Handfeeding Crash Course

For the accidental breeder or the person who got suckered in to doing the breeder’s job for them.

This is intended to be an emergency guide. It is not comprehensive! If you plan on handfeeding routinely you need to get a copy of Parrots: Hand Feeding & Nursery Management by Howard Voren and Rick Jordan. In Australia they prefer Incubation & Handraising Parrots by Phil Digney.

What does your baby look like?

  1. Naked
  2. Down feathers (fluffy feathers, but no proper feathers)
  3. Pinfeathers
  4. Mostly feathered

chick development

Feather development varies from species to species. Some, like Indian ringnecks, move from naked alien babies to pinfeathers with no real down stage. LOOK at your baby and see what level it is at. #1-3 NEED SUPPLEMENTAL HEAT.

Temperature for baby

  1. Naked- 93-97.5°F. Exact temperature depends on the age and size of the chick.
  2. Down- 85°F
  3. Pinfeathers- 78-82°F
  4. Feathered- Room temperature, so long as it’s not too chilly

You MUST have a way to accurately measure temperature! Make sure your thermometer (or the probe reading the temperature) is placed in the same location as the chicks, otherwise your reading will be off.

WATCH your baby

  • Shivering = too cold
  • Panting = too hot
  • Adjust accordingly!

How to Keep Baby Warm

Ideally you would have a proper brooder like this:

brooders

You can also make low budget versions with fish tanks/critter keepers and a heating pad or lamp:

brooder

Here are some links on how to make a brooder:

Feeding

Supplies needed:

  • thermometer
  • handfeeding formula
  • syringe or spoon with sides bent up
  • kleenex or other item for wiping off baby

How to Feed

  1. Heat water separately.
  2. Add hot water to formula until desired consistency is achieved.
    • Very young chicks take thinner formula
    • Consistency should be similar to applesauce- thick, but drips easily from spoon
  3. Stir well to eliminate lumps and hot spots
  4. CHECK TEMPERATURE with a candy thermometer or digital kind.
  5. The safe window is 100-110°F. Any hotter and the crop will be burned, which can lead to death. Any cooler and the chick will refuse the formula. Ideally you want to be around 106°F.
  6. Do NOT heat formula in the microwave. This causes hot spots.
  7. Add hot water to formula, check temp, add cool water if necessary, or wait until formula cools. It may take some trial and error until you get the hang of it.
  8. Hold the chick steady.
  9. If using a syringe, aim it from the bird’s left to the bird’s right. The esophagus is on the right. If you shoot toward the left you may unintentionally aspirate the bird. Aim toward the right.
  10. Chicks, especially older chicks, may pump vigorously and make a huge mess.
  11. Do not overfeed. Doing so can stretch out the crop, preventing it from emptying properly. Crop should be a nice bulge but not sag.
  12. Chicks may cry for a brief period after feeding, as it can take time to register that they are full. Crying all day is a sign that something is wrong.

Feeding Schedule:

The table below is not mine, and it is made with cockatiels in mind. Larger species will eat more and develop at a different rate. Adjust accordingly!

handfeeding chart

This is for COCKATIELS.

I personally listen to the chicks. If they’re crying a lot and the crop is empty then they need to be fed. If they’re refusing food (and it’s at the right temperature) it may be time to bump back the feeding time. Listen to your chicks!

Please visit my YouTube channel for videos on brooding and handfeeding, or watch the playlist below:

Fledging & Weaning

Once the chick is fully feathered it begins the fledging and weaning process. Chicks may start to refuse feeds and drop a bit of weight prior to fledging. This is normal, as slimmer birds have an easier time flying. At this point you can move them to a cage and start offering foods. I begin with soft, warm foods or things that are easy to manipulate. You want to offer a large variety of foods and textures- vegetables, pellets, and seed. Initially food will get picked at and stepped on but eventually the chicks will learn to eat it.

