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Hand-rearing: Some simple basics by Tony Silva

The breeding season has started. This is evident by the number of messages that I receive each week discussing issues that are being faced by individuals hand-rearing young parrots. This quest for information is the subject of this article.

Hand-rearing is a rewarding, challenging, time consuming and frustrating affair. No one can ever claim that they never face issues in hand-rearing, but it is possible to significantly diminish the problems if some very basic provisos are followed. On the other hand, if the breeder attempts to cut corners, the flow of problems will be incessant. They can then expect a continuous chain of events that will severely affect the health of the chicks being reared.

So how can a hand-rearer achieve greater success and reduce the presence of problems?

Two words describe the answer: hygiene and providing a proper diet.

Hygiene encompasses keeping the chicks on a clean substrate, keeping the brooder immaculately clean, thoroughly washing the feeding instruments and then disinfecting them and continuously applying a disinfection policy—wiping surfaces down continuously, reducing dust, washing hands and then disinfecting them and reducing the contact the young have with outsiders.

Proper diet means understanding the importance of the appropriate water: ensuring solid ratio and the dietary needs of the young, feeding the young according to a strict schedule, feeding the formula at the proper tempera ensuring that the formula is made fresh each time. I must state that I do not recommend attempting to mix various ingredients to produce a formula in order to economize. When I get messages regarding this subject, my fire escalates and my response is short and to the point: If you cannot purchase one of the countless formulas available on the market worldwide why did you venture into breeding? The commercial formulations are not optimum, but they produce results far better than someone wanting to rear young on a mashed banana and oatmeal cereal, which are woefully deficient in minerals and calcium.

Let me discuss some of the points mentioned above in greater detail.

Newly hatched chicks have an undeveloped immune system. This makes them especially vulnerable to infection. This is why strict hygiene is important. This is also why chicks that are incubator hatched should be kept separate from those removed from the nest, which have often been fed by the parents and have a different bacterial platform.
With incubator hatched chicks, I start them on tissue but quickly transfer them to shavings, which are absorbent and prevents them from sitting in their feces. In over 40 years of hand-rearing, I have only ever experienced a handful of chicks that have swallowed the shavings. I have such a low incidence of this because I keep the chicks satiated; they are never—and note that the word never is stressed—allowed to empty during the day.

When breeders tell me that they must allow the chicks to empty before the next feeding, I always state that the problem is one related to management and not digestion. In the wild and in the nest the chicks are kept fed at all times. I follow this dictum. Visitors to my home, who have entered the nursery invariably make a comment as to how quiet it is. This is because the chicks are kept fed; they do not have to frantically vocalize or move to capture my attention to let me know that they are hungry.

When chicks are allowed to empty between feedings, they must often be kept singly, or they will grasp and pump each other, this in an attempt to obtain a feed. In the process,  they often damage the tender bill. Raising the chicks alone is unnatural and often produces behavioral issues that become evident much later in life. By rearing chicks together they display a natural behavior and can learn from opening their eyes that contact is pleasurable—they seek warmth from each other, often play preen or mouth each other´s feet. I have observed these same behaviors in nests in which I have placed a video camera.

To maintain the level of hygiene, we change the bedding three times daily; the soiled shavings are used as ground cover for the trees in the yard. The chicks are transferred to clean tubes and the used tubes are washed in soapy water first and then in a disinfectant solution. This means of cleaning must be understood, as most disinfectants lose their properties in the presence of organic matter. By neutralizing the organics, the disinfectant can play its role. We use this same principal of cleaning for all instruments used for feeding, the nursery walls and floor, feeding surfaces and brooders. This task is performed daily.

Because all commercial formulas contain some fat, the instruments used for feeding chicks will need to be washed with soap and water vigorously to eliminate the grease residues.

Feeding syringes are assigned to specific brooders. They are kept in plastic cups that bear a number that corresponds to a brooder. This deters cross contamination. The formula, once made, is poured into the respective plastic cup and from there the chicks are fed.
To deter the introduction of a pathogen into the nursery, we have two separate areas: one for incubator hatched and one for chicks hatched under the parents. The room containing the incubator hatched young are fed first. Simple disinfection procedures are used when going from one room to the other: hands are disinfected, different stocks are used and sandals are exchanged.
Visitors are not normally allowed to enter the hand-rearing rooms, but if they are they must wear a smock, sandals that we provide and they are not allowed to touch or handle the chicks. This is important because diseases such as polyomavirus and psittacine beak and feather disease can easily be transported and transmitted to the chicks through contact.

Commercial formulas are the best product for feeding chicks. They are not excellent, but they are good. I state this because all formulations are based on poultry science and do not take into account the different needs of the different parrot species. What the breeder can do is to incorporate other ingredients to make these formulas much more suitable. These include pureed vegetables for Eclectus Parrots, fat in the form of nut butter for macaws, conures, amazons and African Greys Psittacus erithacus and fruits and vegetables for lorries. We always have on hand steamed carrot, broccoli and sweet potatoes that are liquefied and poured into ice cube trays. These facilities their use when needed. Fruit is always cut fresh. I prefer tropical fruits over temperate fruits, which are less nutritious. The tropical fruits we use are papaya, guava, and mango. Papaya is the staple but the others are also employed if in a season. For fat, we employ natural peanut butter that does not contain hydrogenated fat or sugar. We boost the fat in the formula for all species, but especially for those requiring fat.

This means that 250 ml of formula contain a teaspoon of peanut butter for the non-fat requiring species and a tablespoon for species requiring fat. I do this after having examined the crop contents of many wild chicks, which are invariably fed by their parents the foods with the highest fat content. The fat satiates hunger and deters the desperate agitation seen in hungry chicks.
Areas of important and not related to hygiene and diet are broader and formula temperature. Newly hatched chicks cannot thermoregulate. They must, therefore, be kept warm. We start at 32-33 degrees Celcius and slowly drop this as the chicks feather. Unless they are kept sufficiently warmed, the chicks will become listless or hyperactive as they move incessantly to try and warm themselves, injuring the toes and wingtips in the process. Chicks that are cold also display a slow digestion.

Formula temperature is also important, as cool food will be rejected; hot food, on the other hand, may cause severe burning to the tender crop walls. We feed formula at 40 deg Celcius. We heat the water in the microwave with the peanut butter or pureed vegetables (fruit are added afterward) and vigorously stir this before adding the powdered formula. This is then stirred again until the ingredients are thoroughly mixed and all hot spots are eliminated. This also gives the microwave heated water the opportunity to reach its temperature (which invariably increases after microwaving) and thus prevent burned crops.

If you have issues with a chick not digesting, please do not utilize tonics (which are not intended for birds and often contain high amounts of iron and occasionally arsenic and lead). You can use tea or what I refer to as papaya cream, which is made by adding the seeds and some of the flesh of a ripe papaya to a blender, liquidizing this with some Pedialyte (an oral electrolyte solution) and then passing this through a fine colander to remove any large seed particles. This is warmed and fed to the chicks. The unused portion should be refrigerated, where it will set like jelly. Once warmed it refers to a liquid. This works far better in starting crop motility than any other product I have used. Once digestion has resumed, you can slowly start incorporating formula into the papaya cream.

When crop stasis occurs, it is important to consider the cause: bacteria, fungus or the ingestion of the substrate on which the chick are maintained. These are management issues that must be addressed along with stimulating the crop back into movement.
Future articles will cover each point in greater details. The intention here is to stimulate the breeder into thinking and to start preparing for the upcoming breeding season.

Tony Silva 

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