Treating "Splay Legs"

Classic splay leg in day old chinese painted quail chicks

Now is the busiest time of year for the home incubator enthusiast, and we have been hatching all kinds of different birds over the past few weeks. Coturnix quail, grey partridges and chinese painted quail have all gone into our selection of incubators, and it's worth covering one of the most common problems encountered when dealing with small birds.

"Splay leg" can affect all bird species, but it has a particularly devasting effect on fragile little bird species. There are a few biological reasons why young birds develop splayed legs, and these have mainly to do with vitamin and mineral deficiencies in the parent birds. However, the main cause of splay leg is often the wrong choice of flooring in the incubator or brooder.

When you use home made brooders set up in cardboard boxes, you should pay attention to the texture of the floor. If the floor is made of plain cardboard or newspaper, it could be that little birds will struggle to gain sufficient grip, and rather than walk as they intend to, their legs splay outwards, slipping on the paper. Most little birds will struggle with slippy flooring to some extent, but some have a real problem.

If there is sawdust in the base of the brooder, badly affected birds will try and use the shavings to get purchase but more often than not, they will just push the wood away, leaving them sprawling like a novice ice skater. Some will eventually get over the problem on their own, but the worst cases will develop misshapen legs which could lead to a life time of deformity. They sit on their bottoms with their legs out either side of them, and they will never develop the strength they need to walk normally.

In a commercial situation, many of these splay legged birds will be culled, but for the smaller scale home breeder, there are a number of options to fix splay leg. The easiest way is to make sure that the chicks are kept on a surface which gives them enough grip, stopping splay leg from starting in the first place. Solway Feederssupplies finely corrugated cardboard flooring which is perfect for brooders, since the parallel corrugations always give a little bird some way of standing up. In extreme cases, you could even use a small section of carpet offcut, which little birds will have no problem dealing with.

In extreme cases, active intervention is called for. The old fashioned technique of "hobbling" splay legged chickssounds like a silly idea, but the results are excellent, and even the worst cases can be turned around in just a few hours. By taping the affected chicks' ankles together, the legs are held at a natural angle in the hip joint. The "hobbling" restricts mobility, but it is amazing how quickly chicks learn to get about with their legs tied together, and the bones and joints set at the right angle to promote future growth and normal development.

If you leave just enough space between the fastened ankles, most splay legged chicks will be able to stand with the hobble in place after a couple of hours, and after a day, they will be able to move around with surprising ease.

If the hobble is too wide, you will see the legs begin to splay again, and if it is too narrow, the bird will have the tendency to lie on its breast with its legs stretched out behind it. Both of these outcomes are better than the sight of a crippled and immobile bird, but a little adjustment in or out will help even more. Keep an eye on the hobbledchicks and make sure that they can get access to food and water, then take the hobble off after 36 to 48 hours and you will be amazed at the improvements.

It's a fiddly job, but if you're prepared to take the time and effort to do it, you'll see a real benefits.


A day old grey partridge chick with a hobble made from thinly cut tape