The Science of Handfeeding and Weaning the Baby Parrot


The Why and How of the Weaning Process

  1. Just What Is a Weaned Parrot?
  2. Introducing Adult Food to the Baby
  3. Drinking: Don't Forget the Water
  4. Weaning Dynamics - Schedule
  5. General Concept of a Weaning Schedule
  6. Miscellaneous Weaning Tips
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1. Just What Is a Weaned Parrot?

Weaning is a stage of development where a young parrot becomes able to interact independently within a flock or family, without requiring continual nurturing support that parents supply through feeding and tactile reassurance. This stage of development has four main components: nutrition, nurturing, tactile stimulation and disinterest. For most animals that feed their babies, food is an important tool during weaning. Long after the baby is able to sustain himself on his own, he will want mom and dad to periodically feed him as a means of proving they are still available to protect him. Knowing that support is close by and available even when not needed, develops trust and independence in the baby. In addition to nutrition, food is a symbol of support, which allows the young animal to freely explore, learn and develop in confidence. As the baby gains independence he needs less support, and at the same time the parents are tiring of feeding junior, and give into his demands less often and with less food.

Tactile stimulation is an extremely important part of the baby's overall development and weaning process. Baby parrots in the wild have almost continual contact with mom and dad for the first two months after hatching. For the next two months, the parents will usually be within a wing's length reach. They all participate in many hours of mutual preening each day.

Babies that get a lot of tactile stimulation from hatching to six months will learn much faster and be a more independent and trusting adult. Without abundant amounts of touching and attention, the captive weaning process will likely be extended and frustrating for the baby and owner. This topic is covered in more detail in the section covering the "“Sequential Development of the Neuropathways”.

On the surface, this weaning process can appear rather simple. With closer examination you will see that it is an incredibly complicated process of interplay between nutrition, nurturing, entertainment and the overall natural maturation process of the individual. On a positive note, this is a natural process preprogrammed into the baby's brain, which is very forgiving and will automatically proceed with a little nurturing guidance from you.

Important: It is important to note that no human can wean a baby bird, they do it automatically on their own. We can, however, cause a delay in the weaning process by not properly supporting the baby as he explores this strange, new world. In most parrots commonly kept as pets, weaning will occur between 10 and 25 weeks of age. Generally, the larger the bird, the longer the time required to complete the weaning process.

Weaning is a time of stress for your baby. Stress is defined as any stimulus that makes the brain work. The brain processes stress as good, bad or neutral. Good stress arises from stimulus that the brain easily processes and either learns from or finds pleasurable. Bad stress is stimulus the brain cannot easily process or determines to be detrimental to learning or pleasure. Neutral stress is caused by stimulus already known to the brain and is automatically processed. It is important to note that stimulus experienced by a happy, healthy and confident baby, normally processed as positive, can turn negative if the brain encounters much frustration.

I.E. A sleepy, hungry or sick baby can become aggravated or frustrated when experiencing something he normally would find very pleasurable. On the other hand, a happy, well-fed and confident baby will be more apt to process a new and possibly difficult or frustrating task as positive.

Important: There is one major difference between the experience of weaning in the natural parrot environment and in captivity. Soon after leaving the nest in the wild and while still being parent-fed, the baby is nibbling solid food along side of its parents and other flock members. The wild baby sees others just like him eating and is able to mimic their feeding behavior.

Wild babies fed by their parents quickly recognize solid food. Long before a baby can fly the parents are feeding less digested food because of the increasing quantity of food needed by the baby. The chunks are large enough that the texture and taste are already obvious when the juvenile begins to eat on its own. You can take advantage of this natural method by mixing small pieces of solid food into the formula. As the baby begins to wean you can periodically switch to a spoon to make this it easier to feed formula with chunks of food in it. This process can begin as early as two weeks of age but there is very little advantage until the baby is starting to eat some adult food at about 6 weeks of age.