It is important that all birds learn to fly properly. If you plan to clip your bird’s wings, give it time to learn to fly well before clipping. It should be able to take off, land, and fly with purpose and accuracy. Once it can do this for some time you can clip.

© 2017 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Introducing New Birds

How does one go about introducing new birds to your flock?

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Fresh out of quarantine and on their way to meet the flock.

Step 1: Quarantine

ALWAYS QUARANTINE FIRST!

New birds can potentially bring disease into your flock. Diseases can range from mild an annoying to very expensive and possible deadly. Quarantine is your first line of defense. How does one quarantine? You need to keep the new bird(s) isolated in an area away from your other birds for at LEAST 30 days. Sixty days is better. During this time, new birds should be tested for diseases and observed for signs of illness. I recommend testing because many of the nastiest diseases, like PBFD and Avian Bornavirus, can go for years without any clinical signs. Quarantine birds should be fed last. Generally you also want to wear different shoes while in this area, or go through a foot bath of disinfectant when exiting. Disease testing kits can be ordered here. More detailed quarantine procedures can be found here. Once quarantine is over you can safely move your new birds into the main bird area.

Step 2: Introductions

How you do introductions depends both on your set up and what species you keep. If you are a pet owner, your birds are likely housed in (relatively) small cages where each bird or birds has an established territory. If this is the case, side-by-side introductions are best. The new bird is placed in a separate cage within sight and sound of the current birds. There will likely be some curiosity or even aggression through the bars of the cage. Over time, bickering should diminish. At this point, birds can enjoy SUPERVISED time out together. Accidents can happen in an instant so be on alert, especially if the two birds are not friendly toward one another. Try not to let birds crawl onto each other’s cages, as even a mellow bird can defend its home turf. If you hope to eventually house the birds together, they should be placed in a new, neutral cage at the same time only after they’ve shown an interest in one another for awhile.

If you have large cages (I mean LARGE, like full flights or walk-in aviaries) with many different birds, adding new birds can be done immediately after quarantine, providing you keep species that are NOT super aggressive.

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Two new cockatiels were just introduced into this established flight. Cockatiels are generally not aggressive, and aside from some squabbling over preferred perches, there were no fights.

If you’re introducing many new birds at one time, it is usually safe so long as the cage is neutral. A lone bird coming into established territory is at far greater risk.

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Side-by-side introduction of a new Indian ringneck.

In the above picture, we have a single new bird being introduced. The cage on the right contains six ringnecks, which came from three different sources. They were all introduced at relatively the same time to this cage, which means there was no fighting. However, this grey male is a late arrival. These birds have already been in this cage for a few months- more than enough time to become territorial. Ringnecks can be very aggressive, so he must be introduced slowly.

Some birds are independently aggressive, and you won’t know who until you put birds together. I recently tried pairing a green cheek hen with a male in a neutral cage. She immediately began to attack him. This was a large cage. I scooped her up and removed her, and tried a different hen. No issues. However, the first hen continued to do aggressive displays towards the introduced male, who was now in a neighboring cage with a friend of hers (the other hen). I had to place barriers at the back to help neutralize the aggression.

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New cage with cardboard barriers at the back.

Barriers are definitely something to consider if there is excessive aggression. When a bird feels threatened it will make aggressive displays. This is stressful to the birds, and should be curtailed if possible. When I introduced Lando to my Goffin, Loki, she was very agitated and yelling constantly. I kept cardboard between their two cages for a few days until she settled down. He was an invader of her space and it took time for her to get over that. Introductions are fine, but you don’t want the birds to be overly stressed.

© 2017 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

 

Armchair Warriors

I’ve seen several people upset lately that they can’t post anything fun online without being criticized. Here’s the thing: misinformation kills.

Last weekend I picked up two cockatiels from a woman. When I asked if she had any other birds, she told me that she had a blue & gold macaw, but it had died.

“What happened?”
“We poisoned it.”

