The Science of Handfeeding and Weaning the Baby Parrot

The Basics of Handfeeding and Weaning

  1. The Basics of Handfeeding and Weaning
  2. Why Would I Want to Finish Weaning My Pet?
  3. Handfeeding Supplies
  1. Environment
  2. Brooder
  3. Scale
  4. Feeding Utensils
  5. Thermometers
  6. Formula
  7. Cleaning Supplies
  8. Miscellaneous Supplies
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1. The Basics of Handfeeding and Weaning

Handfeeding baby parrots from seven weeks old through weaning is quite easy. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation written and repeated to the contrary. Rarely do positive handfeeding experiences get published, but any of the few problems become headline news for years. These horror stories are repeated so often and without reference that they have become "Urban Legends." New handfeeders are left with the belief that baby parrots are being abused in most every case. On the contrary, all that is needed is a little information, common sense, and time. At Hartman Aviary, we have produced thousands of babies with very few complications.

Proper feeding and nurturing requires more experience in the first few days of life. Like us, baby parrots are born helpless. Feeding young babies that still require a brooder should be attempted only by an experienced professional or by someone getting close supervision by an experienced professional handfeeder. At Hartman Aviary we recommend not taking your pet home until he has been flying for one week.

Time and patience are necessary requirements to realize a satisfying and rewarding experience. The needs of a baby parrot are in many ways similar to a human infant. Attention to a few details will help you avoid problems and reward you with a healthy, independent, lovable, lifelong companion. This chapter is only a guide to explain the needs of a baby parrot; we suggest you read as much other information as possible.

2. Why Would I Want to Finish Weaning my Pet?

There is no truth to the idea that a baby parrot needs to be at its final home at an early age to bond with the human family. There is also no truth to the idea that only a breeder can properly feed and nurture a baby parrot.

Many scientific studies have been undertaken to determine the nurturing requirement of altricial animals. Patricial animals like chickens can find food and survive without a parent when born or hatched. Parrots and humans are examples of altricial animals and require intensive parental care to supply food, nurturing and protection. The research has always shown the benefit of food supplied by parents is secondary to the tactile stimulation and nurturing that occurs when being fed. Food is necessary for survival but the nurturing touch is what a baby parrot needs to thrive and become a fully functioning adult. It is difficult for any breeder with more than several babies to provide the amount of quality one on one attention necessary to nurture a baby parrot. A breeder or handfeeder playing with several babies at one time does not count as one-on-one attention.

The first six months of a baby parrot's life are the most important to its mental and physical development. Anyone with a little time and information can provide the nurturing environment necessary for the juvenile to develop into a well-adjusted adult parrot. Self-confident baby parrots can be adopted from pet stores or directly from breeders, as long as the baby has been supplied with the great deal of the timely stimulus required to develop a well-adjusted adult.

When a baby parrot begins peeking out of the nest in a wild environment, the high paced programming of the juvenile brain proceeds at the fastest pace he will every experience in his life. This occurs at about two months of age for a parrot the size of an amazon or grey. The next 45 days of life are the most important in a baby parrots mental and physical development. For the first two months all of the baby's energy has been devoted to growing from a helpless hatchling into baby that can see, hear, smell, taste and can now defend himself to a small degree. He is now ready to begin exploring the world.

The baby's brain is preprogrammed by nature to take in vast amounts of information. You might compare a baby's brain to a new computer; the computer arrives with a hard drive, but with very little programming. The hard drive has a sequential pattern of development that requires certain programs to be started before subsequent programs can start. Programming is cumulative, with some programs requiring more basic programs to support the newer and more complicated programming. For example, you must crawl before you can walk.

A baby parrot needs to develop survival instincts much faster than humans. Over a two month period starting at the time when the baby begins to peak out of the nest at two months old, he will be learning at the fastest pace in his entire life. The important areas of learning or vast and include things like how to defend himself, communicate verbally, learn body language, flock etiquette (social skills), how to fly, find food, avoid enemies and a multitude of other tasks. These early experiences become part of the hardwiring of the brain and are not easily manipulated or added later in life. Some of the developmental process, like finding food and avoiding enemies, may seem unnecessary in captivity, but they are critical components in the development of high self-esteem and independence as an adult in a wild or domestic environment.