2. Introducing Adult Food to the Baby

Many of the items you supply for the baby to play with during the weaning process should be food. These items should include not only the food you expect to be feeding after weaning, but also foods with all types of colors, shapes, textures and flavors. These items should include fruits, vegetables, breakfast cereals and any healthy foods you may be eating. More types of food items will offer more chances he will like one right away.

Initially, the food should be in pieces no larger than a pea.. This size easily fits into the baby's mouth and will leave more residue on the tongue and beak. Once the food residue makes its way to the back of the mouth, it makes contact with the taste buds, causes salivation, and increases the babies desire to experience flavors. Up until this point, the baby has expected you to put the food into his mouth. Now he will learn he can do it himself. With your finger, you can place a small piece of squishy food like banana in the back of the mouth or tongue. As the tongue moves around this food, the baby will end up swallowing a small amount and start to get the idea.

Babies will readily eat off the ground before they will eat out of a dish. As soon as the baby begins to walk around he will begin putting anything and everything in his mouth. This is a good time to introduce food. Try scattering the food on a sheet of paper in the bottom of his cage or container. As the baby begins to pick up items with his feet there should be food items available large enough for him to easily pick up and manipulate.

As babies become independent, there will be a progressive reduction of quantity and frequency of feedings. As the baby reaches his maximum weight, the amount of food needed greatly decreases. The baby is no longer growing as fast and will gradually need only the amount of food necessary for daily maintenance. During this phase many hand feeders begin to withhold feedings with the belief that the hungry baby will eat on his own if the formula is withheld. This is a dangerous misconception and may cause long-term physical and mental disabilities. Babies well-nourished with formula are more curious and will look forward to trying almost all new food. As a survival strategy, starving birds focus on finding known food sources (formula/Mom) and will not experiment with new foods. The logic is that it is better to spend critical time finding your known food source than experiment with foods that may not be good for you.

You will find that when babies start learning to eat solid food they will often go to the bowl and start eating right after you feed the formula. Since the formula is fed relatively fast the stomach has not yet provided feedback to the brain that he is full. The nurturing-independence factor resulting from Mom feeding the baby will cause the baby to be more adventurous right after you have provided the nurturing attention by feeding. Since he has just been fed/nurtured and you have started him thinking about eating a baby will often go right to the bowl to continue the meal. Keeping the baby well fed will promote independence and shorten his weaning process.

3. Drinking: Don't Forget the Water

Water should be made available when you begin to put solid food in front of your baby. Formula is about 2/3rds water so the baby will not need any additional water until the amount of formula consumed decreases. Feeding moist adult foods will also decrease the need for supplemental water. Mostly the baby will play with the water and wet his tongue but his body will not be telling him to drink because he is thirsty. Parrots kidneys efficiently recycle water to limit a wild birds' exposure to predators on the ground. For this reason captive parrots do not need to drink as much, pound for pound, as we do. Monitoring the stools for moisture content will tell you if the baby is drinking enough. This is a frequently asked question since most owners rarely see the baby drinking when the baby is still receiving some formula.

If you are not sure or if you think there is a problem, you can dribble a few drops of water into the mouth from the ends of your fingers. Do this while holding the bowl in front of your bird's mouth and he will quickly learn to drink. Since you are already monitoring poop you will quickly see a change in the amount of moisture in the poop.

Important (Wing Tick): Most baby parrots display a natural behavior that we call a "wing tick" that helps maintain their parent's attention. You will hear the baby periodically make a grunting noise and then flap one of his wings. In the wild a baby is usually sitting next to the parent and in order to make sure the parent is always aware of him he will repeat this behavior on a regular schedule. The baby is saying, "Hey mom, don't forget I am here." Understanding this behavior will provide insight to determine if the baby is hungry or needs additional nurturing. This behavior is very common when the baby is resting and falling asleep. The frequency is different for each baby so you need to observe the frequency and the situation over time to determine what a normal routine is for your baby. If the baby is well fed and continues to exhibit this behavior in an incessant manner while crying, there is likely a psychological or health problem. This baby will need more handling and reassurance for a while to make him feel wanted and to raise his self-esteem.

