Fixing a split beak can be easy for your chicken if you know what to do.
Split Happens (Beaks that is)
A chicken’s beak is comprised of primarily keratin, the same tough and insoluble protein you’d find in a hoof, antlers, or fingernails. It allows animals to have a durable and constantly regenerating part of their bodies used for protection and foraging.
Typically a chicken will sweep it’s head back and forth while it is ranging, often on stones or gravel, to essentially file their beak. Unfortunately, sometimes they fail to do it enough which can cause that upper portion of their beak (the maxillary rostrum) to grow too long. This is most common in the winter when the chickens are less active but can happen anytime. Just like when a fingernail gets too long, the beak then becomes brittle and subject to splitting.
If you want to know all the details about bird beaks, here’s a great article to get you started.
So what’s the big deal?
When a beak gets too long, a chicken begins to have trouble picking up their food. Unlike a duck’s beak for example, chickens almost exclusively “peck” vs. a shoveling action. The top and bottom portion of the beak must align properly for optimal foraging. If the top beak gets too long, the chicken can see the food but has to contort it’s head to eat sideways. This clearly isn’t an optimal situation for your bird.
Sorry ladies, but have you ever seen someone with very long fake fingernails? If you work in a business environment, where keyboard typing is common, then you know that this is an apt metaphor for the challenge. Typically, overly long fingernails are a hinderance to typing where you use the tips of your fingers to depress the keys. Sure, we all know exceptional ladies who it doesn’t seem to slow down, but the reality is that they would probably be even faster typists without the nails.
These problems are very analogous to each other. The long fingernails create an unnatural hinderance to typing that the wearer then has to overcome with unique workarounds. Maybe they type with their fingers at an awkward angle or they use the tips of the fingernails which causes the ends of their fingers to get sore from the hard nail hitting the keys constantly. Whatever the case, the chicken has similar work arounds to make things work as well.
Maybe they drink water at an angle. Maybe they only forage for larger plants that are substantially taller than the other plants so it’s at an advantageous angle. Whatever the case it’s not optimal.
If all of this seems too daunting… here are 5 Reasons why rabbits might be a better fit for your homestead than chickens (or at least in addition).
Identify Birds With Split or long Beaks
The simplest solution is simply to not let the beak get too long. Now, if you’re a backyard chicken aficionado who has a small flock and knows them all by name, this is probably the way to go. However, if you have a larger flock where you’re raising meat birds or laying hens this isn’t as easy. Often these chickens are out grazing and are not as easily inspected.
The best process is to walk around the chickens first thing in the morning as they are coming out of their coops or mobile tractors. Chickens tend to stick closer to their “home base” in the early and late parts of the day. This will make your job of identifying split beaks much easier. If you observe them eating, look for any behavioral differences that might help you identify overgrown or split beaks. This would be the eating and drinking traits we mentioned earlier.
You may also identify beak problems if you see a chicken that seems slimmer than others of the same age. If the split beak becomes problematic for eating then that may become thinner if it doesn’t get enough nutrients. Beak problems are serious, so this is obviously the least desirable way to identify these birds.
Trimming or Repairing the Split Beak
For those new to owning chickens, the thought of trimming a beak may seem daunting. Frankly, it’s a little reminiscent of how new parents can sometimes feel. Because you’re inexperienced, your mind considers every possible negative outcome or issue that could arise. This can sometimes cause you to delay acting, and that’s actually worse.
The first time I trimmed one of our children’s fingernails as a baby… I was terrified I was going to cut their finger or cut their nail too short (to the quick as we say) and cause them to bleed. The first time I tried it, I used a special set of “baby” clippers that had a little magnifying glass so I could be super careful. I was very deliberate and had no problems…. easy peasy. Subsequently I became more confident until one day I got a corner of their skin and sure enough… there was crying and some blood. Truthfully, I might have been the one crying, but while I felt horrible no real damage was done. A little bandage and they were fine again.
It’s the same with your animals. You’ll likely do fine the first few times but eventually you’ll make a mistake. However, don’t worry… if you go slow your chicken will be fine.
What you need to trim the beak
You’ll need a few supplies to take care of the birds beak.
1. Old sheet, blanket, or towel
It’s really important that you keep your bird calm. Chickens are easily spooked in general because, let’s face it, everything wants to eat them. Start by wrapping your bird in an old sheet, blanket, or towel to help calm them and keep them from scratching you with their claws. This is even more important if you’re working with a rooster who has spurs. Roosters can and will draw blood from YOU so be careful.
2. Good set of clippers
Don’t scrimp here, because this makes a big difference in the experience for the bird. Small dainty little clippers that you’d use for your finger nails aren’t going to cut it here (pun intended). You should use a set of clippers specifically designed for trimming dog, cat, or rabbit nails. These types of clippers have far more leverage, a larger opening, and allow you to make larger cuts and speed up the process.
3. Nail glue (and caps)
Nail clue is specifically designed to bond keratin so it will bond stronger, dry faster, and last longer than other types. You could use super glue in a pinch, but we wouldn’t recommend it. You can also use nail caps if you chicken has severe split. Here’s a link if you want to see what we’re talking about. A large size should fit most standard chickens but with a smaller breed consider using a medium or small. These are designed to cover a dog or cat’s nails to prevent scratching of floors but work wonderfully in covering a split beak while it heals and grows out.
4. Cotton balls and blood stop
You are going to make a mistake at some point, so just accept that. Be prepared and have all the supplies on hand that you might need to stop the bleeding if you happen to cut the chicken’s beak a little too short. You should have a few cotton balls handy and also a styptic pencil like this to help stop the bleeding.
Once you have everything, you’ll just need to trim the beak down slowly until you get near the darker portion. That’s the live part, similar to the darker portion of your fingernail and that’s what you want to avoid getting too close to. Check out this video if you want to see an example how we do this. If you’re fixing a split beak only, then the trimming may be minimal. If the bird needs significant trimming, then you may even need to file it down some after your done. For that we recommend 120 grit sandpaper or sanding sponge. This will be easier to work with than a nail file on the bird’s beak.
Monitor the Split Beak
Once you’ve fixed the split beak, then monitor your bird for a few weeks. Make note of whether the bird is eating properly and free ranging properly. Are they gaining weight and/or producing eggs? If your bird is still having challenges or the beak continues to grow, then you may need to repeat the process again in a few weeks. As your birds age, this behavior can become more common and you may be required to repeat this until you and your bird part ways.
Good luck and happy homesteading!
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