Anatomy of a Chicken. From Tip to Tail.

The anatomy of a chicken is one of the first things you should learn about your hens when you first get them. You’ll understand your birds better and when someone points to something weird on it and asks “What’s that??” you’ll know the answer. 

A black copper marans hen stands on a marble cake pedestal.

A few days ago 2 neighbour kids came to my door asking me where they could get a chick. One chick. They figured they could share it between them and also figured if anyone knew where one could procure such a thing it would be me. 

Sadly for the girls I had to inform them that chickens are social animals and one little chick was likely to die of loneliness. They were quite distraught over this bit of news but accepted it.

What I didn’t mention was the fact that chickens also get maggots up their anuses. I probably should have led with that to squash any further chicken hopes.

They are fun, they are cute, they are entertaining, but chickens are also, you know, weird, complicated living creatures not unlike men. Or sourdough starter.

If you’re going to have chickens, you should know a few things about their unique physical features.

Chicken Combs

There are a whack of different chicken combs including the single comb, buttercup comb, strawberry comb, rose comb and pea comb. 

The breeds I have had have either topped their heads with a single comb or a pea comb so we’ll look at those. 

As an aside, I find combs to be moderately repulsive. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that they’re an organ. You know, like a kidney or a heart.

The chicken’s comb is considered an organ because it has such a vital function. With no sweat glands, chickens regulate their body temperature through their combs.

The head of a Rhode Island Red chicken shows a classic single comb, beside a mixed breed showing a pea comb.

Norma (Rhode Island Red) with her single comb.     Cuddles (mixed breed) with her pea comb.

Single comb – Single combs are the most common. They’re a series of spikes that run from the chicken’s beak to the back of their head.

Pea comb – Pea combs are a series of small, short bumps. It can be a single row of bumps, or 3 rows side by side.  

Single Combs are dominant in Rhode Island Reds and Pea Combs are often seen in Ameraucana or Araucanas.  

A grown chicken’s comb should be red. If it isn’t, and looks pale, you have an unwell chicken.

CHICKEN HEALTH

A pale chicken comb could be a sign of any of these conditions:

  • internal parasites (too many worms in them)
  • mites
  • heat exhaustion
  • moulting

Of all those things the only thing you don’t have to worry about is moulting. If your chicken has a pale comb but isn’t moulting and losing feathers there’s something wrong and you’d better figure it out.

Chicken Wattles 

Just like combs, wattles come in a ranges of sizes from almost non existent to huge, flappy things.

 

A Rhode Island Red hen shows long, bright red wattles hanging down from her mouth.

 

Wattles aren’t just for laughing at.  Blood flow from the comb to the wattle is what helps regulate the chicken’s temperature to keep it cool in the heat.

 

Muffs & Beards

Muffs (around the cheeks) and beards (on the front of the neck) don’t seem to have any cool purpose or super-power. They’re like press on nails; they’re just decorative.

A white Splash coloured Olive Egger with a full muff and beard.

Baby has a beard.

Muffs and beards are seen on pure bred Ameraucana’s and sometimes Ameraucana crosses like Olive Eggers or Easter Eggers.

Do Chickens Have Earlobes?

Don’t be ridiculous. Of course they do. What else would they tug at the end of their comedy sketch show?

Earlobes are a good indication of what colour eggs your chicken will lay. The gene that’s responsible for the colour of the earlobe is also responsible for the colour of the egg.

So.  A chicken with white earlobes lays white eggs.  A chicken with dark earlobes lays brown eggs. And a chicken with green earlobes will … you guessed it … lay eggs that taste a bit off.  Just kidding. Green earlobes = green eggs.  Ditto for blue.

There’s no nutritional difference or taste difference between white, brown, blue or green eggs.

The chicken’s ear is hidden in behind a tuft of feathers.

A Blue Copper Marans feathered ear and red earlobe, standing in front of a wood fence with

 

Beaks

Still with the whole chickens have no sweat glands thing so they need other ways to cool down, comes the beak.

Birds will open their beaks and pant just like a dog to cool down. Doing this, in combination with the work of those combs and wattles is their main defence against heat.

A black chicken with copper feathers around its neck pants to cool down in the summertime heat.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, keeping cool is VERY important for chickens. I’m always asked about what I do with my chickens to protect them from the cold, but the cold doesn’t really bother chickens, what with being covered in a duvet all year long.

The heat on the other hand will kill them quickly. 

If your chicken is obviously in distress from the heat (panting vigorously, lethargic, slumped looking with a pale comb) you need to cool them down right away. Bring them inside an air conditioned house, give them cold treats like frozen grapes or hold them in a bucket of cool water to drop their body temperature.

Feathers

The duvet of feathers is what helps keeps the chicken warm in winter. In the cold months hens will fluff up their feathers creating more air pockets in between each feather that helps release and trap hot air from their bodies.

