Checking your chicken’s head will give you vital information about its health
There are ways to avoid chicken hazards and one of these is to check the head daily. The colour of the comb (which may be a single comb or one of the other variations), the wattles (under the beak) and the face is bright red in an adult healthy chicken due to the very good blood supply. A teenage chicken may have a small and paler comb, but once puberty kicks in, this changes to the adult version. Remember that some breeds have a dark purple comb as a normal attribute.
Changes in the comb colour include paleness which indicates a lack of red blood cells (anaemia) commonly caused by the hazard of a mite infestation. In ill health, the comb may shrink and change shape a little, but some breeds naturally have a large single comb which flops over in the females. Sometimes, black spots can be seen on the comb – this will be dried blood as the comb bleeds freely if scratched, but heals quickly. A yellowish comb indicates jaundice and a visit to your vet immediately is needed; the prognosis for jaundice (liver malfunction) is not good in chickens.
If a hen gets purple patches on an otherwise red comb, say when she is picked up or stressed somehow, this indicates a circulation problem which could be a heart condition. Medication can help this, but with the heavy breeds, try not to let them get fat since obesity in any animal can lead to heart conditions.
If one side of the face is white and the other red, this is a fungal infection, usually picked up from a scratch in the skin: fungal spores remain in wood for several years, so a secondhand hen house will need good disinfection to avoid this hazard. The infection is irritating to the hen and can be cured with an anti-fungal cream.
The beak is made of keratin, like their claws, and grows continuously as it wears away. The top beak needs to fit well just over the bottom beak as this enables the hen to pick up small insects or pieces of food precisely. If the top beak overgrows, usually due to the fact that it does not quite engage with the bottom beak, this can be filed down to the correct shape. A deformity is a crossed beak which tends to be inherited, so check for this on purchase. A crossed beak makes eating quite difficult for a hen thereby affecting her welfare.
Between the beak and the eye is the large sinus. This should be sunken in a healthy hen but if there is any respiratory problem or even excess ammonia in the hut, this may swell and contain pus. Chicken pus goes hard very quickly, thus making it difficult to remove. The eyes can become infected by bacteria with the eyelids swelling and maybe foam in the corner of the eyes. Mycoplasma is a very common respiratory disease, extremely contagious and does not get better on its own, producing large amounts of mucus affecting breathing and blocking the nostrils (top of the beak), so your vet needs to be consulted. Foam in the eyes is also seen if a different brand of livestock shavings is used (e.g. at a show) and the hen is allergic to it.
Behind the eye is the straight ear canal which is covered with short contour feathers to prevent dust and foreign bodies from entering. Occasionally, infection can set in here causing irritation and solid pus: your vet can provide ear drops to treat this condition as these drops contain pain relief and antibiotic.
If you have a cockerel, you may find that the feathers on the back of the head of a hen are missing or broken – this is where he holds on when he is mating and once the breeding season has finished, these feathers will grow back. The wattles of cockerels can become damaged or torn if they have been sparring with another cockerel, through a fence or snagged on a fence. The wattles heal quickly but exhibiting a chicken with damaged wattles will reduce the chances of that one winning.