By Ray Varella, Copyright January 2011
So you’ve decided to train a bird for freeflight and now you need to select a suitable bird for hand-rearing. The last thing you want to concern yourself with at this point is price, yes, cost is important but there are several things to consider. Getting the healthiest most robust chick you can is primary. The freeflying bird will have a more demanding life than a bird that has it’s wings clipped and spends its time indoors.
You may encounter breeders that are very reluctant to sell you an unweaned bird. This is understandable since most people raising birds are rather selective about where their birds go; this is a good thing and can work in your favor as someone who is scrutinizing potential buyers is likely doing so because they don’t want their babies going to just anyone.
Make sure you have done your homework and can give a brief overview on how you will be training your bird and where your reference material is coming from. Be prepared to offer a referral on where your support for the training is coming from. Read the articles on the Liberty Wings website and partake in discussions on the freeflight list. If you have a seasoned veteran who is going to help you, provide that reference.
A healthy bird, regardless of species will have similar traits, it will be fat and have plump, pink, pliant skin. Its extremities will be fat. The ends of the wings will look plump. The bird will have a fat belly. Fat, healthy chicks will appear very content most of the time. They don’t behave as though they are uncomfortable or agitated. They have plenty of calories in reserve and will sort of loll from side to side. The overall picture is one of comfort and well being, the eyes will be clear and bright, their breathing will be steady and clear, their skin will be pink and pliant, they will have a healthy feeding response but will not cry or beg incessantly. They will rock gently and fall asleep easily.
It should not appear excessively hungry; birds that climb over each other and beg incessantly could either be too hungry or have a bacterial infection that is causing them to not absorb all the nutrients they need from their food. Healthy, well fed chicks will have a doughy consistency and appear relaxed. The eyes (once open) will be clear and bright and there will be no discharge from the nostrils or any goop in the mouth. The chick should be clean and well cared for with no dried food or feces caked anywhere.
There should be no foul smell to the droppings and breathing should be clear and steady, never labored or any signs of wheezing or clicking. Birds with red hectic looking skin, heads that seem large for the size of the body or any signs of boney extremities should be avoided. These birds are likely stunted, may have been sick and fallen behind or are in the process of becoming sick. Walk away from birds like this. A bird that is going to be living as a free flyer should start off with everything going in its favor. This is not a time for sympathy or charity.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions; you are interviewing for a very important companion. Be selective. Ask for Veterinary references as well as previous customers. Someone who has a lot of birds coming and going through their collection is at a higher risk of disease outbreak than someone who keeps a closed collection with good Veterinary support. Be cautious of someone doing a lot of buying, selling and trading especially if they tell you they have done so for years and never had a problem.
So now you have a breeder picked out and you are comfortable that you will be getting a healthy chick. You need to be prepared for that chick.
Once you bring a new bird home keep it quarantined from any other birds you have. 30-60 days is a reasonable amount of time.
When everything goes smoothly, handfeeding can seem very simple but there are things that can go wrong and to avoid a catastrophic situation you should understand some of the
potential problems and how to avoid them.
The supplies you need should all be on hand before you ever consider bringing the chick home.
You need something to keep the chick housed in and the options range from a cardboard box with shavings and newspaper up to thermostatically controlled environments. A chick that is 6-8 weeks old will have a fair amount of feathering and be large enough to keep itself warm provided that the ambient temperature is not too low; 70-75 degrees F should be fine in most cases. If the room the chick is kept in gets cooler than that you will need to provide some supplemental heat.
Be mindful that the chick needs to be able to move away from the heat source, so have enough room for it to move in and out of the heated zone. Overheating can stress a bird, dehydrate them or in severe cases burn them.
Two relatively inexpensive ways to provide supplemental heat are 1) A heating pad. If you use a heating pad put the tub, box or brooding container on top of the pad and be sure the bird cannot get to the cord. Only put one end or half of the tub,box etc.. over the pad so the chick can move off of the heat if need be.
2) Ceramic heat bulbs. These screw into a normal light socket but because they produce heat not light they need a ceramic or porcelain socket not plastic. This is easily accomplished because you can buy clamp on portable lights that have a reflector shield and cage. Most hardware stores have them and they are relatively inexpensive. The ceramic bulbs can be purchased from any reptile supply store. These bulbs have been in use in the U.K. for decades and emit only infra-red heat and no light which makes them great for chicks that need to sleep and rest. They are also excellent for a sick or injured bird for the same reason. I use an inline rheostat (dimmer switch) so I can lower or raise the wattage. In this manner you can compensate for ambient temperature fluctuations. It also enables you to buy the largest wattage bulb and run it lower but still have more power (heat) in reserve if you need it. Be sure that this is out of reach of the chick; you don’t want it chewing the cord or getting burned from being able to touch the bulb.
You should know how your chosen method will function before the chick comes home.
