Veterinary Assessment of Shipping Live Birds as Airmail
Jean Cypher, DVM, To Whom It May Concern
For the past two and a half years I have worked in an exclusively avian practice. We treat neonatal birds daily. These range from parrots, songbirds and pigeons to domestic and wild fowl and farm birds such as ducks, pheasants, peafowl, chickens and ratites. In the latter groups, the most common illness we see is malabsorption of the yolk sac, usually stemming from problems in the nursery environment.
The USPS regulations on chick mailings seem to arise from the fact that the yolk sac is the neonate’s main source of nutrition for the first 24-72 hours. But this is a fatally simplistic view of young birds’ requirements. Most birds will not absorb their yolk unless kept in ideal hatchery conditions. It is difficult to imagine how these conditions can be maintained during postal transport.
Even if ambient temperatures are mild, when chicks are crowded, those in the center will be overheated and those at the edges will be chilled. When the air around an individual chick remains below 85-90 degrees F, yolk absorption shows, causing hypoglycemia, reduced absorption of yolk immunoglobulins (immunodeficiency), starvation, and death.
Above 95 degrees F, chicks become dehydrated and can no longer absorb their yolks.
When distressed chicks are returned to an optimal environment, there has usually been irreversible, fatal damage to the kidney and liver (from metabolism of the body’s protein and fat stores). The intestinal tract also slows, causing bacterial overgrowth in the bowel and attached yolk sac. Unabsorbed or infected yolks absorb fluids from the bloodstream and swell up, eventually rupturing. This may occur as late as the 7th to 12th day of life, well after the environment has been corrected.
Similarly, if chicks are jostled, crushed or dropped, their yolks will leak or rupture. It can be a slow and painful death, like acute appendicitis.
Poultry and fowl also require visual stimulation in the first few days of life. They learn to eat and drink by watching the hen and other birds. In a dark box with no food or water, it is impossible for chicks to imprint correctly. Upon arrival, if they are not too weak to self-feed, they may be too old to learn. Poultry breeders call this “starve-out.”
In our practice we find that people don’t realize that birds are a lot like mammals, just more delicate. A day-old chick can no more withstand three days in a dark crowded box than can any other newborn. In 1991, Lufthansa Airlines announced it would no longer accept birds as cargo, citing “. . . a moral obligation to avoid this immense suffering. . . .” I hope the US Postal Service will make a similar decision and end the practice of mailing live birds.
Thank you for your consideration of this issue.
Jean Cypher, DVM, February 16, 1995
Avian Medical Center, Lake Oswego, Oregon
Director, Rowena Wildlife Clinic, Wasco County, Oregon
(541) 478-2584 (as of July 2008)
Barry N. Taylor, DVM, To Whom It May Concern
I have been a practicing veterinarian for 10 years. My practice includes wild birds and poultry that have been raised as pets. In addition, I have kept chickens as pets for many years and consider them interesting and intelligent animals, as worth of humane treatment as cats, dogs, horses or livestock. Although I had been vaguely aware that baby chicks were often shipped around the country, I did not realize until it was brought to my attention by PETA that they were being handled by the US Postal Service with such a minimum of regard for their well being.
The first few days of life is understandably a critical period for any animal. Few people would consider flying a 2 day old pup to a new home or taking a newborn infant on a long car ride, even though its nutritional and other requirements might be met. Similarly, the stress experienced by young chicks, shipped before they are even a few days of age can be expected to have severe effects on their well being, making them more susceptible to dehydration, bacterial, and parasitic diseases.
Most critical of all considerations for these newly hatched chicks is maintenance of a constant temperature of 90-95 degrees. It seems extremely unlikely that even this one basic essential need is being met in the shipping process. In addition, young chicks instinctively peck at anything placed near their feet and are therefore extremely likely to ingest the litter that they are standing in during the trip.
As the litter becomes damp, skin infections and a parasitic infection called coccidia are extremely likely. It is extremely important that the litter be kept exceptionally clean and dry for these birds during the first few weeks of life.
All of these factors are likely to add up to unhealthy or dead birds arriving at their new destination. I do not know what the average percentage of dead birds arriving in a shipment is, but I am sure it is considerable.*
I strongly urge the US Postal service to discontinue the practice of shipping day old chicks.
Barry N. Taylor, DVM
Franklin Veterinary Clinic 39 Hill Road
West Franklin, NH 03235
(603) 934-7179 (as of July 2008)
*Northwest Airlines told The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 7, 2001) that between 60% and 80% of chicks have died on some flights, “often because of excessive heat or poor packaging by hatcheries.” Lawmakers Put Chicks’ Transport Up in the Air, by Devon Spurgeon and Stephen Power, WSJ, 11/7/2001. Northwest spokesman Kurt Ebenhoch explained why Northwest tried (unsuccessfully) to stop carrying live chicks as “perishables: “‘We were receiving crushed packages, they were sending us chicks when it was colder than ten degrees or warmer than 85 degrees, and they were sending us more than we could accommodate,’ resulting in the death of some 30 percent of chicks transported” (HSUS Humanelines, Sept. 6, 2001).
Responses of Newly Hatched Chicks to Inanition
P.D. Warriss, S.C. Kestin, J.E. Edwards
Veterinary Record (1991), pp. 49-53
Newly hatched chicks were kept for up to 48* hours without food and water and compared with a control group of chicks given access to food and water within six hours of hatching. The deprived chicks progressively lost body water and developed increases in plasma volume. They demonstrated a stronger motivation to drink and drank more when offered water, suggesting that they had become dehydrated. . . .
Preliminary observations suggested that significant weight loss can occur even after short periods of transport. This loss may have implications for the chicks’ welfare, particularly as it has been observed that they drink water as soon as they have access to water after only moderate times in transit, suggesting that they may be dehydrated.
A complicating factor is that all the chicks in a hatch are harvested at the same time to optimize the efficiency of the hatchery, and as a result, by the time a hatch is completed, many of the birds will have been out of their eggs for several hours. A consignment of ‘day-old’ chicks will therefore include individuals of different ages. Hager and Beane (1983) reported that in North America earlier hatching chicks could be held in the incubator for up to 36 hours after hatching. For similar reasons turkey poults are not harvested from the incubators until some are two days old. . . .
*In nature, a clutch of chicks normally hatches between 24 and 48 hours – not 72 hours as claimed by industry hatcheries like Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa – which mails baby roosters as packaging material – called “packers” - to customers who did not order them. As noted above, even chicks kept for up to 48 hours without food or water start to dehydrate. – United Poultry Concerns