Turns out they painted their house and left the bird inside. After a while the bird went into respiratory distress. She moved it outside for a bit and “tried to comfort” it, but then brought it back inside, at which point “she got so scared of going back into the house that she had a heart attack.” The bird didn’t have a heart attack out of fright, but died of respiratory problems caused by exposure to fumes.

A third cockatiel I picked up last weekend was in good condition. However, the seller also had an eclectus kept in a carrier barely big enough for the bird to turn around in. It was also on an all-seed diet (not great for any bird, but eclectus have specialized digestive systems and need a different diet). It had stress bars and black feathers all over its body from unintentional abuse.

DAILY I see posts about birds that flew away.

If you make a post and someone mentions something you’re doing that could potentially be harmful, please swallow your pride and think about why. Many people post fun things and DON’T know that what they’re doing is harmful. We don’t know if you know, and those of us with more experience have a duty to educate. But it’s not all about the OP. There are newbies everywhere reading these posts and THEY need to be educated. If nothing is said, if the risks aren’t brought up, then they will think everything is 100% okay and perfectly normal. This is why I try to add disclaimers to my own posts that could be taken the wrong way (eg. “this is a travel cage, not their actual cage”). Those of us with more experience can do better risk analysis when it comes to our actions, newbies cannot.

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Fry was on a safflower diet for years.

I know people can takes these criticisms personally, but it is anything but personal. The sad fact is that there are still so many uneducated pet owners out there. Those of us who work in the industry, be we breeders, rescues, veterinarians, or pet store owners, deal with the fallout when a bird has been cared for incorrectly. You may not see that side of it, but we do, and we try our best to prevent it through the dissemination of accurate information. We’re not trying to be killjoys.

© 2017 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Sexing

If you want to know whether your bird is a male or female, there are a few different ways to go about sexing. Considering that hormonal behaviors can cause issues it can be important to know how your bird will react to certain stimuli.

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Eclectus parrots. Photo by Doug Janson.

Visual

The first thing to determine is if your bird is dimorphic- in which males and females do not look the same. The above Eclectus parrots are probably the most striking example of sexual dimorphism. In most species it isn’t quite so pronounced. Budgie males have a blue cere, while females’ can range from white to tan to crusty brown. In cockatiels the male has a yellow head and the female does not. Indian ringneck males have a ring around their neck. Kakariki males are about 15 grams heavier than hens, have a stockier body, and wider beak. Even if a bird is dimorphic, if it is not the wild type color then sexing may be difficult. For instance, in cockatiels you can rarely sex lutino, albino, or pied birds visually. Lutino ringnecks can still be sexed, but pieds cannot. You need to know not only the species but the color mutation in order to accurately sex your bird.

If a bird cannot be visually sexed, or if it is too young (most need to molt into adult coloration before sexing can be done), then you need to use one of the methods below.

DNA

DNA sexing is easy and non-intrusive. Avian Biotech is the company I use. You can go on their website and ask for a testing kit. There are a few different methods: blood, eggshell, and feather. I prefer blood collection, as you can easily do it while grooming and it doesn’t involve plucking (yes, plucking!) 5-7 feathers.

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A blood card for Avian Biotech.

All you need to do is restrain your bird as you would for grooming (see instructions here). Make sure you have Kwik Stop or flour on hand to stop the bleeding! When you clip a toenail, clip it a little further up than normal. You’re intentionally trying to clip the quick. When it starts to bleed, touch the nail to the circle on the blood card. You don’t need much. Mail it out, along with payment (currently about $25) and you’ll get your results back within a day or two after they receive the sample.

Surgical

This method is usually requested by breeders who want to know the actual health of the gonads and other organs. The bird is briefly anesthetized, a small incision is made and a scope is inserted into the body to allow a veterinarian to observe the internal organs. After the bird is sexed, a tattoo is placed on the wing corresponding with the sex. Males are tattooed on the right and females on the left.