Pay particular attention to fire hazards.
You will need an appropriate hand feeding formula. It is best to continue using what the bird is used to; if the chick meets the criteria of a healthy chick then the breeder is doing a great
job, it makes sense to get hands on instruction about mixing and feeding the food and following what they have done. It makes sense to acquire a chick as locally as possible or if you do have to travel plan on spending enough time to go over the details thoroughly. Any breeder who is willing to ship an unweaned chick to a novice should be avoided. You really need some hands-on instruction if you have no experience. Another option is if you have a seasoned veteran nearby who is willing to help you.
You need hand feeding supplies and a way to clean and disinfect them.
There is an article on this site that addresses the different hand feeding methods so we can refer to that. The method you choose should be the one the breeder is currently using and once the chick has made the transition to its new home, only then should you consider changing methods. Ideally you will get step by step instruction from the breeder and visit several times before taking the chick.
Always take your time when feeding; rushing through feeding can cause many problems.
If you try to feed a chick too fast or feed them food that is too cold they can aspirate. This is when a little food gets into their windpipe. It can kill them outright on the spot or cause them to die a slow painful death over several hours, days or weeks and despite any medical treatment you can still lose them. They can also live but develop a secondary infection that invades the air sacs and causes problems later. Take your time; feed the chick at his/her pace and keep the food warm.
I keep a tub of water the same temperature as the formula (105- 106 F) and use it as a water bath to keep my formula warm while feeding. If you are using syringes just leave them in the water bath. If you are using the spoon or cup method a jar or bowl can be placed into the water bath.
All hand feeding supplies that come into contact with the chick or formula need to be cleaned and disinfected between uses. Cleaning and disinfecting is a two step process, washing everything well with soap and water gets everything free of debris and organic matter but it doesn’t stop microbial growth (the bugs you can’t see). Disinfecting can be done in several ways, there are chemicals that work and they work great but should be rotated to prevent resistance. Bacterial counts are all about the numbers. If you kill most but not all and the surviving bugs develop a resistance then you will eventually have a resistant strain of bacteria. It’s the reason we have antibiotic resistant strains of diseases in both human and animal populations. Rather than list all the chemicals, their uses, hazards and shortfalls (that would be a lengthy paper) let me make several suggestions. Ask your local vet what he/she recommends and the availability.
My local feed store carries a couple of good solutions. Make sure they understand that you are using this for feeding utensils as some disinfectants can be quite harmful if ingested in even in very small amounts; be certain to rinse them very well after soaking.
The next components are available just about everywhere, you will need household bleach, distilled white vinegar and water.
To make your solution mix one cup of household bleach, one cup of distilled white vinegar and one gallon of water, this will make a disinfecting solution that is effective at killing just about any bacteria you will likely encounter during hand feeding. Keep in mind that bleach is caustic and it really needs to be rinsed thoroughly.
This solution is for soaking your feeding utensils. Bleach and vinegar work together to make a solution that is much more effective than either of the two components would if used alone.
One other note, bleach is very corrosive and will cause stainless steel to rust when kept in constant contact.
Bleach also dissipates and gets weaker with time and exposure to air, so keep a fresh bottle on hand, keep it tightly sealed and once you mix up your solution keep it in a covered container and change it every
Another readily available option is boiling or steam sterilizing. Nothing is more volatile or grows bacteria faster than milk and no human baby formula manufacturer, Pediatrician or Nurse would ever recommend a chemical to safely sterilize baby bottles. They recommend a sterilizer. You can buy a very inexpensive baby bottle sterilizer at almost any store that sells other baby supplies, they are inexpensive and very effective. Just follow the manufacturers instructions and use it for your mixing and feeding utensils. Just remember, always clean AND disinfect.
Feeding temperature is very important, birds will refuse food that is too cold and you can burn them if food is too hot. Food that is just marginally too hot can weaken the crop muscle and in time cause problems. There are very inexpensive thermometers available in any kitchen supply store, they are almost always accurate but take the time to check that they are calibrated.
Here is a simple method to check the calibration that can performed quite easily. Pack a glass or jar as full of ice as you can, add cold water and stir well, place your thermometer in it and it should read 32 F. Some thermometers can be calibrated. If so, adjust as per the instructions it came with, otherwise throw it away, or better yet don’t buy one that can’t be returned or calibrated.
Even if you have calibrated your thermometer, formula can be unevenly heated so make sure you keep it well stirred and squeeze some on your wrist to check for excessive heat, if it burns you, it will burn the chick. This all about precautions; take your time.
I have some rather expensive thermometers that I use to measure others against. If you have more than one thermometer and you get different readings it can be difficult to ascertain which one is correct. The method described above will enable you to determine if your thermometer is accurate at 32F. Double checking warm food on a sensitive part of your body will insure that you don’t feed formula that is too hot.
