By Anil Garg, Paradise Aviaries, Bangalore, India. Photos by Anil Garg, Simon Degenhard and www.parrotsaustralia.com
Parrots are altricial. They hatch totally defenseless, blind and naked. Constant care needs to be given to these chicks in order for them to survive. The parents generally do a good job in this regard, but there are instances, such as abandoned chicks, chicks that have fallen from their nest, parents that lack the necessary instincts or are inexperienced or are slow breeders, when human interference is necessary. By using artificial incubation and/or hand rearing the survival of the chick and in some cases the species can be assured. It is noted that by way of artificial incubation and hand rearing we can increase the reproduction of birds several fold.
Many aviculturists prefer to hand feed baby parrots over allowing the parents to rear them. The most common reason for this is to increase the reproduction of endangered species or species that reproduce slowly. The major advantage of parent rearing is that it helps the bird learn normal bird behaviour.
In many instances hand-feeding birds reduces mortality, increases production, saves orphaned babies, can help to produce healthier birds and results in tamer birds. However, it’s still best to allow chicks to be parent reared whenever possible. Parent reared babies generally have better parental instinct and often make better breeders overall. The immune system of parent reared chicks is also much stronger than that of hand raised chicks.
We have been successful in raising many hundreds of baby parrots over last 20+ years and the purpose of this article is to share the experience that we have gathered along the way.
There are 4 main areas that we need to look into when hand rearing parrots:
The use of quality brooders is highly recommended at least during the initial 2 weeks of a chick’s life. However, if a brooder is simply not available, we can improvise using an aquarium or wooden box. Line the bottom of either with several layers of (non-treated, clean) pinewood shavings or tissue paper. A heating pad should be placed under the box or aquarium or an overhead infrared lamp can be installed to provide the requisite heat. A towel can be placed over the top of the box to avoid excess heat loss. Since young chicks are unable to move around much, we need to take care that the area where lamp is placed doesn’t end up overheating or burning the chicks.
A bottle or tin filled with water and with holes punched in the lid to allow evaporation will help to provide humidity.
The bedding needs to be changed regularly, preferably with every second feed for the first week. The material used needs to be rough enough as to ensure the chicks get a good grip or it may lead to splayed legs. Chicks placed in bowls of varying sizes lined with crumpled tissue paper and wood shavings can help keep that in check.
Brooder temperature is very critical during the first 10 days after hatching and needs to be watched closely. The ideal temperature for a chick from the time of hatching is 36°C; this should be maintained for 4-5 days and then gradually reduced by about 0.5°C every 2-3 days until room temperature is achieved, which should coincide with the weaning of the chick. Remember though that the temperature reduction and time frame process is often species dependent.
For most species we prefer to keep the clutch together for the first 15-20 days and then thin them out to 2 chicks per box to avoid fights and to allow us to more easily control infections if any occur. During weaning the birds are shifted to galvanised mesh cages.
The regular sterilization and disinfection of brooders, containers and cages is a must.
The most common problems faced when rearing young chicks are chilling, overheating, low/high humidity, fighting among chicks and chicks getting squashed, along with the spread of infections. With all these problems prevention is much easier than a cure.
There are several methods of hand feeding parrots, with the common ones being crop feeding, spoon feeding and syringe feeding. At Paradise Aviaries we prefer syringe feeding, as it is safe, easy, fast and hygienic. Disposable syringes are used at all times.
During feeding time the plastic container holding the chick is removed and placed on a table (the room temperature should preferably be warm). The chick’s head is held lightly using the index finger and thumb of one hand and the other hand is used to hold the syringe. The syringe tip is slowly coaxed into the beak and small quantity of food is then released into the beak. Once the food touches the tongue the chick will make a pumping motion, which is normal and enables it to swallow the food. This is continued until the crop is 3/4 full.
Make sure that you put the syringe into the beak on the baby's left side - your RIGHT side - aim it toward the back of the throat, across the tongue at a slight angle to the left (your left). You will want to feed the formula slowly and watch the baby carefully as it will stop (pause) drinking the formula to take a breath. If you keep feeding the formula when it is trying to take a breath it will inhale the formula, and this can easily and quickly kill the baby. During the first feeding or with weak chicks we may need to use our thumb to open the beak slightly. Make sure that you have a firm grip on the baby. Healthy, hungry babies will have strong feeding responses (they pump very strongly sometimes), so a firm grip will prevent injuries.
The quantity of food fed is species and age specific. Avoid using the same syringe for multiple batches of chicks to better control the spread of any possible infections and remember to wash your hands before and after every feed with antiseptic hand cleaner.
The temperature of the food should be in the range of 38°C to 42°C (Luke warm).
Always keep tissue paper/paper towel and warm water handy when feeding the chicks to clean their beak and throat if any formula is spilled.
Among the easiest and most wholesome (highly recommended) diets that can be used are the readymade hand feeding formulas such as those manufactured by Zupreem , Kaytee, CéDé®, Nutribird, Vetafarm and Harrison’s. Unfortunately, these commercial preparations are not all that readily available in some countries due to them being an imported product.
