HAND RAISING - IT'S ALL RELATIVE!
A GUIDE TO HAND FEEDING PARROT AND COCKATOO CHICKS.
Author: Diana Andersen, Animalinfo Publications
There have been major advances in hand-rearing methods over the past 10 years with the advent of new formulas, incubators, brooders, and an ever-increasing network of information on methods. There has also been a lot of argument on the right and wrong way to do things, which commercially prepared mix is the best, and whether or not these mixes are, in fact, any better than the homemade recipes previously used. I believe there is no absolute right or wrong way to do things. It is all relative to the species that is being raised, the age it was taken for hand-rearing, its natural growth rate, diet and the way the chick develops under optimum conditions with its parents.
When you buy a prepared diet, the instructions will tell you the correct dilution rate when adding the food for the respective age of the chick. While it is always best when using a diet for the first time to follow directions accurately, I have found with experience that adjustments may need to be made along the way to achieve optimum results.
Temperature is one of the first factors that comes into play when hand rearing from the egg. How rapidly the temperature can be reduced is relative to how much natal down the chick has, whether it is a solitary chick or one of a small group and how rapidly the chick develops.
This is not only a result of the diet and the hand rearing skill of the breeder, but also the length of time that a chick spends in the nest before fledging under natural conditions. Red Collared Lorikeets and Cockatiels for instance have a similar adult bodyweight but a Cockatiel chick spends only four to five weeks in the nest before fledging, whereas the Lorikeet chick spends around eight weeks. You cannot, therefore, expect to experience the same initial weight gains in both species. The Cockatiel chick also feathers more rapidly and produces contour feathers first and down feathers later. The Lorikeet produces down feathers initially, resembling flannel pyjamas, and then very slowly this layer is covered by contour feathers. It is unreasonable therefore, to expect the Lorikeet chick to tolerate drops in temperature at the same rate as a Cockatiel.
Chicks covered with heavy natal down on hatching seem to tolerate cooler conditions more rapidly than naked chicks and chicks that are able to huddle together in a group are also more tolerant of cooler conditions. To be avoided in all cases are rapid and wide fluctuations in temperature, as these are not tolerated at all by very young chicks.
The stress resulting from these fluctuations can quickly result in the onset of infections. Within reason, a chick’s behaviour is the best indication of temperature. A chick should never appear to shiver or pant. With most chicks I would drop from incubation temperature 37.50 to 36.50 over an eight to twelve hour period after hatching during which time only rehydration fluids would be given. From there drops in temperature would be in very small increments each day with care taken to observe the chick for any signs of shivering or crop slowing. By altering the temperature very gradually the changes are less stressful and easy to reverse at any sign of distress from the chick.
Dropping the temperature too slowly can also cause problems. Thickness of hand rearing formulas varies from brand to brand and as previously mentioned, should be mixed in all cases as per the directions. However, the rate at which the chick progresses from the manufacturer’s recommended thickness for hatchlings to the thickness recommended for much older chicks, is again relative to a number of factors and there is simply no absolute pattern that can be followed with every chick. Chicks that are kept excessively hot for longer than required will need more fluids in their diet to fend off dehydration and therefore will develop more slowly with poorer weight gains. Some chicks can respond adversely to cooler temperatures and require warmer conditions for longer and therefore will also develop more slowly.
Provided that the chick is not being under nourished, slower weight gain will not automatically result in a smaller bird. Chicks should appear plump and content between feeds at all times. Constantly begging chicks and chicks that appear bony with abnormally proportioned body parts, such as excessively large heads, are not receiving enough food and will be small and stunted in appearance. Thickening the mix may rectify this and prevent further stunting provided the passage of food from the crop does not slow too much. My chicks rarely beg for food unless they are being fed, as those that have been raised from the egg or from a very early age have never experienced extreme hunger. Some even become lazy and reluctant to take a full feed. A species that has a large percentage of fruit and fluid filled foods in their adult diet may require a higher fluid to solid ratio in their hand rearing mixes.
Droppings produced by a chick are by far the best indicators of the correct thickness of mix, relative to the stage of development of the bird and the conditions under which it is being brooded. With most hand rearing formulas and most species of Parrots and Cockatoos, chicks should pass a formed dropping surrounded by an area of fluid. As the chick gets older you will also notice the presence of white urates. The area of fluid around the solids is a good indicator of whether you are feeding the correct consistency of mix. A chick should never strain to pass a dropping and the texture should not seem dry but a dropping that is loose and surrounded by a very large wet area probably indicates a formula that is too dilute. To put it in terms that everyone can relate to, the droppings should be similar in ratios to a fried egg with the solids being the yolk and the area of fluid being the white. Absence of any fluids around the solids is a definite cause for concern.