Approximately 75% of this important brain programming is completed by the time baby is three to four months old, and approximately 90% is completed by six months of age. Basically at six months old a baby parrot has learned 90% of everything he will learn in his life. There is a close correlation between the first six months of a parrot's life and the first six years of a human's. Since the sequence of developmental phases for parrots and humans are very similar, we can assume that whatever phases humans develop in the first year is very similar to the first month of a parrot's life, and so on up to six months. (Time frames for developmental phases are based on medium size parrots like amazons and greys, unless otherwise noted. Smaller parrots develop quicker while the large parrots can take up to a year.)

IN CONCLUSION: Handfeeding a baby parrots is important for it to thrive in our human flock. But, it is not necessary for you personally to feed your baby.

Parrots are raised in many different types of situations. A small aviary, with only a few babies and more time to spend feeding and nurturing, may not be able to produce the healthiest baby because of their limited experience. On the other hand, a large facility may produce the healthiest babies, but not have the time to nurture the babies as they grow. The good news is that the brain has many back-up programs which cover our nurturing deficiencies. Understanding the basic needs, wants, and desires of the avian brain is all you need for success. Just like all human parents, your successes will far exceed your mistakes. Just keep in mind that the most important ingredient is a great deal of one-on-one attention from the nurturing handfeeder.

It is important to keep in mind that for most of us handfeeding is very easy and few complications actually occur when you have a little instruction. Remember, reports of complications are always greatly over reported, usually by individuals who have never had proper instruction themselves. If you are unsure of your abilities or do not have support from an experienced handfeeder, it may be better to take your chances and buy a weaned baby.

3. Handfeeding Supplies

In addition to a dedicated location to keep and feed the baby, you will need a few supplies BEFORE the baby comes home. Even if your baby is past the stage of needing some of these supplies, you should have an idea of what they are just in case:

A. Environment

Baby parrots should be in an environment that is clean, warm, quiet and nurturing.

A newly hatched chick is immune incompetent, meaning it cannot easily deal with large amounts of bacteria and fungus that are not considered normal flora for the adult parrot. Normal flora consists of the types and amounts of bacteria and fungus that are found inside and outside of a healthy adult parrot. When the baby is born, it has no bacteria or fungus living on or in it. It takes about two to three months for the baby to acquire all of these bacteria and fungus that make up its normal flora.

In a commercial nursery, the room is cleaned on a regular basis and the non-normal bacteria and fungus are kept at the same concentrations on a continual basis. Babies quickly become accustomed to the normal flora of the room and are not adversely affected. As babies are exposed to the bacteria and fungus that will eventually become its normal flora, the body encourages these bacteria and fungus to grow to appropriate levels and tries to inhibit the growth of the ones they do not need.

In a home environment, there are many different bacteria and fungi that the baby has never been exposed to in the breeder's nursery. It will take a few days for a new baby to adjust to this new bacteria and fungus environment. Any baby that is flying should be old enough to be immune competent and can easily deal with low levels of the new bacteria and fungus. Just in case care should be taken, and all hands washed before handling the new baby for the first week.

Newly hatched chicks will sleep 23 hours a day. Ten week old babies will sleep 12-18 hours. As the baby matures and reaches the end of the weaning period, the environment will become less critical. As a weaned parrot, your baby will be comfortable in most any environment that would make you happy.

Quiet and nurturing is most important for the first three or four days while the baby is adjusting to a new home. On the rare occasion that a baby becomes sick, it usually happens between three and seven days after leaving the breeder's nursery. This is about the time it takes for new bacteria and fungus to grow out of control in a young baby.

B. Brooder

Brooder are used to keep young babies without feathers warm (incubators are for eggs). Once the baby has enough feathers to help regulate his own body temperature, a brooder will not be necessary (approximately five weeks old for an amazon-size parrot). At this stage a baby should be kept between 70 and 80 degrees. They should also have an aquarium or cardboard like container to get into if they feel cold. Multiple babies are easier to brood because they can huddle or spread out to keep warm.

Most breeders use thermometers, experienced breeders will rely on body language to determine if the baby is cold, hot or just right. With experience you can tell with a high degree of accuracy. Basically young babies should be lying down and stretched out most of the time. A balled up appearance or multiple babies bunching on top of each other are too cold, and open mouth breathing or panting is too hot.

