The Chick Who Can’t Stand Up

The development of spraddle-leg in one or more of a clutch of otherwise happy and healthy nestlings is an event that most bird breeders go through at some point. Everything seems to be going fine until the infants reach the weight bearing stage. They are properly nourished and developing at an incredible pace. The breeder then notices that one or more of the babies are not rising up to beg for food, but are instead lying at the bottom of the nest box, one leg extended out to the right and the other to the left. This divergence from normal at the hip joint is known as spraddle legs.

The unfortunate aspect of this revelation is that the affected chick is otherwise healthy and plump. To fill its open mouth, the parent birds reach down between the bobbing heads of its clutchmates. The spraddle legged bird would not survive the fledgling stage in the wild unless rescued by a compassionate breeder. Without a perch to sleep on, the maiden flight would very certainly end in catastrophe. The bird’s predicament is analogous to an aircraft landing without landing gear. Fortunately, most of the causes of this illness may be avoided in the breeding scenario, and home therapy is often beneficial.

The most typical culprit is a slick floor of the nest box or brooder, which provides little grip for the delicate feet. Regardless of the nesting material given, some hens furiously empty out their nest boxes, preferring to lay on the bare floor. We were ecstatic when we found nest boxes coated with Formica since they were so easy to clean, but we quickly realized that even with an ample supply of shavings, the Formica’s slick surface did not provide enough grip. The issue was rectified by putting fake wooden bottoms to the boxes, which kept the birds from gnawing them to pieces.

Even under the best of circumstances, an overzealous hen may sit too firmly, putting too much pressure on the fragile nestlings’ legs. This is more typical during cold weather. When an unexpected cold snap happens, the experienced breeder understands that the legs of the nestlings must be carefully examined.

The issue might also manifest itself during the hand feeding period. The operator of a local bird store created an appealing exhibit of groups of chicks being hand fed for her clients to see. The newborns were kept in little glass tanks and were lined up in front of a giant glass window. They garnered a lot of attention. Unfortunately, she decided to line the bottoms of her glass containers with a little coating of pulverized corn cobs. Many of her formerly active chicks quickly acquired spraddle legs. She corrected the issue by covering the bottom with folded paper towels covered with a bigger number of corn cobs. We frequently line the plastic tubs used for hand feeding newborns with paper towels and a sufficient quantity of shavings.

Maintaining too high a temperature in chicks born in an incubator has been proposed as a cause of this disease. One encounter confirmed this hypothesis for me. I successfully incubated fifty Button Quail eggs a few years ago, only to find that the majority of the chicks were spraddle legged. The impacted birds had to be exterminated since they spend the most of their lives on the ground. I tried again, this time taking care to maintain the temperature in the incubator as low as possible. I was rewarded with a flock of tiny Quail that could run about on the aviary floor, a handy small cleaning team.

Dietary variables might also play a role in this illness. Calcium is required in a well-balanced diet for the feeding parents to generate strong bones in their kids. If the illness is detected early enough, particularly during the first three weeks of life, it is typically treatable.

I’ve had great success by just putting an identifying band on each leg, rather than just one. I thread a little length of string through each band, bringing the legs into the typical parallel position while leaving a slight gap between them. When the legs of very young birds are too little to maintain the bands, I bind the legs together in the same way using a short strip of gauze bandage.

Many bones in little birds are just slightly thicker than an egg shell. Although the leg bones include internal strengthening struts, they must still be handled with care to avoid additional injury. In addition to leg posture, some veterinarians recommend injectable Vitamin E and Selenium.

I tie the bird’s legs together for approximately two weeks, ensuring sure the brooder is lined with at least two inches of shavings to give a comfy resting place for my “hobbled” chick. I then cut the knot and watched the girl for a few hours. If weight bearing seems normal, as it generally does, I clip off the excess band, taking care to note the band numbers appropriately in my breeding records.

If the chick is still unable to stand properly, another week of this therapy is usually enough. It is important to remember, however, that when more significant abnormalities present, the same spraddle leg posture is assumed. Congenital hip abnormalities arise when the ball and socket joint is undeveloped or displaced at birth. These problems are beyond the scope of home care and need the attention of an experienced Avian Veterinarian.

Rickets, a considerably more dangerous ailment that is generally identified after the child is weight bearing, should not be mistaken with simple spraddle legs. When Rickets is present, the chick is unable to stand on its feet to beg for food, and its legs seem to curl up under its body rather than extending out on either side. Once again, the skills of an experienced Avian Veterinarian are required.

The benefits for the work put in are enormous. When you see your formerly handicapped bird standing straight on sturdy legs, you can’t help but experience a sense of satisfaction. You have rescued a little bird from impending death using your own abilities.

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