The Science of Handfeeding and Weaning the Baby Parrot


Common Worries about Handfeeding

  1. Crop Burns
  2. Aspiration
  3. Aspiration pneumonia
  4. Humidity
  5. The Baby Will Not Eat
  6. Viral Infections
  7. Bacterial Infections/ Fungal Infections
  8. Perforating the Inside of the Baby's Mouth
  9. Knowing When to Feed
  10. How To Tell If The Crop Is Empty
  1. Stretched Crop
  2. Malnourishment From Underfeeding Or Not Using The Correct Formula
  3. Crooked Beaks From Incorrect Feeding Techniques
  4. Weaning Problems
  5. Syringe Dependency
  6. Weaning Regression
  7. Creating The One-Person Bird
  8. Handfeeding A Baby Parrot Will Make Him Bond To The Feeder For Life


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Common Worries

Common worries occur much more often than the common problems you can find in all parrot books and on the internet. Few owners publicize their successes, only their problems. This situation can present a picture of hazards everywhere. The truth is that chance favors the prepared mind, so read on and the common worries will be much less common.

Prior to the time the baby begins to feather out, there are many potential issues that occur for many different reasons. Once the baby has been weaned for a few months he has more in common physically with an adult than a baby and most of the hazard potentials are minimal or do not exist.

Perspective is important when considering the possible problems that may be associated with handfeeding a baby parrot. When asked, most veterinarians and small breeders use the words "often" or "regularly" when reporting the incidence of handfeeding disasters. When further asked to define "often and regularly" we find that these worst case scenario problems are seen only a few times a year. When we compare the number of problems to the number of baby parrots successfully raised each year, the chance of being struck by lightning comes to mind.

Those fear mongers that over report the hazards are rarely able to substantiate their claims. They often know someone that knows someone or resort to the comment "if even one baby suffers it's too many". I wonder if these same individuals are recommending that all inexperienced mothers give up their children until they are weaned. Life carries risks and to get the most out of life some risks are acceptable.

The psychological benefit to a baby that receives copious amounts of one-on-one attention from a nurturing parent far exceeds the small chance of a problem occurring.

1. Crop Burns

Perhaps the most over-reported hazard is crop burn.

Crop burns are caused by feeding a baby formula that is too hot, which slowly burns the lining of the baby's mouth and crop. Few owners feed babies without at least touching the food, and most usually use a thermometer.

Parrots being fed formula are usually fed much quicker than a human baby is. Hot formula can enter the crop before the baby responds to the hot formula burning its mouth. Very hot formula can cause mild to severe burns in the mouth, esophagus and crop. In cases where the esophagus or crop is burned severely, the food may leak out into the body. Severe burns can be fatal. Mild cases may not even be noticed.

Because the baby is not able to move the food around in his crop, hot formula has more time to damage the crop lining. Think about a mouth full of mashed potatoes that is too hot. You can move them around in your mouth with your tongue until they cool, bur left in one spot you may experience a mild or severe burn.

Severe crop burns can be fixed if noticed immediately. If the crop or esophagus membrane has been burned through and is leaking, apply a cold ice pack to the skin over the affected area and head for the veterinarian. It is not easy, but a good veterinarian can repair the damage. They can remove the burned tissue and sew the crop back together. In severe cases where the crop can be saved but is not immediately useable, it is still be possible to feed small quantities of thin formula or to bypass the crop with a feeding tube until the crop repairs.

In mild cases, which are hard to detect, you can feed the baby cool water to cool the food in the crop. The most common way a handfeeder is alerted to a mild case, or suspected problem, is when they feel the food pass by their fingers when feeding. If the food feels too warm, immediately measure the temperature of the remaining food and administer cold water if necessary. It only takes a few cc's of cold water mixed into the crop contents to lower the temperature. The incidence of feeding too hot formula to baby birds, as in human babies, is rare.

Every once in a while a parent feeds a child food that is too hot and burns the baby's mouth. This is no reason to keep parents from feeding their children until they are six years old.

2. Aspiration

Aspiration occurs when food or liquid passes into the trachea or lungs. This is common in parrots and humans. The phrase "going down the wrong pipe" is familiar to all of us. The solution in birds and people is to cough it out. Small amounts of food or liquid not coughed up immediately usually become coated with mucus and are coughed up later.

Aspiration, while annoying, is not a serious problem unless it occurs often. When a small amount of food is aspirated while handfeeding, stop immediately. If the baby clears its trachea quickly, you can proceed. If it is coughing for more than a few seconds, stop feeding and come back later. Continuing feeding while the baby is preoccupied with coughing may cause additional amounts of food to be inhaled.