4. Weaning Dynamics - Schedule

A maturing baby who is active and whose body is reaching its full size will lose his intense fixation on feeding every time he sees you. Sometimes he will be so preoccupied with playing; he will show no interest in food even though he should be hungry. When this occurs, do not be tempted to force him to eat. Wait an hour or two and his hunger will eventually exceed his interest in playing and the feeding session will be easy. As the occurrence of the baby being preoccupied increases, you will begin to tire of mixing formula. The combination of the bird not eating and you not wanting to waste your time will be the driving force in your baby eating on his own and requiring less nurturing from you. Below is a concept of a feeding schedule that tends to evolve as this behavior increases. This process is not hard and fixed and should be dynamic. Go with the flow and don't worry. Your baby will not starve if he misses a feeding or two.

Now that we understand the how and why of the weaning process, we can look at a general overview of weaning dynamic, how the amount and frequency of feeding will change over the weaning period. Every baby parrot is as different as is every human baby. They all follow the general weaning program, but will have minor differences that can change along the way without notice. During this intensive growth period, a seemingly meaningless stimulus to us, can cause a "life alternating experience", resulting in a change in frequency of the baby's need to be fed and/or nurtured. 

When you are sure your baby is old enough and is also playing with and consuming adult food, you will begin slowly reducing the amount of formula based on the concepts we have discussed. You can easily determine if solid food is being consumed by watching the color of the stools. In the early stage, you do not want to significantly reduce the amount fed at each feeding. Instead, we will tend to skip feedings. If smaller amounts of food are fed on a regular basis, the baby may not achieve the same intensity of hunger and could slowly loose weight and become sick before he starts eating enough on his own. A sick, malnourished or psychological dependent baby may develop a fixation for formula and not be able to wean. We call this condition "syringe dependency". When regular feedings are periodically skipped the baby will be healthy and the hunger response strong.

Babies will often cry for food when hungry. As discussed earlier, they also need nurturing support that can come in the form of periodic feeding of a small amount of formula. In addition to supplemental handfeeding, you will also need to give the baby personal time and attention. This will be the same type of attention you give a human baby. Talking to, playing with, carrying around and other social activities are also needed to supply the trust necessary to develop high self-esteem. By only using formula to stop all the babies cry for attention, you can do long-term damage to the development of the adult bird. Lack of tactile and verbal pampering can produce a screaming adult that is uncertain how to gain attention without acting out.

5. General Concept of a Weaning Schedule

This is only a generalization to show what is possible, not what will actually happen. Remember all babies are different and none will actually follow this schedule. In fact, their need may change from day to day. This is a dynamic process so there really is no such thing as day one, day two, etcetera. The process will start, stop and change over a several week period.

Phase 1. Skip the morning or mid-day feeding. Generally, the first feeding a baby will begin ignoring is the morning. He is so excited to get out of the cage and conquer the world, that he will show no interest in formula or solid food. A few more passive babies will start refusing the afternoon feeding first.

As the baby runs out of energy after skipping the morning feeding, he will begin to get very hungry. Since he has already been consuming small quantities of adult food on his own, he may eat a little today. It is more likely that he will not eat much this first day.

Never skip the last feeding of the day. Healthy active babies will expend a lot of energy and be exhausted and very hungry in the evening. Night is also a period when the baby cannot eat on his own so we want him to have a full crop of formula.

Phase 2. Try to feed all three feedings so the baby will regain any strength lost from missing a feeding the day before.

Phase 3. Repeat phase one and two for a while. At this point you will be watching the feces for any changes in color and texture. Feces from the formula will be very consistent while solid food will cause variance in color and texture. You can sometimes detect food in the crop by feeling for food particles.

