Feeder Chicks for Reptiles

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Feeder chicks for reptiles

Large constrictor types of snakes and carnivorous monitor lizards are not the most popular of reptile pets. That being said, there are 4.5 million reptile pet owners in the USA, some of which are these larger species. While lizards such as leopard geckos and bearded dragons are the most popular in many places, snakes are king in certain other regions. In Illinois, for instance, snakes are the most preferred reptile pet, with boas being at the top of the preferences. Many of these snakes will not get over 6 feet, such as the ball python, a super popular snake throughout the country. But some species, such as the female green anaconda, can reach nearly 20 feet in length. Feeding these behemoths can be a challenge for new owners. There is a great deal of discussion on various reptile forums about this topic. Not all keepers agree with each other on how many chicks should be fed to their reptile pets and how often.

Reptile Feeding Schedule with Baby Chicks

Feeding schedule for pythons, boas, anacondas, and monitor lizards will depend on the age of the pet being fed.  It will also depend on the species and the animal’s size. 

For instance, feeding items and routines for a red-tailed or common boa will change over time.  The chart below approximates  an average schedule of how often you should be feeding your boa, based on snake age. As a general rule, a meal should weigh no more than 10% of your boa’s weight, and certainly no larger than the widest part of the snake’s body.

Hatchling-6 months: every 10-12 days, then…

  • 6-12 months: every 10-12 days
  • 12-18 months: every 12-14 days
  • 18-24 months: every 2-3 weeks
  • 2-2.5 years: every 2-3 weeks
  • 3 years: every 3-4 weeks
  • 3-4 years: every 4-6 weeks
  • 4+ years: every 4-8 weeks

On the other hand, ball pythons, a snake of relatively the same size, require a different schedule.

Hatchling-3 months: every 5 days

  • 3-6 months: every 7 – 10 days
  • 1 year: every 10 – 14 days
  • 3 years: every 14 – 21 days
  • 4 years+ every 21 – 50 days

Why the difference? Ball Pythons are typically 10 inches at hatching. Boa constrictors are nearly twice that length upon hatching and will grow to be twice the length or more of the average Ball Python when reaching sexual maturity. Both reach maturity at just over three years of age. But Ball Pythons experience a tremendous rate of growth during their first year, whereas Boas need to grow more slowly and evenly, or risk obesity, which they are very prone to. You can see that feeding both species on the same schedule would be very bad husbandry.  Feeding these two species an identical diet is OK when they are over one year of age. But the size difference in juveniles can make feeding certain prey items such as chicks problematic for one, but perfect for the other. For instance ball python youngsters will simply not be large enough to handle day old chicks (DOC), and will need pinkies and the fuzzies for the first 6 months of their lives.  Boas should be able to handle day old chicks easily at two months of age. An adult green anaconda will require as much as 150 lbs of food annually. That’s the equivalent of 4 adult chickens per month! For keepers of some of the larger species, raising their own chickens definitely pays off.  Chickens cost about $12.00 to raise to 3 lbs of weight, while feeder rabbits will cost about $15 to purchase. So chickens will save the large species keeper a bit of money over time.

So how does a keeper acquire and maintain a group of feeder chicks for their reptiles?

Feeding Day Old Chicks (DOC)

This popular and affordable food source is perfect for those species that will get quite large over time.  Live chicks are a nutritious and convenient food source that can be fed live without fear of damage to the reptile. Mice and rats that are fed live can be a threat to the reptile, especially those that have low prey drive and take quite a while to strike. A chick can be safely left in the enclosure with the pet reptile while the keeper goes off to do other things for a while. A keeper should never, ever, leave live rodent prey older than 3-4 weeks in an enclosure with a pet snake or monitor. These prey items are best provided as frozen/thawed offerings at the end of a tongs. Many snakes are fine with this, but some are picky eaters and need the action of live prey to get their juices flowing. This is where chicks can come in handy.

Most sellers of chicks require minimum orders of 25, especially in winter or early spring. The mass of chicks helps to keep each other warm during transfers from one holding facility or form of transportation to another.  In summer, breeders of fancy breeds will ship fewer, but at greater expense to the reptile owner, so this course of action is seldom worth it.

Chicks grow faster than reptiles, at first.  For instance, examine the list below for a comparison…

  • Day old egg laying breed chicks = 37 grams 
  • Day old ball python = 86 grams (average)
  • Day old red-tailed boa constrictor = 57 grams (average)

At 3 months of age, the chick will be a 2.5 lb chicken.  The ball python will be an average of 100 grams (females will be somewhat heavier). The boa, on the other hand, will be about 10 lbs (again females will be heavier). When considering this, you can see why the strategy for feeding chicks to the reptile pet will depend on the species, and its age and growth rate.

