Bird Crests, Casques, and Combs: Differences and Examples

knobbed hornbill (Rhyticeros cassidix) close up
© Kuttelvaserova Stuchelova/Shutterstock.com

Written by Deniz Martinez

Published: December 22, 2023

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Many birds have interesting structures on top of their heads. These are classified into three main types: crests, casques, and combs. Read on to find out what each is made of, what birds have them, and what they use them for. Then find out what bird has a unique head ornament that does not fit into any of these categories!

What Are Bird Crests?

A crest, sometimes also called a crown, is a group of semiplume feathers. These feathers sit on top of the head and may extend down the neck and upper back. Some birds can raise and lower these crests at will. Depending on the species, birds may use their crests for display, mate attraction, communication, and defense.

There are many different kinds of birds with crests. Some well-known examples include:

Cockatoos (Family Cacatuidae)

PINK COCKATOO OR MAJOR MITCHELL'S COCKATOO cacatua leadbeateri, ADULT, CLOSE-UP OF HEAD

Cockatoos are mostly found in Australasia, along with parts of Indonesia and the Philippines.

©slowmotiongli/Shutterstock.com

Crowned Cranes (Balearica spp.)

black crowned crane

Both species of crowned cranes are native to

Africa

.

©H. Zell / CC BY-SA 3.0 – Original / License

Crowned Pigeons (Goura spp.)

Close up side profile portrait of blue Victoria crowned pigeon (Goura), low angle view

All four species of crowned pigeons are endemic to New Guinea and surrounding islands.

©Breaking The Walls/Shutterstock.com

Royal Flycatchers (Onychorhynchus spp.)

Amazonian Royal Flycatcher

Royal flycatchers are native to the Neotropical Americas.

©Tiny Turkey/Shutterstock.com

Turacos (Family Musophagidae)

Fischer's Turaco, tauraco corythaix fischeri, Adult with nice Colors

Turacos are a family of frugivorous birds native to Africa.

©slowmotiongli/Shutterstock.com

What Are Bird Casques?

A casque, sometimes also called a helmet or horn, is a bony projection of the skull or upper mandible covered with a layer of cornified skin. In cassowaries (see below), the casque covers a foamy collagen layer over the bone. Depending on the species, casques may serve a variety of purposes, including as a visual symbol of sex, age, and/or social status; beak reinforcement; thermoregulation; a resonance chamber to enhance calls; and combat.

Casques are found in six different kinds of birds:

Cassowaries (Casuarius spp.)

Southern cassowary closeup portrait - head detail

All three species of cassowaries are flightless and endemic to tropical forests of Australasia.

©Honza123/Shutterstock.com

Helmeted Curassows (Pauxi spp.)

Helmeted Curassow (Pauxi pauxi) close-up profile

All three species of helmeted curassows are native to South America.

©Jeff W. Jarrett/Shutterstock.com

Helmeted Guineafowl (Numida meleagris)

Helmeted Guineafowl, Pilanesberg National Park, South Africa

The helmeted guineafowl is native to Africa but has been widely introduced as a domesticated species to other parts of the world.

©Photography Phor Phun/Shutterstock.com

Hornbills (Family Bucerotidae)

Rhinoceros Hornbill shot at Taiping Perak Malaysia

Hornbills are a large family of birds that range across parts of Sub-Sahara Africa, Arabia, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.

©Jamil Bin Mat Isa/Shutterstock.com

Horned Guan (Oreophasis derbianus)

Horned Guan, Oreophasis derbianus, rare bird from Maxico and Guatemala. Big black bird with red crest. Birdwatching in Central America.

The horned guan is native to montane forests in southeastern Mexico and Guatemala.

©Ondrej Prosicky/Shutterstock.com

Maleo (Macrocephalon maleo)

This image shows a close up, profile view of a wild maleo (Macrocephalon maleo) bird.

The maleo is endemic to the Indonesian islands of Sulawesi and Buton.

©GypsyPictureShow/Shutterstock.com

What Are Bird Combs?

A comb, sometimes also called a cockscomb, is a fleshy growth on top of the head. Only gallinaceous birds have combs, and the feature is usually larger in males (cocks or roosters) than in females (hens). Similar fleshy growths such as wattles, snoods, beards, and earlobes are collectively called caruncles. These brightly colored parts can be indicators of health and vigor and used to attract mates.

Combs are found in:

Wild Junglefowl (Gallus spp.)

Sri Lankan Junglefowl (Gallus lafayettii), male, cock, Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Sri Lanka.

Junglefowl are native to parts of South and Southeast Asia.

©tony mills/Shutterstock.com

Domestic Chickens (Gallus domesticus breeds)

Portrait of a beautiful colorful crowing rooster with a bright red comb isolated on a green summer background.Countryside concept with domestic singing bird close up on the farm. Copy space for text

Domesticated chicken breeds derive from wild junglefowl.

©Wizard Goodvin/Shutterstock.com

What Is on the Head of a Horned Screamer?

A horned screamer in Barú, Colombia.

Horned screamers are native to wetlands of northern South America and are sometimes called the unicorns of the bird world.

©Nessa_Perez/Shutterstock.com

Both male and female horned screamers (Anhima cornuta) have a head ornament that is neither a crest, casque, or comb. It is also not derived from a feather. Rather, the “horn” on its head is actually a cornified spine. This structure is unique in the bird world! This spine grows continuously but usually doesn’t grow longer than 6 in (15 cm) before breaking off at the tip. Since it is not firmly attached to the skull, it also sways whenever the bird shakes its head. Scientists still are not sure what purpose it serves!

Summary of Crests, Casques, and Combs: Differences and Examples

Head Structure TypeCompositionPossible UsesBirds With This Feature
crest (aka crown)group of semiplume feathersdisplay, mate attraction, communication, defensefound in many birds; examples include cockatoos, crowned pigeons, crowned cranes, royal flycatchers, turacos
casque (aka helmet or horn)bony projection over upper mandible or skull covered with cornified skinvisual symbol of sex, age, and/or social status; beak reinforcement; thermoregulation; resonance chamber to enhance calls; combatcassowaries, hornbills, helmeted curassows, helmeted guineafowl, horned guan, maleo
comb (aka cockscomb)fleshy growthindicator of health & vigor; mate attractionwild junglefowl and domestic chickens
spine (aka horn)cornified spinelike structureunknownunique to the horned screamer
SOURCES: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Stettenheim (2015)


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About the Author

Deniz Martinez is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on biogeography, ornithology, and mammalogy. Deniz has been researching, teaching, and writing about animals for over 10 years and holds both an MS degree from American Public University earned in 2016 and an MA degree from Lindenwood University earned in 2022. A resident of Pennsylvania, Deniz also runs Art History Animalia, a website and associated social media dedicated to investigating intersections of natural history with art & visual culture history via exploring animal iconography.

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