This is the second in a series of articles I have written on breeding Greys. The first article Breeding African Greys – Part I covered setting up, mating and breeding through the hatching of baby chicks. Part II addresses brooders, handfeeding and caring for the baby chicks. Additional articles on hatching, weaning, fledging and socializing babies will follow.
Cleanliness is not only next to godliness, it can mean the difference between life and death for your baby birds. The brooder should be thoroughly disinfected. A dilute bleach solution may be a good first step. Disinfectants such as OxyFresh, Criticidal and Kennelsol are effective against multiple kinds of pathogens. Flood the corners of the brooder with the disinfectant solution as well as the areas where the walls and floor meet. The brooder should be rinsed and dried after allowing the wet surface contact time the manufacturer recommends.
Before taking the babies from the nest, have your brooder all set up with the temperature and humidity regulated for at least two days prior to pulling the babies. Set the temperature initially at 90 degrees F. If there are three or four babies, that may be a little warm. If there are one or two babies, 92 degrees may be more suitable. Watch the babies – if they are panting, turn the temperature down degree by degree over several hours. Don’t turn it down too much too fast or you may well miss the babies’ comfort zone. Don’t depend on one thermometer – use at least two. If the temperature is too low, there can be serious complications with crop emptying. When the babies are old enough to explore, the thermometers should be removed for safety’s sake. The babies will be most comfortable at 55% humidity. Grey babies are well hydrated if the feces are moist and the liquid portion of the waste is about the size of a quarter.
Avian Medicine: Principles & Application by Ritchie, Harrison & Harrison recommends the following temperatures (all degrees F.):
- Day 1 to Day 7 babies: 95-97 degrees for the first week
- Unfeathered chicks: 90-92 degrees
- Chicks with some pin feathers: 85-90 degrees
- Fully feathered chicks: 75-80 degrees
- Weaned chicks: 68-75 degrees
Avian Medicine further notes: “The actual temperature should be adjusted according to the needs of the individual chick.” Feather eruption is discussed in very general terms: “Feather growth occurs rapidly in neonatal birds and follows a set pattern that varies among species. In general, feather growth starts with the head, wings and tail, followed by feather emergence on the rest of the body.”
All the bedding should be washed first in very hot water and detergent; after the last rinse, disinfect the bedding using the bleach/water ratio recommended on the bleach container. Set the washer timer for 15 minutes. After the last rinse, run the load through the rinse cycle again. It is important that there be no bleach residue left in the bedding. The babies’ skin is very thin and fragile and does not react well to bleach residue.
Make a “nest” for the babies in the brooder by rolling up a bath towel and forming it into a circle. Put a bath towel on the floor of the brooder for softness and place a thick pad of paper towels under the “nest”. Drape a baby diaper or an infant receiving blanket over the “nest”. The babies use the walls of the “nest” to rest against and the circle keeps them from straying. Place a padded container in the brooder if you have enough room so you can transfer the babies to this container when you replace the soiled bedding. To avoid chilling young babies, expose them to room temperature only when they are being fed.
If the brooder has a water well, the use of distilled water will avoid mineral buildup. Add a small quantity of Criticidal, a bird-safe disinfectant, to prevent the growth of unwanted organisms in the water well. Those who use aquariums as brooders can add humidity a couple of ways. A wet sponge in a small container is the safest. When the babies are very small and can’t climb out of the circle, you can use a small quantity of Nolvasan or a couple of drops of Citricidal in a shallow container of water. The more water surface that is exposed to the air, the higher the humidity. Tap water might have cooties in it, so it is best to use a bird safe disinfectant in the humidity water and to use distilled water. The water in the container should be changed every other day or so.
Handfeeding the Babies: Concerns and Techniques
Everything that touches the babies should be disinfected including your hands. I use a laboratory hand cleaner that kills gram negative and gram positive bacteria, fungi, and yeast. Since I use a spoon and a large glass mug for feeding, these items and the metal measuring spoon can be soaked in a very strong disinfectant between feedings. Don’t allow anything that goes into the babies’ mouths to touch your countertop. Kitchen countertops, dish cloths, sponges, etc. can be seriously contaminated with gram negative and other pathogenic bacteria. Place a paper towel on the countertop and put the spoon or syringe on the towel.
