For the last few years I’ve been a member of several Facebook farm and chicken groups and have learned a lot. Since starting my Facebook page and this blog they’ve been very accommodating allowing me to post links to my articles. Lately, I’ve been working on an education series, Chicken Illnesses and Emergencies, and after covering prolapsed vent, egg binding, hatching issues, split beak and scaly leg mites I’ve exhausted writing about my own experiences. In an attempt to expand my focus, I’ve managed to find some folks who’ve allowed me to use their stories, photos or videos as part of larger, researched articles: salpingitis, gapeworm and flystrike.
I reached out to some new FB groups hoping to connect with their members who might be interested in providing background material to assist me. I’ve found many groups have a long list of rules that won’t allow me to post any mention of another FB page or link to another blog. Fair enough. Groups take a long time to build memberships and owners don’t want folks poaching their followers or leading them to another site. But I’ve also found that potential posts were rejected even when there was just a request to connect with members who are willing to share their stories.
I’m happy to report that I was welcomed, by both the administrators and members, to the FB group Crossbeaks & Special Poultry. I’ve been inundated with members wanting to share their stories of struggle and hope, and am touched by the number of people who are caring for special needs chickens with the attitude that every being deserves a chance at a good life. They are a no cull/no kill group and their dedication to providing a quality life is obvious. I can’t write about all of them in this piece, but I will attempt to give some background on the phenomenon of cross beak and how to manage it.
Crossbeak (also called Scissor Beak or Lateral Beak Deviation) is a deformity of the skull, but most obviously manifests as abnormalities in the beak: the top and bottom parts are not correctly aligned and overlap each other. With severe enough cases, the brain and eyes become affected due to the twist of the skull. I’ve seen a number of photos of crossbeak birds with only one eye.
An affected bird is often unable to use their beak to eat or drink normally and can’t hone their beak to keep it trimmed so the lower beak becomes overgrown. If a chick was born with crossbeak it usually becomes more pronounced until it matures.
There are various prenatal causes of crossbeak: inherited genetics or nutritional imbalances, such as a lack of vitamin D, folic acid, biotin, methionine, or calcium. Most often it occurs in incubation: fluctuating temperatures and humidity or malposition of the chick in the egg. Normally a chick’s head is under one wing inside the shell, but if it is in the wrong position the skull can become malformed. It can also happen post-hatch through an injury to the skull or base of the beak.
Prevention includes feeding your flock a well-balanced diet, not hatching eggs from birds with a crossbeak and properly regulating temperature and humidity in incubator hatches.
I have only had one experience with a crossbeak: Eric, was an Appenzeller Spitzhauben x Easter Egger, who appeared normal at hatch and for the first few weeks of his life. It wasn’t until he was almost three months old that I noticed his beak – in every other way, including eating and drinking, he was fine. I already had one rooster; so my policy is to re-home cockerels I hatch, for free, to folks offering forever homes. He was staying at my friends Thomas and Elizabeth’s, while I was trying to find him a new home when unfortunately he was killed by a hawk. I’ll never know if Eric’s beak would have gotten significantly worse as he aged and how that might have affected him. Here’s an excerpt from an online ad I posted about him:
These groups are full of folks looking to re-home cockerels in all forms and breeds. There are lots of heartfelt pleas to save their favourite chick – the one they bought as a Georgina that’s now turned out to be a George – from the soup pot. Invariably they are beautiful boys, some even with purebred pedigrees. Day after day these boys appear on adoption parades seeking homes with loving families.
It’s clear that if you want a snazzy cockerel they are a dime a dozen (I’ve even got a few of my own looking for new digs). But how often do you see something just a bit different? Interested in more than just yard art? Something that will make you warm & fuzzy for having saved him from the axe? Well, I’ve got a deal for you.
Eric is not a shining example of male beauty but in time his true plumage will emerge. He’s my first chick with scissor beak, so mild I didn’t notice it until recently. He’s managed just fine and will continue to do so. He’s not so symmetrical to be viewed as conventionally handsome, but his wonky beak does make him endearing.
Why settle for Brad Pitt when you could have Lyle Lovett instead? Don’t be so superficial – look beneath his slightly flawed exterior to the sweet guy he is.
Beak misalignment can be quite mild allowing a bird to function without much intervention, but moderate to severe cases will require some additional support from their human caregivers in order to survive.
The most important modifications include:
- Housing: Special needs chickens are at increased risk of getting bullied by other birds and may require being separated from the flock. Some people house them with other compatible birds or allow them to live indoors as a ‘house chicken’.
- Diet: Depending on severity of the beak misalignment some birds are tube or syringe fed their meals daily with a puree. Others manage eating moistened food from a deep bowl. Nipple waterers are easier to drink from.
- Beak Hygiene: Provide birds with a deep bowl of water so they are able to submerge their beaks helping to keep them clean. Even so, food can still get stuck in their beak and can potentially cause thrush and other issues. Make sure to clean out their beak at least once a day using a small toothbrush.
- Monitoring Weight: Crossbeak birds have a more difficult time gaining and maintaining weight. Chicks are often smaller and weigh less than their hatch mates. Weigh on a regular basis to ensure that the bird has sufficient calorie intake. A gram scale can be used to see if weight fluctuates or is maintained.
- Feather Health: Chickens straighten and clean their feathers with their beaks. Crossbeaks will require regular bathing and blow drying to maintain feather health.
- Beak Maintenance: Chickens maintain the length and shape of their beaks by honing them on rocks or other abrasive surfaces. This doesn’t work very well for misaligned beaks, but access to rocks for this purpose might help. Depending on how long the beak is some people use an emery board, dog nail clippers or dremel to keep the beak trimmed back.
This is just a brief overview to provide some information about the causes and care of crossbeaks. If you have a bird with special needs I suggest you connect with folks who have a wealth of information and experience to guide you through the various issues of care: feeding, feather care and beak maintenance.
There is a large online community of people sharing and supporting each other and their birds. Tap into that rich resource: decide if you are up to the challenge of caring for a special needs bird (if you aren’t someone else can help you out) and if so, learn what to do early on to better help your bird and save yourself the frustration of doing things alone.
Additional photos courtesy of Bitchin’ Chickens friends Robin Rusk Gorton and Kelsey Van Dyken of the Facebook group Crossbeaks & Special Poultry