Hand-rearing parrots: some basic guidelines
By Tony Silva
After the essentials of proper bird care, the next biggest source of questions I receive on a daily basis involves hand-rearing. The types of queries typically suggest a misunderstanding of heat requirements, diet, hygiene and weaning. Many aviculturists also erringly believe that all species can be treated using the exact same methodology. My intention here is to significantly reduce the cases of morbidity and mortality that I hear about when someone with little experience decides to experiment with hand-rearing.
In this article, my goal is NOT to encourage someone to take the young from their parents and experiment with hand-rearing; rather, the intention is to provide a framework for those that are intent on trying hand-rearing but may not have a full understanding of the process and requirements for success.
Hand-rearing was developed in the New World. The first written references to hand-rearing date back to the era of Discovery, when the conquistadores recorded that Amerindians took nestling parrots from the nest and reared them for pets, feeding them on a macerated mash from the mouth. Columbus acquired some of these birds and returned to Spain with tame Cuban Amazons Amazona leucocephala that were used in the processions that followed his first trip in 1492.
In the US, the proximity of the tropics and availability of tame young conures and Amazons from Cuba, Mexico and Central America is what I believe contributed to the refinement of this technique. Aviculturists saw that the resulting tame youngsters could become perfect pets and began to experiment. Harriett Lee, Velma Hart, Dave West, Ken Wyatt, K.C. Lint, Ferne Hubbell, Ralph Small and other early American aviculturists contributed significantly to the development of the technique and many of their principles are still in use today.
So long is the history of hand-rearing in the US that the first commercial hand-rearing formulas, brooders and gavage needles were produced and marketed by American companies. American aviculturists were already breeding from hand-reared young when European and Australian aviculturists were shunning the process, believing that the young produced would be inferior. Indeed, the ever-growing mountain of evidence suggests that when properly socialized hand-reared birds are merely tamer versions of parent reared young. As an example, hand-reared Scarlet Macaws are being used in the reintroduction program in Costa Rica, the survival rate being the same as in chicks fledged in the wild.
This entrenched perception that hand-reared birds are inferior is still held by some aviculturists, particularly in central and eastern Europe—Spanish and Portuguese breeders commonly rely on hand-rearing to provide tame young for the pet trade– but even these stalwart central and western Europeans are rapidly converting to become hand-rearers as they realize that breeders from Vietnam to India, from Taiwan to South Africa, from Mexico to Brazil and from Canada to New Zealand regularly take the young from the nest for hand-rearing. During my last visit to Australia, in 2014, after a hiatus of about two decades, I found that hand-rearing was now a common practice. The same happened with New Zealand during a visit in April 2015.
Many factors can force the breeder to hand-rear: A pair that lacks experience may not feed the young sufficiently to permit them to grow, inexperience on the part of the parents can often contribute to losses, illness on the part of the hen or young may impede success, or the clutch may be so large that the smallest are crowded out at feeding time and would perish unless removed. Some breeders do intentionally take the young. The reasons for this may range from producing tame young for pets to the need to produce a larger number of chicks each season. With species that normally rear a single clutch per year, such as Amazons, the pair can often be induced to produce a replacement clutch if the young are removed at a young age.
Before ever attempting to hand-rear, I highly recommend spending time observing someone perform this task. So many variables can come into play that it is impossible to describe every scenario in writing. By watching the process repeatedly, the subtleties displayed between young (even of the same species) will become evident. This visual experience will allow the breeder to perceive the way chicks should be held—the head should never be restrained, or swallowing will be thwarted—and of the importance of contact points along the bill, which induce a feeding response. In neo-tropical parrots this contact point is very visual in the form of soft, bulbous pads along the commissures of the mouth. In African Grey Parrots Psittacus erithacus this is near the base of the bill.
The next important step is to have the necessary hand-rearing equipment on hand. The list of items and some observations follow:
- A brooder. Nearly all species of neonate parrots will require heat. As they age and they begin to feather, the chicks can thermoregulate themselves and supplementary heat will not be required.
A good brooder is a prerequisite for success. By referring to a brooder I am visualizing a professionally made piece of equipment that is calibrated, reliable and capable of maintaining a temperature as high as 37 degrees Celsius. A brooder is NOT a cardboard, wooden or Styrofoam box with an incandescent bulb for heat. Yes that bulb will generate heat, but the heat can be difficult to control and the light will keep the young permanently in a bright environment—an unnatural event for birds that naturally nest in a dark cavity or produce a nest of raddled twigs wich is dark. Keep the young in a dark, warm, humid environment that is stable and does not fluctuate as a result of changes in room temperature. There are enough reliable brooders available at a reasonable price that the aviculturist should not improvise.
