Hand Rearing Easy or Hard - It's Up to You

Bill Maynard, Tom Ireland


Hand rearing birds has long been a terrifying experience for many people over the years. When hand rearing there are four basic goals co achieve: food, water, warmth, and cleanliness. Before we get down to the basics, let's look at a couple of other areas of importance.

Why Hand Feed? There can be several reasons one might choose ro hand feed a baby bird. 1) The eggs or chicks are abandoned by the parents. 2) The parents do not feed the chicks well. 3) Chicks are abused by the parents; feather plucking, wing and toe nipping are usual signs of abuse. 4) During very cold weather larger chicks and large clutches can not be covered tightly enough by the parents to keep them warm. 5) You may elect to hand feed in order to have a nice tame baby you want to keep as a pet. 6) Pulling chicks for hand feeding also allows you to double or even triple clutch a pair of birds. This produces up to three times the normal amount of offspring. An obvious asset when dealing with a rare or endangered species.

For whatever reason you electro hand raise, you are committed for at least five to six weeks and the case of macaws or cockatoos, you can expect to hand feed for up to five months, depending on what age you pull the chicks.

When to Pull the Chicks. Unless it is an emergency situation, you should retrieve the chicks at about two to three weeks of age. At this age the chicks have a good start including the necessary intestinal flora and only require hand feeding every two hours around the clock. Also at three weeks of age they are far easier to acclimate to the hand feeding procedure than older chicks. No matter at what age you pull the babies, you should have everything ready before hand.

What to Have Ready. First and most important is cleanliness; you can have the best equipment, the best diet, and the best intentions but if your facilities are not kept clean and sterile, you are going to lose babies.

There are several products which can be used depending on what you are sterilizing. For various equipment, not used in food preparation, a solution of Rocal-D or common bleach water can be used. This works quite well on table tops, brooders, tubs, perches, hands, etc. For equipment used in food preparation such as bowls, spoons, syringes, feeding tubes, etc., a solution of Nolvasan works well. It is easy to use and harmless if swallowed. Dr. Susan Clubb, of Miami, has used Nolvasan in the treatment of Candida. Your feeding equipment should be soaked in Nolvasan between feedings. Hands should also be washed before and after feeding or handling the chicks. If your babies are kept in groups, wash your hands before going to the next group. Careful hygiene is not only essential for the birds but for you as well.

If you are going to be hand feeding many babies over the breeding season, a room should be devoted to this purpose. Before placing any babies in the room, the walls, flooring, shelves, etc. should be thoroughly washed and sterilized with a good disinfectant. Once this is done, it should be kept clean and sterilized during the entire season.

Pest control is also very important.

Roaches, rats, and mice are a common problem and if not kept under control will spread or carry disease from one area to another. When setting up your babies do not mix clutches of babies. If one group is sick or infected you don't want to spread it to other containers. One clutch per container!

A basic to remember is "If I would not live in it or eat out of it - why should I expect it of my birds?" Sounds like something that would come from the mouth of your typical "Barnbiologist" but it's a good rule to follow and your babies will thrive.

Baby birds need warmth, however the older the chick, the less heat needed. To provide the necessary heat, a brooder is usually used; it can be as elaborate as an infant incubator or as simple as an aquarium on a heating pad. If you are managing a large number of chicks a room kept at a suitable temperature works well.

Let's consider a few types of brooders. The infant incubator used as a brooder is very accurate and dependable but also expensive. An alternative is to simply use a box, aquarium, or dish tub with a heating pad underneath. Wrap a heating pad in a single fold of towel, place the container of your choice on approximately two-thirds of the pad, and set the heat on medium. The temperature can be altered by turning the pad up or down or by adding extra wraps of the towel around it. A towel should also be placed about one-half to two-thirds of the way over the top of the container in order to hold in the heat but at the same time allow sufficient air exchange. While warmth is important - don't cook the kids! This happens all too often. Too hot is just as deadly as too cold or even more so.

When choosing a container, choose a square container as opposed to a round one. Chicks need to feel secure and will usually pile together in a corner. This corner along with the proper substrate will not only provide security but will also help in the prevention of straddle legs. We prefer to use a corn cob (crushed) bedding rather than wood shavings. Chicks will invariably eat small amounts of bedding. The wood shavings seem to splinter and impact the crop. However, at the first signs of any bedding being ingested, the chicks should be placed on a towel or some similar substrate. Palpate the crop of your chicks on a regular basis to monitor the food digestion and to detect any foreign materials that may be ingested. Some species like macaws are chronic bedding eaters and should be kept on terry cloth towels from the start. No matter what the bird species, a substrate that can be gripped is essential. Dirty cage conditions promote numerous disease problems and for this reason the bedding should be cleaned and changed on a regular basis.


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