Feeding Chicks to Ball Pythons

Keepers of ball pythons feeding chicks will definitely need to wait until the snake is about 4 months old to begin feeding one chick weekly. As the snake grows, it may require two chicks weekly, or an older bird every other week. At this rate of feeding, the keeper will need to either freeze 2/3 of their chick order, or prepare to raise chickens. At three months old, the chicken will be too large for the ball python, so either a chicken dinner is in order for your family, or its time to order more chicks, since you will have run out of feeders that are frozen/thawed at about 3 months. 

Feeding Chicks to Boas

Keepers of boa constrictors are in a different situation, one that makes raising chicks a much more sensible choice. The chicken will essentially stop growing at around 3 months, the boa will not. Keepers choosing to raise feeder chickens will be able to feed adult birds to their pet at 6 months, possibly sooner for females. The growth rate of the predator and prey in this instance is almost perfectly matched. It will take careful observation to avoid feeding an overly large chick to the snake, so it’s best not to begin with day old chicks until the snake is two months old. Then the growth match should be ideal.

Feeding Chicks to Monitor Lizards

Keepers of monitor lizards will find that their adults really appreciate chicks on a regular basis. They should not be fed adult birds if they are smaller species such as savannah monitors. Savys have a slower strike response than snakes, allowing the adult chicken to defend itself and possibly injure the lizard. Chicks up to two weeks old should be fine, however. Many monitor keepers find that supplying enough insects to such large and voracious pets is nearly impossible, and that chicks are a more convenient and cost effective solution.

Raising chicks

Most keepers will want a hybrid plan for raising vs. freezing. If house space is severely limited, then freezing every chick received after the first feeding may be necessary. Those keepers with a bit of space and larger pet reptiles may want to keep some of their feeder chicks alive, in which case they will need proper care. Let’s talk about the minimum equipment needed.

Brooder

Begin with an home made brooder. Ignore all of the well-intended advice on the internet for placing chicks in square boxes or other containers. If you are new at chicken raising, you may not get the temperature right the first go round. Over heated chicks will avoid the central hanging heat source and pile into corners to try to avoid heat stress. Corners allow the ones on top to exacerbate the heat stress and even suffocate the ones below.  This needless loss can be avoided by purchasing a very inexpensive, round cardboard enclosure.

Lighting

Your baby chicks will need lighting.  Then, acquire and install a hanging 85 or 100 watt flood lamp in the reflector.  The 85 watt bulb provides very close to the correct temperature for day old chicks. Red lamps are preferable to cut down on the chicks pecking on each other, but white lamps can also be used.  Place a thermometer in the brooder under the lamp to check your temperature.  It should be 95°F the first week, then reduced by 5° per week after that.  To reduce the temperature, you can either hang the lamp and simply raise it once a week, switch to lower wattage bulbs, or use a lamp dimmer to lower the temperature.

Brooder Bedding

Every chick brooder needs bedding material.  Line the bottom of the brooders with 4 or 5 layers of paper towels.  This makes a good surface for the chicks to get hold of with their feet and prevents "spraddle legs."  Do NOT use newspaper, as it's just too slick for the chicks to walk on. Do NOT use wood shavings for the first few weeks because the chicks may mistake it for food and eat it. Dusty shaving can caused respiratory problems as well.

Baby chick feeders and water

When the proper substrate is in place, your waterer and feeder are next. Sprinkle some chick starter on the paper towels just before you add the chicks.  This will entice them to peck at it and begin eating.  It's a good idea as you place each chick in there to dunk their beak into the water and be sure they get 2 good drinks.  Chicks will instinctively peck at granules on the floor, but some can't figure out what the water is for without being shown.  Don't place the feed or water right under the lamps.  If the chicks get cold they'll crowd together there, fouling the feed and encouraging bacteria build up.

Watch the chicks for a while after placing them in the brooder to help adjust the temperature.  If they crowd under the light within the first ½ hour, they're too cold.  If they move to the other end of the brooder, they're probably too hot.

Replace the paper towels three times in the first week. Tape it down around the edges to prevent chicks from slipping underneath and becoming trapped.  After 2 weeks you can use pine shavings instead of (or on top of) the paper towels to give the chicks something to scratch around and play with.  By two weeks they know what's food and what's not.  To keep the chicks from scratching the shavings into the water, which they will vigorously attempt the older they get, elevate the feeder and waterer on small squares of wood.

Food for baby chicks

Medicated chick starter is cheap and accessible at most farm and ranch stores, sometimes even Walmart. But if the presence of the medication makes you concerned for the reptile pet’s welfare, then it’s alright to feed a formulation intended for water fowl and game birds. It’s more expensive, higher in protein, and sometimes harder to find, but quite safe for the chicks and is amprolium free.

This set up should get you through the first two weeks. After that time, some of the little guys will attempt to use their wings and if the walls of the enclosure are too low, escapes may occur. At this age the birds may be transferred to a pen, even one with square corners. They will be past the ‘piling up’ phase of growth. They will need a small amount of supplemental heat until about 4-5 weeks old, depending upon where you live.  At 6 weeks of age, they will need all of the space and equipment required for adult birds. They will be fully feathered and capable of withstanding temperatures in the 50s F. They will require places for shade and sun, as well as grit for digestion and dolomite for dustbathing.  Ten square feet outdoor space is highly recommended, both for proper exercise and to prevent overcrowding cannibalism. At three months old, it’s probably time to feed them out and order new chicks.  