Brooders are getting more sophisticated all the time, however most brooders can’t keep a chick cooler than the outside temperature of the room. In very hot conditions, formula again needs to be thinned regardless of the age of the chick. Like us, they need to drink more when it gets too hot!
Temperature of the formula itself will also vary a little with some species. Under no circumstances should a formula be fed cold as this will chill the chicks, predisposing them to infection, and formula that Is too hot will cause scolding and crop burns. I always test the formula against my wrist to determine that it is within the safety margins and then determine from the chick’s behaviour whether it prefers a hotter or cooler formula. I personally have not found any variations in weight gain that can be attributed to food temperature but 1 have experienced chicks that prefer an almost hot mix and others that will spit food that is too warm for their liking.
As diets for adult birds vary, it is unreasonable to expect that there be one hand rearing formula ideal for all species. If using commercially prepared formulas I would not recommend mixing formulas or adding ingredients unless the species is not responding well to any of the formulas, when mixed and fed correctly. With most of the Parrots and Cockatoos that I have raised I use only one formula with no additives other than electrolytes and probotics. In all, I have achieved excellent results though some species gain weight more slowly and take longer to reach maximum weight. All the chicks that I have raised from the egg using commercially prepared formulas, that have not experienced any health setbacks, have achieved normal adult size and in many cases are even large for their species. Many other breeders have achieved the same results using their own recipes. I choose commercial formulas primarily for their consistency and convenience. I have found with such birds as Sun Conures that have a large amount of fruit and veg. in their diet, that a mixture of two formulas gives me better results in the growth and hydration of the chicks than my standard formula. Other breeders have success with the addition of strained fruit to their diets.
Hygiene is probably one of the most important factors in hand rearing successfully and yet it is often one of the most neglected areas. With so many other things that can go wrong that are harder to avoid and rectify, I have never understood why people can’t be bothered to take a little care with the one area which is totally under their control. Again, the level of hygiene required is relative to the age of the chick when removed from its parents and the number of chicks being raised in the one nursery. I have seen some dreadful cases of Hand rearing in Galahs by people who are totally inexperienced and I’m convinced that anyone with a dirty spoon and some form of cereal can raise a Galah provided that it is far enough advanced when it is taken from its parents. This is only because these poor little beggars are tough, not because this type of hand rearing is acceptable. The main justification for poor hygiene is that conditions in the nest could hardly be considered hygienic so it’s not necessary to go overboard when hand rearing. Unfortunately, this is a bit like comparing apples with oranges.
Parent birds are continually filling the crops of their young without waiting, as we do, for the crop to empty. The reason they are able to do this is that along with the food, they are passing on friendly crop bacteria and digestive enzymes so the crop of the youngster becomes a healthy compost heap rapidly digesting even the most solid foods. When hand rearing, we are feeding a formula that begins to sour as it is waiting to be digested so what remains in the crop from the previous feed is increasingly sour as the day goes by. I always feed when there is still food In the crop from the previous feed but endeavour to allow the crop to empty completely once daily, usually overnight, to clear this remaining food. If the environment and hand rearing utensils are not being kept as clean as possible the build up of bacteria can rapidly pass into the digestive system of the chick causing infections, many of which are fatal.
The longer a chick requires rearing, the longer you need to battle the potential souring of food in the crop and therefore the more careful you need to be with hygiene. I always maintain the same level of hygiene with all chicks being raised, regardless of age. I often have several batches of chicks being reared in the one room. Although older, more advanced chicks may combat a bacterial infection successfully, younger chicks can be infected as their immune system is incompetent and they are under greater stress. For the same reason, each batch of chicks in my nursery have their own cup, spoon, and formula and I wash my hands between handling each group.
I believe that keeping accurate records of weight gain, temperature, formula and feeding procedure helps you gain experience with each species raised and helps the chicks get off to a good start the next time you raise the same birds. It helps you recognise improvements in technique and helps you detect any early signs of trouble.
Whatever method you choose to use, provided that you consistently produce healthy normal sized young birds, stick to it! If you encounter problems, then endeavour to identify the problem and fix it!