WEANING THE DIFFICULT BIRD
We have an adorable 5 month old lesser sulfur crested cockatoo. When we first obtained him he was 12 weeks old, and was eating some dry food, but still received one syringe feeding per day. He loves his feedings and now goes down to the floor of his cage and begs constantly for his syringe. He calls and whines until we feed him. He still eats a little of his pellets and a little of a seed and dried fruit mix, but not much. He seems healthy and the vet can't find anything wrong with him.
Cockatoos can be very difficult to wean, as can cockatiels and a few other species. Most of my comments here are general enough to apply to weaning difficult babies of almost any type. The first and most important concern is to make sure that the baby is really healthy. Some diseases can manifest themselves in "baby-like" behavior, complete with begging and calling. In general, you may wish to check with the store veterinarian to discuss the weight and hydration status of your bird, the rate of crop emptying, the number and character of the droppings, and the "brightness" or behavior of the bird. If anything suggests an abnormality, the veterinarian may suggest some diagnostic work. Assuming all seems well, then the behavioral aspects of a difficult weaning can be properly addressed.
Young birds should not be "forced" to wean by starving them, but neither should they call all the shots. One of the best strategies is to get away from a syringe, and change over to a small spoon. An inexpensive metal teaspoon with the edges bent up makes an ideal food delivery vehicle, and is actually much safer and more natural than syringe feeding. This is because there is no way you can accidentally force the food into the windpipe, or tear the delicate throat membranes with a spoon. Of course spoon feeding takes longer and is messier, so commercial breeders rarely depend on spoons. However, whenever practical or possible, a spoon is preferable to a syringe. If the young cockatoo does not recognise the spoon or is afraid of it, place the bird in your lap when it begs for food. Then just tip a little formula at a time into the mouth. Make sure the formula is staying warm - the spoon causes formula to cool quickly, and you will have to keep the container of warm formula nearby.
The next step for weaning babies is to replace warm formula with warm, well-soaked Tropican or other suitable small digestible food items. Some types of parrot pellet will just dissolve when mixed with warm water, but extruded brands like Tropican will hold their shape for a long time. Start out with cockatiel-sized Tropican, and spoon down plenty of warm water right along with the wet granules. Have moist pellets in a bowl in the cage between feedings, AS WELL AS dry pellets. The young birds are naturally curious and will experiment with almost anything left in their cage. If seed is also offered, remove it from the cage as soon as the bird is eating it well, or the bird will wean onto seed instead of pellets. This isn't "bad", but it does make it harder to train the bird to eat pelleted foods as part of the long term diet. Most veterinarians feel that the best possible nutrition can be provided through the use of pelleted foods combined with lots of fresh vegetables and fruits. Seeds contain too much fat and not enough vitamins and minerals in most cases. Seed can certainly be reserved for treat feeding and training programs, and it is great for teaching birds how to eat "hard" things. Spray millet is very popular for teaching cockatiels how to go off liquid formula. Just remember to remove it and switch them over to Tropican as soon as they eat the millet.
Fresh fruits and vegetables can be used as a weaning food also. Just chop them up into very small pieces and spoon them down along with the warm, wet pellets. This will help them be more adventurous when eating fresh foods later on. Melons, grapes, and bananas are particularly suitable for these early introductions. Larger extruded pieces like the new Tropican food sticks (B-2610) can also be fed without a spoon - just use some clean fingers to pop warm, moist pieces right into the mouth!
Now start offering the spoon feedings at less frequent intervals. When the young cockatoo begs for food, give him attention or a hand fed Tropican sticks, not his syringe or spoon. Maybe he just doesn't know any other way to ask for attention! He needs attention, and would be getting plenty of it in his wild or natural situation with his family and flock. Watch his droppings carefully to make sure he is getting enough food. Healthy young birds that eat normally produce MANY droppings in the course of a day - with most droppings consisting of a well formed brownish-green stool, and white or cream-coloured urates (the white portion of the dropping). Weigh him if possible (use a gram scale and keep a record of weights). Check his breastbone if you don't, and consult with your veterinarian if you are concerned about his weight. It is normal for weaning parrots to lose a little bit of weight during weaning time, but not too much. Weaning without deprivation techniques will result in a well-adjusted, confident, happy bird - one that is not fearful about the security of his life with humans. So hang in there!
Louise Bauck BSc, DVM, MVSc.
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