This is why chickens should NOT wear stupid sweaters.  I wrote a whole post on why chickens shouldn’t wear sweaters a while ago after chicken sweaters became a “thing” on Pinterest. 

 

A birds lays down in straw and spreads its wings out to bask in the sun in spring.

In the spring, they love the heat after months of cold and snow chickens will sun themselves by fluffing up their feathers and spreading out their wings to “catch” the heat and bask in it.

Chickens lose all of their feathers in the fall and grow new ones so their winter duvets are brand new, perfect and fluffy.

 

Fingers holding back other feathers to reveal pin feathers growing out of chicken.

The new feathers that come in are called pin feathers. You should avoid touching the chicken where it has pin feathers coming in because it can be painful for them.

New pin feathers growing on a moulting chicken look like quills.

 

The Crop

When chickens eat, the food they eat for the day is stored in their crop.  This sac at the very front and bottom of the chickens chest gets bigger and bigger as the day goes on and the chicken fills it more and more with food.

You can feel it with your fingers and you can even feel the food inside. If they’ve eaten whole grains it will feel rough and grainy.

 

A chicken opens its mouth up wide to dislodge something from its neck into its crop.

During the night when the chicken sleeps, the food moves from the crop to the chicken’s gizzard where it’s “chewed”.  Chicken don’t have teeth, so they eat small pebbles and stones, which they store in their gizzard.  These stones in their gizzard, “chew” up their food.

CHICKEN HEALTH

If you can smell something horrific in your chicken’s mouth it could sour crop or an impacted crop, both of which can be deadly. I know. I lost my chicken Sweetie to an impacted crop.

If you’re curious and not squeamish, I performed a necropsy on her to confirm what her cause of death was. You can see in this post. 

Chicken Feet

Like earlobes, chickens have a variety of coloured feet and legs, but they don’t necessarily correspond to what colour eggs they lay.

 

Yellow shanked chicken legs stepping through straw and dirt.

The majority of chickens have bare yellow or white legs and feet, but certain breeds have slate (Ameraucana),  green (Auracana) or black legs (Sumatra). There are other colours, too, those are just the most popular.

Marans, a breed originally from France, can have slate or black legs.

The slate/black legs of a young black Ameraucana.

Ameraucana legs

Chicken legs (O.K., they’re really called shanks) can also be feathered. Such is the case with Cochins and Black Copper Marans.

Black Scaly legs belonging to a Black copper marans with feathered shanks.

CHICKEN HEALTH

You should routinely check the soles of your chicken’s feet. They’re prone to something called bumblefoot which happens when the sole is injured and they get a bacterial infection. That infection can spread and death follows. 

Death often follows anything going wrong with a chicken’s health. Which makes the fact that they can survive being half ripped apart by a raccoon so weird.

Oil Gland

Even if you’ve owned chickens for a long time you might not know about this weird little nubby thing.

Feathers pulled back from the oil gland at the base of a chicken's tail.

Yup. It’s gross. This oil glad, that protrudes from the base of the chickens tail sticks up like a little finger. It secretes oil that the chicken uses for preening.

 

The oil gland on a chicken stands up from the base of the tail for preening.

If you pay attention you’ll notice your chicken constantly turning it’s head around and gathering oil from this bump when it’s cleaning itself.

The Vent

The vent is the workhorse of the chicken.  It’s the star of the show.  The vent does it all.  Poops, pees, lays an egg.  It all comes out of the same place.  The vent.  Think of it as the chicken Vaganus.

 

A red chicken looks back at its own vent.

It should be clean(ish), free of poop not smelly. I mean, don’t go sticking your nose in there, but if it smells like yeast around your chicken your  hen could have vent gleet. 

A vent that has poop stick in the feathers around it could ALSO end in death. I know. It just never ends does it? Because poop attracts flies and flies lay maggots. This life threatening condition is known as flystrike.

I’ve had to deal with flystrike a couple of times and if you think cleaning your chicken’s bum of poop is horrifying, you’d better do it RIGHT NOW, because  you are definitely NOT ready to deal with Flystrike. 

 

An up close look at a chicken's vent, the hole that does everything.

 

The Tail 

Roosters have plumed pretty ones, hens are smaller are less impressive.

BOTH have the polarizing “pope’s nose”.

A mixed breed chicken seen from the back, bending down to peck at something in new, white pine shavings.

The pope’s nose is the small, roundish, fatty disk that the long tail feathers sprout out of. It was my father’s favourite part of the chicken for eating. 

I just kind of ignore it.

One of the neighbour kids fathers cycled past me today, did a U turn and came back to thank me for advising them against chickens.

They were last seen researching rabbits.
 

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Anatomy of a Chicken. From Tip to Tail.
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