For more information, check out my articles How to Hatch Chicken Eggs in an Incubator and How to Care for Day Old Chicks.
Caring for Sick, Injured, or Weak Baby Poultry
Sometimes, no matter how careful we are, baby poultry are sick, injured or weak. Planning ahead for these little emergencies will give your puffballs a better chance to survive and thrive.
Prevention is the Best Medicine
Before you hatch eggs or order chicks online, make sure you have all the essentials ready for their arrival. All baby poultry need proper food, clean water, and a warm brooder (95 F for the first week, reducing by 5 degrees F each week until fully feathered out) that is free of drafts. Be sure there is room for the chicks to move away from the heat in case it is too warm. Use a water dish that is shallow enough that the chicks can’t drown or get stuck in the water.
Incubating Eggs ~ Clean and disinfect your incubator before starting a hatch. Use eggs that are free of debris, feces, or broken egg residue that can harbor bacteria. Don’t wash the eggs. This will remove the protective coating, making them more susceptible to bacteria. Keep the humidity and temps at the proper levels so chicks don’t have trouble hatching. Dirty eggs or overly humid conditions during incubation and after hatch can cause ‘mushy chick’ disease. (Keep reading for more info.)
Hatchery Chicks ~ Make sure the hatchery is certified Pullorum free. Try to choose a hatchery that is close to home. If you can pick up chicks at the hatchery, that’s even better. If they must be shipped, upgrade to express shipping if you can. The less time they spend in shipping, the better. Check all new hatchlings when they arrive to be sure they look healthy. Dip their beaks in water when you put them in the brooder to teach them to drink. Don’t dunk too deeply, you don’t want to get water in their nostrils. Check for signs of pasty butt. (Keep reading for more info.) Baby birds that have been shipped should be given sugar water or electrolytes in their water to help them recover from the stress of the trip.
Food ~ Use chick starter feed for most chicks and gamebird starter or meat bird feed for broiler chicks, turkeys, and water fowl. The starter feeds are specially formulated for their growth requirements. Meat bird feed may also be fed to chicks, turkeys, and waterfowl that have higher protein requirements (check the label to see if it is formulated for feeding from day 1). Make sure the feed is fresh and there is no mold or musty scent to it. Vitamin E breaks down in storage after about one month (faster in warm conditions), so if the feed is old you may see symptoms of a deficiency in the youngsters. Watch for problems with twisted necks affecting chicks or flopping over on their backs and waving legs in the air with ducklings. Administer drops of vitamin E if this happens, get fresh feed, and add a vitamin and electrolyte tablet or powder with vitamin E to their water.
Water ~ Use clean, fresh water that is not chlorinated and preferably hasn’t been treated with a water softener. For the first few days, put 2 or 3 tablespoons of sugar in each quart of water to give the little ones extra energy. Do not substitute honey because it can contain botulism spores that are fatal to young animals. I like to use an electrolyte tab in the chick water that contains vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and other nutrients. After the first few days you can give them plain water as long as they appear healthy.
Brooder and Bedding ~ Clean the brooder out thoroughly and disinfect it before introducing the babies. I use paper towels to line the bottom of the brooder for easy cleanup. You can put wood chips or pellets (pine) in the bottom of the brooder, but the chicks will sometimes try to eat them and they make a huge mess in the water dish. You will go through a lot of paper towels, so use the ones made from recycled paper and compost them to reduce the impact on our environment. Don’t use anything that is slippery (such as newspaper), which can cause spraddle leg in young chicks. This is caused when their feet slip, causing difficulty standing and can lead to permanent damage to the legs.
Heat ~ Many people use heat lamps and it is possible to use them safely. However, I prefer not to use them in my house and I often keep the baby birds inside for a week or two before moving them to the barn. I have used the Brinsea EcoGlow brooders with very good results, but mine no longer function. This winter I am using two seed starting mats and they are working perfectly. Check out my article on an inexpensive Redneck Brooder System if you are concerned about the safety of heat lamps. You may also use a 100 watt incandescent bulb to heat a small number of chicks if the temps aren’t too low. Use a thermometer to make sure the temps are close to ideal.
Handling ~ Always handle baby poultry with extreme care. Gently cup them in both hands to prevent broken bones from dropping or squeezing too hard. Children should be taught to handle the babies properly with adult supervision. Very young children don’t understand how badly they can hurt the little birds. Limit visits from friends and families and make sure they wash their hands before and after handling birds. You may need to decline visits from friends if they may bring bacteria or viruses from their own flock or wild birds.