Prepare the formula fresh with each feeding – no exceptions. If you are interrupted for longer than 15 minutes, prepare fresh formula. To prepare the formula, measure the water and dry formula powder in a large glass mug. Place the mug in a shallow baking dish and run very hot water into the dish. Some disinfectant solutions may be absorbed by plastic syringes, plastic bowls, or plastic mugs used for formula preparation or handfeeding. Non-porous handfeeding equipment avoids this possibility. OxyFresh and Citricidal are good disinfectants to use for plastics but the soaking solution will have to be changed every other day or so. Feed each clutch separately with freshly prepared formula. Several days’ supply of formula can be kept in a container in the ‘fridge. The balance of the formula should be frozen and the date noted when the formula went into the freezer.
Nutritionally incomplete homemade formulas can cause serious health problems and even death as described in Avian Medicine: Principles & Application. I have had good weight gains and healthy babies using the Kray formula made with Zupreem primate biscuits. The recipe is:
- 1 pound of primate biscuits (ground into powder by blender or food processor).
- 1 pound of ABBA Green 92 Nestling Food.
- 2 ounces of dry baby cereal – the mixed grain variety.
- 1 teaspoon of Spirulina mixed into the dry ingredients.The following jars of baby food are the 4-ounce jars:
- 1 jar of green beans
- 2 jars of peas
- 1 jar of a fruit
- 1 jar of creamed corn
- 1 jar of a meat
- 1 jar of either carrots or squash
Mix baby foods in the blender with 2 cups of water. Measure out 2 rounded cups of the dry mixture. Stir dry and wet mixture; let sit for a few minutes. Spoon the mixture into ice cube trays that have been just run through the dishwasher. Remove and place the cubes in a freezer bag after frozen solid.
To serve – Thaw the number of cubes required for a feeding in the microwave; add a small amount of water to slightly thin; and stir down to cool. Check the temperature of the formula with a thermometer before feeding.
For syringe feeding, the ABBA Green should be run through the food processor for a smoother formula mix.
Use only Zupreem brand in the original packaging for the primate biscuit portion of the recipe. The biscuits, and the dry blend of ingredients in the formula base, should be frozen until used in the recipe.
Avian medical literature covers crop burn, crop stasis, splay leg, stunting, aspiration, constricted toe syndrome, pendulous crop, and other problems. A breeder MUST know how to recognize and avoid these conditions. Be diligent in learning about these conditions for the sake of the babies. This level of medical knowledge is the basic information without which a breeder should reconsider his acceptability as a breeder of these precious birds.
Support the baby’s body and feet in your cupped hands when removing him for feeding. Using too firm a grasp when picking up the baby with the palm across the back and the fingers on the abdomen can cause bruising of the internal organs. The baby will kick and squirm because he doesn’t feel safe when he is picked up in the manner described above.
Loosely make a circle of your thumb and middle finger to support the baby under the jaws as he eats. Cup your palm over the baby’s shoulders during feeding for additional warmth if he is unfeathered. A heat lamp at a SAFE distance can also be used for warmth. A cloth padded container makes a safe and comfortable place for the baby during feeding. The babies can dig their dagger-point toenails into the cloth diaper – paper towels are too slippery.
After you finish feeding, wipe the beak clean with a very warm damp paper towel. If the baby resists the beak wiping, lean in close and softly reassure him. Carefully wipe first one side of the beak, then the other and then the bottom beak. One should never touch or hold the beak of a feeding baby or put any pressure on the beak when wiping it clean. The babies’ beaks can suffer compression deformities or lateral deviation of the beak when pressure is exerted on it feeding after feeding, day after day.