Repeated incidences of aspiration indicate a problem of food delivery to the baby. The most likely opportunity for aspiration to occur is during the first few days of a new feeder feeding the baby. The baby is used to the way the original feeder held his head and the rate of food delivery. The new feeder will feed differently, even if well trained. New feeders should always plan on feeding smaller amounts more often than the baby is used to, usually for two days. The problem will quickly resolve with careful observation and a little patience.

Syringe feeders should start out slowly. Pushing the plunger on a syringe requires a few attempts to operate fluidly. Until the baby eats well for you proceed slowly.

Feeding time is not play time or show-off time. Even after you become experienced, do not ever allow distractions when feeding.

3. Aspiration pneumonia

This problem is very rare.

Aspiration pneumonia occurs when inhaled food makes it all the way into the lungs. Food in the lungs can cause a fungal, and or, bacterial infection in the lungs. A small amount food will usually resolve without you ever knowing it happened. Large amounts or continued small amounts will cause a serious problem.

This condition usually requires a good deal of negligence on the part of the feeder. If, in the rare event of the baby inhaling enough food to cause impaired breathing, supplemental oxygen and other support can be provided until the lungs can clear the problem.

It is also possible for the baby to regurgitate and inhale formula while it is in the throat or mouth. This is rare but could occur if the baby were to fall on a full crop of formula and inhale as the formula is being pushed out of the crop.

If you suspect a problem your avian vet can usually diagnose, and provide antibiotics and anti fungal medicine to take care of the situation.

4. Hard Dehydrated Food in Crop

Humidity and water hydration needs for baby parrots are the same as for humans. In very rare cases, very low humidity or lack of water can cause food to harden in the crop. In most cases this can only occur if the baby is sick and needs more than the normal amount of hydration. A stiff or hard lump of formula occurs because the crop membrane quickly absorbs the moisture from the crop contents when a baby dehydrates because of the combination of being sick, low environmental humidity and not enough water in the formula.

You will know immediately if this problem develops because you will always feel the crop before you put in more food. Generally, thickened formula will pass when a small amount of water or Pedialite is fed and messaged into the formula.

Adding small amounts of Pedialite periodically is better than filling the crop at one time. EXAMPLE: If a medium size bird has ~ 10cc of formula that is not moving through the crop, I will add 5cc of Pedialite until the total volume of crop contents is back down to a little below 10cc. Then another 5cc is added until the volume is down to 5cc. Once the crop is empty, I add another 5cc to rinse the crop and intestines. When the intestines are totally empty as evidenced by stools with no fecal material, I then feed 5cc of Pedialite followed by formula as soon as the Pedialite passes from the crop. Usually this is all it takes to put the digestive process back on track. There is anecdotal evidence that feeding papaya for one or two feedings will flush the crop and restore normal motility.

As long as the problem is addressed early, it will likely be no more of a problem than constipation in a human baby. If this problem persists for more than a few hours, this problem may be the result of a bacteria or viral problem. Contact your veterinarian immediately for assistance.

5. The Baby Will Not Eat

The two most common reasons for a baby not eating well when a new handfeeder takes over are: pushing the baby off balance while putting the food in its mouth, and feeding formula that is less than 104 degrees. Refer to the hand feeding section to find a quick and easy method to teach your baby to switch to a new handfeeder.

orcing a baby to accept food from a new feeder may train the baby to look at the feeder as a predator. In this situation, the baby's survival instincts may cause him to avoid food, regardless of how hungry he is.

If the current hand feeder is having difficulty feeding the baby and you are not an expert, do not take the baby.

6. Viral Infections

Viral infections are rare in babies that are raised by professional aviculturists but more common with small breeders. Once your baby is in your home, the only way it can catch a virus that will cause a disease in a parrot, is from another parrot. Even if your baby should happen to come across one of these viruses directly from another parrot or by you bringing it home on your clothes, it is rare for a feathered baby to develop a problem. Humans inhale, on average, two virus particles every time we inhale and very rarely get sick.

Parrots in your home that appear healthy can sometimes be a carrier for a virus without you knowing. Smaller parrots like cockatiels that breed more often are more likely to be hiding a virus.

7. Bacterial Infections/Fungal Infections

Bacterial and fungal infections could just possibly fall into the common category. There are many types of fungus and bacteria that are all around us but rarely cause and infection.

