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Hand-Feeding Dos and Don't's

The value of a good hand-feeding mentor is more than you could ever imagine.

By Penny Corbett

Hand-feeding is a serious undertaking, and it can only be learned by doing. Part of learning is reading all the information you can get your hands on, asking questions and observing the hand-feeding process, if possible, as often as possible. The value of a good hand-feeding mentor is more than you could ever imagine. All of the written material available is no substitute for the experience gained from years of hand-feeding and dealing with the challenges presented along the way.

Preparing To Hand-Feed
The availability of several quality, commercial hand-feeding formulas eliminates the need to mix up baby food, as was done years ago. Each brand includes important step-by-step instructions for preparation and feeding. The chicks get all the necessary moisture from the formula at various stages of development. Supplying water will only be necessary once they start the weaning process and begin to eat on their own.

Read and follow the instructions for the brand of formula that you intend to use before your first feeding. Manufacturers' products are not all the same, so preparation and feeding directions can vary. Do not add additional vitamins, minerals, other supplements or try to "improve" the formula. Prepare the formula per the directions, according to the species and age of the chicks being fed. Be careful. There is a difference between volume and weight. Some companies give instructions using volume, some using weight — others provide instructions using both.

Use only clean, disinfected (sanitized) equipment. Mix thoroughly and allow the formula to stand for the time indicated. Check the consistency and temperature of the formula before feeding. Use a thermometer for checking temperature, do not guess. Discard any unused formula and mix fresh for each feeding.

When And How Much To Feed
The chick determines the feeding schedule, not the person doing the feeding. Chicks should be fed when their crops have emptied and they are hungry, not according to a clock. Do not try to give a little extra to stretch time between feedings. Skipped feedings will have a detrimental effect on the chicks. A chick should be fed until it refuses to eat more or the crop is firm but not tight, whichever is first. Do not assume the chick will stop eating when it is full. Generally, babies eat about 10 to 12 percent of their body weight, though there are species that eat less than this throughout the entire hand-feeding period. As with just about everything, there are exceptions to the general rule.

A well-fed baby will be plump and when its skin is pinched, it will smooth back into place when you release it. If the skin is wrinkled, red and does not spring back to normal, the chick needs more fluids along with more calories. Check the brooder temperature and humidity. Redness in the skin, protruding backbone and toothpick wings and feet are signs of early stunting. Another sign is a large, oversized-looking head.

Stunting of chicks comes from lack of experience in proper hand-feeding techniques and/or inconsistency in feeding. Some of the main reasons are:
• Not feeding enough formula per feeding
• Formula being fed is too thin
• Not feeding enough times in a day

A properly fed, healthy chick gains weight every day until it begins the weaning process. If a chick does not gain weight one day, monitor that chick closely. Loss of weight is a signal of a problem that needs to have immediate attention.

Never leave chicks unattended when they are being fed, even for a couple of seconds. It only takes a second for a chick to roll and drop to the floor. Injury caused by such afall can be fatal.

Digestive problems can occur with chicks kept at temperatures too high or too low. Use only a reliable heat source for your chicks. Heating pads used under aquariums or tubs are not recommended. They are not dependable and are not easy to regulate. Heating pads were not made to be operational 24 hours a day, for weeks or months at a time. Excessive and/or improper use is a fire hazard. Limit the use of heating pads to temporary emergency use only. There are many affordable brooders available that are made to operate under the conditions required.

Preventing Problems
Using an accurate gram scale, weigh each chick before the first feeding of the day. Daily weigh-ins assist in detecting inadequate weight gains early on. Monitoring weight can be the first sign of a problem before it becomes obvious. There are also weight charts available for many species for use in tracking your chicks' progress. Keeping weight records provides a profile for growth rates for the species, as well as individual families or lines.

Experience in hand-feeding one species does not ensure success with another species. Just because a person has raised a blue-and-gold macaw does not automatically make them qualified to raise a hyacinth macaw. It is this type of assumption that results in many of the Day 1-fed, stunted hyacinth pets offered today. These birds have huge heads and feet with a small chest and muscular build. Hyacinths have different requirements that need to be taken into consideration when it comes to feeding and weaning. Before feeding a species you have not had past experience with, ask for help and advice from someone who has been successful with that species.

Proper hygiene is a critical factor in the health of neonates. Thoroughly clean and disinfect all equipment after each and every feeding. Clean chicks after each feeding of any formula. Change bedding at each feeding to keep babies clean and comfortable.

Do not change hand-feeding diets during feedings. If a diet change cannot be prevented, check the manufacture's recommendations for making the change. Generally, the change takes place over a period of a couple of days. Gradually mix and increase the new formula proportion until it replaces the previous brand. Make the necessary plans and preparations to keep an adequate supply of hand-feeding formula on hand. There are few, if any, excuses for not having formula to feed hungry chicks.

Columnist Penny J. Corbett has been breeding birds for more than 25 years. She has experience showing and judging many species, including color-bred and type canaries, finches, and softbills. She currently breeds mainly hookbills.


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Hand-Feeding Dos and Don't's

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Reader Comments
This is a good article on Hand feeding baby birds. However, the two lines I have copied below are a contradiction to each other and care should be taken with this info.
"A chick should be fed until it refuses to eat more or the crop is firm but not tight, whichever is first. Do not assume the chick will stop eating when it is full."
Many baby birds will overeat if you give them the opportunity and this can lead to big problems including chick death from aspirating the food in the crop.
However, it is a very good article for most of the information. Thankyou
Shauna, Perth, Western Australia
Posted: 4/21/2010 9:47:31 PM
I found a mistake in this article: there should be a space between 'a' and 'fall' where it says that 'afall' can cause death or injury to an unsupervised baby bird.
Amanda, Goshen, IN
Posted: 8/20/2009 7:34:57 PM
Great info! Thanks!
Amy, Chambersburg, PA
Posted: 6/8/2008 2:15:35 PM
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