If you have used a cardboard system for the first batch, its best to toss it out and replace it before the next shipment arrives. If you have used a children’s pool or other plastic enclosure, be sure clean it thoroughly and spray it down with a 10% bleach solution well before (24 hours) your new shipment of chicks arrives. Any keeper that plans on raising chicks for more than 3 days after receipt, even from a reputable supplier with certified stock, needs to be aware that the yolk sac of the newly arrived birds is vestigial, and will be gone completely within 4 days, but what is there upon hatching plays a part in immune function and nutrient uptake. If this seems weird, then consider that poultry scientists consider the yolk sac to be an actual organ, and not just a bag of nutritious goo. 

What should I do with the Yolk Sac?

The yolk sac can become infected in the presence of unsanitary conditions. This is known omphalitis. It is technically non-contagious. Some chicks hatch with a navel that is not fully closed. When that chick flops on its belly to rest and comes in contact with filth, the bacteria can enter the body cavity. The navel may become inflamed and fail to close, presenting a wet spot on the abdomen; a scab may be present. Affected chicks are depressed and anorexic and huddle near heat sources with a drooping head. They fail to gain weight, and there is increased mortality from hatch to two weeks of age.  This is why I recommend sterilization of all enclosure floors and walls, as well as replacement of paper towels every three days at the most.

Why choose chicks over rodents?

So there is a bit of work involved in procuring and maintaining live chicks, no doubt. It isn’t huge, but it does take a bit of effort.  Are they worth it?

There are many reasons a keeper might choose baby chicks instead of frozen rodents or fresh insects (in the case of monitors). Dietary variety, feeding preferences, cost, convenience and safety are all excellent considerations. Chicks are by far the safest live choice for reptiles in need of environmental enrichment and stimulation. Mice, rats, rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs all have strong and sharp incisors that they will not hesitate to use in self-defense.

Baby chicks are much safer for your pet

For reptiles who do not mind incorporating frozen and thawed items into their diet, rodents are a fine choice and should be included in the pet’s diet periodically if feeding mostly chicks. But when it comes to live offerings, chicks are safest. They may offer less of a challenge to the predator, but that is a small price to pay for ensuring that no harm comes to the prized reptile companion during the feeding process. Some keepers with extraordinarily fussy eaters, and many of those will name themselves as owners of ball pythons, feed exclusively chicks to the adults because that is all that their snake will eat. I do not recommend this practice if the diet is day old chick only, since lack of calcium can become a problem.  Inclusion of F/T rodents monthly is preferable. Truthfully however, this is a matter of hot debate in the reptile world, and the concerned owner can navigate this by dusting the chick on its back with calcium powder, just to be on the safe side.  There is agreement that the calcium to phosphorous ratio of DOC is excellent.  

Baby chick nutrition

Other nutritional considerations with DOC vs rodents: DOC contain higher levels of sodium and sulphur (the famous rotten egg smell associated with sulphur), similar levels of copper, and lower levels of magnesium, potassium, iron, manganese and zinc. Of the minerals present in lesser amounts than rodent prey, only manganese is below the suggested minimum requirements.  Excess calcium in the snake’s diet can lead to manganese deficiency, so care should be taken not to get carried away with loading the calcium powder on the already manganese deficient chick. Better to just vary the diet of the snake with the occasional rodent now and then. For older bird prey items, this problem goes away, since the grower ration they will be on after 3 weeks of age will contain plenty of manganese in the form of whole grains, soy and legumes. This nutrition will then be passed onto the reptile pet.  That is one argument in favor of raising chicks to a more advanced age, as long as they are not too big for the reptile to manage. 

How to freeze baby chicks?

What if raising chicks is just not your jam? When you receive your shipment, you will want to feed out one or two right away for environmental enrichment for your pet, and then freeze the rest. I have found that the most humane way to do this is to place 6-8 chicks into a medium sized ziplock bag, seal it and immediately stick it into the freezer. Although the cold by itself will kill them eventually, they do suffer a bit, Suffocation plus cold is faster and preserves the items better.

When it’s time to use them, they need to be thawed. Never, ever, ever microwave them. Place the frozen chick in a basin of hot water and wait an hour.  Some snakes like a dripping wet chick, some like a drier one. Wet chicks seem to be easier for some snakes to swallow. Experimentation here is the key. One other word of advice, whether feeding thawed chicks or rodents, offer the item on very long metal tongs.  This allows the snake or monitor to easily distinguish the transition between your hand and the actual food. Short tongs can get confusing and cause painful misunderstandings.

Other than that, it’s winner, winner, chicken dinner!

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