to Bring up Baby
A breeder may sometimes choose to remove a chick from its nest for
hand feeding to create a superb, loving companion bird. Removing a
chick by choice, rather than necessity, creates a much safer
hand-feeding situation than when forced to feed newly hatched
chicks. The selected chicks will be over 2 weeks of age and should
be well started in their growth and digestion patterns. The primary
requirement will be to keep the chicks warm and provide a healthy
diet. With some basic knowledge and attention to common sense
principles of dealing with babies, these efforts are relatively easy
and often successful.
Natural parents will usually be more successful raising their young than any foster parent, however not always. Sometimes an emergency substitute parent must be found to hatch and raise young birds. First choice for surrogate parenting is to find another pair of birds to foster the chick, preferably a closely related species. With cockatiels, this is very limiting! The other pair of birds must also be in the same cycle of laying and incubating eggs or feeding chicks to be successful in fostering. This is not always possible. If you keep and breed birds an occasion will almost certainly present itself where YOU must try to hand raise a young chick.
Emergencies seem to happen at inconvenient times so BE PREPARED!
Be prepared to keep them Warm. No infant bird will attempt
to eat if it is not warm. Even it you should succeed in dribbling
some food down its throat it would not be able to digest it properly
without its body warmed to the proper temperature for his age.
My brooder is a converted hospital box. A thermostat was added which maintains temperature to a plus or minus 1 degree Celsius. The heat source is two 60 watt light bulbs, preferably red or yellow. Two light bulbs are used so if one burns out some heat source remains until the dead one is noticed. The coloured bulbs are less stressful than bright light in a 24 hour environment. A dimmer knob was also installed so I can turn down the bulbs and extend their life. All of these items are readily available and can be installed with a minimum of fuss. During and after each use I wipe the interior of the brooder with detergent and water, rinse with clean water and then spray with Avisafe. I allow Avisafe to dry by evaporation before I return the babies. This takes only a matter of 10 minutes. Avisafe is a Vetafarm product that is effective against most of the bacteria and other' bad things' that can contaminate our bird nurseries.
If the chick or chicks sit with their heads up and pant, they are too warm. If they huddle together and shiver, or winge, they are too cool. Adjust temperature accordingly. After the chicks are feathered and until fledging, I prefer to keep their brooding container on a small heating pad, such as a foot warmer. Kambrook (TM) and other brands produce these units, available at electrical stores. Be sure to monitor the accumulated temperature at different times during the day and night. The container can be moved partially off the heat source to provide a cooler area. Once a group of youngsters are feathered they may not need an additional heat source in a reasonably warm area. An inexpensive and invaluable aid is a small indoor-outdoor thermometer. These cost from $19.95 to $30 at stores like Dick Smith Electronics and Tandy. The'outdoor' reading is taken from a probe with a long cord that can be placed exactly where the infants are living and is easily read where it is convenient for the carer to see. My thermometer can be set to read in Fahrenheit or Celsius, indoor or outdoor readings. These use a watch battery for energy, to be replaced occasionally.
Feeding Utensils. Heatproof coffee or teacups normally available with settings of dishes (such as Arco Roc or Corelle brands) are ideal containers for mixing small amounts of baby food. They withstand heat, sterilise very easily and have handles for comfortable use. In my home, hot drinks are only served in larger mugs so all my relatively dainty cups are available for baby bird food. I use a bent and shaped human baby spoon for smaller birds and a shaped teaspoon for older cockatoos. The spoons have been bent in on the sides toward the front of the spoon to better guide the food into the lower mandible of the bird. Other breeders prefer plastic spoons and crop needles or syringes. There are advantages and disadvantages to each method, what you are successful and comfortable using should determine your choice.
If I have several chicks I use a 5 mil disposable syringe. I do not crop feed, but feed towards the left side of the chick as it is facing me. Many babies can be fed very quickly when using a syringe. Weigh the chick each morning before feeding. If no gain or a loss of weight is noticed you will be warned that something may be going wrong before other symptoms appear. Several good electronic kitchen scales with digital readout are available. These can be found for about $50 when on sale. Make the effort to find one that will measure in 1gram increments. 2 gram or 5 gram increments aren't much help when the newly hatched chick weighs only 3 grams at hatching. When the youngsters start to level off their weight gain at about the 4th week of age I always use a spoon so they can wean more naturally. If you insist that the chicks must eat the amount that you want them to eat they will start regurgitating the food and will take longer to wean. (Believe me, you won't like that!)
How to Feed. One of the most common mistakes in hand feeding a newly hatched chick is attempting to feed too quickly after hatching. For 24 hours a baby should have only electrolyte drops at 2 hour intervals, During that time he will have black or green gluggy droppings that are similar to human babies clearing their intestines after birth. Once this material is out of the baby's system he can absorb food. The electrolytes will prevent dehydration or rehydrate the If it has had trouble hatching. I now use electrolytes as the fluid in the food preparation during the first 4 weeks of life. I prefer to use Vetafarm's Spark, formulated for birds. Gastrolyte and other electrolyte preparations can also be useful. From experience I believe that Spark produces the best result. The chicks achieve that delightful, pudgy, chubby feel and look that they do when raised by perfect parents. I find no benefit from the use of yogurt or other items promoted to 'start intestinal bacteria'.
