The Chicken’s Comb

By Dave Anderson, President

American Poultry Association

A comb is defined as a fleshy protuberance on top of the head of a fowl, larger on the male of a fowl, larger on the male than the female. The American Poultry Association recognizes several forms or shapes of combs including buttercup, cushion, pea, rose, single, strawberry, v-shaped, and walnut. There are actually two different forms of rose comb.

Combs are often a distinguishing characteristic that helps identify various breeds and varieties of chickens. For instance, the buttercup comb defines the Buttercup breed and the walnut comb is unique to the Silkie breed. In some breeds such as Leghorns and Rhode Island Reds, there are both single comb and rose comb varieties. In addition, the color of the comb varies from bright red to purple, again depending upon the breed.

The scientific classification of chicken is Gallus domesticus. It includes the Latin word “gallus,” which means comb. The first question that comes to mind is why chickens have combs. As near as I can tell, there are two primary reasons. The first is that they act as a cooling agent for the birds. Chickens do not sweat to provide cooling. Instead, birds are cooled by blood that flows through the comb and wattles. As the warm blood circulates through the comb and other head appendages, it is cooled and returns to the interior portion of the body. Thus the temperature of the chicken is lowered in hot weather. The second reason is that the large combs on males attract females – chickens can detect color and are very attracted to red.

The single comb is by far the most common of the comb types and the one most often seen by the general public. Virtually all commercially available pictures or illustrations (cups, calendars, etc.) of chickens depict this type of comb. It consists of a thin, fleshy formation of smooth, soft surface texture, firmly attached to the head from the beak along the top of the skull. The top of the comb contains several (normally five or six) rather deep serrations or distinct points.

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.

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 dockin 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.

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 lif,e which would reduce the commercial value of the bird. I believe this practice is no longer in vogue.

Throughout history cock’s combs have been thought to have mysterious powers including medicinal uses. Currently, there is an FDA approved drug for the treatment of facial wrinkles and folds. This drug comes from the combs of specially bred roosters.

The comb also serves as an indicator of the bird’s health. If it appears lighter or darker than usual or seems to be shriveled or lopped, it is usually a sign of illness. Certainly it is a sign of a thrifty bird in “good condition” when observed at a show. The shape and color 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.

Thus a comb serves a myriad of purposes from an indicator of health and vitality to a cooling agent to an attraction to the opposite sex. It can even be used as an aid to humans in many forms. Finally, it seems to add aesthetic value to the overall appearance of the chicken and a big, bright red comb announces that a bird is indeed “cock of the walk.”

To learn more about the APA please visit their website at www.amerpoultryassn. com or contact the APA secretary, Pat Horstman, (724) 729-3459 or e-mail secretaryapa@yahoo.com.

Different Types of
Standard Male Combs

Comb: The fleshy protuberance on top of the head of a fowl, larger on the male than the female. Of various forms and variations of forms in different breeds, usually red in color; purple in Sumatras, Birchen and Brown Red Modern Games and Silkies, purplish-red in Seabrights.

Single: A moderately thin, fleshy formation of smooth soft surface texture, firmly attached from the beak along the top of skull with a strong base, the top portion showing five or six rather deep serrations or distinct points, the middle points being higher than the anterior or posterior, forming a semi-oval when viewed in profile. The comb always erect and much larger and thicker in male than female; may be lopped or erect in female, depending on breed. The comb is divided into three sections, the front or anterior, the middle, and that extending past the rear base of the skull, the posterior or blade, (Fig. 12).

Rose: A solid, broad, nearly flat on top, low fleshly comb, terminating in a well developed tapering spike, which may turn upward as in Hamburgs; is nearly horizontal as in Rose Comb Leghorns; or follow the contour of the head in Wyandottes. Top surface of the main part should be slightly convex and studded with small rounded protuberances. General shape varies in different breeds (Fig. 13).

Pea: A medium length, low comb, the top of which is marked with three low lengthwise ridges, the center one slightly higher than the outer ones, the top of which are either undulated or marked with small rounded serrations, (Fig. 14); a breed characteristic found in Ameraucanas, Brahmas, Buckeyes, Cornish, Cubalayas and Sumatras.

V-Shaped: A comb formed of two well defined, hornlike sections joined at their base, as in Houdans, Polish, Crevecoeurs, La Fleche and Sultans, (Fig. 15).

Cushion: A low, compact 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, (Fig. 16).

Buttercup: Consists of a single blade arising at the juncture of the head and beak rising up and slightly back to the cup shaped crown, set squarely on the center of the skull. The rim of the cup shall bear an evenly spaced circle of points and be closed at the back. Points emerging from the center of the cup are a serious defect, (Fig. 17).

Strawberry: A low set, compact comb of somewhat egg shape with the larger portion forward and the rear extending no further than the midpoint of the skull, (Fig. 18).

Silkie: An almost round, somewhat lumpy comb, inclined to be greater in width than length; covered with small corrugations on top and crossed with a narrow, transverse indentation slightly to front of the middle of comb. Sometimes two or three small rear points hidden by crest, others without points. Generally considered to be genetically a rose comb, changed by rose comb plus crest.

Walnut: A solid, moderately broad comb resulting from the combination of two dominant alleles for the Rose (R) and Pea (P) comb, with a surface that shows some furrowing reminiscent of a walnut half.



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