Hand-Feeding: When To Start, Bottled Water vs. Tap

When to hand feed and what water to use.

By Robbie Harris

Last year I bought and set up two pairs of conures, one pair of suns and a pair of nandays. Both pairs appeared very compatible. They used the nest boxes right away. I kept them on a diet very similar to the one in your book, Breeding Conures. I read all kinds of books and magazines to gain knowledge on the birds I own. I even went out and got hand-feeding tools, a heat pad and plastic tanks ?I wanted to be prepared in case they went to nest.

This spring my pair of sun conures had a clutch of four eggs, and three have hatched. I candled the last egg, and that one does not seem to be fertile. The parents are feeding the three chicks just great and, so far, all is going well.

My question is this, I work a part-time job, and I am away from the house for about five hours each day. I want the babies to be tame so I know they really need to be hand-fed. I really want to do this task myself, because I feel confident I know enough. What age do you feel is good for me to remove them from the nest for hand-feeding? Should I wait until they are 6 weeks old and then finish? I am new at this, and I want to do this right, for both the babies and me.

It sounds to me like you have done your homework. You have read and obviously fed a good diet so your birds went to nest and succeeded to raise babies in their first clutch and feed them. Now, because you seem prepared to do this, it sounds like you will do quite well with hand-feeding. Having a part-time job and being away five hours is fine when hand rearing chicks, as long as they are over a week old. It is the first week that is very time consuming, hand-feeding around the clock every one to two hours. With your birds being good parents, hopefully, you will never have to deal with that.

When To Hand-Feed
A good age to remove chicks for hand-rearing is about 3 to 4 weeks old. If you remove them much later, you may find them harder to hand-feed. A chick that was fed by the parents up to 6 weeks of age will usually fight with a person and clamp their beak shut tightly, because they will fight not to be hand-fed. (You are not their parent and, at this age, they know the difference.) They also show fear and will challenge you over 4 weeks of age. This could prove to be a real burden and hardship for both you and the bird. A bird at that age could become so frightened that you could also accidentally choke (aspirate) the chick in one of the first feedings. At 3 to 4 weeks of age, the chicks are still a bit scared, but generally take to the hand-feeding tools within a day or two. Very little fighting and force feeding is done, for the chick usually sits idle waiting, but still not sure what is going on. They are usually much more gentle and passive under 4 weeks of age. The earlier you can remove them the better, because parrot chicks take to hand-feeding faster at a younger age.

What To Expect
At 3 to 4 weeks of age, chicks only need to be fed four to six times a day. They will still be young enough that they will be tame and loving when weaned, that is eating on their own. With a clutch of three being hand-fed in warmer months, they may not need extra heating, because their body heat may keep their brooder tank warm enough, too. This also will depend on the warmth of your house.

If you really want to start with the chicks being older the first time, remove them at 4 to 5 weeks of age at the latest. They may still fight with you for the first few days, but should soon take to hand-feeding. For the first few days, feeding less than more can sometimes also be better on the chicks. Some older chicks will try to regurgitate the formula at first, because they are not used to the feel of the soft formula in their crop. This, too, can be normal for some older chicks being hand-fed, but they should not do this for more then a day or two. If the first few feedings are just a small amount, the chicks may not try to regurgitate at all.

Always wait until the chicks’ crops are empty before you feed the chicks their very first feeding of hand-feeding formula. I usually remove the chicks before the sun goes down in the evening, and I do not feed them their first feeding until the next morning. Usually, by then, they have digested the food fed to them by their parents, and are ready for their first hand-feeding of warm, thin formula. Remember, just a small amount for the first few feedings, until both you and the chicks are used to the whole idea of hand-feeding!

I have read that I need to use bottled water when hand-feeding baby birds. What type of bottled water should be use? What type of bottled water do you use for your baby birds?

I use distilled drinking water, purchased by the gallon, for the newly hatched baby birds that I hand-feed. I boil the water first, then allow it to cool in a teakettle. I heard on the television news, and read once, that sometimes bottled water could become contaminated if not sealed tightly or if the water has been left in a hot delivery truck for too long. I personally feel better boiling it first, as you would for a human infant, just as an added precaution.

Once the chicks are over 3 weeks of age, I start to change them over to our regular tap water. I feel if my tap water is good enough for my breeder birds and us to drink, it should be fine for the babies. After all, the babies that are being parent-raised when first hatched are being fed tap water by their parents. Because of this, it may not make sense to bother with bottled water early on, but to me it still does.

A young baby bird being fed by its parents is getting regular tap water, but it is also receiving lots of antibodies from its parents to fight off all kinds of “normal daily” bacteria in our environment. With these added beneficial immune system agents, tap water is fine for these babies when the parents are feeding it with the food and their antibodies. When being hand-fed right from the egg, the chick needs to develop these antibodies on its own, and this can take some extra time. So, anything I can do to help a chick from not stressing and to develop into a healthy little creature, I will do.

Let me say something here. If one were using bottled water from a stand-type dispenser, (the 5 gallon types) it would be best to absolutely boil the water for 5 to 10 minutes before use. Many freestanding dispensers can easily grow all kinds of dangerous bacteria inside the holding tray because the water stands for days or months in these systems. Bacteria, if present, can and will kill newly hatched babies.

Robbie Harris has a Web site so people can easily get in touch with her. She will post things she learns that may be of some importance to others, such as hoax e-mails. Questions for her Bird Breeder column can be sent through her Web site: www.robbieharris.com . She will answer questions that seem to be the most frequently asked and those that will help many.

Robbie Harris raises a wide variety of exotic birds at her home in Southern California. She has written two books, Breeding Conures and Grey-Cheeked Parakeets and Other Brotogeris, and owns and raises a large variety of African parrots, including greys, Jardine’s, Capes, Senegals, red bellies, brown heads and Meyer’s. Harris has received seven U.S. First Breeding Awards for various types of psittacines.

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Birds · Health and Care