Pet owners should not buy a young baby that needs a brooder. Before a baby starts flying it will look more mature than it actually is. Even though the baby can regulate its body temperature fairly well it requires someone with experience to properly maintain the environment and stop problems from starting. Healthy babies that have been flying for a few days can self-regulate their own body temperature and are old enough to go to a pet home, but since they are young and moving to a new and strange environment they should be kept at normal room temperature for a couple of weeks.

Ventilation and humidity are important environmental conditions that can become problematic if you are not paying attention. Ventilation and humidity requirements are the same for a baby parrot as they are for you. 50% to 60% relative humidity is adequate. Too little humidity is worse than too much. Young babies that become dehydrated may experience slower food transit time and become malnourished. As soon as a baby becomes nutrient compromised many other problems can quickly develop.

Supplying a moisture source can increase humidity levels. A water dish can be placed in a brooder with young babies that are in containers keeping them from getting into the water. Some brooders have a water reservoir that is not accessible by the babies. Once the babies become mobile it may be necessary to increase the humidity in the room instead of just inside of the brooder.

A small amount of air movement is necessary. Too large a fan in a brooder, or a space heater blowing on a baby that has graduated from the brooder, can remove moisture and cause dehydration. Cool drafts can also cause dehydration and heat loss.

Many times babies are placed in small tight quarters or containers with high sides. This will reduce airflow and may not allow fresh clean air to get to your baby. Stagnant air and moisture in the bottom of your container will promote bacterial and fungal growth. If you would be comfortable staying where you place the baby, then it is probably an appropriate environment.

Price range and quality of brooders can vary tremendously. Inexpensive units can cost as little as $100.00 and as quality increases, can go up to $1000.00. Generally professionally manufactured brooders are relatively inexpensive and well worth the expense. If all you need is a brooder for a few weeks to brood an older baby, it is possible to make a brooder with a small heat source and small container from items in your home.

The basic components of a brooder are the container to hold the baby and a heat source. Additional components include thermostat, built in thermometer and humidistat, water reservoir for humidly control and ventilators. The need for the additional and higher quality equipment will increase as the number of babies you will be incubating increases.

A simple short-term brooder can consist of a small room, closet or bathroom, and a small space heater. With a little time and patience, you can easily control this type of brooder within about five degrees, which is adequate for four or five week old babies and an attentive caretaker. Brooders can also be made from an aquarium or small box. A small human baby heating pad is probably the best and least expensive heat source. The baby should not be placed on top of this type of heat source, but next to them, so they can move away if necessary. The temperature between the baby and the heat source will be warmer than the ambient temperature in the rest of the container. A baby can easily be overheated while lying on a heating pad while the temperature above the baby remains cold.

Temperature requirement for all age parrots are constantly changing. Sleeping verses awake, moving verses not moving, and before or after eating are examples of where the ambient temperature requirements will vary. For this reason Hartman Aviary never uses enclosed temperature controlled brooders for babies. At Hartman Aviary our brooder is an entire room heated on one side of the room so the far side of the room is slightly cooler for the older babies. There is a counter on the warm side with the heat source underneath. The heat radiates through the counter and into the open top containers that sit on the counter. The counter top is a few degrees below the necessary temperature for very young babies. On the counter top we place small human baby heating pads that are set on the lowest setting. The containers are place on the counter with only half of the container on the heating pad. This allows the baby or babies to move to the most comfortable temperature on the bottom of the container. For very young babies the container needs to be small so the baby does not need to move very far. When multiple babies are in the same container it is much easier to keep them comfortable.

It is not advisable to use heat lamps because the radiant heat can burn babies' skin. The light form the lamps can also damage the developing eyes, even before they begin to open.

*Important: It is VERY easy to regulate the temperature range necessary for a baby with most of his body covered with feathers. It is easy to tell if a feathered baby is too warm or cold. They can tolerate as much as a ten degree temperature range. It is VERY difficult to regulate the temperature for a younger baby. Keeping a naked baby warm requires lots of experience to know exactly what temperature is necessary. The critical temperature range can be as small as two degrees.

*Important: Brooders are used to help things grow. They do an excellent job of growing fungus and bacteria as well as babies. Clean them often.