Newly hatched chicks should have 90% electrolyte fluid in their formula. With additional growth the fluid proportion is gradually decreased until it reaches 70% at about 7-10 days. This is usually about the consistency of thickened cream. The feeding mix must be warm or the chick will not eat at all. Touch the spoon to your inside wrist or lip to test before feeding. Newly hatched chicks will need two or three drops of very liquid formula every 2 hours for a day. Intervals between feeding quickly reduce to 6 feeds a day and then 4 feeds a day which I continue until they start to nibble in the weaning cage. The young bird's crop will have some food remaining when the day feeds are due but the first feed in the morning should find the crop virtually empty. If the crop is empty earlier than your scheduled time, try feeding a bit more. If it is not almost empty, feed a bit less, if it is slow emptying a second time, ask for help.
There are many reasons for slow digestion in a parrot infant, most can be successfully treated if noticed early. It is very important to not overfeed. The young chick's crop is obvious at the base of the neck and any food is plainly visible through the skin. Do not rely on the chick to stop when he has had enough to eat. An infant cockatiel and some cockatoos can eat until they are so full they can die. Feed enough formula to cause the crop to comfortably bulge but do not feed so much that the food is visible up the neck. If the chick has formula in the neck area it can aspirate just failing forward in its nest. A happy, healthy baby will usually feed less eagerly when it is satisfied, then settle down to sleep until the next feeding. This is the fat, dumb and happy syndrome and it is the ultimate in success as a surrogate human parent until the critical hurdle of the dreaded weaning stage.
What to Feed. Many personal, home-made recipes for baby bird food circulate among bird breeders. Some of these are very nutritious. Some formulae are suitable only for chicks of ages of 2 weeks and older and are not useful for newly hatched birds. Certain commercial hand rearing foods were never intended for chicks less than 2 weeks of age. 1 continue to have success with Roudybush Formula 3 hand rearing mix and prefer this brand. However, I keep Lakes and Vetafarm hand rearing formula on hand also and have raised chicks on all 3 products to successful independence. These products keep indefinitely in a freezer. If a baby has hatched perfectly and/or has been properly started by its parents before an untimely accident forces the breeder to become a surrogate parent it will digest and grow very well on Roudybush, when used according to directions.
HOWEVER, often the reason a tiny chick must be adopted is stress of some kind such as; neglect, difficult hatch, dehydration, heat, chill, last chick in a big clutch. Mum dropped off the perch from over breeding, egg binding or after a visit from (pick one) hawk, mouse, cat, owl or any other number of incidents. Therefore baby is already under some kind of health risk. I use electrolyte therapy first for at least one feed. If all seems well with droppings and the general look of the infant I then prepare the formula with electrolytes. If I judge that baby may have problems with digestion I start hand feeding with Lakes hand rearing mix, according to the manufacturers directions for the age and type of bird involved. It has alfalfa (lucerne) as an ingredient, and is very easy to digest. As I become more confident about its digestion I add the Roudybush product until it is 100% of the baby food, If the digestion slows down I add Lakes again. When the birds reduce their food intake I change to Vetafarm hand rearing mix. Young birds can be easily taught to eat Vetafarm baby food from a plate or low sided bowl on their own. I offer Vetafarm crumbles in the weaning cage as well as seed on the floor, seeding heads and absolutely anything else I can think of.
Keep Them Safe. As the babies grow, be sure to place them in a container that they cannot climb out of in search of you and another feeding when you are not expecting them. After all your concerned work, losing chicks through carelessness like a fall off the table top or stepping on a baby who has crept under your foot searching for you is heartbreaking. Successfully raising chicks in an emergency need not be an expensive drama. Tiny tykes sit in a small cottage cheese container with a soft facial tissue folded underneath and one or two more tissues crumpled strategically around the baby so he has something to lean on. The tiny soft bones will set spraddled within hours if the chick has nothing to grip or lean on. Don't use the plain wrap or house brand tissues when the chick is newly hatched. The harsher tissues will abrade soft wingtips and just a few drops of blood are a great loss for such a tiny living creature. As the chick quickly increases in size it graduates to a round margarine dish and then to an ice cream container. These not very high tech items are readily available, not expensive, easy to sterilise and easy to replace. Renew clean tissues at each feeding, or more, and change the litter under the tissues when it becomes soiled or smelly. Some humidity created from the dampness of the baby's droppings is beneficial.
Fledging. Once the chicks are climbing out of their ice cream container I keep them in a small bucket or they may graduate to my laundry where a communal cage of 45Omm high, 750 long and about 40Omm front to back awaits. I have positioned a light bulb in one end with a low wattage yellow or red bulb for the extra comfort of warmth after the abrupt change from Mom's company in the kitchen. This unit sits in a tray with newspaper for ease of cleaning. The chicks remain here until they are completely weaned. An alternative once the young parrot is climbing out of the safety of its container is to transfer it to an area where it can learn to fly safely. An outdoor aviary, well padded with leafy branches or hessian bags at each end is an ideal learning area, but a suspended cage one metre in length also does a very a good job. Diana Andersen illustrates a version in the Guide to Cockatiels and their Mutations, published by Australian Birdkeeper.
