Q & A: “When should parrot chicks be taken for hand-rearing?”

November 8th, 2016 | by Tony Silva
Q & A: “When should parrot chicks be taken for hand-rearing?”
Tony Silva NEWS

I was recently asked what is the best age to take chicks for hand-rearing. As in all matters concerning aviculture, there is no simple answer. Rather that decision needs to be based on a multitude of factors, including species idiosyncrasies, the history of the pair and the goal of the breeder.

Parrots can be divided into two categories according to their breeding pattern. Amazons, Asiatic parakeets and most Australian species are seasonal nesters. They nest typically in spring. If the nest fails during an early stage, a replacement clutch will likely be laid. But if the chicks perish once they are partly grown, most pairs will not nest again until the following year. With these species removing the eggs and or newly hatched chicks for hand-rearing or fostering is important if the breeder expects to produce more than one clutch from the particular pair. In contrast, some species are continuous layers. They will produce clutch after clutch irrespective of when the eggs or newly hatched or even fully weaned chicks are taken. These species include Sun Aratinga solstitialis solstitialis and Jenday Conures Aratinga solstitialis jendaya, Cockatiels Nymphicus hollandicus and lovebirds. Some species like Kakarikis Cyanoramphus spp. may commence producing the next clutch even before the chicks have fledged.



Aratinga solstitialis at Birdworld Kuranda (c) Lubomir Tomiska


So the first consideration is the idiosyncrasies of the species: will they produce again if the eggs or chicks are taken at any age or are they single clutch producers?

In my collection seasonal nesters have the first eggs removed for artificial incubation. They ate taken as they are laid and up to four eggs.  The hens then continue to cycle and are allowed to incubate the next 3-4 eggs that they produce. These eggs can be left to be reared or they can be taken when 12-14 days old. Most hens will then recycle a third time, producing a slightly smaller clutch. This clutch they are allowed to incubate, hatch and rear. This is how we manage our Amazon parrots and some of the Australian cockatoos (e.g., Galahs Eolophus roseicapillus). This allows us to produce up to three times the number of chicks in a season. This improved production is important when dealing with a rare or endangered species or unique mutation as it allows numbers to be boosted in a shorter period of time.

Taking eggs for artificial incubation requires an understanding of the process. This is why I laugh when scammers offer to sell eggs complete with a manual and a small incubator. They obviously never send anything—their goal is to steal an uninformed person´s money– but their poor understanding of aviculture makes the process seem simple.



In incubation, the eggs will need to be turned clockwise and counter clockwise daily (we strive for 18 turns in a 24 hour period), incubated at a temperature that oscillate slightly down from 37.3°C to duplicate nature (the hen leaves the eggs alone when she emerges to defecate or feed, when the eggs cool slightly) and weight loss to be strictly controlled. I find that more embryos drown in the egg than dry out. This is because the breeders believe that the humidity needs to be at saturation. We operate our incubators dry. My reasoning is simple: if in the same environment the hens incubate and hatch their eggs, why would eggs in an incubator need to be kept in super saturation?

If you understand incubation and have experience in the process, then taking the eggs as they are laid can be a given. But if you do not understand the process or lack experience in incubation, then I would allow the pair to incubate the eggs. Deciding when to take the chicks once they hatch is the next decision the breeder must take.

If you have experience in hand-rearing, the decision to remove the young from the parents can be taken at any stage. If you do not have vast experience, then my recommendation is to take the chicks as late as possible in development (though always before they start to feather, when they can become difficult to feed). I can never stress this point enough as some chicks are not easy to hand-rear. Caiques, for example, tend to aspirate very easily before they are a week old. This requires that they be kept in small disposable espresso coffee cups from hatching until day 4-6. This keeps them in a standing position and prevents them from flipping on their backs, where they aspirate easily. (Some will say: They don´t aspirate under the parents. This is true—but the food fed by the parents is of a very different consistency and seems to deter aspiration when they flip on their backs.)



If I had a decision, I would always leave the chicks in the nest for three weeks. This gives them a significant start in life. But this is not always possible. Some birds break their eggs, do not incubate or kill the chicks on hatching. If you are to rear chicks from such pairs, then hand-rearing is a necessity. To be successful it is imperative that you have all of the tools on hand (brooder, feeding instruments, formula, etc) and an understanding of hand-rearing. The best way to grasp basic experience is to intern with a breeder. Each year we have people stay with us to learn incubation and hand-rearing. The hands-on experience they gain can never replace what they can learn from reading an article or book. This then increases their likelihood of success.


author: Tony Silva

Title photo: (c) Sergio Almeida. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.



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