Behavior

Sexing by behavior is not always accurate, especially if you are a pet owner with two birds of the same sex, in which case one may potentially exhibit more opposite sex characteristics. That said, I’ve found it very useful in sexing my own birds. Cockatiels and Indian ringnecks can usually be sexed long before they molt into their adult coloration. This is the Indian ringneck mating display. Both sexes demonstrate very specific body language and behaviors (in both videos the hen happens to be yellow). This is male cockatiel behavior. It takes experience though as you need to know what to look for in a particular species.

Rehoming Culture

 

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I recently bought a pionus. I am at least his fifth home. Let that sink in. This poor bird has had FIVE homes. The first home I have a history for kept him “under a porch covered with a blanket.” Next he spend a “year or two with a lady and a bunch of birds.” After that was a year with a woman, Courtney*.

Courtney loved the bird but her reason for giving him up was sadly very common- she just didn’t feel that she had the time to give him the attention he needed: “I just have no time as I work a lot and have two dogs and just took in my mother and her dog. He needs someone that can give him more and more experienced.” I contacted Courtney back in April. I explained that I’d love to have him but that I was moving soon, and didn’t want him to have to go through a double transition. If she still had him in a few months I could take him. I didn’t hear back, was busy with the move, and forgot all about the conversation.

Flash forward to November and another woman, Pam, is selling a pionus. I was still looking for a new pet so I contacted her. We met up and I got the bird. A week later I got a PM from Courtney. Apparently it was the same bird and she was rather distraught that he was being rehomed again after only seven months. I explained that I already had him and that he was in quarantine. I reassured her that he was doing fine.

Pet ownership is not something I take lightly, and barring positive disease test results, this little pionus will be a permanent addition to my flock. He apparently was fairly standoffish with Pam and her husband, but within two days he was asking me for head scratches and regurgitating. Courtney was relieved, “I have a feeling he will be perfect to you if he is already regurgitating to you…he did that to me! And would try to fly to the other room if I left him lol…he was very sweet…I had to work full time and lost my daddy and had to look after my mother so didn’t have the time he wanted.”

Buddy Bird’s tale is sadly commonplace. Birds get passed around so frequently from home to home. I used to think that it was mainly due to impulse buys, behavior problems at the onset of puberty, or changing life circumstances. Good owners like me would never just part with their beloved pets, right? We drill into people the idea of a “Forever Home.” Come what may, our pets stay with us!

That is not the case. Since joining online bird groups I have seen that good owners giving up birds for minor reasons is frighteningly commonplace. Many times the birds go to other good bird owners. They get passed around to other members within the group, just as Buddy Bird was, and it’s all good, right? Because we’re all good bird parents?

I find the trend incredibly disturbing. Birds like routine and consistency. They like their favorite person in the household. They don’t understand the reason when they are suddenly uprooted and sent to a new home. Again. And again. Buddy has lived in three different homes this year. Yes, they were all good homes, but no bird wants to be passed around like that.

I breed and sell birds, but I have never “rehomed” a pet. Not a bird, snake, dog or cat. My home is the last stop for them, come what may. I was in my early twenties when I bought Loki, my Goffin cockatoo. She has lived with me through college, marriage, several moves, and the birth of my children. When I began having human babies I probably came as close as I’ve ever come to rehoming her, in that I at least thought about it. She and Verde, my other pet bird at the time, basically got zero attention from me. I had neither the time nor the energy. So why didn’t I rehome her?

Because I didn’t want her to end up like Buddy Bird, and I didn’t want to end up like Courtney.

If I, the most stalwart “Forever Home,” could rehome a pet, then who’s to say the next owner wouldn’t? What then? Would she be passed around from home to home? What if they didn’t feed or house her right? What if she was abused? In my home she might not have been getting enough attention, but I knew that was only temporary. She had Verde for company. She had a big cage, toys, and a good diet. Her basic needs were being met. I kept her, and when my last child turned one I was able to start making up for lost time.

