Henrietta, a Cross Beak Story
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By Doug Sharp
I don’t know how, at the age of 60, one decides to become a backyard chicken tender but here I have found myself. And, like my gardening interest in owning one of every type of plant, I now of course wanted one of every kind of chicken. So, I did all the chick raising research, built a fancy big coop, headed to the local co-ops, and came home with 10 adorable fluffs of peeping love. But at about six weeks old, I noticed one of the chicks was not like the other. Her name was already Henrietta, a Golden Laced Wyandotte, and I noticed her upper, and lower beaks seemed to be growing apart, or at least not lining up together.
An internet search informed me that I had a cross beak chicken and that there were no chicken orthodontists to install braces or an Invisalign to help straighten it out. Some of the articles even frightened me that she may not survive past a few months or a year due to her inability to get enough nutrition. Her beak deformity would continue to grow in such a way to inhibit her from being a normal chicken doing all the chicken things they need to do to survive and stay healthy. Well, I wasn’t hearing of this and would ensure Henrietta would live a long and happy life.
A cross beak (or scissor beak) is a misalignment of the beak which results in the bird’s inability to close their mouth completely, preen properly, peck efficiently and eat and drink well enough to maintain sufficient nourishment and water. The condition can affect either the top or bottom beak and tends to overgrow in size relative to the other beak due to the bird’s inability to self-maintain it when going about normal beak care, such as wiping or sharpening on a hard surface. The source of the condition may vary, from being a genetic defect (such as a skull malformation) to an incubation temperature issue or hatching event. The result is all the same … the bird cannot pick up its food like others can. It can also cause other social problems like winding up on the bottom of the pecking order. These special needs chickens can break your heart when you watch them try to pick up scratch feed or bugs. It’s as frustrating to watch as it must be for them to actually perform this basic chicken function.
Depending on the severity of the condition, there are ways to help these flock members succeed. First off, they need to have continuous access to food so that they can eat on their own schedule and not have to fight for their meal. They will need access to food and water in an open container where they can scoop their food versus having to pick it up from a small opening. I can always find Henrietta perching on top of the metal gravity feed container, scooping her meal from the large opening (I swear she follows me into the coop to make sure I top it off every day). The same goes for their water being in a scoopable container or by using a hanging bucket with nipples on the bottom so they can tap out the water into their lower beak. I have a water trough both inside and outside the coop in their run which works great for my birds. In severe deformity cases, a bird might have to be fed separately, which might include feeding soft foods, such as yogurt and feed mix, or even be fed with a feeding tube (this should never be attempted without proper training as it is critical that the food wind up in their crop and not the lungs). Beak trimming can be performed to help reduce the over (or under) bite and help straighten out the beak for help with eating. This can be performed with dog nail trimmers or ground with a file such as a Dremel tool. Care must be taken not to trim too much, as beaks, like an animal’s claws or toenails, have a quick which might begin to bleed.
Another concern is their inability to preen and clean their feathers properly. Regular dust baths are imperative to help with the control of mites or lice. They might even need an occasional bath. Diatomaceous earth in their dusting area as well as regular inspections for parasites will help with controlling pests. But even with the best of efforts, some birds will not thrive and will need to be separated from the flock and culled.
I’m not sure where Henrietta’s social ladder stands but she is nowhere near the top. She tends to keep to herself with her chicken friend, Omeletta, a Silver Laced Wyandotte, and is less friendly than the others, who were all hand raised. Last year, she was one of two chickens that were the victims of much feather picking on the rear back but a winter molt now has her looking good as new. When it comes to treats, however, she is often first to the gate when I show. She bustles to the front of the line and uses her scooping ability to gouge up chinks of banana, oatmeal, or any other soft treat I might have (and often provide just for her), and has no problem stabbing a chunk of cabbage or other garden leaf and is able to shimmy it into her mouth. I’m lucky that Henrietta adapted to her condition on her own because I was a clueless new chicken owner who didn’t know a chicken vent from a heater vent. With proper education from the efforts of past of poultry owners you can successfully raise a flock member with special needs to thrive and live a long and healthy life.
Doug Sharp owns Cluckingham Garden, a neighborhood gathering space in south Seattle for friends of flowers, plants, and chickens. facebook.com/CluckinghamGarden/
Originally published in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.