Tony Silva: Parrot Hand-feeding. PART I

April 22nd, 2015 | by Tony Silva
Tony Silva: Parrot Hand-feeding. PART I
Tony Silva NEWS

After the essentials of proper bird care, the next biggest source of questions I receive on a daily basis involves hand-rearing. The types of queries typically suggest a misunderstanding of heat requirements, diet, hygiene and weaning. Many aviculturists also erringly believe that all species can be treated using the exact same methodology. My intention here is to significantly reduce the cases of morbidity and mortality that I hear about when someone with little experience decides to experiment with hand-rearing.

In this article, my goal is NOT to encouraging someone to take the young from their parents and experiment with hand-rearing; rather, the intention is to provide a framework for those that are intent on trying hand-rearing but may not have a full understanding of the process and requirements for success.



A spoon with the sides bent upwards being used to feed a Senegal Parrot Poicephalus senegalus. (c) Tony Silva


Hand-rearing was developed in the New World. The first written references to hand-rearing date back to the era of Discovery, when the conquistadores recorded that Amerindians took nestling parrots from the nest and reared them for pets, feeding them on a macerated mash from the mouth. Columbus acquired some of these birds and returned to Spain with tame Cuban Amazons Amazona leucocephala that were used in the processions that followed his first trip in 1492.

In the US, the proximity of the tropics and availability of tame young conures and Amazons from Cuba, Mexico and Central America is what I believe contributed to the refinement of this technique. Aviculturists saw that the resulting tame youngsters could become perfect pets and began to experiment. Harriett Lee, Velma Hart, Dave West, Ken Wyatt, K.C. Lint, Ferne Hubbell, Ralph Small and other early American aviculturists contributed significantly to the development of the technique and many of their principals are still in use today.

So long is the history of hand-rearing in the US that the first commercial hand-rearing formulas, brooders and gavage needles were produced and marketed by American companies. American aviculturists were already breeding from hand-reared young when European and Australian aviculturists were shunning the process, believing that the young produced would be inferior. Indeed, the ever-growing mountain of evidence suggests that when properly socialized hand-reared birds are merely tamer versions of parent reared young. As an example, hand-reared Scarlet Macaws are being used in the reintroduction program in Costa Rica, the survival rate being the same as in chicks fledged in the wild.



Solomon Islands Eclectus. Females have a darker down and bill color, allowing the experienced breeder to sex them before the first feathers begin emerging. (c) Tony Silva


This entrenched perception that hand-reared birds are inferior is still held by some aviculturists, particularly in central and eastern Europe—Spanish and Portuguese breeders commonly rely on hand-rearing to provide tame young for the pet trade– but even these stalwart central and western Europeans are rapidly converting to become hand-rearers as they realize that breeders from Vietnam to India, from Taiwan to South Africa, from Mexico to Brazil and from Canada to New Zealand regularly take the young from the nest for hand-rearing. During my last visit to Australia, in 2014, after a hiatus of about two decades, I found that hand-rearing was now a common practice. The same happened with New Zealand during a visit in April 2015.

Many factors can force the breeder to hand-rear: A pair that lacks experienced may not feed the young sufficiently to permit them to grow, inexperience on the part of the parents can often contribute to losses, illness on the part of the hen or young may impede success, or the clutch may be so large that the smallest are crowded out at feeding time and would perish unless removed. Some breeders do intentionally take the young. The reasons for this may range from

producing tame young for pets to the need to produce a larger number of chicks each season. With species that normally rear a single clutch per year, such as Amazons, the pair can often be induced to produce a replacement clutch if the young are removed at a young age.

Before ever attempting to hand-rear, I highly recommend spending time observing someone perform this task. So many variables can come into play that it is impossible to describe every scenario in writing. By watching the process repeatedly, the subtleties displayed between young (even of the same species) will become evident. This visual experience will allow the breeder to perceive the way chicks should be held—the head should never be restrained, or swallowing will be thwarted—and of the importance of contact points along the bill, which induce a feeding response. In neo-tropical parrots this contact point is very visual in the form of soft, bulbous pads along the commissures of the mouth. In African Grey Parrots Psittacus erithacus this is near the base of the bill.



The next important step is to have the necessary hand-rearing equipment on hand. The list of items and some observations follow:

1)A brooder. Nearly all species of neonate parrots will require heat. As they age and they begin to feather, the chicks can thermoregulate themselves and supplementary heat will not be required.

A good brooder is a prerequisite for success. By referring to a brooder I am visualizing a professionally made piece of equipment that is calibrated, reliable and capable of maintaining a temperature as high as 37 degrees Celsius. A brooder is NOT a cardboard, wooden or Styrofoam box with an incandescent bulb for heat. Yes that bulb will generates heat, but the heat can be difficult to control and the light will keep the young permanently in a bright environment—an unnatural event for birds that naturally nest in a dark cavity or produces a nest of raddled twigs that is dark. Keep the young in a dark, warm, humid environment that is stable and does not fluctuate as a result of changes in room temperature. There are enough reliable brooders available at a reasonable price that the aviculturist should not improvise.


Inca Lory Brooder


2)Brooder temperature. The smaller the young, the higher the temperature requirements; the more feathered it becomes the less heat required. Behavior will be the primary gauge as to what is the ideal temperature.

My recommendation is to start newly hatched young at a temperature of 36.6 degrees C. This heat is required by most species. In newly hatched Eclectus Parrots kept at a lower temperature, the chicks become hyperactive to warm themselves, suffer bruising of the limbs and become dehydrated.

At the ideal temperature, the chicks should not pant but they should not be shivering. A classic sign of chilling is slowed digestion. When chicks are content, they sleep long periods of time. In a group they will huddle together, or stay slightly separate. As they age, the temperature can be reduced slowly. Once outside the brooder, we place them in tubs partly covered with a towel. They are then maintained at room temperature.

3)Brooder humidity. I recommend keeping the young at between 40-50% humidity. This will keep their skin supple. Humidity is an important consideration and in the wild is increased by adding fresh leaves to the nest.

If inadequate, the young can become dehydrated or their skin will begin to flake off.


Title photo: Golden Conure Guaruba guarouba being fed from a spoon. (c) Tony Silva



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