Cross Beak Chickens: A Complete Care Guide
So, you’re checking your little chick booties one day and notice something seems… off. Your chick’s little beak is ever so slightly out of line.
If you’re anything like me, you immediately panic because this chick is your favorite and you’ve read all the horror stories told about cross beaks in all the big backyard chicken groups.
And you know that it always ends one way- “you need to cull”.
Well, friends, I am here to share some good news. Your little chick will be just fine… with some help.
What is a Cross Beak Chicken?
A cross beak (scissor beak) chicken is a regular ol’ lovable little chicken with a bit of a different face. Instead of having a top beak that lines up properly with the bottom beak, she instead, has a beak that sits off to the side. This can be the top or the bottom beak.
This misalignment makes it difficult, and in severe cases, impossible for a chicken to eat on it’s own.
What Causes Cross Beak?
Cross beak is a deformity. It can be genetic and it can also occur during incubation or hatching. It can also happen as the result of an injury in chicks.
The American Poultry Association put out a pretty interesting article on a study on cross beaks and the causes of cross beak in chickens.
The findings showed that things like genetics and imperfect incubation and hatching environments could play a role in the development of a cross beak.
Identifying Cross Beak in Chickens
If you are suspecting that your chicken may have a crossed beak, you are probably right. It’s pretty easy to see once the beaks start to cross and happens typically pretty early on.
Pancake was a week or two old when I first noticed the tiniest little shift in her bottom beak.
At this point, she wasn’t having trouble eating. But six days later, she looked like this:
This is when she started having trouble and I had to start researching cross beaks.
Cross beak can progress pretty quickly because chicks grow fast. As they grow, so do their beaks, meaning their cross can get worse.
Every cross beak is different. So keep that in mind when monitoring yours. Your chick’s beak may not be as severe as mine and may only partially cross and can still close with routine trims. They’re all different.
Can You Fix a Cross Beak Chicken?
Despite what some seem to think, you cannot fix a cross beak. A chicken’s beak is part of its skull. Applying pressure will not correct this misalignment and can instead, cause trauma to a chick.
Surgery is too risky for a chick and likely won’t fix such a problem.
I know that the sight of a cross beak chicken is concerning to you, however, cross beak chickens can and do live happy lives, with a few adjustments.
What do you do if a Chick has a Crossed Beak?
You’ve come to the right place. The first thing you need to do is read. You’ve got to fully understand what is happening with your chick and how it will continue to change.
You’ve got to learn the basics of chickens and understand their anatomy. This includes knowing how to find their Crop and determine if they are eating.
This is so important. When a chicken has a crossed beak, their only means of survival is altered. They are unable to peck the ground for food, properly. Even eating out of a typical chicken feeder is difficult for them.
If your chick is able to peck crumble and fill her crop, then you’re lucky. But even so, keep a close eye on her and make sure she is filling her crop a couple of times a day.
It also wouldn’t be a bad idea to start weighing her to make sure she is consistently growing. Weighing your chick in grams on a typical kitchen scale is perfect.
The Anatomy of a Chicken: The Crop
Did you know that chickens don’t have the same type of stomach that other animals have? I had NO idea. The first time I saw the crop of my naked neck chick, I thought she had a tumor and I panicked.
She didn’t have a tumor… she was full.
The crop of a chicken is the “stomach” in a sense. Chickens can’t chew their food into tiny bits so their food gets swallowed and then sits in the crop until it breaks down enough to continue through the digestive tract. This is why providing your chickens with grit is so important. The grit helps to grind and break down the things they eat.
Learning where the crop is and what a normal one should look and feel like is probably the single most important thing you’ll do as the owner of a cross beak chicken.
Having a thorough understanding of the anatomy of a chicken is going to be a big help with your future endeavors.
Knowing the location of the crop is important because, throughout your chicken’s life, you will need to be checking her crop to make sure she is eating enough food. Ideally, you want her crop to fill at least twice a day. If she isn’t able to do that, it is time for some intervention.
Weighing Your Cross Beak
Your cross beak’s weight is also very important. You want to keep track of her weight at all times throughout her life. Weighing her in grams will be the most beneficial for you because you can see the slightest change in weight.
You want your chicken to increase her weight every day for at least the first six months or so. A drop in weight indicates that something is wrong- she likely isn’t getting enough food.
Using a cheap kitchen scale is perfect for this job, In the morning, before feeding, prop your little chick on and jot down whatever you get back from it. Keep a log to see how her growth is progressing and monitor her day-to-day gains.
Beware though, weigh-ins don’t always go as planned…
We tried really hard though. “A” for effort, Beepers.
How to Feed a Cross Beak Chicken
Now we are down to the important stuff. You are wondering how you are going to feed your little cross beak.
It’s not as scary as you might think. A lot of times, cross beak chickens can feed themselves. If the cross in their beak isn’t too bad they may be able to still peck at the ground for their food.
