By Penny Corbett
I have been breeding birds for a couple of years and have had problems with hens leaving their nests before the eggs hatch, and hens that do not feed their young. What can I do? Should I buy an incubator to hatch them? What if the electricity goes out?
You did not mention what species or type of bird you are breeding, so I will give you some general information that might provide some insight. Hens might leave their nests for many reasons. Start with the basic reasons and eliminate them one-by-one. Have these hens successfully raised chicks before? Are they mature? Do they have the needed privacy for their species and individual personalities? Do they have enough food available? Is the length of day consistent? Not all birds are good breeders. Every so often there is a hen that does not sit on her eggs correctly, feed her babies, etc. However, if you are having the same problem with more than one hen, it suggests that the problem may lie somewhere other than with the hens.
Respect Your Birds' Need For Privacy And Security
Disruptions in the breeding area seem to be the main reason for unsuccessful breeding results. The disruption can come from inconsistent schedules, other pets (cats, dogs, reptiles, ferrets, etc.) or unwanted visitors (a stray mouse in the aviary can cause more than its share of havoc in a bird room). Also, check to make sure that the hens are not having trouble with their mates.
Humans often are the cause of disruption without even realizing it. There are people who have birds as both pets and breeders, and there may even be a few that play with their birds while they are nesting without any problems. However, these cases are the exception, not the rule. Do you "show off" your breeding area to guests? Were/are your breeder birds pets? Do you take them out of the breeding cage for a while to play with them? Do you allow them to come out and visit?
Breeders have a job to do, and they should be permitted to do it. There is something disrupting your hens. If either the male and/or female were pets and you are continuing to handle them while they are on nest, you must refrain from doing so. I would also suggest that you keep the breeding area off limits to any guests, at least until breeding season has ended. With a secure environment, few disruptions, proper housing and nesting, and plenty of good food, your hens should settle down and sit on their eggs.
Keep The Food Coming
Not all hens are good mothers. One of the most common reasons for hens not to feed their young, other than being bred too young, is the lack or shortage of the proper food available to them to feed their chicks. Some species and pairs prefer to feed certain foods at different stages of the chicks' development. Not having the right food or enough of it may cause a hen not to feed, or stop feeding. When birds are raising young, they require large amounts of food offered frequently. Also remember that intake increases as the babies grow.
Inexperience is sometimes the reason for even a mature hen not to feed its offspring. However, it is not very common. Depending on the species, sometimes all that is necessary is to replace a newly hatched chick with one that is a few days older. Older chicks are stronger and have a stronger feeding response. Also, their size and cries for feeding make them difficult to ignore.
Several years ago, I questioned an experienced zoo veterinarian about the stories of parrots chewing the legs of their chicks off to remove the bands. He said that parent birds don't look at the legs, they are too busy shoving food in the chicks' mouths to shut them up. The only reason parents feed them is to keep them quiet. As humans, we like to think parents feed their young because they are good parents. The truth is that it doesn't really matter why the parents feed their young, just that they do it.
If a chick is not strong enough to properly beg for food or fight its siblings for its share, it will soon die. If it is not persistent enough, it may not be fed by a parent that is just a "borderline feeder." That was just one veterinarian's opinion but, when I watch chicks being fed, there is little doubt that the pushy one with the big mouth is fed first.
Check with other people successfully raising the species you are working with. Find out what food they provide their breeders to feed their young and how often. Also, care must be taken with food items that spoil. They need to be tossed out after a period of time, and the dishes need to be washed and disinfected.
To Incubate Or Not To Incubate
Incubators can be very useful in any breeding operation. It may be possible to use one to hatch the eggs of a hen that does not sit well on her eggs, returning chicks to the nest for care after hatching. Some hens feed a chick even though they did not sit on the eggs tight enough to hatch them. An incubator can often save the nest when the hen takes an extended leave. It can also be used to incubate part of a nest when a large number of eggs are laid. Many circumstances arise that can be helped along with the use of an incubator.
If you plan on incubating eggs, you may also be forced to take on the responsibility of feeding the chicks. Are you prepared for this? Feeding chicks from Day 1 is not an easy thing to do, but it will be an experience you will not forget. Feeding Day-1 chicks provides you with an in-depth view of the development of a chick. You will gain experience you could never obtain when the parents feed. The little ones grow and develop at a rate that is amazing. Sometimes you believe you can see them growing from the beginning to the end of one feeding.
Hand-feeding chicks from hatching is not for everyone. There is a down side to it, which includes the hand-feeder not being able to travel from home for too long or too often. At first, just as you finish cleaning up from one feeding, it is time to feed again. Somewhere along the line it was stated that Day-1 chicks be fed every two hours. That is true in some cases, but not in all. Chicks should be fed when they're hungry. If they are hungry after an hour, they should be fed. If it is an hour and a half, that is fine also. In my opinion, waiting until it has been two hours before feeding a chick that is empty and has been crying for some time is unacceptable. During the first couple of days, feedings are more frequent, and the time between feedings gradually lengthens. Not all chicks will develop at the same rate, even if they are the same species, from the same parents and from the same clutch.
Incubating and feeding the young from Day 1 also requires that you have a brooder in order to keep the newly hatched chicks at the proper temperature. Chicks kept at too high or too low temperatures can develop problems that lead to death. I do not recommend the use of heating pads as a source of heat. I know many people use them and are pleased with the results. However, you cannot really control the temperature accurately enough for the very young chicks. Also, heating pads were not made to be on four hours a day, seven days a week — they can be a fire hazard.
Maintaining Power In A Black Out
The loss of electricity makes many bird breeders anxious. You seldom know the cause of the outage or how long it will be out. In the area I live, outages are extremely common. I regularly contact the electric company after the power has been out for five minutes. Oftenthey are not aware that there is a problem. Waiting for someone else to report it may cause unnecessary worrying and time spent without electricity.
Several years ago, I purchased a portable generator to help with outages. You need to be aware that the quality of the electricity produced by a generator may not be the same as what you get from the utility company. Keep a close eye on incubator and brooder temperatures.
An APC backup system used with a computer can also be used to power small brooders and incubators for short periods of time. The APC is a battery backup system that gives instant power during blackouts. It is designed to run a computer, so you can complete the file in progress and/or close the file without losing it. There are several sizes available and the prices are more attractive than they were just a few years ago. Purchasing one is an inexpensive price to pay for peace of mind and the lives of chicks and eggs.
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.