The first ones I saw in my breeder’s nursery cages were rather like a cross between hairless rats and featherless baby chicks. ‘Aren’t they beautiful?’ enthused their breeder.
I shuddered inwardly.
Some weeks later the situation had changed. Two African Grey chicks had been taken from their parents and were together on the wire floor of the nursery cage with a Scarlet Macaw chick and Amazon; they were still too young to perch.
Is it due to coincidence or has Artha remembered her nursery cage mates? She is always amenable (she’s twenty now) when she meets an Amazon or a Macaw. On the other hand, Casper, who never socialised with chicks of other species as a baby is not friendly with Macaws or Amazons when he comes across them.
On this second occasion of a visit to the breeder, Barrett Watson, his partner Tim Davies put the four chicks on his forearm and brought them out of the cage. They were bright eyed and covered in a mix of down feathers with the true ones coming through; I was ravished with delight.
I was lucky that my first baby bird came fully weaned at 12 weeks from a caring conscientious breeder like Barrett Watson. With over 35 years’ experience, Barrett produces healthy, well- socialised baby birds destined either for a pet home or a breeding home.
A chick is ready to be rehomed when it is eating solid food. That stage varies with the different species of bird. Size is the main factor, the larger the bird the longer it stays in the nest or in the breeder’s nursery.
The tendency now is for breeders to leave chicks longer with their parents before pulling them and hand rearing. Unless you are experienced in hand rearing or have a mentor to close by to assist with practical help, I’d not recommend hand feeding because it is a learned skill, time-consuming and holds many hidden hazards which can lead to lack of thriving and even fatality. Most breeders will not sell an unweaned bird to anyone inexperienced.
When Artha was one and a half, I decided to find her a companion - An African Grey who might become a mate.
They met one another in Barrett’s tackroom. He is a horse trainer as well as a Parrot breeder. At 8 weeks Casper had his red tail feathers curled up like a drake’s. He stepped up from Barrett’s hand to mine. Artha had flown to the top of a his cage from where Casper’s mother screeched at her, put her head to one side. She flew down to my other hand.
‘Now we’ll see,’ said Barrett. Artha leaned over and began to preen the baby’s head feathers. That went well,’ remarked Barrett, coolly
On the way home in the car Artha was unlike her usually chatty self and kept completely silent. I think we had both fallen in love.
Four weeks later, Casper joined our home. He settled down immediately. Sadly they have never bonded as a pair but remain friends.
Well socialised baby birds are adaptable. I held a Parrot evening to introduce a Dutch researcher to my Parrot friends. Several guests brought along pet Parrots. This happened in 2002.
The guest birds and the resident birds are all unclipped and well-socialised - even the youngest guest, 9-month-old Fay, a hand-reared Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo belonging to the secretary of the Parrot Society, Les Rance who is a breeder of more than 300 Parakeets and Parrots.
Fay is destined to go to a pet home. At first, her body language showed some stress; this was her first outing in a large gathering. However, as the evening wore on, she relaxed and stepped up onto any of the willing hands stretched out to greet her. She was the epitome of charm and beauty in a young bird.
There is an opinion that states that hand fed birds make better pet birds. This view is becoming outdated. True, parent reared birds will have to be hand tamed by the new carer. That isn’t too hard given time and patience. Such a bird will be less likely to develop separation anxiety, biting, feather plucking and screaming for attention.
However, if you do find yourself in a situation where you have to hand feed a chick, here are some brief guidelines. As a novice, it will be easier if you don’t try with a newly hatched egg from an incubator or chick rejected by her mother. .
You need to learn techniques of how to hand feed. Ask a breeder if she will allow you to watch. Spend time on YouTube - there are plenty of clips. (I practised a bit of handfeeding, giving my adult Greys syringes of fruit juice; they’re always eager to join in any of my activities.)
Hygiene. If a beginner you cannot be too clean. Handwashing, sterilising equipment, changing the chick’s bedding at every feed. If using towelling make sure there are no loose threads.
Another sensible action is to use different syringes or spoons and put each chick’s ration into a separate container from the main bowl. That way there won’t ever be any cross contamination.
Will you use a syringe, bent spoon, feeding tube (gavage)? Read articles and talk to other hand-feeders about their choice. Different theories abound as to whether to hand-feed with a spoon, syringe, feeding tube, etc. I do not like gavage because the baby bird has so little interaction with you or with the utensil. .
Some breeders of large chicks use a Turkey baster. Crop feeding is faster, spoon feeding with the spoon bent at the sides to imitate a hen’s beak is slower and more natural with less hazards of aspiration or choking.
Which formula to use? Some experienced hand feeders make their own. Northern Parrots have given me good advice when I asked them which one to buy to hand feed 6 week-old Macaw Benni. Most of us will use a commercial one.
They are costly but efficacious. Here again asking around wherever you have seen fine chicks - how were they hand fed? The consistency of formula and the number of times offered changes as the chick grows.
Never reheat any leftovers – no matter how costly the product is. That is a sure method to produce bacteria. Never microwave without stirring thoroughly in case you have unnoticed a hot spot.
Weighing before and after? Should you? Novices do that. (I did for 5 years but now I go by how full the crop is and weigh every few days.) .
The crop needs to be empty overnight. A crop problem can be caused by formula too hot resulting in crop burn. Another can develop from formula not emptying fully and sour crop resulting. Both these conditions - not necessarily fatal - can be. Veterinary intervention will be needed.
If the formula cools too much while feeding, you can keep it warm by placing the bowl in a larger bowl of bowling water which you can top up as the formula chills.
Test the temperature – around 30º C - by putting a spot on your lower lip or wrist (or use a thermometer – a useful implement since you can keep it in the main bowl of formula to check the temperature.)
- Place the bird on non-slip surface, such as a towel or dishcloth. Hold her on your lap or on a table.
- Touch the lower left side of the beak (the bird’s left) with the spoon or syringe and angle the tip of the utensil toward the right side of the bird’s throat. The oesophagus is located on the bird’s right side (it will be on your left as the bird faces you) and the windpipe which you must avoid runs down the centre of the neck. Touching the spoon’s tip to the beak usually starts a response, which involves the bird eagerly ‘pumping’ the food down into its crop.
- Let the food be taken in slowly. Do not stuff it in even if the bird is too young or too weak to resist. How much you feed at each feeding and how often depends on the age and size of the bird. I prefer to feed less and offer more feeds. That is why I prefer the spoon to the syringe because with spoon feeding, as the bird slows down you can gauge her eagerness.
- Smaller species and young birds just hatched require more frequent feedings. By the 2nd and 3rd week feedings are less frequent and larger. You need to take care that the crop isn’t too stretched.
- If you will forgive a slightly risqué comparison a truly expert breeder told me that the crop should feel like a 16 years old’s breast. The crop should feel firm after feeding but should empty within three to four hours. If food remains in the crop for long periods, take the bird to the vet.
The chick is now fully feathered and staggering towards you for what is probably his only formula feed of the day. He is growing up. What happens next? Watch this space.