Physical Examination of the Chick

Key Points

  • In neonates, the exam should be performed in a warm room with pre-warmed hands.
  • Pectoral muscle mass is a poor indicator of body condition in young birds. Instead assess body condition by palpating bony prominences like the back, elbows, toes, and wings.
  • Skin in the normal chick is generally beige-pink in color, warm, and soft. Dehydrated chicks have red, dry, tacky skin.
  • Pediatric exams should include an evaluation of behavior like the feeding response.

Introduction

Pediatrics is one of the most fascinating and rewarding fields of avian medicine (Fig 1). The key to hand raising healthy psittacine chicks is a strong preventive medicine program based on sound husbandry practices. Physical examination is an important part of preventive health care. Complete physical exam of the chick includes evaluation of appearance and behavior as well as evaluation of weight charts to assess daily gain.

Puerto Rican parrot

Figure 1. Pediatrics is a challenging and rewarding branch of avian medicine. Shown here, a Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata) chick from the El Yunque National Forest. Photo credit: USFWS via Flickr Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.

 

Before the exam

Obtain a history

Collect a thorough history prior to examination including:

  • Incubation and brooder parameters (temperature and humidity)
  • Location of the nursery and its environment
  • Hand-feeding protocols
  • Person(s) hand-feeding
  • Sanitation
  • Flock health history
  • Growth rate
  • Crop emptying time

Chicks are often presented in critical condition and there may not be time to obtain a history right away. As soon as the bird is stabilized, discuss husbandry and medical history.

Focus on the good of the many

Always ask about the health of clutch mates. When presented with a sick bird(s), think first of the entire clutch or all of the birds in the nursery and how best to help them. Once the risk to other chicks has been assessed, then address the problem of the individual.

Identify management failures

In many cases, a sick chick may be an indication of a mismanagement issue. Management failures that can lead to serious morbidity and mortality include:

  • Chicks too cold or too hot
  • Improper hand feeding formula temperature
  • Feeding multiple birds with the same utensil
  • Storing the formula at room temperature
  • Making a full batch of formula daily
  • Unsanitary environment
  • Vermin on the premises
  • Inexperienced person(s) hand feeding
  • Housing chicks near adults
  • Housing chicks in high people-traffic areas
  • Mixing chicks from different localities

Visit the facility

As time permits, visit the aviary and nursery to familiarize yourself with facility layout and to identify management shortcomings.

Physical examination

Examination of the neonate must include a thorough physical as well as evaluation of behavior.

    1. Keep the chick in a warm environment (90-98°F) and handle with warm hands.
    2. Assess body condition by palpating the back, elbows, toes, and wings. In young birds, the pectoral muscle mass is small and a poor indicator of body condition. Evaluate daily weight gain and compare with normal rates from previous years. It is best to compare growth rates from the same facility, as the type, volume, and frequency of formula fed, as well as genetics may all influence growth rate.
    3. Skin color and texture are important indicators of hydration status. Normal skin is beige-pink in color, warm, and soft, with adequate subcutaneous fat deposits (Fig 2a). Some species, such as Eclectus parrots, normally have pigmented skin. Dry, hyperemic, tacky skin indicates dehydration (Fig 2b), and pale skin may indicate anemia, shock, or hypothermia (Fig 2c).

 

hatchlings cropped Rivera

Figure 2a. In most chicks, normal skin is beige-pink in color, warm, and soft although some species normally have pigmented skin. Photo credit: Dr. Samuel Rivera. Click image to enlarge.

 

dehdyrated Rivera

Figure 2b. Dry, hyperemic, tacky skin indicates dehydration. Photo credit: Dr. Samuel Rivera. Click image to enlarge.

 

pallor Rivera

Figure 2c. Pale skin may indicate anemia, shock, or hypothermia. Photo credit: Dr. Samuel Rivera. Click image to enlarge.

 

    1. Examine the oropharynx for abnormal color and the presence of mucus or plaques.
    2. The beak should be symmetrical. Trauma at the beak commissure is usually associated with an excessive feeding response stimulated by objects in the enclosure or clutch mates.
    3. Examine the eyes for lid defects, swelling, discharge, crusting, or blepharospasm. The eyes open on days 14-28 in macaws, 10-21 in cockatoos, and 14-21 in Amazon parrots (Amazona spp.). Clear discharge may be normal when the eyes first open.
    4. The ears are open at hatch in Old World psittacines, whereas New World species hatch with closed ears that open anywhere between 10-30 days post-hatch.
    5. Examine feathers for the presence of stress bars, hemorrhage, or abnormal development.
    6. Evaluate the texture, color, and size of the crop.
    7. Parrots have a prominent abdomen due to their food-filled gastrointestinal tract. In neonates, the liver, duodenal loop, yolk, ventriculus, and lungs are visible through the skin (Fig 3). The yolk sac is absorbed within one week of hatching, however it is no longer visible after the third day of age in most chicks.
pediatric ventrum Rivera

Figure 3. The liver, duodenal loop, yolk, ventriculus, and lungs are visible through the skin of neonates. Photo credit: Dr. Samuel Rivera. Click image to enlarge.

  1. The umbilicus usually heals within 1-2 weeks post-hatch.
  2. Note the frequency of eliminations as well as the color, volume, and consistency of the droppings. Some species, such as African grey (Psittacus erithacus), Amazon, and Pionus parrots (Pionus spp.), may produce a wine-colored urine that is considered normal.
  3. When evaluating a chick it is also important to evaluate the feeding response. A healthy bird should have a vigorous feeding response when touched at the beak commissure.
  4. 1.It is also important to be familiar with normal body posture. Healthy cockatoo chicks sit on their hock and balance on their abdomen, whereas macaw chicks prefer to lie down on their side or even back. Conures and African parrots usually lay on their back.

References