Let me put it another way, if you suddenly found that you had to work longer hours and couldn’t spend as much time with your human children, would your first thought be to send them to foster care? Why are pets any different? If they are truly “family,” as so many owners profess they are, then why are so many rehomed at the drop of a hat?

Now, there are absolutely many very valid reasons to give up a pet- sudden illness or death (Courtney was dealing with a death in the family), change in finances, change in living situation, etc. I just don’t think working full time hours qualifies. You can absolutely work long hours and still retain your pet. I worked and went to school full time for years. You can easily let your pet hang out with you when you come home and do homework, or watch TV on the couch. They want to spend time with you and it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing together.

Part of the problem, I think, is that there also seems to be a culture of “not good enough” when it comes to birds. Remember, these are good owners giving up their pets. They know birds are a lot of work and that they require a lot of attention. So when they suddenly find they can’t give their pet ALL THE ATTENTION they think their bird would be better off elsewhere. Again and again I see the reason cited as “I can’t give them the attention they deserve.” Rather than stick it out as I did for a few years and make up for it later, people are getting rid of their pets.

So how do we fix this?

Set realistic expectations. Understand that you’re not going to be able to always spend all day every day with your pets. That is very unrealistic in the long run. Life circumstances change and birds live a long time. Birds need to know how to entertain themselves, and people need to make peace with the fact that they can’t be there all the time. Even if you’re home all the time, your bird shouldn’t be out all day every day. They need to know how to entertain themselves and to do so for periods in their cage. It doesn’t have to be a long time, but they do need to be used to it. If you don’t like the idea of your bird being cooped up in a small cage then get a larger one, or an aviary.

Recognize that a dips in attention are bound to happen over such a long life. Life is full of ups and downs. Parrots can share our entire lifespan and that means a lot of opportunities for life changes. I’m not going to get rid of my first child just because I had another and she now has to compete for my attention. Understand that most things in life are temporary and that this too shall pass.

Do not set humans up to be 100% of your pet’s social circle. We humans love our pets and the affection they give us, but we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want that affection to be at our beck and call. We want it when it’s convenient for US, and we set ourselves up to be our pet’s sole source of interaction because we are afraid that otherwise they won’t be tame enough or affectionate enough. We set ourselves up to be 100% of their social circle and when we can no longer fulfill that need we get rid of the pet. That is not fair to the animal.

Get your bird a buddy. Birds should not be kept alone! They need a buddy. Loki had Verde. They weren’t very close, but they kept each other company when I was too busy to interact with them. If you find yourself spending less time with your pet, get it a buddy. They don’t have to share the same cage or even be the same species (Verde was a mitred conure). They just need to be there, in the same room, existing as part of the flock. Even if you can give your bird plenty of attention now, get your bird a buddy. Don’t be selfish. You don’t know what the future holds or if you’ll be able to keep up your current rate of interactions. Getting a buddy will ensure your pet has someone to talk to when you can’t. You can go to work and not feel guilty. You can have a life and not feel guilty.

If the birds are bonded enough, they won’t even need you at all. That may be scary to some people, but it is absolutely psychologically healthier for the birds. You should not be your pet’s “mate” anyway. It doesn’t negate your relationship with your bird. It merely puts you on a more realistic and equal footing with other members of the flock, and that is a good thing.

Please don’t think that I’m trying to harp on people who rehome. In some cases it is absolutely necessary. Courtney was dealing with a death in the family and it is quite understandable that she felt she didn’t have time for Buddy. It’s not her fault that Pam decided to sell him again after only a few months, and Pam was under no obligation to notify Courtney about her intentions. Once your bird leaves your hands it’s no longer yours and the buyer can do whatever they want with it. Buddy happened to find his way to me, but he could just as easily have found his way to someone less caring or less willing to put in the time. Not all stories have a happy ending.

So please, if you are an owner who houses their birds correctly, feeds a good diet, and offers them enrichment, consider keeping your birds even if they can’t get quite as much attention. You can make it up to them. At the very least you can meet all their basic needs and then some. If you rehome there is no guarantee they won’t get passed along to other homes and who knows where they might end up. The Perfect Home is a myth. The standards are so high that no one can meet them all the time. We need more true Forever Homes.