Just like humans, baby parrots will occasionally ingest a large enough quantity of a pathogenic bacteria or fungus to cause a problem. These problems are much more common in babies that are not thriving. Healthy feathered babies usually have a competent immune system by the time they are six weeks old that will eliminate the bacteria or fungus quickly without you ever knowing it was exposed.

Generally, you will not know about these problems until they have been developing for three to seven days. Once you notice the baby no longer looks happy and healthy, a trip to the veterinarian will solve the problem. The veterinarian can quickly diagnose the culprit and prescribe an appropriate antibiotic or antifungal that will show results in less than a day. Even though the problem disappears quickly with the correct drug, it will take several days of treatment to eliminate the problem.

If the new baby looks healthy when you brought it home and it starts showing signs of illness after three days it is probably something it came across at your home. Even with a very healthy bird it is important to wash your hands every time you handle the baby for the first week. The bacteria and fungus will be slightly different in every location but all animals immune systems usually adjust in about a week.

8. Perforating The Inside Of The Baby's Mouth

Syringes with too long of a tip and spoons can cause damage to the babies' mouth and beak. The Parrot University has raised and sold several thousand unweaned babies and has not seen this problem occur. With proper feeding utensils, it is possible to injure a baby's mouth, but would be limited to scraping or bruising the tongue or skin. In either case, the problem will be minimal and resolve on its own.

Syringes with long tips that can easily reach the back of the baby's mouth could cause damage. Make sure the tip extension on the syringe will only reach about half the length of the tongue.

9. Knowing When To Feed

Feeding schedules are very easy to determine. All bags of formula will have complete instructions as will the person teaching you the handfeeding technique.

10. How To Tell If The Crop Is Empty

Palpating a crop will quickly tell you how much food is in the crop. The person teaching you to feed can instruct you on the process.

Empty and full crops are easily determined. If you start with a full crop, you can palpate every hour until it is empty. After just a couple of tries, you will find this process very easy.

Fungal and bacterial infections in the crop can cause the crop lining to thicken and make it difficult to palpate correctly. Attention to the amount of food that should be passing through relative to the amount of food you believe is in the crop will help. If the crop still feels like it has a small amount of food a few hours after it should be empty, consult the person you got the baby from or your veterinarian.

Food will still pass through a crop with a thickened lining. If you are palpating the crop before each feeding, you will find the problem before it progresses very far and your veterinarian can quickly provide a solution.

11. Stretched Crop

Stretched or distended crops periodically develop in young babies, but are very rare in older, feathered babies.

Young babies can develop stretched crops for several reasons. Disease problems can cause the crop muscle to become flaccid. Continued overfeeding can stretch the crop. A chick that, for whatever reason, develops a "failure to thrive" may have week muscles and is prone to distended crops.

Feathered babies that are beginning to eat solid food will develop strong crop muscles as they mature and get more exercise from pushing the solid food.

Crops of weaning babies more often shrink so far that a significant amount of formula may be expelled just after feeding. Solve this problem by feeding less formula.

The two easy solutions include feeding smaller amounts more often and a crop braw to hold the crop in place.

Crop bras can easily be made from vet wrap or an old sock. The bra serves as the muscle while the crop shrinks, the crop muscle repairs and the baby grows into to crop.

12. Malnourishment From Underfeeding Or Not Using The Correct Formula

High quality formulas are easy to come by. There are several large companies producing a variety of formulas to fit every species. . In rare cases breeders that have been around for 20 or more years may still make their own formula. In most cases you want to stay clear of any breeder that does not trust the big companies or think they can do it better themselves.

Young, unfeathered babies often require specific fat and protein levels for the chicks to survive. Feathered babies have completed a significant part of their growth and no longer have critical nutrient needs.

Feeding formula too thin or too thick can cause feeding problems that ultimately result in undernourishment. Not following instructions on the formula bag is probably the biggest concern. If possible, obtain the formula instruction at least a week before you will be feeding. Read and understand the instructions and reread the instructions just before you pick up the baby. Review the instructions every few days.

Never purchase a baby that has obvious signs of malnourishment our undernourishment unless you know exactly what you are getting into. Even though the baby may look fine as an adult there can be many mental and physical problems later. A baby that is stunted before feathering will have stunted brain development also. Much but not all of the stunted brain development can be overcome in the future.

13. Crooked Beaks From Incorrect Feeding Techniques

I cannot say it has never happened, but this is one of the most ridiculous claims in aviculture. While some babies do develop misaligned mandibles, it is not the result of improper feeding techniques.