Supplies ~ Just in case you have to deal with any problems once your baby birds arrive, it’s a great idea to have the following supplies on hand…
- Vitamin & Electrolyte tabs (in a pinch – 1 drop of molasses & 3 Tbs sugar in 1 quart water)
- Plain yogurt
- Medicine dropper (eye dropper)
- Small dish (can be a jar lid, thoroughly washed)
- Cotton swabs
- Antibiotic cream (without the pain relief meds added in)
- Stretch bandage (the disposable elastic, non-adhesive type)
- Antibiotics for oral administration (for a natural antibiotic use dried oregano)
Treating Sick, Injured, or Weak Chicks
Sometimes you can’t prevent problems. When ordering chicks, there may be a few that don’t recover from the 2 or 3 days spent in shipping. Hatching your own certainly doesn’t eliminate all potential problems either. So what should you do for baby poultry that aren’t thriving?
Weakness ~ Chicks that seem weak should be cared for quickly. Warm the little one up in your hands and feed it plain yogurt mixed with water from an eyedropper. Don’t force the liquid into their beak (unless it’s so weak it won’t take food at all), but rather drip very small amounts onto the end of the beak so the baby can tip its head back and swallow it. Be sure it stays warm, isn’t being pecked by the others, and continue feedings at least every 2 hours until it is able to get food and water on its own. If it begins to perk up, you can mix a pinch of chick starter feed into the yogurt mix and see if it will peck at the mix to eat. If the little one had a difficult hatch or is just a bit weak from shipping, but is otherwise healthy, this should get it through a rough patch.
Pasty Butt ~ Young poultry will sometimes have runny bowel movements that stick to their vent and fluffy little butts. If left unattended, this mess can paste over the vent entirely and prevent them from pooping. This will kill a chick if the feces is not gently cleaned with warm water and a cloth or cotton swab. Be very careful not to tear their delicate skin while cleaning them. Feed these babies some yogurt mixed with water as you would a weak chick, as described above. This will introduce beneficial bacteria to their digestive system and help eliminate the runny droppings.
Mushy Chick ~ This is a result of an infection starting in the yok sac or the unhealed naval of the chick and is almost always fatal. You can attempt to administer antibiotics, but if the chicks do survive they are unlikely to thrive. It is much better to prevent the problem in the first place with proper incubation methods. (Refer to section on Incubating eggs, above.) Symptoms include: naval area looks infected, the abdomen is swollen and/or dark blue, a bad smell coming from navel, and chick seems tired and doesn’t eat. These little ones should be removed from the brooder immediately to prevent spread of the disease. Put them in a separate brooder and disinfect any surface they may have touched. Wash your hands thoroughly each time you handle them, because the bacteria may also cause infections in people.
Coccidiosis ~ If you are concerned about coccidiosis, give your chicks a medicated feed or have them vaccinated at the hatchery. This disease is caused by parasites that are common in soil. Symptoms include bloody diarrhea and a bloody vent. It spreads quickly through the feces in their brooder, so remove any sick chicks and disinfect immediately. Give them feed containing a coccidiostat (as long as they did not receive a vaccine for coccidiosis) and keep water and brooder clean. Keeping a healthly flock, rotating pasture, vaccinating or feeding medicated chick starter, and keeping chicks separate from adults will help prevent problems. Young birds may develop resistence to local cocci populations and some chicken keepers prefer to encourage good health for resistance, rather than using medications.
Vitamin & Mineral Deficiencies ~ There are too many possibilities to mention here, but most likely if you are feeding a fresh, balanced chick starter, the baby birds are getting all of the nutrients that they need. If you aren’t sure, you may feed them a mashed boiled egg (remove shell). If they have trouble eating this, mix with enough water to make a thin gruel and feed with an eyedropper. Mixing a little bit of yogurt in with the egg will introduce beneficial bacteria to the gut and that may help too. For more information about deficiencies, check out this website…The Merck Veterinary Manual.
Injuries ~ Unfortunately, very young poultry are quite susceptible to injuries if they are not in a safe environment. Do your best to prevent injuries because it is very difficult to treat them once they occur. If a chick is injured, remove it from the brooder to prevent picking from its hatch mates. Small cuts, scrapes and pecks can be treated with antibiotic cream. Be sure that the injured chick is kept warm and has food and water available. When it has healed, put it back in with the others, but watch to make sure that they don’t gang up on the ‘newbie.’ If they do, put up a small see-through barrier for a while so they get used to each other again and then reintroduce. In instances where bones are broken or there are other internal injuries, home treatment is very difficult. Small splints can be fashioned from cotton swabs and small strips of ace bandages, but I haven’t had luck with these arrangements. If you do not have time to care for the chick and you don’t wish to seek veterinary attention, it might be best to put the chick down.
Putting a Chick Down ~ Sometimes it is necessary to euthanize a chick. If you wish to take it to a veterinary who specializes in bird care, you have that option. When I have the unfortunate task of putting down a sick chick, I use the same method I use for processing chickens…one clean strike of a hatchet to decapitate the bird and end its life quickly. It isn’t pretty and it isn’t easy for me to do. However, I have had to do this on a number of occassions and I know that it ended their suffering.