By this age and stage of development the youngster is usually not eating from the spoon during midday and can easily be collected when the evening feed is offered. Whatever type of confinement you choose to help you get through the fledging period be very, very careful. Your adorable little chick will suddenly look around and launch itself like an arrow toward any hazard. Concussions and broken necks against an uncurtained window are very common. Failing into a sink or a bucket of water (or a toilet), hot stoves, a startled pet dog or cat are all typically unforeseen hazards that can spell a quick end to your hand raising efforts.
Keep them Clean and Healthy. Many illnesses that young parrots develop can be traced to poor hygiene. Learn to prepare the amount of formula that will be needed for each feeding time. Do not reheat baby food. Fungal invaders such as candida albicans have been cultured in foods exposed to room temperature for as little as 20 minutes. Change the paper towel or other litter used to soak up the droppings when they are obviously soiled. The newly emerged feathers are easily stained and bacteria, present in the droppings can infect tender feet. After each feeding gently wipe the face and neck area clean with a damp cloth or tissue. Some babies learn to enjoy this and will co-operate, most, however, do not want to be confined and tidied up so the surrogate parent has to know best. I use untreated wood shavings (obtained from a furniture factory) in the base of the container and place one or two paper towels on top of the shavings.
Independence. Your juvenile will become stroppy about breakfast and will start to look at you as if you are a stranger. One morning his reaction will be "I'm starving! Yum!", the next morning will be I don't eat that stuff ''Who is this person trying to poison me?". At this point just offer the food, and don't worry. Each refusal from them is one step closer to the magic day when they are independently eating. The midday meal can be omitted when the young bird is observed husking and swallowing seed and drinking water. Be very sure that your parrot baby is drinking water before you release him to independence. He will be very distressed if he only learns how much fun it is to husk and swallow seed without also learning how to drink. I continue to offer the evening feeding until they all refuse. Smaller parrots begin to wean at 4 to 5 weeks and usually are independent with 2 weeks. Birds that have had a health setback will take longer. Provide seeding grass heads and other items for the young birds to nibble on naturally between feedings ... and be very, very patient. Weaning is an extremely critical period for the young birds. They naturally starve themselves to prepare for flying and are more susceptible to bacterial Infections and intestinal upsets. Because they are hand reared, they have received less parental immunities.
Diana Andersen uses a wonderful phrase for this period of juvenile growth. She says, "The babies are immunologically incompetent. " Whether parent raised or hand reared, weaning and the few weeks afterwards is a very critical period in the life of young cockatiels. If you continue to offer normal food at accustomed intervals and if the babies are healthy they will mature and search for solid foods earlier than if you withhold food and they feel anxious. Weaning cannot be taught. Only when the babies are physically and emotionally secure will they wean happily. Eventually, a row of beautifully feathered young birds will welcome you with no fear and even less respect into their aviaries. They will eat all your offerings of fruits and vegies, select a mate naturally and raise their chicks successfully, sometimes allowing you to share in their family joys. The best part of all is that none of these beauties, and their eventual offspring, would be alive without your efforts. This is truly the pinnacle of success as a surrogate parent.
Learn What Works Best for You! I have been researching infant formulae for several years, comparing nutrition, growth rates, results at fledging and maturity and especially subsequent breeding results. Optimum protein content for hand raising cockatiels is 20% (per controlled scientific studies, conducted at the University of California, Davis). Fat content varies in different proprietary brands and some babies seem to not tolerate formula with higher fat proportions. I do not add any products to the proprietary brands other than the combination I described. To do so upsets the very carefully developed nutritional proportions. I am aware of the negative comments about the use of soy in baby foods and I try to keep informed of the latest developments in hand rearing products. I feel comfortable using the Roudybush product and I have had very good success.
Over a 20 odd year period I have hand raised a variety of birds such as red and white tailed black cockatoos, Sulphur Crests, long and short billed Corellas, Galahs, Major Mitchell cockatoos, Eastern, Kings, Redcapped parrots, Western rosellas, Lovebirds, Regents, Port Lincolns, Mulga parrots, Scarlets, Turquoisines, Eiegants, Bourke's and many, many Cockatiels to arrive at the methods I have described above. I've lost some, and raised most to productive independence.
Every baby that I have lost has been a tragic learning curve but no other babies have died exactly that way again. Each year I learn more from my own experiences and, especially, from the advice of other helpful breeders. Since 1982 the advent of commercial specialist products for the avicultural hobby has been amazing. Wonderful new products are being developed in Australia, designed for our problems and conditions. Products are sometimes imported from Europe and North America that are of tremendous benefit. Not all of these products suit our specialist purposes. Each new product or technique must be tested for the benefit of the birds that we want to enjoy. Each evaluation requires at least one breeding season to determine a positive or negative benefit for the birds we personally breed. Rather than Australian Aviculturists being slow to accept new products, I believe that we are, wisely, a bit cautious.
Copyright remains with author.