Handfeeding: Good Methods Yield Good Pets

Handfeeding, socialization and weaning are the three most significant issues in raising a baby bird. They are so intertwined, that it is almost impossible to separate the three. How a baby bird is handled at this time in his life will leave a mark on him forever and affect him the rest of his life. It will make the difference between a healthy, trusting, well behaved companion bird and a bird who is insecure, fearful, unsociable and a poor eater .

In previous articles I have discussed the importance of the proper methods of weaning and socialization and have explained the dangers of buying an unweaned bird. This article addresses the various techniques of handfeeding.

Handfeeding is one of the ways that a bird becomes socialized and develops trust in human beings. But this will only occur if the proper handfeeding methods are used. Good handfeeding methods build upon the natural feeding instincts of the babies, creating comfortable, warm and confident feelings in them and building their trust in humans. Good handfeeding methods also require time and care from the handfeeder.

There are other methods, often used by those who are mainly interested in making a profit, which are very detrimental to a baby bird. These methods bypass the birds’ natural feeding instincts in the interest of saving time. As a result, birds don’t learn the taste of food or how to eat and are not properly socialized. They may be sold as “handfed” birds, but they will not be the wonderful companion birds that their pet owners expect. They may in fact be more insecure and poorer eaters than if they had been raised by their parents.

Quality breeders and pet stores will use natural handfeeding and abundance weaning methods. Those interested only in making a profit will use techniques which require less of their time. Many will force wean a baby in order to sell it earlier. The problems that the bird and future pet owner will have are of no concern to them.

When buying a bird, it is not enough to ask if a bird is handfed. Ask also what handfeeding methods were used. If you buy a bird which has been improperly handfed, socialized and weaned, be prepared to spend the time and effort it will take to overcome the problems which the people responsible for him in his early life have created.

Spoon Feeding

Spoon feeding is the time tested way to feed. It uses the baby’s natural feeding response, teaches the bird how to eat and introduces it to the taste of food.

I buy ice teaspoons (with the long handles) and bend the sides up to form a trough. I find that I can control the flow of the formula quite easily. I can watch the baby closely and know when the mouth is full and when the baby needs to draw a breath. I feed with the spoon in almost a horizontal position.

It is very dangerous to put food into the mouth of a baby who has no feeding response. During a feeding response or pumping, the opening to the trachea is closed and it is safe to feed so long as the baby is swallowing. With some species, like the cockatoos, pressure against the inside tip of the upper beak will elicit a feeding response. With some other species, like the Grey, very gently pushing the spoon in the mouth so that the formula is delivered at the back of the mouth will elicit a feeding response.

Some breeders use a Dixie cup with one edge pinched to a point. I’ve never used this method but it certainly sounds easy and no bowls to wash up after feeding.

Syringe Feeding

The syringe is a widely used handfeeding technique. This method also uses the natural feeding response and teaches the baby how to eat. The handfeeder elicits the feeding response. The syringe is then inserted into the beak and pressure on the syringe is used to release the formula. The flow of the formula can be controlled, but it is more difficult to know when the mouth is full with this method. A major concern with the use of syringes is the problem of safely disinfecting them.

Gavage Feeding

Gavage feeding bypasses the birds natural feeding response. It involves inserting a feeding needle, or a syringe with soft vein tubing threaded onto the end, directly into the crop. The metal feeding needle can cause bruising unless used with extreme care. The soft vein tubing has a smooth round closed end with openings for the formula to empty into the crop. The vein tubing is less traumatic to the esophagus but must still be inserted very carefully.

It is difficult but possible for the tube or the needle to be inserted into the trachea. The bird will die from the formula going into the lungs. This is called aspirating.

Gavage feeding is typically used by handfeeders with too many babies to feed. Birds fed in this manner never learn to eat and can be very difficult to wean. Some merciful gavage handfeeders will give the last little bit of formula into the mouth so that the babies will know what food in the mouth feels like.

Gavage feeding has its place in the treatment of birds who are too ill to feed themselves or with sick babies who have lost the feeding response. These are the ONLY circumstances in which it should be used. It is important to ask the handfeeder before buying a baby bird if the babies are routinely gavage fed.

Power Feeding

There is a technique called power feeding which employs a syringe and which is a very quick way to feed. After a feeding response is elicited, the syringe is quickly emptied into the bird’s esophagous. The force of the formula being ejected from the syringe keeps the esophagus open and the trachea closed and the whole contents of the syringe can be delivered in seconds. It is similar to gavage feeding, in that the food bypasses the mouth. The baby does not learn the taste of food or how to eat.

Power feeding is a method employed by handfeeders who have many babies to feed. Avoid purchasing a bird who has been fed in this manner unless you can determine that this method is used only so that the handfeeder will have adequate time to socialize many babies. Abundance Weaning is critical to the baby’s development if power feeding is employed.

Power and gavage feeding are one of the triple threats to the production of a calm, tame, trusting companion bird – inadequate socialization and forced weaning are the other two.

Buy a weaned, screened, vaccinated baby bird who was handfed properly, weaned abundantly and intensively socialized. If the seller won’t do these things, find one who will. Buy your baby bird from a quality breeder or pet store. Don’t accept less – you and your baby bird deserve the best.