- Brooder temperature. The smaller the young, the higher the temperature required; the more feathered it becomes the less heat required. Behavior will be the primary gauge as to what is the ideal temperature.
My recommendation is to start newly hatched young at a temperature of 36.6 degrees C. This heat is required by most species. In newly hatched Eclectus Parrots kept at a lower temperature, the chicks become hyperactive to warm themselves, suffer bruising of the limbs and become dehydrated.
At the ideal temperature, the chicks should not pant but they should not be shivering. A classic sign of chilling is slowed digestion. When chicks are content, they sleep long periods of time. In a group they will huddle together, or stay slightly separate. As they age, the temperature can be reduced slowly. Once outside the brooder, we place them in tubs partly covered with a towel. They are then maintained at room temperature.
- Brooder humidity. I recommend keeping the young at between 40-50% humidity. This will keep their skin supple. Humidity is an important consideration and in the wild is increased by adding fresh leaves to the nest. If inadequate, the young can become dehydrated or their skin will begin to flake off.
- Comfort is in numbers. With very few exceptions, most parrots lay more than one egg; some produce very large clutches. Evolution has created a certain comfort in a group. We always keep more than one chick together—from birth to weaning. They will display a greater level of comfort and better weight gains than if singly kept. I do this even with species that produce a single egg clutch. The end result is a much happier young.
My goal is always to keep the same species together, but if this is not possible grouping of different genera is not a problem.
- Nesting substrate. Except for the few species that nest in cliff faces, where sand is the most common substrate, parrots have evolved to use a wooden substrate on which to lay and rear their young. They produce this covering by chewing the slivers from the inside of the nesting cavity, or they can be seen carrying material to the nest. In the wild Galahs will add eucalyptus leaves to the nest, or in captivity pieces of willow, bamboo or palm fronds to produce a distinctive passerine-like nest. Other cockatoos will carry anything found within their enclosure into the nest. The Quaker Parakeet will carry more comfortable material into their twig nests on which they can lay and rear their young. All of this suggests that the young should be kept on an absorbent, comfortable substrate. We use a soft pine but other breeders utilize cellulose, dried crushed corn cob, tissue or towels. I prefer the pine because it is highly absorbent and keeps the young parrots, which are fed a constant dose of liquid formula and defecate continuously, dry and clean. We change the substrate multiple times daily. Irrespective of the substrate used, the key is that the young never be allowed to sit on a wet, soiled substrate.
Over the years I have seen breeders that keep their chicks on wire mesh. The argument is often that the chicks would eat the substrate. I find this practice unnatural and prefer a softer lining. But if the young are to be kept on mesh, then it should be a soft, plastic coated mesh—never wire, which can cause bruising of the soft tissue.
As to the argument that chicks will eat any soft substrate on which they are kept and this is why the mesh needs to be employed, I must point out that in virtually every case where I have seen ingestion of the substrate, it is a result of the chicks being hungry. Young whose appetite has been satiated will sleep long periods of time; they will not be biting at each other trying to extract food from one another, or calling frantically trying to get your attention, or eating the substrate to satiate their hunger.
- Water quality. Nestling parrots have an underdeveloped immune system. Water with a high level of pathogens will make them sick. Use bottled water or boil the water and store it in a refrigerator if your water is suspect. Wash all utensils with the same boiled or bottled water, or your efforts will be undermined.
Allow me to explain why I always stress good water quality. Earlier this year I visited a breeder that was doing everything right—except that the instruments used for feeding the young and the formula preparation bowls were being washed with tap water. The accoutrements were apparently allowed to air dry and this was believed to have a sterilizing effect. But it did not; had the utensils been exposed to the sun, perhaps then the pathogens would have died. When I recommended that the instruments be cultured, the breeder was hesitant, but at my insistence swabs were taken from inside the syringes used for feeding the young. The culture plates showed a heavy growth of coliform bacteria within the day. It was this bacteria that was the direct cause of the morbidity in the collection.
- With the ready availability of commercial formula preparations that only require the addition of water, I can never understand why some breeders still conjure up their own versions, which often display an improper vitamin, mineral and calcium ratio. The commercial formulations are balanced and have been empirically tested. For the vast majority of species reared in aviculture, they only require the addition of water.