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*names have been changed

Copyright 2016 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted without author’s permission.

The Misuse of Antibiotics

This article was originally published in 1999 and has been my most frequently requested article for reprint. Most human physicians have woken up to the fact that over-prescribing antibiotics is a bad thing. Antibiotic resistance is a huge global problem. Sadly, some aviculturists have not yet caught on and continue to broadly apply antibiotics where none are needed. Please read and share to spread awareness. 

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E. coli bacteria. Photo by NIAID

It has been brought to my attention that most people are ignorant as to what exactly antibiotics are, what they do, and what the consequences will be if they are continued to be misused. This article seeks to educate aviculturists on antibiotics and their effects.

What are antibiotics? Antibiotics are chemical substances which kill or stop bacterial growth. The first antibiotic, Penicillin, was discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming. Since then many other antibiotics have been found and used to save millions of lives (human and animal) all over the globe. Antibiotics have become one of the best weapons we have against disease. Tetracycline is the antibiotic which most aviculturists use to treat their birds.

What do antibiotics do? Antibiotics get rid of bacteria. Some are targeted toward most kinds of bacteria while others only attack one particular variety. Antibiotics have no effect on viruses and they promote the growth of fungi. This is why veterinarians often use antifungal drugs along with antibiotics.

Inside every organism’s gut live millions of bacteria. Most of these “friendly” bacteria aid in the digestion of food and even produce certain vitamins. Along with the immune system, these “friendly” bacteria keep bad bacteria, called pathogens, from spreading out of control. This natural harmony is severely thrown out of balance by antibiotics. Antibiotics such as tetracycline wipe out both good and bad bacteria, allowing fungi to grow like crazy and letting potentially bad species of bacteria gain a foothold. Because so much damage can be done by antibiotics, they should only be used under the supervision of a qualified avian veterinarian.

What are the consequences of overusing antibiotics? Many aviculturists use antibiotics without the guidance of an avian veterinarian. They treat their entire flock with tetracycline (or another antibiotic) to clear up any small infections before and after the breeding season. This is a very dangerous practice which needs to brought to a halt. A bird which has a fungal infection can die when treated with antibiotics. Healthy birds may become ill when their natural flora and fauna are wiped out. When antibiotics are used uncontrollably in this fashion, certain bacteria become resistant. Every time an antibiotic is used, a few bacteria will survive. These bacteria are not affected by the drug and will multiply rapidly (one bacterium can multiply into 600,000 in only four hours). The next time the bird is treated with the antibiotic, no bacteria will die. Already we are starting to see the effects of the overuse of antibiotics in human medicine. Children with simple infections remain ill because the antibiotics used to treat the infections no longer work. So why are so many breeders trying to ruin the effects of antibiotics on birds as well? Most people just don’t realize that they are doing more harm than good.

How does one prevent bacterial resistance to antibiotics? Never use antibiotics unless instructed to do so by your veterinarian. Instead of routinely treating all your birds, have them each cultured to detect any infections and then treat according to your veterinarian’s instructions. Most birds remain quite healthy if provided with a nutritious diet, lots of exercise, and a good rest after the breeding season. In six years I have only had one bird become ill because of a bacterial infection. He was taken to my vet, treated, and is now raising four healthy chicks. Let’s use our antibiotics wisely and not ruin avian medicine forever.

© 1999 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted without permission from author.

Preventing Hormonal Behavior

Hormones can be the cause of many behavior problems in birds. As a breeder it is very easy for me to identify mating behaviors for what they are. However, most pet owners do not breed and are therefore unfamiliar with typical mating behaviors and their common triggers. Instead they anthropomorphize such behaviors and let things escalate too far. It is essential that you learn everything you can about the particular species that you own- including how they breed. Even if you never plan to breed, those behaviors are embedded in your pet’s DNA. You need to understand what’s going on in order to prevent unwanted hormonal behaviors.

