PSITTACINE PEDIATRICS: Housing and Feeding of Baby Parrots


Hand-feeding baby birds is an vital part of any successful aviculture operation. Psittacine eggs that are artificially incubated or babies pulled from their parents at a young age, must be hand-fed for three to five months. Hand-fed birds make tamer companions and increase production if the parents re-clutch. Breeding pairs may neglect all or the youngest of their babies or they can cannibalise them. With these pairs there is no choice but to pull the babies and hand-fed.

Most exotic birds kept in captivity, such as psittacines and the many types of soft bills are altricial that is their young are hatched blind, helpless in food gathering and are unable to thermoregulate. Since poultry are precocial, little information on their relatively easy care is directly useful for parrots. Aviculturists have by trail and error methods, developed procedures to successfully raise hatchlings right from hatching.


Nursery management must have as the main goal disease prevention. With chicks lacking fully developed immune systems, normal gut flora just becoming established, and parent pairs previously exposed to many different organisms, stress due to poor feeding or inadequate environment can quickly lead to disease. The nursery usually has a concentration of such susceptible individuals so there is greater chance of an epornitic occurring here, crippling the cash flow of an operation.

The flow of babies within a nursery can reduce the chances of cross-contamination. There should be no mixing of parent raised babies, even if the parents appear perfectly healthy and have been with the breeder for many years. Subclinical carriers of Psittacine beak and feather disease, polyomavirus and other diseases may transmit these vertically (via the egg) but with greater probably horizontally (directly) to babies in the nest. If these babies are pulled and not properly handled within the nursery, significant mortality could result. Increasing the number of hatchlings from artificially incubated eggs can minimize the chance of parent birds infecting their offspring.

If parent fed chicks are to be hand-fed they should be pulled from the nest box before three weeks of age or the time of emergence of pin feathers on the wings. Older chicks will be stressed for the first few days in the strange nursery and may not want to be fed. However once they are hungry enough, usually about 12 hours later, they will accept hand-feeding.

Hands must be cleansed before and also between feeding and handling different babies and clutches. Disposable latex gloves can be changed between each group of babies or allow hands to be wiped with a disinfectant with out irritating skin. Babies should not be removed from their containers unless necessary and a clean paper towel placed under each baby when weighing.


A fresh batch of formula should be mixed up for each feeding. This is more hygienic and convenient since food does not need to be stored. To properly prepare the diet for feeding, a balance for weighing formula and accurate volumetric container for water should be used. Use accurate measuring devices, clean utensils and stir the food well.

Cooking time will vary slightly with model of microwave oven and type of container. Plastic containers seem to cool the food slower than ones made of glass. The final temperature of the food, just before feeding, should be slightly warmer than human body temperature or about 40C (100F). Be careful not to overheat the food as burning the babies can occur if the food contains hot spots or is only a few degrees too hot.

Table 1.Water/Dry Mash Ratio of hand-feeding Formula

Age of        Amount of dry mash           vol of 
Baby                                       water 

hatching to    1 tbs = 9 g (15 cc)          72 ml
  2 days       volume rario    1:5
               weight ratio    1:7
               (12.5% Solids)

3 days to      1/2 cup = 64 g (120 cc)     240 ml 
 weaning       volume ratio    1:2
               weight ratio    1:4         
               (20% Solids)

Formulas for young babies, up to day two to four, should be significantly more diluted, about 5 to 10 percent solids. These young babies may also develop better on less rich diets having lower fat and protein and more easily digested carbohydrates (another area requiring research). Older babies should receive formula with a solid content in the 20 to 30 per cent range which usually results in a consistency a little thinner than apple sauce. Do not assume that such a texture represents the correct nutrient density as thickeners can make a formula with low dry matter levels appear much denser.

Formula can be maintained at the correct feeding temperature by setting it in a bowl of hot water.


There are several possible techniques of feeding young parrots. Psittacine chicks produce a feeding response when the commissures of the beak are touched. This bobbing action closes the glottis and food passes into the crop. A bent teaspoon can be used to feed the formula but this can be a messy and time consuming way of feeding. Spoon feeding may produce a tamer bird because of the increased handling and is the preferred method of feeding of some of the most experienced aviculturists in the world (Low, 1987). However, there may be a greater chance of disease transmission with spoon feeding as the spoon is repeatedly touching the babies mouth and then dipped into the formula thus contaminating the food for the other babies.

Small plastic pipettes are used by some breeders to feed younger babies. Since these pipettes can only hold a few ml of food they require many repeated dippings into the food container with the same potential for disease spread as with spoons.

Catheter tipped syringes of various sizes are becoming popular instruments in feeding baby birds. Syringes can be used to slowly dribble the food into the mouth of the bird. Syringes allow the measuring of the amount of food fed and are easier to use. Silicone rubber and "O" ring syringes last longer than black rubber ones. Better still are syringes with no rubber gaskets and simply a concave round end. Soaking in tamed iodine disinfectant between feedings.

Syringes are usually used to shoot the food into the crop of the bird. Hold the babies head loosely by placing a finger on both sides of the beak and the back of the head. Place the tip of the feeding syringe into the left side of the birds mouth and once the bird gives a feeding response (head pumping) shoot the food towards the back of the head. This procedure is relatively safe but requires some practice before it is done without a mess. The advantage of syringes is that a separate one can be used for each clutch of babies so that if one pair produces diseased offspring it doesn't spread to the other babies.

A short soft rubber tube can be attached to the tip of the syringe which can then be placed further back into the mouth to prevent food going down the trachea. However this may have a behavioral effect on the baby and may prolong the weaning process since this is the least natural of all the feeding methods.