The problem comes when the cross in their beak prevents them from being able to grab food.
Using a Deep Dish
Sometimes, your cross beak won’t be able to peck the ground but might be able to scoop food into their beak. If this is the case, using a deep dish can be helpful to ensure they can eat.
Instead of having a barrier, like the ground, behind each pellet of food, there is room for their beak to scoop up food.
When Pancake was a teeny baby, she ate straight from the feed bag for a while. She wasn’t successful eating from a regular feeder with the other chicks but once she was in the bag she was able to fill her crop.
Eventually, Pancake’s beak became too crossed for her to scoop dried crumble. So we moved on to the next step.
In the cross beak world, you will hear the word “mash” a lot. Mash is just wet crumbles or pellets. You can add a raw egg to it and water until you get a consistency that is soft and sticky but holds together enough that they can scoop it with their beak and it’ll stay together instead of falling out.
A lot of cross beaks do well on mash. You can experiment with the consistency to make it perfect for your chicken. From that soft, almost dough like texture, to even a thick yogurt consistency, you have a lot of play room when it comes to mash.
The only issue I seemed to have with it was that it was MESSY. Pancake loved to put her whole body into it.
Being sure to provide mash to your cross beak at least three times a day is essential. When you are to the point of needing to provide mash for your chicken you have to remember, they are unable to pick up extra food or bugs from the ground to provide nutrition. At this point, they are reliant on you for their food, so being adamant about providing that food consistently is important.
If mash isn’t successful for your cross beak, another option is hand feeding “torpedos”.
Torpedos are long and slim “pieces” that you would make out of your chicken’s food. Putting crumble or pellets into something like a coffee grinder or a food processor will grind up the food into “flour”. You mix in raw egg yolk, Avian Health Shake (more about this in a minute), and enough water to make a “dough” that is pliable enough for you to roll out torpedo-shaped pieces that are also solid enough to stay shaped. Adding a small amount of coconut oil to the dough once it’s stiff helps to reduce any tackiness.
Placing these pieces into your chicken’s beak and safely helping to guide it down is a great way to help get nutrition into your bird. And they will love it. Sometimes all you have to do is hold the piece steady and they’ll be able to grab it.
Images shared by members of Crossbeak Poultry in Motion.
Avian Health Shake
Avian Health Shake is a supplemental feed/additive that you can purchase to help boost the nutrients your bird may be missing out on from not being able to feed itself. This shake is especially beneficial for cross beaks and can also be fed to sick or injured birds needing a nutrient boost.
I am a big fan of this shake and it was approved to be added to Pancake’s food by a vet at LSU Veterinary Hospital back when Pancake was in ICU.
If you can swing it, I highly recommend it. They also offer tube feeding supplies when you purchase the shake. Having a cross beak, you should always have tube feeding supplies on hand and ready to go.
Syringe feeding is another option for birds who can’t scoop their food due to the severity of their cross beak.
Instead of making the food into a dry and dough-like mixture, adding more water will make it into more of a shake or smoothie texture. Add enough water to it so that it can pass through the tip of a syringe. Slowly, you can express drops into the beak of your cross beak so that she can swallow.
This isn’t necessarily a way to “force feed” a chicken, however, putting the food into the beak will encourage the bird to swallow it.
Be extra careful not to push the food far into the mouth or down her throat. There is the risk of aspiration when you push the food too far back. Always be sure that your chicken’s tongue can work the food down.
Tube Feeding / Crop Feeding
*Disclaimer*: I am not a professional. Please do not attempt to tube feed a chicken with information you’ve found on an infographic or a YouTube video. The risk of aspiration or death is extremely high when attempting to tube feed a cross beak, or any bird for that matter. For one-on-one instruction on tube feeding your chicken, please visit Crossbeak Poultry in Motion and message one of the Admins. It is thanks to them that Pancake is alive today and now Beep Beep.
“Tube feeding” and “crop feeding” can be used interchangeably here.
Tube feeding a chicken consists of expressing food from a syringe with a feeding tube connected and inserted past the airway, directly into the crop.
This is the method of feeding that I use for Pancake and Beep Beep. Pancake can no longer protect her airway due to the structure of her beak and where her tongue sits. So allowing her to feed herself is risky. I’m very thankful that I learned how to tube feed her because ever since I started, she has been thriving.
Beep Beep is capable of feeding himself bits of mash, he just isn’t too good at it. So I also tube feed him. Tube feeding takes me just a couple of minutes and I do it every morning and every evening.
Tube feeding allows me to control just how much food they are getting and their water intake.
Learning how to tube feed isn’t just beneficial for your cross beak, it also benefits the rest of your flock. I’ve had to tube feed sick and injured chickens who were too weak to feed themselves. Knowing that I can take care of one issue, at least, when one of my chickens goes down is a big relief.