C. Scale

For some handfeeders it is helpful to weigh your baby each time before you feed. This way you can tell immediately if your baby is not passing the food or if he is losing weight. It is suggested that you weigh the baby at least every other day; morning is preferred when the baby should be completely empty. Do not expect the baby to gain any weight the first day. Between stress, and sometimes the reduced amount of food fed the first day, he will do well to maintain his original weight. Weight gains will vary with growth spurts and activity level. Weight gain and loss, especially during weaning is irregular and often misunderstood, even by veterinarians, especially if your baby is flighted. Be slow to change your routine based only on weight, and or, advice from your vet.

Your scale does not have to be extremely accurate or expensive; you just need to be able to tell if the baby is gaining or losing weight. Many types of measuring devices are available. Your scale will need a range that exceeds the maximum growth of your baby. Depending on the species of parrot you have the range will need to be from 20 grams to a high of 1500 grams.

There are many types of measuring devices available. The scales used at Hartman Aviary are inexpensive electronic food scales. This type is available in several versions. We use scales that weigh by the gram up to 1000 grams. This scale can also be switched to ounces if you prefer. They are available in any kitchen supply store for $35.00 to $175.00. This same scale can be used later in the kitchen.

Note: One cc of water = 1 gram of water. Adding formula to water slightly increases its weight. For our calculation purposes, assume they are the same.

D. Feeding Utensils

Two methods are commonly used for feeding, syringe feeding and spoon-feeding.

Two sizes of syringes are most often used for syringe feeding. They are a 12 cc needle/catheter tip and a 35 cc catheter tip syringe. Needle tip syringes do not have a needle, they have a tip that a needle can slide onto. Pipettes can be used in place of syringes. Pipettes function like a small turkey blaster with a squeeze bulb on the end. Both are available from your breeder, hobby store, or drug store pharmacies. Many online bird supply stores can provide these items.

The 12 cc syringe is used on small and young babies, and the 35 cc is used on larger babies. Syringe feeding allows more accurate placement of food into your baby's mouth and the ability to accurately measure the amount of food consumed. Do not use a syringe with a nozzle or tip attached to the end. Often these tubes end up in the crops of birds when they fall off during feeding.

Spoon-feeding is accomplished by taking a metal or plastic spoon and bending the sides up to make a funnel shaped spoon. This will allow the formula to be poured off the end of the spoon into the baby's mouth. This method has a few drawbacks. It is sloppy, the bird may be injured when he bobs his head and hits the hard edge of the soon, you cannot determine how much formula actually gets into the bird, it takes a longer and the formula has to be keep the correct temperature for a longer period of time. Feeding to fast is not good for the mental development of the baby, but feeding too slow presents the increased opportunity for the baby to aspirate formula.

A less common method used by some breeders and vet during emergencies is gavage feeding. This method uses a syringe with a soft rubber or metal tube on the end. As the baby begins the feeding response, the tube is inserted through the baby's mouth and is swallowed down into the crop. This is a quick and safe method of feeding when done by an EXPERIENCED handfeeder. Only a professional handfeeder should attempt gavage feeding. Although this is an efficient way of delivering food to a baby it has significant shortcomings for the appropriate mental development of the baby, and increased opportunity for the formula to end up in the lungs.

Feeding utensils include mixing bowl, thermometer, measuring spoon and a syringe or bent spoon for feeding. You will also need a washcloth or paper towels to wipe formula from your baby's face and to clean the feeding area.

A coffee cup or a small bowl will do fine to mix the formula. It must have a hard finish that is easily cleaned. A measuring scoop may come with the formula or you may use an appropriately sized measuring spoon.

Soap or mild disinfectants will be needed to clean all areas that the baby and feeding supplies come in contact with. As with humans, the need to clean and disinfect decreases as the baby develops a competent immune system.

At Hartman Aviary, we use a tub of water to maintain the formula temperature. Most handfeeding instructions will advise against the use of microwaves to heat the formula. The reasoning is that you might unknowingly feed the heated formula without stirring to eliminate hot spots. By filling the tub with about a ½ inch of warm or cool water we can quickly raise or lower the temperature of our dish of formula. This method is efficient, safe and quick. We do not use this method because it is safer; we use it because it is easier. If you are not smart enough to stir and check the temperature of food heated in a microwave you are not smart enough to own a parrot, sorry.

