, Minorcas, Nankin bantams and Leghorns come in either single-combed or rose combed.
Seasonal Comb & Wattle Growth & Shrinkage
Many say that you can determine a chicken’s age by the size of its comb and wattles… this is only partially true. While combs and wattles continue to grow throughout chickens’ lives (making them commonly bigger with age), it is not quite so simple. Chickens’ combs and wattles actually ‘shrink’ and ‘fill out’ seasonally… What?! Yep! Below, I will be explaining how and why it works…
How it Works:
Seasonal comb/wattle growth is controlled by hormone production. In fact, the very same hormones that tell chickens to reproduce also control seasonal comb/wattle growth. The production of reproductive hormones (in chickens) is increased by light exposure. However, when chickens sense little light, other hormones are produced that reduce reproductive activity. This system encourages the chickens’ bodies to reproduce when more light is present and go partially ‘dormant’ and reproduce less when less light is present.
To put this into perspective, chickens often have fuller, larger wattles in spring/summer (when daylight cycles are the longest) and smaller ones in fall/winter (when daylight cycles are the shortest). Comb/wattle size and color can also be a good indicator of a laying hen vs a non-laying one or a healthy hen vs an unhealthy one.
Contrary to popular myth, temperature is not what tells a hen to lay more in spring/summer and less in fall/winter. Though combs and wattles may aid in temperature regulation, temperature is not the direct cause of comb and wattle size and growth.
Chickens have what is called a ‘pineal gland’. It sits beneath a thin section of skull between the chicken’s eyes. The pineal gland senses how much daylight is in the day (i.e. photoperiod) and both directly (via the production of melatonin) and indirectly (singing signals to other hormone-producing parts of the bird’s body) controls the production of reproductive hormones accordingly. This means: more light = more reproductive hormones and less light = more of different hormones that reduce productivity. Contrary to popular myth, as I have recently found, light that enters the retina does not solely effect egg-laying cycles (if it does to a degree, chickens do not depend on light sensed through the retina). Rather, it is the light is sensed directly by the pineal gland.
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