Making Food for a Tube-Fed Chicken
Similar to making torpedos or food for syringe feeding, you are going to start with grinding up pellets or crumble into a nice smooth flour. You’ll want to make sure there are no clumps in the mixture, so if you can, strain it out with a mesh strainer.
My mixture consists of flour, Avian Health Shake, egg, and water. I put it in my Ninja IQ cup and blend it until it’s smooth. Making sure that the consistency of the mixture is smooth enough to pass through the tube is essential.
We have had way too many explosions from having to force the syringe and something popping off..
For more information on tube feeding, please contact the Admins over at Crossbeak Poultry in Motion
How Much Should I Feed my Cross Beak?
Your goal for feeding your cross beak chicken is a full crop, at least twice a day.
However, the amount it takes to get there is dependent on a few things- your chickens ability to eat, her weight, her age and her anatomy.
You’ve got to know your chicken, here. Does she eat on her own at all? If so, you may not have to feed as much, The less she can eat on her own from the ground, the more you will have to fix for her.
Each chicken’s crop will hold a different amount. It might not be a huge difference, but it does vary. Pancake gets 120ml twice a day and Beep Beep only gets 60ml twice a day. His crop doesn’t hold as much as Pancake’s. If he gets any more than 60ml in a feeding he will end up “vomiting”.
Feeding amount goal= a full crop at least twice a day. AIm for 3 times a day for growing chicks.
Grooming a Cross Beak Chicken
Believe it or not, chickens like to groom themselves. They take dust baths, clean their feathers and they maintain their own beak.
Pancake and Beep Beep are cleaner than my dogs… they don’t find the deadest thing outside to roll in on a daily basis.. and they sure don’t eat the fresh cat poop every morning.
If you know anything about chickens, you know that they preen. A lot.
Preening is how they get the sheath (coating on new feathers) off of their feathers. They’ll preen themselves and they preen others. They preen with their beak.
Since your bird’s beak isn’t aligned properly, you’ll notice that she isn’t getting the sheathing off of those new feathers as easily as other chickens.
It’s important to get the feather casing off of their new feathers because if it stays put the feather weakens. Feathers are important for a chicken to maintain their body temperature at a safe level. So you want the integrity of their feathers to stay optimal.
You can help your chicken “preen” by gently massaging the feather between your fingers from the base on up. This will break the waxy coating and you’ll be able to get it off. I now do this subconsciously with every chicken I hold. They love it.
A healthy chicken with a normal beak is very efficient at keeping their beak trimmed and filed down. You’ll notice sometimes that your chicken will wipe her beak on a surface, usually a rock, brick, concrete or hard surface. She’s filing and cleaning her beak when she does that.
Unfortunately, cross beaks can’t do that like a regular chicken because of the angle at which their beaks grow. So you’ll find a largely overgrown top beak, usually.
Thankfully, we can trim their beaks down. Their beaks grow like our fingernails. Using dog nail clippers or a pet-safe Dremel can help keep their beaks filed and trimmed at a safe point. I do not use clippers due to the risk of cutting too short.
A note of caution- keep a clotting agent (Kwik Stop or cornstarch) on hand during beak maintenance. It is very easy to clip too far and cause trauma to the beak. Always do very small amounts at a time, careful not to cut too short.
Do Cross Beaks Live as Long as Normal Chickens?
This is very dependent on the chicken. We don’t know if having a cross beak, alone, leads to a shorter life span. If genetics caused the cross then is it possible that genetics may cause another issue along the way?
Cross beak chickens who live outside and don’t have human interventional help may not live as long as a normal chicken just due to the fact that they can’t feed themselves properly. This is why it’s important to know and understand your bird.
What we do know is that with observation and adaptation, we can help cross beaks live a long and happy life. I can only hope to have Pancake for another 17 years. The thought of her dying shatters my heart.
Support and Resources for Cross Beak Chicken Owners
After realizing what was happening with Pancake, I quickly learned that the resources available to cross beak chicken owners were very limited.
Thankfully, I stumbled upon Crossbeak Poultry in Motion and Crossbeaks and Special Needs on Facebook. These groups were a ray of sunshine for us. Everything I have learned, I can safely say, has come from those groups.
Knowing that I wanted to help my little chick to survive instead of culling her made it difficult when asking for advice elsewhere because everyone said how cruel it was to keep her alive or how much work she would be and how it wasn’t worth it.
These groups though, are filled with supportive members, pet chicken lovers and helpful admins who are always right there and ready to help with any problem you may have. They have helped to save Pancake’s life many times. I am so thankful to have found them.
For more information and support, join the Facebook groups mentioned above or you can reach out to me, anytime. I’d be more than happy to help.
Do you have a cross beak chicken? Share a picture with me. I would love to see!