By Linda Greeson

The development of a condition called spraddle -leg in one or more of a clutch of otherwise thriving and healthy nestlings is an experience that most bird breeders undergo sooner or later. Until the babies reach the weight bearing stage all seems to be going well. They are being well fed and growing at an amazing rate of speed. The breeder then observes that one or more of the babies is not standing up to beg for food, but remaining at the bottom of the nest box with one leg stretched out to its right, and the other stretched out to its left. This deviation from the normal at the hip joint is the condition we call spraddle legs.

The sad part of this discovery is that the effected chick is otherwise fat and healthy. The parent birds reach down through the bobbing heads of its clutchmates to fill its open mouth. In the wild, where rescue by a concerned breeder does not happen, the spraddle legged bird would not survive the fledgling stage. Unable to roost on a perch, the first flight would probably end in disaster. The bird's dilemma would be comparable to an airplane landing without its landing gear in place. It is fortunate that in the breeding situation most of the causes for this condition can be eliminated and frequently home treatment is effective.

The most common cause is a slippery surface on the floor of the nest box or brooder, providing insufficient traction for the small feet. Regardless of what nesting material is provided, some hens vigorously clear out their nest boxes, insisting on setting on the bare floor. When we discovered nest boxes lined with Formica we were delighted with the ease of cleaning but soon learned that even with an adequate supply of shavings the slippery surface of the Formica did not supply sufficient traction. The problem was solved by adding false wooden bottoms to the boxes, at least for the birds who did not promptly gnaw them to bits.

Sometimes, even with an ideal nest box situation, the over zealous hen sits too tightly, causing too much pressure on the delicate nestlings' legs. This most commonly occurs in the cold weather. When an unusual cold snap occurs, the experienced breeder knows that nestling's legs need to be checked carefully.

The condition can also develop early in the hand feeding stage. At a local bird shop the proprietor devised an attractive display of groups of chicks being hand fed, for observation by her customers. The babies were housed in small glass aquariums and lined up before a large glass window. They attracted a great deal of attention. Unfortunately she selected a light sprinkling of ground corn cobs for lining the bottom of her glass containers. A large number of her previously active chicks rapidly developed spraddle legs. She changed her procedure to covering the bottom with folded paper towels covered with a larger amount of corn cobs and eliminated her problem. We routinely line the plastic boxes which we use for the babies being hand fed with paper towels and a generous supply of shavings.

In chicks hatched in an incubator, maintaining too high a temperature has been offered as a cause for this condition. I had one experience that bore out this theory. Some years ago I incubated fifty Button Quail eggs successfully, only to discover that most of the chicks were badly spraddle legged. Since these little birds spend most of their life on the ground, the effected ones had to be destroyed. I tried again, taking care to keep the temperature in the incubator lower. I was rewarded by a flock of little Quail well able to run about on the floor of the aviary, a valuable little clean up crew.

Dietary factors can also contribute to this condition. Sufficient calcium in a well balanced diet is needed for the feeding parents to produce strong bones in their offspring. If the condition is noted early enough, preferably in the first three weeks of life, it usually can be corrected.

I have had excellent results by simply placing an identification band on each leg, rather than on one leg as is usual. I tie a small length of string through each band, drawing the legs into the normal parallel position, leaving a small space between the legs. On the very young birds, when the legs are too small to retain the bands, I tie the legs together with a narrow strip of gauze bandage in much the same manner.

In the small birds, many bones are only a little thicker than an egg shell. The leg bones do have internal reinforcing struts, but still require gentle and careful handling to prevent further damage. Some Veterinarians, in addition to positioning the legs, prescribe injectable Vitamin E and Selenium.

I leave the bird's legs tied together for about two weeks, making sure that the brooder is lined with at least two inches of shavings to provide comfortable rest for my "hobbled" chick. I then cut the tie and observe the chick's behavior for a few hours. If weight bearing seems normal, as is usually the case, I clip off the extra band, taking care to correctly register the band numbers in my breeding records.

If the chick is still unable to stand normally, often another week of this treatment will suffice. It is well to keep in mind, however, that in unusual cases the same spraddle leg position is assumed when more serious deformities exist. Congenital hip deformities in which the ball and socket joint is underdeveloped or sometimes dislocated do occur. These conditions are out of the range of home treatment and require the attention of a skilled Avian Veterinarian.

Rickets, a far more serious condition, usually discovered at the weight bearing stage, is not to be confused with simple spraddle legs. When Rickets is present the chick cannot stand on its feet to beg for food, but the legs give the appearance of folding up underneath its body rather than stretching out on each side. Again, the services of a skilled Avian Veterinarian are needed.

The rewards for the effort involved are great. When you see your formerly crippled bird standing tall on strong legs you can not but help feeling a great sense of accomplishment. You have saved a little bird from certain doom by your own skills.

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Last Updated:  April 26, 2013

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