For Macaws, Eclectus and Grey Parrots the formula should contain approximately 18% crude protein and 13% crude fat. For Cockatoos and other smaller birds formulas should contain 22% crude protein and 9% crude fat. The readymade hand feeding formulas come in various compositions to suit individual species/species groups.
Recipe for a home made formula:
10% boiled Corn.
5% soaked almonds
15% fine ground sunflower seed.
15% fine ground millet (sawa).
15% sprouted pulses (wheat, mung and chana)
40% Baby rice cereal.
A few drops each of a vitamin and mineral supplement and a calcium supplement.
A few drops of Himalaya Digyton Drops (digestive stimulant and bowel regulator) or similar.
These ingredients are blended in a mixer with a small quantity of warm water until a thick paste is formed. This (dry) mix should be stored in the freezer. It’s easier to manage if it is packed in small packets so that they can be easily removed and used for each feed.
Fresh fruits and vegetables can be blended in with both readymade and homemade formula.
The newly hatched chick is fed with Pedialyte water for the first 12 - 24 hrs starting with 0.2-0.5 ml (species dependent) and slowly increasing to 1 ml (again depending on species) every 2-3 hrs. Pedialyte water helps in rehydration of the chicks and helps to stretch the crop.
After rehydrating the chick for the first 24 hrs we can then start feeding the formula. The dry formula is mixed with warm water. For the first feed the paste needs to be thin and thereafter it is slowly thickened as the chick grows. The feeding cycle will vary from bird to bird. Only feed chicks after their crop is at least 80% empty and ensure that the crop is allowed to fully empty at least once per day. For a few species, such as Hawk-headed Parrots and amazons we give Pedialyte water in between feeds up to 3-4 times a day.
Feeding schedule and thickness of formula
Weighing the chicks at regular intervals is very important to keep track of the health of the birds. All chicks will gain weight every 24 hrs until onset of weaning. Most birds will lose some weight during weaning, which is normal.
Any fall in weight or slow weight gain is a sign of an unhealthy bird and the root cause should be identified and rectified as quickly as possible.
For weaning, the chick should be placed in a cage with a flat plate with various grains, such as Sunflower seed, millet, sprouted grains, boiled maize and more, along with fresh fruits. Offering a few seeds and pieces of fruit every now and then by hand will coax them to try to eat on their own. Hand feeding is completely stopped once the bird starts to eat a sufficient quantity of food on its own. Water should be present at all time.
Clutch size, incubation period and weaning chart:
For easier identification and keeping of records, such as parentage, date of birth, gender, to identify the owner or individual bird, ringing is necessary. Closed leg bands are fitted on the chicks some time between the ages of 8 to 20 days (species specific). The leg bands come in sizes that are species specific. Closed leg bands cannot be put on the chicks after a certain age as their feet become too large for the band to be fitted, and once the band is in place it can be very difficult to remove.
The following is a list of the equipment that is regularly required during the routine course or emergency hand feeding.
Spare light bulbs
Thermometer – digital and Mercury
Tweezers and Scissors
Stainless steel wire and rod.
Hand towels and tissue paper
Cotton ear buds
Hot water bottle
Himalaya Digyton drops or Sporlac powder (digestive aids). Terramycin (antibiotic ointment). Ciprofloxacin or Gentamicin (eye drops)
Through this article I hope that I have been able to give you a small insight into what is required to successfully hand rear baby parrots. Whilst not a complete resource, I have attempted to provide useful, easily understood and practical information that I feel can be of use to both those who already regularly hand rear parrots along with those wishing to give it a go for the first time.
A well equipped nursery. Photo by Simon Degenhard
An INCA incubator being used at the Dallas World Aquarium. In this case the eggs inside are not parrot eggs, they are Tinamou eggs. Photo by Simon Degenhard
Eggs and newly hatched chicks inside an incubator at the Loro Parque Foundation Breeding Centre. Photo by Simon Degenhard
Dr. Matthias Reinschmidt with a newly hatched chick. Photo by Simon Degenhard
Sun Conure being hand fed using a syringe. Photo by www.parrotsaustralia.com
Moluccan Red Lory being hand fed using a spoon. Photo by www.parrotsaustralia.com
Amazon chicks being hand reared. Note wood shavings used for bedding material. Photo by Simon Degenhard
Baby African Greys. Photo by Simon Degenhard
Baby Hawk-headed Parrots. Photo by Simon Degenhard
Baby White-bellied Caiques. Photo by Simon Degenhard
Black, Yellow-streaked and Red-collared Lorikeets being hand reared. Photo by Simon Degenhard
Green-winged Macaws being hand reared. Photo by Simon Degenhard
Baby Varied Lorikeet. Photo by Simon Degenhard
Baby St. Vincent Amazon. Photo by Simon Degenhard
The author with young hand raised Hawk-headed Parrots
The author with a young Palm Cockatoo