When you return the baby to the brooder, cup him in your hands, his backside toward you so that there is no pressure on his full crop. Allow the baby to fully position himself in his “nest” before you remove your hands. This extra carefulness will pay dividends at a much later time – the babies will feel safe and secure with humans. This is one of the early first steps toward a self-confident and trusting Grey.
Socializing for Bold Babies Begins at Once
Hang brightly colored moving toys in the babies’ brooder so they will come to realize that color and movement is safe. When they are old enough to nibble at the weaning foods, put some small toys on the floor of the brooder – plastic cat toys are small enough for the babies to move around and try to kill. Relocate the brooder at least twice so the babies are accustomed to change from the earliest weeks of life.
Multiple babies can be housed in at least two and sometimes three different cages in different locations with different toys. The different cages, locations, and toys accustom the babies to change and variety. As a consequence, when a baby goes to his new home – it’s “Oh, well….. another new cage.” The baby who is accustomed to change won’t miss a beat digging into his food dishes in his new cage. I had one new owner thank me for selling him a “bird butt”. He said that was all he saw of his bird for the first two weeks. He brought her back to be weighed and she had gained 30 grams in two weeks.
The babies may not recognize you in different colored clothing or with a new hair cut or style or they are startled because baby birds startle easily. Begin from the first day making a soft clucking sound. They may not know it’s you but they come to recognize the sound. This clucking noise is one of the first sounds the babies make – they have heard it so frequently and it is associated with pleasant things happening. A startled clutch of Grey babies are growling gray puff balls.
Monitoring Babies’ Weights – The Essential Measure of Health
Weigh the babies each morning on an empty crop. While weight charts offer a very general guideline, differences in formula and handfeeding technique as well as other variables, can combine to give the handfeeder a false sense of security.
A more accurate way to gauge the progress of the baby is to use the percentage of body weight gained in a 24 hour period – from morning to morning. Subtract the weight on the morning of the previous day from the weight on the morning of the current day.
To determine the percentage, the 24 hour gain is divided by the weight on the morning of the previous day and multiplied by 100. For example: if the baby weighed 13.58 grams on Monday morning and weighed 16.18 on Tuesday morning, he gained 2.6 grams during the 24 hour period from Monday morning to Tuesday morning. Divide the gain of 2.6 grams by 13.58 and multiply by 100. The percent of body weight gain is rounded to 19%. Young babies should gain a much greater percentage than older babies – typically 15%-25%.
A more typical daily gain pattern: a Grey baby weighed 146.1 on Monday morning and 163.4 grams on Tuesday morning; the 24 hour gain is 17.3 grams. The gain of 17.3 grams is divided by the 146.1 weight, and multiplied by 100. This calculates out rounded to 11.8%.
Whether a gain is good or inadequate depends on the weight and the age of the baby. A five gram gain on a 25 gram baby is 20% while a five gram gain on a 100 gram baby is only 5%. Using the percent of body weight gained method will give the handfeeder a much better picture of how the baby is gaining. You may find that you often get a good percentage on an older baby (12%-15%) on one day and a smaller percentage (8%-10%) the following day. It appears that the “off” day is a resting period for the body. As the babies get older, the percentages may drop to a range of 3%-7%. The baby should gain weight every day until he begins refusing formula and weaning weight losses begin. Handfeeders and babies are individuals and weight gains will vary. The active baby, the cold baby, the hot baby, the sick baby, the dehydrated baby, the poor eater, the regurgitating baby will gain less well than the one who just eats, sleeps and poops in comfort.
The quality of baby formula is related to weight gain, therefore it is very important to buy the freshest commercial formula possible. If the formula is old or has been stored improperly a baby’s health can be seriously compromised, he can fail to thrive or gain adequately. Always check for an expiration date or the date of manufacture and buy the freshest formula. Some companies use the Julian code to date their products. The first three digits are the day of the year, the fourth digit indicates the year. For example: 0039 means the formula was manufactured on January 3, 1999. Sometimes a letter will be added (0039K) but it is meaningless as far as date of manufacture is concerned.