Scrolling through any Facebook chicken group you’re likely to see some recurring themes: What breed or sex is my bird? What’s wrong with my sick chicken?, or How did my chick die? In this post I’ll explore early chick mortality, which can be caused by incubation issues, genetics, poor management, nutritional deficiencies and disease.
Incubation & Genetics
There are many lethal gene mutations in birds, many of which cause death during the incubation period and the first few days of life.
Most embryonic deaths occur in the first three, or the last three, days of incubation. To read a post on Hatching Egg Fails click here.
Poor management is often one of the most important causes of early chick mortality. Proper care is the cornerstone for the survival and health of any flock. With bad management, chicks sourced from reliable sources will be weaker, less robust and more susceptible to disease and parasites.
- Contamination with molds.
- Eating sawdust can lead to impacted crop.
Brooding Temperature – High
- Contributes to dehydration and decreased food intake; water loss of up to 10% can cause death.
- Slows growth rate.
- Results in Pasty Butt (i.e. caked poop around the vent can create a blockage and death).
Brooding Temperature – Low
- Getting chilled stresses the immune system making chicks vulnerable to microbial pathogens and pneumonia.
- Chicks huddling together to keep warm can be trampled or suffocated.
Brooder Humidity – High
- Creates moisture and encourages pathogens like Coccidia.
Feeders & Waterers
- Use ones designed for chicks.
- The wrong equipment can contribute to competition, wastage, water spillage, wet litter drowning and coccidiosis.
- Ensure that you have an adequate number of feeders and waterers.
- Chicks can easily be injured by falls, rough handling or improper brooder design.
- Always supervise children and pets around young birds.
- Breeds with vaulted skulls (e.g. Silkies, crested birds) are vulnerable to head injuries.
- Feed Chick Starter up to the age of 8 weeks.
- Medicated feed contains amprolium, a thiamine blocker, that disrupts the reproductive cycle of coccidia. If chicks are on medicated feed don’t give them poultry vitamins at the same time (they counteract amprolium).
- Make sure they have access to clean water at all times.
- Disease is spread through shared feeders and waters so disinfect them daily.
- Water aids the digestion of food, helps maintain body temperature and growth.
- Contributes to wet bedding material and increased microbial pathogens.
- Exposure to urates in accumulated poop irritates eyes and respiratory systems.
- Competition over food and water can result in trampling, inadequate nutrition and hydration.
- Stress can lead to bullying, pecking and cannibalism.
Pathogens & Parasites
- Ensure your broody hen, brooder and coop are free of mites, lice, coccidia and worms.
- Omphalitis (mushy chick disease) is a bacterial infection of the navel.
- Consider your dogs and cats as predators and ensure they don’t have access to your flock, especially chicks.
- Predator proof your brooder, coop and run.
- Rats do eat eggs and can kill small chicks, but more importantly they spread disease if they have access to your coop and feeders (e.g. Salmonella, E. coli, Fowl Cholera, mites, lice and worms).
- Vitamins are required for metabolism, growth and development, reproduction, tissue repair.
- There are two major categories: water soluble vitamins and fat soluble vitamins.
- Water-soluble vitamins include vitamin C and B vitamins (B12, biotin, folic acid, niacin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxine, riboflavin, and thiamine.)
- Fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E, and K. Vitamin A is required for normal growth and development of skin and the linings of the digestive, reproductive, and respiratory tracts, and reproduction. Vitamin D3 is required for normal growth, bone development, and eggshell formation. Vitamin K is essential for blood-clot formation.
- Vitamin B2 (riboflavin) deficiency causes curled toes in chicks.
- Vitamin A deficiency causes weakness and gives feathers a ruffled appearance and decreased egg production, reduced hatchability, and increased embryonic mortality.
- Vitamin E and selenium deficiency can cause encephalomyelitis (also known as crazy chick syndrome), and wry neck.
- Vitamin B6 deficiency causes slowed growth, dermatitis, and anemia.
Chicks are most likely to die in the first week of life. If you buy shipped chicks (i.e. feed store) they may have been exposed to hot or cold temperatures, dehydration, overcrowding and trampling. When you get them they are stressed and vulnerable to any number of conditions and pathogens.
It’s important in you are raising chicks without a hen to care for them that they are kept at the proper temperature (35c/95f the first week, dropping 3c/5f each week thereafter), aren’t overcrowded, have access to clean water and chick feed. Two of the most common conditions that contribute to chick mortality are Coccidiosis and Pasty Butt. Also be aware of often treatable conditions like splayed leg, slipped tendon and curled toes.
By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail – Benjamin Franklin
Diagnosing Cause of Death
If you experience losses within the first three days that’s usually an indication of hatchery or shipping issues. If you continue to experience losses after that, look at how you’re caring for your chicks and what you might change.
To help you figure out the cause of the mortality keep track of symptoms and any relevant notes (age and sex of chicks; how and where they died, etc). It might feel creepy cataloguing that information, but it can help determine whether it’s an individual or flock-wide issue and if it’s treatable or not. All too often folks post on Facebook with the request ‘Help, my chicken is sick’ or ‘What did my bird die of?’ with no photos or relevant information that others can use to come to an accurate diagnosis. The longer it takes to figure out what is going on the longer you are doing nothing, or worse, sometimes the wrong thing.
Here are some pointers from a Poultry World article to assist you in determining potential cause of death in chicks:
- Lying on the stomach or back: Metabolic disorder with a high incidence between 2 – 5 weeks. Troubleshoot by changing feed.
- On the back with wings splayed and often with one foot in the air: Sudden Death Syndrome caused by heart attack. This is commonly seen in meat birds/broilers. Slow down growth slightly with lower light intensity.
- Well developed, with full crop: Chicks at older age suffering from excessive strain on the heart, or inflammation of the heart wall or valve.
- Moderate to poor condition, stomach full of liquid: Chicks are susceptible to heat stress. Check temperature and air circulation, prevent day-night fluctuations.
- On the stomach, neck forward and feet back: Chicks can choke due to inflamed tissue in the upper respiratory tract caused by a viral infection.
- Seal position, on the stomach, feet back, neck stretched, beak slightly open and often with bedding in the beak: Botulism (rare) or by an overdose of anticoccidial medications, or necrotic enteritis.
Credits: Credits: Agrikhub, Fabian Brockotter (Poultry World). Featured Photo: Kitty Terwolbeck
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