Although parental care of psittacine offspring has some advantages (such as teaching ‘normal’ bird behaviour), many aviculturists hand-feed babies to increase production and to produce tame, pet quality birds. At other times, baby birds are orphaned, and need care to survive. Some suggestions feeding and general management of young birds are offered below.
When to start
Chicks that hatch in the nest and are being well cared for by the parents may be removed for hand-feeding at any time prior to weaning; however, the earlier they associate with humans, the more comfortable they will be as pets. Because the early stages of hand feeding may be the most challenging and time-consuming, some aviculturists suggest leaving chicks with the parents for a few days up to three weeks. Larger species are usually removed earlier than smaller species.
If incubator-hatched chicks are not placed with foster parents, they are totally dependent on hand feeding. Because the yolk sac provides initial nourishment, hatchlings need not be fed formula for the first 12 – 24 hours. Many aviculturists and veterinarians advise feeding fluids (eg Lactated Ringers Solution) during this time. Very young babies should be fed a very dilute formula; the consistency is thickened as the infant matures.
Keep in mind that, wherever possible, chicks should be reared in groups to enable social behaviour to develop.
The nursery may consist of brooders, hospital paediatric units or similar enclosure that have observation windows and can maintain constant humidity and temperature. Proper environmental conditions are essential for normal feeding response and digestion.
Babies should be watched very closely for evidence of chilling or overheating. With either extreme in temperature, the birds will grow more slowly and the rate of crop emptying may be sluggish. Birds that are too hot will be observed with drooped wings and may be panting. Their skin is often red and wrinkled. Those that are chilled may be shivering and huddled together. Their skin is often pale and feels cold. The ideal relative humidity is greater than 50%; the ideal temperature will decrease as the bird grows feather. Hatchlings should be kept between 32 – 35 Celsius, birds with pinfeathers between 24 – 30 Celsius, and those that are fully feathered can be maintained at room temperature.
Heating pads and reading lights have been used to supply heat in nurseries but these may be unreliable and can create dry environments. A bowl with wet cotton wool can help to overcome this.
Brooder containers with straight sides are recommended over those with rounded bottoms to help prevent leg problems. Bedding substrates such as paper towels, diapers or commercial products for this purpose should be kept clean and dry. Bark, sand, lucerne pellets, etc should not be used. It is important to guard against ingestion of bedding materials.
Baby parrots have a decreased ability to resist disease; thus, cleanliness and disease prevention are extremely important. Sanitation of the brooder, feeding utensils, counter tops and hands is necessary. We recommend using F10, available from the Surgery. It is essential to properly rinse off disinfectants with clean water.
Ideally, babies that hatch from artificially incubated eggs should be isolated from chicks that hatch in the nest.
If you are going to rear chicks for other people, keep different batches isolated. Mixing clutches is a sure way to introduce infection. An outbreak of polyomavirus will not only kill off all the chicks in the nursery, it will also kill off your reputation as a handrearer.
Although the exact nutritional requirements for captive psittacines are not known, many hand-feeding diets appear to adequately meet the needs of young growing birds. Several commercially available preparations require only the addition of water, and hundreds of homemade diets have been used successfully for years. No diet is suitable for all birds. A good rule of thumb in choosing a diet would be to seek advice from us or an experienced aviculturist who has been raising the specific types of parrots you are interested in. Farex or porridge is not a suitable diet.
Hand-feeding diets should be prepared fresh for each feeding, and leftover food should always be discarded, as harmful bacteria will develop rapidly. Mix the food exactly according to the manufacturer’s directions. Many chicks have been stunted because the handrearer made the mix too dilute. Do not heat the food in a microwave – hot spots can form in the food that can burn the chick’s crop. Food temperatures between 40 – 42 Celsius are ideal.
The feeding response of most species can be elicited by gentle finger pressure on the commissures of the bird’s mouth. Baby birds should be fed only after elicitation of a strong feeding response. This allows the food to bypass the tracheal opening and enter the crop. When the feeding response stops, food can easily enter the lungs and possibly lead to aspiration and death. Feeding when the crop is almost empty instead of according to a rigid schedule is advisable.
Babies should be weighed on a gram scale each morning prior to the first feeding, and daily weights should be recorded and monitored closely. Expected weight tables are now available for several species, and your chick should conform to these expected weights. Failure to gain weight, a poor feeding response or a slowed crop emptying time are early warning signs of potentially more severe problems. When these symptoms are noted, a review of the hand-feeding process and examination by an avian veterinarian are recommended.
Utensils used for feeding include pipettes, syringes, bent spoons and tubes. Ideally, a separate feeding utensil is used for each baby, or at least for each clutch. Utensils should not be reintroduced into the formula after feeding. Utensils should be thoroughly cleaned to remove organic material, stored in F10, and thoroughly rinsed before the next use.
When the baby is almost fully feathered and starts to nibble at its toes or bedding material, a selection of foods can be offered in a bowl, even before the hand-feeding process is complete. Foods such as formulated bird diets or soft table foods (cereals, bread, vegetables, corn on the cob, fruits, raisins, sprouts) can be offered. If you insist on weaning onto seed, this can be offered a little later in the weaning process. Seed is a badly balanced diet, and cause many problems in growing chicks if introduced without adequate supplementation.
The weaning process is a stressful time for the baby bird, and weight losses of 10 – 15% are common, as is regurgitation of crop contents immediately after hand feeding in some species. Excessive weight loss may indicate an underlying problem, and an avian veterinarian should be consulted.
If the following problems are noted, veterinary advice should be sought:
- Crops taking more than 6 hours to empty
- Poor feeding responses
- Lack of weight gain, or weight loss
- Excessive thirst in weaned chicks
- Bruising under the skin
- Unexplained deaths
- Leg abnormalities, such as splay leg or turned legs
- Beak abnormalties
- Abnormal feathering
- Overly large head, thin toes or thin elbows.
Hand feeding can be both fun and rewarding. The thrill of watching little pink blobs grow and develop into beautiful birds is almost unmatched in my experience. I would recommend it to anyone!