Dehydrated Chicks

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Q: I have been raising chicks from the egg for quite a few years, and I feel quite competent at it. I do, however, have a problem with some of the conures. A very small percentage of them do not thrive. They appear a bit under-sized and thin at hatching, and have a crop that is about one third the size that it should be. I can identify who they are at hatch, and I know before I begin to feed them that they are not going to make it past 5 days of age. I use the rapid hydration formula that you recommend for the first five days in your book on hand-feeding, and although they do much better on it than on regular formula, they still die. They have been cultured, and they are not infected with anything. Do you have any ideas?

A: The problem you describe is common to chicks that are dehydrated at hatching. Since you state that you are raising these birds from Day 1, I will assume that you are incubating the eggs. This problem can be caused by incubation humidities that are too low. The fluids that are drained from the egg during the incubation process are more than the embryo can handle. The result is not only chicks that fail to thrive, but there is usually quite a bit of shell mortality as well.

A chick that hatches in an extreme state of dehydration has little chance of survival. When this is compounded by an undersized crop (another symptom of severe dehydration), disappointment will usually always follow whatever steps you may take. The undersized crop may require the bird to be fed every half hour or whenever the crop is empty, instead of every two or three hours, as would be possible if the crop were of normal size. In rare instances, this will pull the chick out of its dehydrated state and allow it to grow normally. Unfortunately, in most cases, this just postpones by a few days the inevitable. Since you have stated that this is only occurring in a small percentage of chicks, it is possible that your humidity levels are just marginally too low. This would create the problem only in those eggs that had a greater propensity for water loss. That would be those that are marginally thin shelled.

In fact, your problem might lie in a diet that is marginally low in calcium or the vitamins that are necessary to allow calcium absorption. In such a case, you would tend to see more of this problem as the number of eggs laid by the hens increases–the latter eggs being the most prone to have under-calcified shells. Remember, just because a shell appears to be normally calcified doesn’t mean that it is normal. As the incubation process proceeds, calcium will be drawn out of the shell for use by the developing chick. I have seen eggs that appeared perfectly normal collapse during the third week of incubation because the shell had become paper thin during the process.

You should also remember that even on the best of diets some hens will begin to lay calcium-deficient eggs once they exceed the number of eggs that nature intended them to lay in one season. If close monitoring reveals that this problem is occurring by majority in eggs that are laid by specific pairs after the hen has laid her natural yearly quantity, then your diet might not be the problem. In many cases like this, the fact is that the hen’s metabolism is not capable of performing very far beyond the natural limits that it has evolved to. It is also of interest to note that the smaller the egg, the greater its tendency to have dehydration problems during artificial incubation. I have no idea why this is the case, but it is a fact. This is probably why your problem is confined to conures.