There are 1,440 minutes in a day, and a really slow handfeeder may make contact with the baby's beak for 15 minutes each day. The baby spends much of the other 1,425 minutes with his beak pushed up against the side of the container or with its clutch mates standing on his head. If it were possible to deviate the baby's beak by applying a little pressure, surely all babies would develop this problem.

Other than obvious trauma events, most beak damage and deformities generally begin to develop long before most breeders and owners are aware of a problem. The most common problems include trauma from an accident, a small chip to the lower mandible biting plate resulting in scissors beak, and ingrown upper mandibles in cockatoos.

Beak problems rarely occur in the nursery of professional breeders. When it does occur, the initial cause is usually missed, and experienced breeders, inexperienced breeders and veterinarians often misdiagnose the resulting problem.

Most beak damage that does not automatically correct itself can be repaired. This can be accomplished rather quickly in babies under two months of age while the mandibles are growing rapidly. In older birds, this is a time consuming process often taking a few years.

Beak deformities can develop for many reasons, including but not limited to:

  • Inherited genetics
  • Low quality egg from older hen
  • Low quality egg from malnourished hen
  • Babies stuck in the shell
  • Improper incubation techniques by breeder
  • Beak damage from parents:
  • Aggressive parents
  • Inexperienced parents
  • Accidentally removes a portion of the mandible while fastidiously cleaning the baby
  • While feeding that little beak with that big beak
  • While defending the nest from perceived predators or the breeder
  • Biting edge of lower mandible is chipped while playing
  • Malnutrition from low quality formula

14. Weaning Problems

Weaning problems do develop periodically, but are more often in the mind of the handfeeder than in the baby. Fear sells, and there is no shortage of inexperienced parrot enthusiast broadcasting misinformation. The fear factor is compounded by the many breeders, stores and new owners, who misunderstand the weaning process. Those who misunderstand “weaning” generally focus only on feeding independence rather than food as a tool to develop and promote psychological independence.

Many babies have the nurturing support of feeding by the parent prematurely removed months before psychological independence is fully developed.

Baby parrots, with all of their emotional needs met, will begin eating at a very early age. A greenwing macaw could possibly be eating on his own by the time he is eight weeks old, but will not reach a stage of psychological independence until he is eight or nine months old. While it is certainly possible to raise a well-adjusted parrot when formula is removed at an early stage, formula is such a powerful and easily used nurturing support tool that it is crazy not to utilize this tool as much as possible.

Most weaning problems and concerns involve too little food with too little frequency for too short a time frame. There are a few concerns that involve handfeeding for too long a period, creating psychological damage to the baby and stress for the parent.

The parent should feed as often as the baby wants formula for as long as he wants it. Just like us, baby parrots naturally evolve into independent individuals who want to be responsible for their own needs, wants and desires. Along the way, we need mom to be standing by to say, “You are doing well” and “I'm here for you if you need me.“ Any baby that does not develop into a well-adjusted independent individual while being offered plenty of support through handfeeding, is suffering from other significant parenting problems.

15. Syringe Dependency

Chronically hungry babies can develop a syndrome called “syringe dependency” where their survival instincts focus on locating that one necessity that can keep them alive, the syringe.

Hungry, starving babies look to the food source they already know. They can't help that their brain is preprogrammed to focus on a known food source when hungry. Experimenting with new foods is the luxury afforded to the well nourished and well nurtured. Experimenting with new foods can be dangerous, there may not be enough, and you may accidentally eat something poisonous.

Following a weaning schedule that prescribes the parent to withhold formula or feed less formula than the baby would otherwise want will cause weaning issues. Always feed the baby when he is hungry. The only time you will feed less formula than the baby wants is when he is crying in between normal feedings and just needs mom to go though the handfeeding process to make him feel like he is being pampered and nurtured.

16. Weaning Regression

Weaning regression is a tool nature has supplied young animals to "pull at the heart strings of the parents" and prompt a little extra nurturing support. This slight psychological regression is a means of the baby getting mom's attention through crying, and reinforces mom's determination to supply the nurturing support necessary to raise a secure and pampered baby. A little nurturing from mom in the form of food and other supportive care, assures the baby that there is nothing to worry about. This need for nurturing is most easily satisfied by the parent feeding the baby.

This problem occurs when a baby experiences stress he is not yet able to properly psychologically deal with. Moving to a new home is a likely situation where this regression will surface. All babies under eight months of age should be offered formula at least once each day for a couple of weeks after the move. Some babies will require the nurturing feedings, others will not, but all will benefit from the support.

