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Hand-Feeding Baby Gouldians

Hand-feeding baby Gouldians is a difficult undertaking, even for an experienced breeder.

By Barbara Levine

Our screened Florida patio (3,600 square feet) seemed like the perfect place for my caged Lady Gouldians (Chloebia gouldiae). They could bask in the heat and humidity. But what I thought would be a safe location soon became a death trap for the two parent birds. One morning, I discovered a pygmy rattlesnake inside the bird cage. It lay coiled on top of the wicker basket of newly hatched baby Gouldians. My shock turned to horror when I realized the father's remains were bulging from inside the snake's stomach. The mother lay dead on the cage floor.

Photo: Barbara Levine
During the first few weeks of hand-feeding, the Lady Gouldian babies showed no fear of humans or the eyedropper.

Sometime during the night, the rattlesnake gained access through the screened patio door and located the bird cage. Although the snake had slithered between the narrow wires of the cage, it remained stuck inside the cage after eating the father bird. How I kept from freaking out I will never know. At that moment, my main concern was protecting the remaining pair of adult Gouldians and five 3-day-old baby orphans inside the nest. Given that time was of the essence, I was left with no other choice but to shoot the snake where it lay.

Grief over the tragedy was short-lived as I realized there were five hungry babies to feed, and Hurricane Floyd might bear down on us at any time. Like other east coast Floridians, I had planned on spending the day in hurricane preparation mode. To complicate matters, my Internet phone line was dead, preventing me from seeking expert help online. As the birds chirped from hunger, I ventured to the bird store for help. As luck would have it, the bird store and every pet store in the area were closed. I said to myself, "This is nuts. A hurricane is coming, and here I am driving all over the place trying to find baby bird food." Just as panic was beginning to set in, I found an open pet store. The owners had dropped by long enough to secure their birds and pets from the hurricane. Gratefully, I purchased baby bird formula and feeding syringes.

As a nonexpert owner of Lady Gouldians, my motherly instinct warned me that I was about to revisit 2 and 4 AM feedings, and I did not relish the thought. Hand-feeding baby Gouldians is a difficult undertaking, even for an experienced breeder. But with the purchase of the feeding supplies, my role as foster parent was sealed — there was no turning back.

Upon arriving at home, I prepared the first batch of formula. By this time, the chirping was deafening. After situating my orphans in a small, cozy box, I attempted the first feeding. I said to them, "Okay guys, this has not been a good day. I saved you from a rattlesnake, we are in the possible path of a hurricane, everything is closed, and I have never fed baby birds before. Bottom line, I have no idea what I am doing. So, you gotta help me out here. I know you can't see, but squawk if I am not doing this right."

The first feeding was a little awkward. I relied on them to "gobble" the syringe and eat as much as they wanted while watching for any food backup. Although they looked like drowned rats soaked in formula, we survived the first feeding. After that, I switched to using a narrow-tip eyedropper. It was easier to insert into their tiny mouths than the syringe.

It didn't take long to realize I had to establish a routine. Each morning, I prepared enough formula for the day. Before each feeding, Iheated up enough prepared formula for that feeding. At the end of the feeding, I wiped their beaks with a wet Q-tip to prevent formula from hardening around their beak, throat and head areas. In three hours, I repeated the process. I didn't need a clock as the birds chirped every three hours like clockwork.

Photo: Copyright B. Everett Webb

A Gouldian baby is helpless without its parents.

Cleaning their nest area after each feeding was a must. I kept the birds on layers of paper towels, surrounded by soft tissue paper. Prior to feeding, I grabbed a soiled towel by the corners and moved the birds to a flat surface. After feeding and wiping their faces, I placed each baby back into a clean box. Like newborn humans, they slept, ate and grew at an amazing rate. One rule I learned quickly — never disturb sleeping baby birds.

The babies ate every three hours from 7 AM until 7 PM for those first three weeks. At mealtime, the birds received rounds of feedings that were repeated on demand. In the evening, I placed them near the ceramic heat lamp at a safe distance. From the beginning, they slept through the night, for which I was greatly relieved. Not once did they awaken in the middle of the night for feedings. I can only attribute this to the larger amount of food they received from the eyedropper, compared to a smaller amount provided by a parent.

One of the babies quickly became an eager-eater. At each feeding, it bullied its siblings to be the first in line for food. This behavior required separating it a short distance from the rest of the group during feeding time. The routine worked well until the 10th day when another one of the babies died. I'll never know the exact cause of death. The four remaining were healthy, so I continued on.

By the third week, the babies began hobbling around. I moved them from the box to a small bird cage with one low perch. For as much as they liked to hobble around, they preferred staying close and huddling with each other. Surrounding them with tissue paper allowed them to hobble and huddle whenever they chose. Also, at this stage, they began flinching back from the eyedropper before taking food.

Keeping the babies separate from the adult Gouldian pair presented a dilemma. Due to the frequent feedings, putting them inside the adult cage would have caused too much commotion and stress for the adults. I fretted if they would know how to eat seed, bathe, preen and, basically, be a bird. What a silly thought! As time went on, I learned that nature would take its course, and the babies would figure out how to be a bird.

Photo: Copyright Eric Ilasenko

Today four of the babies are happy, thriving adults.

By the fourth week, they had discovered flying. At feeding times, I allowed them to fly around a tiny room that was bird safe. They flew back and forth to my hands in search of the eyedropper to eat. Then they ate, flew away and repeated the behavior. At the end of the feeding, they usually flew back into their cage. Sometimes my "rebel" orphan refused to return home. In those instances, it perched on my finger so I could return it to the cage.

By the fifth week, I began weaning them with soaked millet and egg yolk. As they began to eat more millet, they required less baby formula. At that point, I placed them in the cage with the adult Gouldian pair. There were some moments of pecking order behavior by the adults, but the babies gradually began to join the adults at mealtime. Once they began eating seed, I offered them the eyedropper twice a day. For the first few days, they seemed eager to revisit formula food by hand. When they refused the eyedropper, I knew my job as foster parent had come to an end. Get out the hankies! They were weaned.

Being freed from the daily schedule of feedings was a welcome relief that brought mixed emotion. No longer do they fly to my hand and wait their turn for food. When I approach the cage, they behave as the older adult pair and fly about in fright. What I miss the most is their total lack of fear of me. In many ways, raising baby birds is no different than raising children. It's great when they leave the nest, stretch their wings and visit now and then.

I can't say what I did was right, because I don't profess to be a Lady Gouldian expert. No help was available at the time I rescued the orphans except time-honored common sense. All I know it that four of the orphans lived and are thriving today. I am anxiously waiting for their true colors to appear. It is my hope that at least two of the birds will look identical to their mother (black head) and father (orange head) that fought so valiantly to protect them from harm.


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