For newly hatched young we employ a more liquid formulation, but as the young age the consistency thickens. We try to make the formula the consistency of porridge once the chicks are a few weeks old. We do augment the diet with peanut butter for macaws and Golden Conures, two species that feed their young on relatively fatty diets in the wild, but apart from water this is the only addition to the commercial preparations.
The formula brand you select should be readily available. It is not good to switch from brand to brand because the one you chose is irregularly available. Select one brand, test it and if it does not produce the desired results after the young are weaned, switch to another. Ask fellow breeders in your country about their experience with a specific brand.
The formula should be kept in a sealed container preferably in a cool, dry place. Once mixed, the excess should be discarded. It should not be reheated. If possible, do not return the feeding instrument repeatedly to the receptacle containing formula in order to continue feeding other young. Ideally you should insert the feeding instrument only once into the formula to prevent cross contamination. This can be achieved by using multiple syringes for feeding the young: fill them all at once and do not refill them before they have been thoroughly washed and disinfected.
- Formula temperature. We try to feed the formula at 40 deg C. At this temperature chicks readily accept the formula. Cool food will be rejected; the young will barely swallow the formulation, except when they are gavage fed, when they have little control of their intake. If it the formula is too hot, the chick´s mouth and crop will be burned. When heated in a microwave understand that hot spots will be created and that the formula temperature will continue to increase after removal from the microwave. Boiling water using a conventional pot or even the microwave, mixing the heated water with the formula and then stirring the preparation until the desired temperature and consistency has been attained is the ideal preparation mode. Also, buy a good calibrated thermometer—do not rely on you finger, palm or the back of the hand. Visit any professional cook and you will see how tolerant they can be of heat and you will understand that the finger, palm or hand are not an accurate gauge!
- Feeding tools. Plastic pipettes and droppers with the tip cut at an angle, stainless gavage needles attached to a syringe, syringes of various types with or without a piece of catheter tube, a spoon with the sides bent upwards to form a funnel and even a ketchup bottle with a piece of catheter attached to the tip can all be used for rearing young. After having tried every imaginable tool (including a meat baster, straw and crimped can), I have settled on two: a small demitasse spoon with the sides bent upwards for newly hatched chicks, as this is natural and encourages feeding; as the sides of the spoon comes in contact with the commissures of the mouth, the chick will begin to pump. After about a week we employ a stainless steel catheter attached to a syringe. We have different gavage needles and utilize the one most suitable for the particular young.
- Clean is the dogma of the hand-rearer. Unless you follow an extreme hygiene policy, you will experience problems; it will only a matter of time before problems arise. Feeding tools, brooders and everything that comes in contact with the young should not be kept in a kitchen or bathroom, where pathogens can abound. Placing syringes, feeding needles and bowls used for mixing formula washed in the same sink where you wash raw chicken, fish or meat, wash soil laden vegetables or place your potted plants to water is an absolute no-no—unless you thoroughly wash and disinfect the sink and surrounding area each time.
Each year I visit dozens of aviculturists. Some have tremendous experience; others are novices. In one case I saw the hobbyist´s young daughter play outside in the yard, then come inside, reach into the brooder and bring me a young Green-cheeked Conure to look at. The girl´s father kept tacit; the girl apparently handled the young parrots quite regularly. But the girl had not washed her hands and when I broached the subject, the breeder turned white: he had never given thought to the possible contamination of the chicks and breeders.
In my opinion, baby parrots are not toys and should not be handled by children. If they are allowed to handle the young birds, then they must wash and disinfect their hands.
An understanding of hygiene is a key element to success. Everything coming in contact with the young parrots must be kept scrupulously clean. Feeding surfaces, brooders, tools, hands, tubs used to hold the chicks and everything else must be washed first with soapy water and then disinfected. This is necessary because organic matter can and will undermine the killing properties of the disinfectant you are using. As an example, I have forced hobbyists who wipe everything with a diluted chlorine solution to perform cultures, only to be amazed that the surface was not as clean as they argued and firmly believed.
- Dispensing antibiotics, antifungals and anti-protozoa medication should not be part of the daily routine. When you use these regularly, there is a management flaw and this must be addressed. Medications should not be used prophylactically but rather should target specific illnesses. Under virtually all circumstances, maintaining the young at the correct temperature, employing the proper hygiene protocol and using a good formula can avoid the use of medications. If you must constantly employ medications, something is seriously wrong. The causal factor needs to be identified and corrected.