All babies that leave Hartman Aviary are fed more often the first few days at the new home that they were in the nursery. For example a baby on two feedings a day at the nursery is to be fed at least three feedings the first several days at the new home. We also expect the new owner to feed small amounts of formula whenever they think the baby is crying for food or feels insecure. The small amount should only be a few cc's so as not to interrupt the baby eating significant amounts of formula at the regular scheduled times.

Often birds that are several years old with behavior problems can be quickly turned into a good pet at a new home if formula is offered soon after arrival. This immediate nurturing in a new home can create a trust in the parrot that was not available at the old home.

17. Creating The One-Person Bird

Parrots, like humans are serially monogamous. During or shortly after adolescence, we develop a desire for long-term companionship. Unlike humans who develop a bond for mostly reproductive reasons, parrots have a more important survival component to their partnership.

From birth a parrot will have a companion all of its life. The extra set of eyes and survival instinct will allow the bird to survive long enough to successfully reproduce. Humans pair for sex and do not need a companion to survive.

"Birds of a feather flock together" is a survival strategy that has a lot to do with vision. Four eyes are better than two and birds generally rely on a companion to help peruse the environment for predators. Without the constant presence of a mate/companion, the bird can quickly experience separation anxiety.

The more secure and confident a parrot is, the less likely he is to experience this separation anxiety. Some of the more obvious manifestations of this condition are the sub clinical problems that surface as feather mutilation and the aggression displayed on a social level.

The more secure and confident a parrot is, the less likely he is to experience this separation anxiety. Some of the more obvious manifestations of this condition are the sub clinical problems that surface as feather mutilation and the aggression displayed on a social level.

If a baby parrot is well nurtured in every way, including the parent feeding process, he will have less of a tendency to be paranoid and needy and to develop these behaviors. Insecurities associated with the one-person bird scenario will more often be the result of genetics rather than husbandry.

Anything in the birds' life like clipped wings, no bird companion, too much cage time, not enough exercise, and limited life experience will cause the bird to be less happy and ultimately less social. As the bird becomes less social he also becomes increasing less happy and so on. Eventually the bird is less outgoing and able to trust. The instinct to maintain a companion is so strong that even a miserable parrot will choose one person to have as a friend and subsequently keep all others at a distance. Those that live in the northern or southern latitudes will recognize this syndrome as 'seasonal effective disorder' on steroids.

18. Handfeeding A Baby Parrot Will Make Him Bond To The Feeder For Life

If I handfeed my baby he will see me as his "parent" and chose a new "favorite person" when sexually mature and wants a mate? Normally, baby parrots bond to their parents until adolescence, at which time nature and their parents tell them to move on.

This can happen with any parrot that you take care of before it reaches adolescence. Not just babies you handfeed. Therefore, acquiring a weaned baby will not allow you to avoid this potential problem. This natural phenomenon keeps all animals from wanting to breed with close relatives and anyone they grow up with.

In a pet environment, a baby will bond to the handfeeder (parent figure) until adolescence. During adolescence, nature will be telling the baby to search out a peer for a long-term relationship.

Nature has figured out how to make all animals see their parent different than a potential mate. This natural program also works the same for siblings that an individual grows up with. Even when a youngster is adopted into a group where there is no genetic link, this innate instinct works the same as if the mother and other siblings are related.

In our homes it is not possible for a parrot to follow all of nature's rules. Baby parrots most often experience a single parent relationship that the parent tries to enforce throughout adolescence and into adulthood.

There is no perfect answer to this captive predicament. The owner wants the parrot to be a lifelong companion. However, being the parent may push him away to another family member as he matures. Parrots are also choosy about their mates, just like humans, so there is no guarantee that an adolescent or adult parrot would be blissfully happy with you as his companion.

The important missing bit of information usually left out of other explanations is that this natural program is active until an animal reaches adolescence.

Fortunately, this is not a big problem with most babies that are properly bred and raised. The desire for companionship is so strong, that most parrots will be a companion to anyone willing to take the time and be there for him or her. Well-educated parrots with high self-esteem will generally choose one individual to be their closest companion, but will freely interact with the rest of the flock if given the opportunity.

Choose your baby from friendly, gregarious bloodlines and nurture him well. These babies are easy going and will be happy to hang out with just about anyone that wants to spend a lot of time with them.

The best way to minimize this situation is to never own just one parrot. The perfect parrot household usually involves two birds close to the same age and always the same sex.

With this combination, your pet will always have a companion, and be less reliant on you to provide all of it companionship. The two birds will develop in an environment where multiple relationships are natural to them. As the two birds mature through adolescence there situation will be more psychologically stable and less likely to polarize in any one direction.

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