How to Spot Problems of Newly Hatched Chicks

The starting point in a chick’s life is pipping, the moment that a chick breaks through the shell and begins its entrance into the world. A healthy hatchling innately knows exactly what to do, and you shouldn’t interfere with the program.

The moment for you to step in is immediately after hatching, when you have a role in preventing four common problems of the newly hatched, which are chick malformations, spraddle legs, belly button infections, and pasty vents.

Reasons for chick malformations

After waiting with excitement for your chicks to hatch, your heart sinks when you see a malformed chick emerge. What could have gone wrong? You may not have been able to prevent it. Even under ideal conditions, approximately one out of 250 chicks hatched will have a deformity.

You may not be able to help an abnormal chick after it’s hatched, but you can correct incubator settings and possibly flock nutrition to avoid some deformities next time you set eggs to hatch (refer to the previous section).

Common Chick Malformations and Causes
Malformation Possible Causes
Beak abnormalities, such as crossed beak, parrot beak, or short upper beak Genetic trait
Poor hen nutrition
Exposure to pesticide
Hatching eggs exposed to near freezing temperatures
Small or missing eye(s) High temperature during incubation
Exposed brain High temperature during early incubation
Intestines outside of abdomen High temperature during mid-incubation
Hatching eggs exposed to near freezing temperatures
Crooked (wry) neck Genetic trait
Poor hen nutrition
Crooked toes Poor hen nutrition
Genetic trait

Chick malformations with nutritional causes were much more common back when complete commercial diets weren’t available and flock keepers had to prepare their own homemade chicken feed. Breeder hens fed a complete commercial layer diet rarely produce chicks with malformations related to nutritional deficiencies, such as lack of B vitamins or zinc.

Finding many malformations in batches of hatchlings calls for an investigation into the vitamin and mineral content of the parent flock’s diet.

Most malformed chicks have a poor chance of becoming healthy, productive members of a backyard flock. Many, but not all chick malformations can be inherited traits, so malformed chicks who survive should not be used for breeding because they can pass on the trait to future generations. For these reasons, euthanizing a malformed chick is justifiable, if done humanely.

Straightening spraddled legs

Although most chick malformations aren’t correctable, one very common abnormality of newly hatched chicks called spraddle leg responds very well to treatment. You can create the problem of spraddle leg by allowing chicks to hatch on surfaces that are too smooth — newspaper or cardboard are the common culprits.

A chick can’t get traction to stand and walk on a slick floor, and as a result, the legs splay outward. Other than the odd pose, the chick looks alert and acts normally; however, the chick won’t get better and be able to walk without your help. Here’s how you do it:

  1. Place the chick on a surface with more texture so that the chick can get a grip with its feet.

    Straw, shavings, and wire mesh are good choices.

  2. Bring the legs back together in a normal position using a bandage between the legs.

    A three-quarter inch adhesive bandage is perfect for the job. Cut the bandage lengthwise down the middle. Place the pad of the bandage between the legs, and then wrap the sticky ends of the bandage around each leg just above the foot. Cloth bandage tape, masking tape, or a piece of yarn work as well.

  3. Leave the bandage on for two days.

    Usually, you can leave the bandaged chick in the brooder with the hatch mates during this time. The other chicks will encourage the bandaged chick to move around and get stronger.

  4. After two days, remove the bandage and see if the chick can walk normally.

    If not, reapply a bandage for two more days. A chick that isn’t walking normally at four days of age is unlikely to improve, so unfortunately, you should euthanize that chick to prevent the suffering that lies ahead.

    [Credit: Illustration by Barbara Frake]
    Credit: Illustration by Barbara Frake

Belly-button problems and causes

If your incubator is set in the Goldilocks zone — not too warm, not too hot, humidity and ventilation just right — your chicks will either hatch with properly healed navels, or the navels will finish closing up in the first hour or so after hatching, as the chick dries off and fluffs up. Poorly healed navels are a sign that conditions in the incubator weren’t ideal.

Chick Belly-Button Problems and Causes
Problem Possible Causes
Poorly closed navels High humidity during incubation
Low temperature during the last few days of incubation
Navels with a string of dried tissue attached Low temperature during incubation
Bloody navels or navels that look like black buttons High temperature during incubation
Blood on eggshells or hatcher trays High temperature during incubation

An unhealed navel leaves the door open for bacteria from the environment to invade and infect a chick. If you hatched a batch of chicks that had many unhealed navels, be obsessive about cleanliness in the brooder in order to prevent infections.

Unpasting a pasty vent

Just like grown-up birds, chicks with diarrhea have messy vents. Watery droppings accumulate around the vent, and the caked-up poop may even plug the opening. You may even see the back end of the chick bulge with the pressure of the backed-up poop.

Pasty vent is rare in chicks raised by momma hen, but it’s a common condition in artificially incubated and brooded chicks. With some TLC from you, most chicks with pasty vent can survive.

A pasty vent isn’t a stand-alone disease; it’s a sign, telling you something is wrong in the brooder where you keep your baby chicks. Chilling or overheating is the most common cause of pasty vent, but viral or bacterial infections or poor diet can trigger it, too.

After adjusting the temperature in the brooder area to 90–95 degrees Fahrenheit (32–35 degrees Celsius), here are the steps for dealing with a chick with a pasty vent:

  1. Soak the pasted-up behind in warm, clean water for a minute or two to soften the gunk.

    Do this in a warm, nondrafty place to avoid chilling the chick. Use clean water as warm as you would bathe in. Don’t soak the whole chick — just the butt.

  2. Gently peel away the caked droppings.

    It’s okay if a few down feathers come with the lump. If the dried poop is still very hard to remove, soak again.

  3. Apply a little vegetable oil or mineral oil to the vent area.

    Don’t use diaper rash cream containing zinc or other remedies you wouldn’t want the other chicks to eat, because they will pick at it! Promptly put the chick back in the brooder to warm up. Keep an eye on the chick because you may need to separate the chick from the others if they pick at the vent area.

  4. Keep chlorinated water in the chick waterer.

    Doing so may limit spread of an infection in the group of chicks through the water.

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