Handfeeding Parrots: Cornerstone to a Good Pet Bird

Any of us purchasing a bird want a companion who can share and enrich our lives. We want a bird who is healthy, trusting, sociable, fun and affectionate. A bird who will be a positive addition to our family, bringing us joy and happiness and receiving the same in return. Birds are very long lived and you can expect your new companion to be with you for a very long time. So take the time to pick the right bird and the right breeder.

A baby bird’s experiences in the first few months of its life affect it for the rest of its days. Proper methods of handfeeding, weaning and socialization make the difference between a healthy, trusting, well behaved companion bird and a bird who is insecure, fearful, unsociable and a poor eater . Before you purchase a bird, be sure to ask questions about how the bird was raised. And unless you are experienced, NEVER, NEVER, buy an unweaned bird.

The importance of abundance weaning and socialization were discussed in the October and November editions of Winged Wisdom. This article concentrates on the reasons for handfeeding and the dangers of purchasing an unweaned bird.

Many people have been told that the bond between bird and owner will be deeper if the pet owner handfeeds his bird. This is not true. A deeper bond may occur on the part of the owner, but the disadvantages and the risks are too great. A mature and educated buyer will have no problem bonding with a tame, responsive, weaned baby bird. A baby bird can and will bond to a human he can trust after the weaning period. Many birds have bonded with second and third owners.

Why Hand Feed A Bird

Handfeeding a baby bird takes a great deal of time and effort. It is much easier to allow the parent birds to feed the babies. In addition, parent-fed babies are bigger and healthier than babies who are hand fed from day one. So why handfeed?

Handfeeding accustoms baby birds to human contact. The handfeeder takes on the parents’ role of feeding the baby. In this way, humans come to be perceived as part of the flock and the baby becomes accustomed to being touched and to the sound of the human voice. Adult birds, like humans, are the product of their early socialization. A baby who learns to trust humans in the early weeks and months of life will make an excellent companion bird.

The handfeeding process begins at about two weeks and continues until the baby is completely weaned. Many breeders take the baby birds from the parents when the oldest is about two weeks old. This enables the chicks to get the benefit of parental feeding when they are smallest and most vulnerable. It also minimizes the risks of handfeeding a very young, small bird. There is still sufficient time for the baby to be well socialized and hand tamed.

The Dangers of Buying an Unweaned bird

Many sellers convince novice buyers to take an unweaned bird. Some even offer a discount. This is money you do NOT want to save. If something goes wrong, will you know what to do? Some sellers will help if the novice needs it, BUT some won’t. Can you tell who will and who won’t when you leave with an unweaned bird?

The act of handfeeding isn’t too complex for an inexperienced person to learn. When everything goes well and the inexperienced handfeeder does all he has been told to do, handfeeding isn’t such a big deal. The really big deal occurs when things DON’T go well. A problem that is a red flag to the experienced handfeeder may go unrecognized by the novice until it is too late.

Many baby birds do well in less than ideal circumstances. However, the emotional and financial investment is so great that a buyer must ask himself – is it worth taking the chance that everything will go well. A whole host of problems await the novice handfeeder. Breeders/handfeeders have gained experience in how to handle them and prevent sick, stunted, injured or dead babies.

Signs of trouble – Lack of feeding response, respiratory sounds, slight aspiration, delayed crop emptying, restless or lethargic babies, lack of weight gain are just a few symptoms of trouble. These indicators require prompt action if the baby is to be saved. With babies in trouble, the first system that shuts down is the digestive system. Very close attention must be paid to the slightest clue that the digestive system is not performing as it should be.

Lack of proper weight gain is an important signal of trouble. An experienced person knows how much weight gain to expect. If a baby is not gaining as he should, he may need more frequent feedings or a different formula. Or this may be indicative of another serious problem.

Crop burn – Improperly heated formula can have hot spots. Babies will eat scalding hot formula which can burn away the esophagus and/or the crop. If the burn is very serious, the baby will die. Some burns can be treated by implanting a feeding tube in the crop, but the esophagus must be intact for the bird to live after the tube is removed.

Some crop burns will make a fistula to the outside of the body. If the burned area is small, the baby often can be saved by cutting away the dead crop area and stitching it together, leaving a smaller but functional crop. This has to be watched very carefully by an avian vet as the flesh often continues to die.