- A good gram scale that reads to multiple decimal points is an important tool in the hand-rearing room. The young should be weighed before the first feeding. The baseline reference can be found in many books, or the breeder can create it by recording data for every chick produced, then referencing this information as necessary. Weighing is important because it allows problems to be detected long before it would otherwise become evident.
- At what stage do you take the young to commence hand-feeding? The answer to this question depends on many factors: the species you are breeding, your schedule, the rearing abilities of the pair and your ultimate production goal. Some species like conures are very easily reared. Caiques and Galahs can be a challenge to rear from hatching. Allowing the pair to rear the young for at least a few days or ideally two weeks should always be the goal. By then the young will be larger and sturdier. Newly hatched chicks in my experience should be fed every two hours from 0600-2300 hours irrespective if they have food in the crop or not. Some may not agree with this schedule, but it is based on field experience. If the parents keep the young full almost continuously, why should we deviate and change what is natural?
If your schedule means that you will be away for much of the day, then the older the young the better. There is, however, a stage where the chick can prove difficult to feed. Handling it while in the nest and possibly even offering it a feeding from syringe or other feeding instrument while still with the parents can make this segue less traumatic. But this requires a very tolerant pair. Decades ago I tried this with a Yellow-shouldered Amazon. As soon as I closed the nest door and allowed her back inside, she entered and killed one of the three youngsters.
If the pair tolerates intrusion and are feeding the young, then perhaps you can supplementary feed the chicks to make then tame while allowing them to fledge with the parents. With species such as Amazons and Ring-necked Parakeet this will mean a single clutch will be produced in the year. This may be sufficient for the aviculturist and would be worth attempting if you lack the necessary time to be a nursemaid to parrots—a 7-day task that starts before sunrise, extends beyond sunset and can last for much of the year with species that are continuous nesters like Eclectus Parrots.
When hand-rearing, avoid mixing parent-reared young with chicks that were incubator hatched. They will have different gut flora or exposure to different pathogens and can sicken each other when mixed. Rear each group separately and employ all of the necessary precautions to prevent cross-contamination.
- Not all parrots are the same. Some newly hatched chicks are initially fed by their parents on their backs. Others have a propensity to throw themselves on their backs after feeding. Caiques are notorious for aspirating during their first few days of their lives. Placing them in a small espresso coffee cup lined with tissue can stop such incidences. We use disposable paper cups. The tissue restrains the chicks in a standing fashion and deters aspiration. For African Greys we keep them in deep tubs, as once they start feathering they begin to kick all of the absorbent substrate out of the tub they are maintained in.
- This is a traumatic stage for both the young, who are hungry, want to shed the excess weight they gained while growing up in order to take to the wing and do not know how to feed themselves, and for the breeder, who will be trying to feed a young with no interest in food and whose sole objective is to fly. Patience is key at this stage. Some species are much better than others. Green-cheeked Conures can nip mercilessly; Eclectus hens first become aggressive and then they cry incessantly; cockatoos will simply sit and beg; and Amazons will try to skirt you and take off to exercise their wings. Introduce the young to as varied a diet as possible, including colorful pieces of fruits and vegetables, wheat bread, pellets, seeds, etc. We provide a bowl containing some pellets, seeds, fresh corn, peas, steamed carrot and broccoli, a piece of wheat bread and cracked nuts. The food is offered in small amounts but changed often. This is to encourage weaning.
During weaning, try to feed the young at least once during the night. We feed twice daily at this stage because starvation will not encourage weaning but will make the begging more recalcitrant.
Keeping several young together can help encourage weaning. We also try to keep them near a bird that is eating by itself, so they can observe and learn.
- Pet or breeder? When you hand-rear, you must know whether the young will be kept as a pet or made into a breeder. With both, we provide toys and enrichment, as this is the starting point in producing a bird that is emotionally stable and happy to play with others or by itself. If the bird is to become a pet, then multiple daily cuddling sessions that include training to step up and down are important. For future breeders, avoid imprinting and encourage chewing, interaction with other birds and flocking behavior. This can make a difference when the birds are finally established for breeding. We have not had any problems with birds reared to understand that they are birds becoming future breeders.
Hand-rearing is a time consuming task that not everyone can perform, but it can produce a deeper understanding of the species you keep and can produce birds whose stamina, size and breeding potential will equal those that were parent-reared. When learned, hand-rearing can be a rewarding experience.