It is important to keep your chick in a low lit, low traffic area to minimize disturbance.
It might at first make sense that birds which are always awake and stimulated and being socialized will be better pets but the reality is that a chick that has not ventured out of it’s tub (read nest cavity) is not ready to be overly socialized. They need to rest in order to grow. A chick in a quiet area will burn fewer calories and grow better. They will be subjected to less stress; everything about hand rearing is in order to minimize stress. Chicks in a low stress environment will be better able to develop a strong immune system.
Baby birds that are not quite warm enough will not only burn more calories trying to keep warm but if they get chilled the food in their system will move slower and that can grow bacteria.
If the hand feeding supplies have not been properly sanitized they could introduce small amounts of bacteria and further exacerbate the problem. Slow crop motility, aka a crop that empties slowly, is not a condition in and of itself; it is a symptom of a larger problem caused by something having not gone quite right. A lot of people think that “sour crop” is a condition but it is the symptom of food having slowed down or stopped because of other stress factors or a bacterial infection that has caused the digestive tract to become inflamed. If you are seeing signs of a slow crop a Vet visit is in order, sooner not later.
Weighing chicks is an excellent indicator of how well things are going. A scale that weighs in grams is an inexpensive investment. Chicks should be weighed at the same time every day, preferably the first thing in the morning with an empty crop. Having an empty crop insures that you are weighing the bird and not the bird plus the formula weight. A partially full crop makes it very difficult to guess how much that amount of food weighs.
Often times a problem will be apparent by a sudden stop or slow down in weight gain.
A chick that has reached a peak growth rate should not be confused with a chick that was rapidly growing and has suddenly stopped. The breeder you chose should be able to give you some guidelines as to what age the species reaches its peak growth rate, how long it stays at the plateau, when it drops weight to fledge, and ultimately how much it should weigh at weaning. These are good numbers to know as they can help ascertain whether the growth/weight loss curve is within normal parameters. You should keep good records so you have them for comparison.
If you follow the above guidelines you can minimize a fair amount of stress but good sanitation is important as well.
The area you keep the chick in should be kept clean and dry. The food itself needs to be kept fresh. No matter how expensive you think formula is, it is a fraction of the cost of dealing with a sick bird. Any formula mixed and not fed should be discarded; it’s really cheap comparatively.
The high grain and protein components used to make most formulas are a breeding ground for yeasts, molds, fungi and bacteria. Feeding food from an earlier feeding or previous day is just asking for trouble. The crop should be allowed to empty completely at least once every 24 hours. The crop empties from the top, so if you are feeding new food on top of old food for too long the food in the crop will ferment and start growing pathogens (bacteria, yeast etc…). You can see why allowing the crop to empty is good practice.
About the time your chick starts venturing out of the security of its nesting environment it will be refusing some food and dropping some weight in anticipation of first flights
and entering the weaning phase.
Weaning is a critical stage because you don’t want to develop the wrong type of dependence. Many novices will try to keep a chick hand feeding long after what would be normal or even worse, wean them too soon.
A chick should be confident and well adjusted in regards to their food. By paying careful attention to how and when they refuse food or beg, you can work within their normal cycles. A chick that was previously at 3 feedings per day prior to venturing out of their tub will generally go to 2 feeds per day. From 2 feeds per day you don’t automatically drop to one feed but rather stay at 2 feeds and gradually reduce the amount fed at each feeding. Some birds will self wean rather quickly and others can take a while. Any bird that cries or begs incessantly may have something low level going on, the formula could be mild enough on their system that it passes just fine but the introduction of solid foods is irritating enough to cause discomfort. A visit to the vet is in order.
A chick that is starting to fly has a real advantage over a chick that is not allowed to fly (fledge) at weaning and will be much more confident and well adjusted than their clipped cousins. Fledging helps greatly with weaning. At this stage you are not withholding any food from your chicks and are introducing them to a wide variety of foods so that they can spend the rest of their lives eating a well balanced diet.
Chicks that are not getting enough hand feeding may be too hungry and will be too distracted to feed themselves. Sometimes a small amount of formula boosts their energy and slows their hunger just enough to get them to feed themselves. An overly hungry chick will flick its wings a lot, stay puffed up and beg incessantly. It generally holds its wings out and sits low on it’s perch. This is a sign of a chick that is too focused on being fed to be trained in any way. Being too hungry can lead to unnatural food associations that can have lasting effects.
A properly fed and weaned chick will demonstrate an air of confidence. When you see that, your bird is ready to start training.
Addendum, Some indications that something could be going wrong:
A chick that is still in rapid growth phase (still in pinfeather stage and has not hit peak growth or plateau stage) fails to gain weight on a couple of consecutive days. It is not unusual for a chick to occasionally have a day where it gains little or no weight but if it have been gaining rapidly and that has not tapered off, a sudden drop in growth rate could be a signal that something is wrong.