Fill the crop well without over stretching it and allow it to completely empty between feedings. Do not confuse the small pouch of loose skin around an empty crop as a crop that still contains food. Babies have looser skin around the crop to allow it to stretch out. Sick babies are more likely to aspirate themselves and the crop becomes flaccid. These babies should be placed in small containers, like disposable plastic cups, which hold them up prevent them from falling on their crop. Feeding frequency or gut transit time is dependant on the percent solids of the formula, its digestibility and caloric density. Babies less than 3 days old get fed six times a day and older ones 4 times a day.

Metal feeding tubes are only necessary when force feeding sick birds.

Whatever implements are used they should be disinfected between feedings and replaced periodically. Some aviculturists boil syringes in large pressure cookers or in regular pots but more commonly cold disinfectant baths are used to soak feeding equipment. Gluteraldehyde based products appear the strongest disinfectants however quartenary ammonium compounds or iodophors are acceptable under normal conditions. Phenol based disinfectants are very irritating to skin and chlorhexidines do not effectively kill pseudomonas bacteria which are common in wet environments and water. At HARI we lost several two month old cockatoos to pseudomonas when we used chlorhexidine to disinfect syringes. The bacteria were cultured directly from the syringes and upon close examination colonies could be seen in the corners of the syringe shafts.


1. Brooders and Containers
There are as many different and successful baby brooders as their are hand-feeding formulas. Some are home made wooden boxes with electric elements or lights to keep the babies warm. Others are adapted metal game chick brooders or glass aquariums with custom made heaters to partially cover the top or bottom of the tank. Brooders set up with heating pads often result in cooked babies, thermal injuries or cold babies since precise, constant temperature maintenance is difficult (Stoddard, 1988). Another problem with home made or adapted brooders is their usual lack of humidity control. Human baby incubators and specific commercial baby bird brooders have more accurate temperature and humidity control but are difficult to obtain or can become expensive when many babies have to be housed.

Brooders should be relatively small as an important part of disease prevention with babies is to keep clutches separate and this is limited with large brooders. They should provide constant, even heat that can be finely adjusted, be well ventilated, easily cleaned and have a water receptacle to add humidity.

One set-up which meets many of these requirements uses small aquariums to contain babies which is then placed a much larger aquarium or plastic pan filled with about three or four inches of heated water. The water is maintained at 40C (100F) with a submersible thermostat aquarium heater. Salt should be added to the water to keep down the growth of pseudomonas and other pathogenic bacteria. Evaporated water must be replaced so that the horizontally laid heater remains submerged.

2. Bedding
Young babies, less than two weeks of age, can be kept on paper towels in plastic cups, re-used yogurt containers or small aquariums. Babies should be sitting on clean and dry bedding which is therefore changed at each feeding. This may not provide firm enough footing for some birds which should be transferred onto paper or wood shavings or towels to avoid splayed legs. When babies are two-three weeks old, we transfer the babies to a small plastic containers that contain a few layers of newspaper under a few inches of wood shavings. Corn cob, walnut shell and pellet type bedding are not popular or losing favour with aviculturists because of various drawbacks.

Some babies may have a tendency to eat shavings, perhaps as a result of other complications such as calorie deficient diets or excess heat. Using towels has the advantage of being able to clearly see the baby's droppings but the feet and feathers can get caked up with feces and time and energy must be spent on washing towels. Disposable diapers are expensive and wasteful. Babies stay cleaner when they are kept on processed paper product or shavings.

3. Temperature
The ambient temperature and humidity of baby altricial birds must be regulated. Young, up until they are feathered out, need supplemental heat above room temperature to thrive and even survive. Chilled babies, either because of neglectful parent birds or power failure to the brooder heater, will deteriorate quickly. These chicks may die later even after being warmed up. Nursery room temperature should be kept warm between 78 and 82 degrees fahrenheit.

The brooder temperature for recently hatched chicks can remain at the hatching temperature of 35.0-36.5C (96-98F) for the first few days. Once the baby is eating more solid food, at about 2-3 days of age, it should be kept at a lower temperature of 33.5-35.0C (92-96F) depending on the species and its metabolism. From there up to about two weeks of age babies should be in an environmental temperature of 32.0-33.5C (90-92F) (Table 2). If temperatures are to high the chick may exhibit panting, unrest, hyperactivity and have dry, reddened skin (Clubb and Clubb, 1986). Cold temperatures may result in death, poor gut motility, crop stasis or other digestive disorders, failure to feed or beg, inactivity or shivering (Clubb and Clubb, 1986).

Table 2. Approximate Brooder Temperature

   Age                     Temperature
                            C       F

    Hatch to Day 2-3     35.0-36.5  96-98
    Day 3 to Day 14-21   31.1-34.0  88-94
    3 weeks to Weaning   25.0-30.0  76-86

4. Humidity
Natural nesting cavities in wooden tree trunks probably have a high relative humidity. Moist droppings from any babies within them will add to this, resulting in an environment of high humidity. These are unfortunately not the humidity levels found in most nursery brooders (Clipsham, 1989b). Most babies are traditionally raised on dry heat with heating pads, light bulbs or electric coils.

A range of 55-70% humidity produces quieter, fatter babies with a greater growth rate than those kept at levels of 15-35% (Clipsham, 1989b). Ambient humidity for hatching eggs and hand fed chicks can be increased by increasing nursery room humidity and, more effectively, by using containers of water as a source of both heat and humidity. A small aquarium submerged in and surrounded by a water bath heated by a submersible aquarium heater is very effective for eggs and up to one week old babies.

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