Crop stasis – The temperature of the brooder and the formula are very important. Low temperatures can cause the crop to shut down. Unfeathered babies cannot regulate their body temperatures and don’t have the reserves to heat cool or cold formula up to digestion temperature. When this happens the crop doesn’t empty. Formula that sits in the warm environment of the crop can sour or become contaminated from the small number of impurities in the handfeeding formula. The formula powder is not sterile. Often the body will draw on the fluid in the formula to hydrate the body and the food can get compacted in the crop. Delayed emptying of the crop is very serious and needs immediate attention.

Bacterial, fungal and yeast infections can also cause a crop to stop emptying. Everything that touches or is in contact with a baby must be clean. Babies pick up gram positive bacteria from the environment – the handfeeder’s responsibility is to make sure they don’t pick up gram negative bacteria, yeast or fungal spores. Babies don’t have the reserves, or a fully competent immune system, to be able to ward off these contaminants.

Aspiration – This occurs when large or small amounts of formula enter the baby’s lungs. When the babies aren’t given time to swallow or the mouth is flooded, aspiration is a real possibility. Care must be taken with the very liquid formula/water mixtures required by neonates. If a small amount of formula is aspirated, the body may be able to encapsulate it and wall it off from the rest of the body. If the amount of formula aspirated is large, the baby will die immediately – there is no treatment.

Beak Deformities – It is possible to cause a deviation unless careful attention is paid to avoid pressure of the feeding implement against the chick’s beak. By far the more usual cause of lateral deviation or compression deformities occurs from faulty technique.

Too much pressure in wiping the beak can cause it to deviate from true. Often one can see the indentations or compression deformities when a thumb and forefinger are used to clean the bottom beak.

Poor socialization – The experienced handfeeder knows how important very early socialization is and will take care that the babies are kept warm, safe, secure. A novice might think that because the babies are very young or blind, they aren’t aware of the handling they receive. But they are – and at a younger age than one would ever think. Blind babies especially need a reassuring touch. They frighten easily. A gentle touch is required for all babies, but the very young are quite responsive to a soft voice and a tender hand.

When and How to Wean – The experienced handfeeder watches very carefully for the first sign that the baby will respond to the weaning foods and is ready to begin the long process of weaning. Weaning is a process, not an event. There is a window of opportunity and age, around 6 weeks for the larger birds, when the baby will explore low heavy bowls of brightly colored or interesting foods. If the baby is accustomed to seeing food from a very early age, he will be drawn to the weaning foods naturally, without stress or fear. Early Unforced Weaning is the proper way to wean a bird. It relies on the natural instincts of the bird, promotes trust and security and prevents food related behavioral problems such as chronic begging, picky eating, whining, restlessness and insecurity. A properly weaned bird is calm, trusting, a good eater, and self confident. He understands and responds appropriately to humans and to his environment.

The beginning of the weaning period varies widely among species. As a general rule, the smaller the species, the sooner they wean. All babies are individuals and wean slightly differently from each other, even from their clutchmates. If these differences aren’t accommodated, the chick’s behavior and demeanor can be adversely affected. His suitability as a companion bird can be impaired by forcing him to wean before he is emotionally ready.

If this window is missed, the bird’s attitude toward food, his emotional development and his natural progression to food-independence will be retarded. Dr. Branson Ritchie, well known avian vet states that, “Early unforced weaning is a sign of a physically and emotionally healthy bird”.

Health Guarantee – The health of an unweaned bird can’t be guaranteed. Most sellers of unweaned birds will give the buyer a short time to have the bird vet checked. But, some of the tests are meaningless when done on a baby still handfeeding. Test values for babies are significantly different than for adults – this makes the use of an avian vet even more important.

A baby must be 5-6 weeks old to be screened for PBFD. He must be 35-40 days old before the first shot of the vaccination for polyoma can be given. The screen and the vaccination can protect the buyer from an emotional and financial disaster.

Handfeeding, socialization and weaning leave a mark on a bird forever. They affect him the rest of his life. It is almost impossible to separate the three.

Buy a weaned, screened, vaccinated baby bird who was 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.