E. Thermometers

You will need a thermometer to monitor the environment and formula temperature. Many types of thermometers are available and extreme accuracy is not important as long as the readings are consistent. A 3-degree tolerance is acceptable. Prices range from $3.00 to $100s. The lower-priced electronic or cooking type thermometers will serve the purpose. The thermometer's temperature range should extend from 75 degrees to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.

At Hartman Aviary we used to use a large candy or cooking. This type of thermometer can be used to stir the food and as a consequence, you always know the formula temperature. These types are usually accurate within three degrees, so caution must be used to stay on the low side of the formula temperature range. It is better to have the formula a little cool than too hot. If you are not sure of your thermometer's accuracy, you will need to stay below 105 degrees to be safe. If possible, compare several thermometers. At Hartman Aviary we have mixed formula so many thousands of times that we can tell the temperature with our finger tips. Elsewhere in this article you will find out how to quickly calibrate your fingertips.

F. Formula

Many manufacturers produce baby formulas that only need to be mixed with warm water. The breeder or store selling you the baby should supply you with an amount of formula to last through weaning.. Formula can be purchased from most pet stores selling birds and online distributors of bird related items. If you cannot find a source in your area, look in one of the many bird magazines such as 'Bird Talk', which have mail order sources.

Different species require slightly different amounts of fat and protein. These variations are in most cases not critical except for babies under one month old. There are a few of the rarer species like the hyacinth macaw that do have special diet requirements. A 10-week-old baby of most species is past many of the critical growth periods and can be fed to weaning on most commercial formulas. Package labels and your breeder will be able to supply the necessary information to determine acceptable formulas. Below is a list of fat and protein guidelines for different types of parrots established by Pretty Bird International. They can be used as a guideline in choosing an appropriate formula for your particular baby. When possible, feed the suggested formula, but remember, a pet owner should be acquiring a baby that is old enough to thrive on an average formula of 8-10% fat and 18-22% protein. A feathered baby bird is most of the way through its major growth phase and is already eating some adult food. (Most companies produce only two formulations).

  • 5% fat, 22% protein; amazons and cockatoos
  • 8% fat, 19% protein; general purpose (when feeding more than one species)
  • 10% fat, 22% protein; for African greys and mini macaws
  • 12% fat, 19% protein; for most macaws
  • 14% fat, 19% protein; greenwing and hyacinth macaws

G. Cleaning Supplies

Disinfectants are used to kill bacteria, fungus and viruses that can be harmful to your baby. In large aviaries where there are many birds, it may be necessary to periodically clean the environment with disinfectants. In your single baby situation, it is less necessary since you will have fewer sources of contamination. Instead of attempting to kill all the bacteria and viruses, it is better to wash them away with soap and water. Disinfecting can be accomplished with a small amount of bleach in water or with home products such as Lysol. Care must be taken to wash away any residue of the products; they are poisons, which is why they kill bacteria. The same precautions we use for human infants are appropriate for parrots.

Feeding utensils are the most important items to be kept clean. After each use, they should be thoroughly washed. If you really feel it is necessary, you can soak them in a bleach/water disinfectant to kill any bacteria. Two or three tablespoons of chlorine bleach in 1/2 gallon of water will kill most pathogens in 20 minutes. Please note: Chlorine will dissolve the rubber stoppers in syringes. We never disinfect our feeding utensils at Hartman Aviary, we clean them.

In a home environment, several areas of potential contamination are often overlooked.

I have been in many small breeders' kitchens where a lot of time and energy is expended cleaning the area where the baby is fed. The formula is then retrieved from the refrigerator where the dirty door handle or refrigerator shelf has not been cleaned. Poultry and other food residue on and in a refrigerator can make its way into your baby and your family.

It is also common for handfeeders to pick up an item from an unclean area of a counter top, touch the faucet handle, open a drawer, touch their face, hair or clothes and wipe their hands on a dirty kitchen towel. All of these surfaces can contaminate the feeding area.

H. Miscellaneous Supplies

Paper towels, Q-tips, tweezers, a small penlight, nail file and some type of blood coagulant are supplies that may come in handy. Tweezers and nail files should be cleaned well and possibly disinfected before use.

Clean, warm and moist washcloths should be used to wipe your baby's face after each feeding. You should have no extra food on the face or feathers. This mess is a good breeding ground for unwanted bacteria.

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