Keep a chart where you record weights and amount of food fed.
Droppings have suddenly taken on a strong odor or have started looking much darker despite the chick being fed the same formula in the same/similar quantities. Droppings are an excellent indicator of what is going on with a chick and it is something I have always paid very close attention to. Strong odors can often be a sign of bacterial infection, as can darker than normal droppings. When food goes through a chick at a slower rate the droppings can take on a darker appearance.
If droppings suddenly start becoming much less in volume and the chick is still consuming the same amount of formula that can also be an indication that something is going wrong.
Seek Veterinarian attention and have cultures run for bacterial infection.
Chicks that have trouble getting comfortable and sleeping are likely experiencing some form of discomfort; they could be too hot or too cold. Most chicks that are too hot will pant, they will also hold their wings way out away from their bodies in effort to increase air circulation. Chicks that are too cold will sometimes move around a lot and not go to sleep, wing tips are an excellent indicator of temperature as the extremities will feel cool to the touch. Your lips and eyes (with the lid shut) are really sensitive to temperature and if you touch a chick to either of those areas and they feel cold then they are cold. I always touch chicks to my lips to see if they are warm. This is especially useful in very small chicks but also works very well on the wing tips of larger chicks. Adjust temperature accordingly.
A change in skin color is something to take very seriously as is any bruising under the skin or bleeding from feather shafts. Have your vet on speed dial if you see any of these symptoms.
Chicks that seem to shuffle from one foot to the other and never quite settle down can have a bacterial infection that hasn’t affected how food is going through their system but it is causing them discomfort none the less. Sometimes it’s just an indication of a formula that they may be sensitive to and it is hard on their digestive tract. This is a situation that needs Veterinarian expertise. A sudden change in behavior from a chick that was previously well needs diagnosis.
Inspect the feet regularly, paper towels or shredded paper can cause very tiny (almost invisible to the naked eye) cuts in their feet and they will stomp and shuffle. The reason this is bad is because they can develop a bacterial infection from stepping on their droppings, even though your sanitation is good. Watch for strings and threads getting tangled if you are using towels, wash cloths, diapers or other material that could wrap around an extremity. A chick could lose a toe, wing or get strangled.
Any sort of discharge is bad and a wet mouth is not normal. If you open a chick’s mouth and see any sort of sticky moisture that is not good. Healthy birds do not produce mucous.
Seek Veterinarian care.
Be very thorough about wiping formula off of the chick. Some chicks will spit up when they are nearing fledging; they are just not needing as much food. Dried food stuck to their feathers is harder to remove than fresh food. Pay close attention to food inside the mouth and on the beak, below the upper mandible. Dried food under the upper mandible can cause a beak to grow unevenly. Food left inside the mouth can grow bacteria. A little cleanup with a Q-tip dipped in warm water or the corner of a napkin, towel etc… goes a long way towards preventing a problem.
Be in the practice of doing this at every feeding.
Speaking of chicks spitting up, while it s not abnormal for some chicks to spit up and shake their heads when they get close to weaning a bird that does this all of the time could have something wrong, particularly if it results in weight loss. Get Veterinarian care.
Chicks that appear listless and don’t have a strong feeding response could just be sleeping and need a few seconds to wake up but if this persists it can be an indication that they are not well.
When I wake up a sleeping chick to feed them I will talk to them and gently tap or lightly rub them with my forefinger. Touching the corners of their mouths will stimulate a feeding response. Never feed a chick that is not demonstrating a strong feeding response, it is too easy to aspirate them. Some species of parrots have less feeding response than others. You should be familiar with the feeding response of your species of parrot.
A crop that suddenly does not empty as quickly as it previously did is an indication that something could be going wrong. Since you will already be in the habit of weighing the chick daily, be sure to record the amount of food they take. This will aid in determining if they are gradually eating less because they are close to fledging or if they are in fact not emptying at a normal rate.
Problems caused by formula that is just marginally too thick may take several days to become apparent. If the chick is using more fluid than is available the solids will slow down digestion and create a secondary condition (slow crop, bacterial infection). If this happens you need to see a Veterinarian. Follow the instruction that come with your formula.
A sudden change in breathing is a sign that things are going wrong. Heavy labored breathing, wheezing or clicking and gaping or gasping are all signs that you need to see a vet.
Food that gets into the chick’s airway passage is very serious. This can be avoided by taking your time and only feed at the rate the chick is swallowing. Never flood their mouth.
Over filling a chick can cause them to aspirate some formula as can feeding formula that is too thin. This is why you want some hands on instruction.
Sneezing can be an indication that something is going wrong. Sometimes birds sneeze for the same reasons we do but if it is persistent you need a Veterinary evaluation.
This is by no means a complete list but it covers the basics and should help you understand how to avoid some of the common pitfalls and mistakes.