Phase 4. During this phase the baby will start to skip the mid-day feeding. You can also begin reducing the amount of formula for the morning and mid-day feedings. Alternate between skipping feedings and the amount fed at each feeding. As an observant parent, you will be watching to see if your baby has an off day that may require him to need more formula, feedings and/or nurturing.

Phase 5. Begin assessing the weight loss or gain and the stools to determine if he is beginning to consume more on his own. This will take a few days because there will be lots of variation in the activity level from day to day.

Extreme situations develop periodically that make it more difficult to determine if your baby is eating. A baby that will be naturally thin as an adult may be able to get enough energy from one large feeding in the evening with just a small amount of solid food. A naturally heavy adult may be very hungry and need three feedings each day for an extended period.

Important: A good rule of thumb is, if a baby looks healthy, is active, eats, and poops, then he is most likely doing just fine. If a veterinarian tries to tell you differently because the baby is not following the normal weaning program, make him prove there is something wrong before you change things or medicate the baby.

Phase 6. The evening feeding is the last to go. Some very independent babies will wean very early while others can take months. I generally begin skipping the evening feeding on the days when I am not home or too tired. If you feel you have skipped the evening feeding and should not have, try offering formula early in the morning. If the baby is very hungry, he still needs the evening feeding.

As you begin skipping the evening feeding on a regular basis, use the morning feeding test to ensure he is eating enough. In the morning, do not feed right away, giving the baby time to eat on his own.

Phase 7. If your baby is not eating enough food on his own yet, you can repeat any of the phases as necessary. The baby will tell you if you are feeding too much by refusing the formula.

Important: For at least one month after weaning, inexperienced hand feeders should weigh the baby every few days. Sometimes an active or sick baby will not eating enough and you will need to add a few night feedings. In this situation, you are not considering total weight loss or gain but looking for quick changes. This is a time of many new experiences in your baby's life. Too much stress from over stimulation (too much partying) could run him down, causing a lack of appetite. An unexpected illness can cause the same problem and this will also show up as a more abrupt weight loss.

Important: Any time a young weaned parrot changes homes, it should be offered formula for a few days. Even a baby that is completely independent with high self-esteem will benefit from the nurturing component of handfeeding.

6. Miscellaneous Weaning Tips

  1. It is important to note that a bird that remains hungry for too many days will lose its appetite. You CAN NOT starve a bird into weaning, so do not try. Only a happy, healthy baby will wean on a reasonable schedule.
  2. Play time and feeding time should not be associated with each other. A baby that is played with before and after feeding may expect to be fed whenever you are playing. This could extend the weaning time.
  3. Every baby weans on his own schedule. Do not push - growth curves and schedules are only averages.
  4. Babies that cannot fly because their flight feathers have been cut will lose 10 - 20% of their peak body weight. Properly developing babies that are learning to fly while weaning will lose 20 - 30% because of the greater amount of exercise. Babies with clipped wings will also take longer to become independent because they are not able to explore their environment and learn much slower than nature intended. Wing clipping is detrimental to creating an independent adult with high self-esteem because of the increased incidence of "bad stress experiences" due to lots of crash landings.
  5. Weight loss of 30% is not a problem. Many veterinarians and breeders have never seen healthy flighted parrots so make them prove something is wrong before you medicate a baby.
  6. If you are not sure if the baby is getting enough nutrition, always error on the side of increasing the feeding frequency.
  7. Don't forget the "nurturing" nature of the parent periodically offering food to the baby. As a treat, at any arbitrary time during and after weaning, the baby will usually accept a syringe of formula. All parrots should be periodically handfed throughout their life. This is an excellent treat for an adult and will aid in medicating if he should ever need to be medicated.
  8. Watching the bird's stools is the best way to determine if he is eating. There will be different numbers, colors and consistency.
  9. "Weaning Regression" is a prevalent problem in babies that were not properly nurtured from hatching to weaning. Birds that cannot fly are especially prone to be insecure and develop weaning regression. When this occurs, it is necessary to start the weaning phases over from the beginning.
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