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A pet cockatiel laying infertile eggs. Photo by Adrian Ward.

What happens when mating behaviors are triggered in pet birds?

  • Aggression, even toward favorite people
  • Territoriality
  • Excessive screaming
  • Plucking
  • Frustration and lashing out
  • Egg laying (which can lead to egg binding)

Behaviors like the above often lead to rehomed pets. Back when I first got into birds, you could flip to any pet classified section and see ad after ad for birds around 2-4 years of age. Depending on the species, this is when puberty hits. After years of receiving mixed messages, the birds were finally ready to mate. The problem was that they wanted to mate with their favorite person and started lashing out when their owners weren’t responding predictably.

Plucking, while not usually dangerous, can easily become a habit that is very difficult to break.

Excessively egg laying can be dangerous, particularly if the hen isn’t on a proper breeding diet (most pets are not, nor should they be). When an egg becomes trapped inside the body there is a risk it will rupture, causing a life-threatening infection. Preventing hormonal behaviors in pets is especially important for hens. If your bird is already laying excessively, please see my article on egg laying in pets.

Breeding Triggers

The following are some common ways that breeding can be inadvertently stimulated. Please keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive. Every species is different and it is important to understand how your birds would normally nest.

 

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Photo by Dan Armbrust.

Dark, Enclosed Spaces

Most parrots are cavity breeders- they nest in tree trunks. Pairs will seek out a good cavity, clean it out, and possibly enlarge it. In the modern home any dark, enclosed space will be viewed as a potential nest site. This could be under the couch (see below) or dresser, inside a Happy Hut or tent, a shipping box offered for chewing, or under a blanket. It is important never to offer any item, particularly inside the cage, which could be viewed as a nest site. Troublesome areas (like under the couch) should be blocked off or made off-limits.

Above: (Left) A gap in a couch is a tempting nest site, and potentially dangerous as this couch reclines. (Right) Moving/shipping boxes may offer chewing fun, but they are also seen as nest sites. Loki kept attempting to enter this one.

Nesting Material

Cleaning the nest cavity is a normal part of nest preparation. Some breeders have even found that introducing large chunks of wood into a nest box will help stimulate their pairs. In pets, stredding can be a prelude to nesting. Lovebirds in particular use nesting material. Leaves are tucked into the rump feathers and transported back to their nest site. Quakers build huge communal nests with sticks.

Birds should never have access to the substrate in their cage, but nevertheless may try to shred everything they get their beaks on. Shredding is fine and destructible toys are good, but during the breeding season you may want to offer alternatives if your bird is prone to nesty behavior.

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Black-masked lovebirds. One of the few psittacines that uses nesting material. Photo by Dean Croshere.

Light

Longer days simulate springtime. Many owners keep their birds up after dark, making long days even longer. Birds need at least 10 hours of sleep and I would extend that to 12-14 if they are getting hormonal. Cover your bird’s cage or give them a separate sleep cage in a quiet area to ensure they’re getting enough darkness.

Feeding Soft, Warm Foods by Hand

Bonded pairs regurgitate to one another. Offering treats by hand when training is fine, but try to avoid hand feeding warm, mushy foods. Feed them in a dish. If your bird regurgitates don’t encourage it.

Too Much Protein

Chicks require a lot of protein to grow, and providing birds with too much protein signals that it’s a great time to raise a family. If you have a hen that is already laying eggs you do want to continue offering protein and calcium (especially calcium) so that she is less likely to deplete her own reserves. If your pet is not laying eggs then continue to feed a good diet but do not make a habit of offering a lot of protein. Calcium in the form of pellets, cuttlebone, or mineral block should be offered year-round, especially to hens.

Providing Sexual Stimulation

Mating usually involves the male doing some sort of display- head bobbing, pinpointing eyes, flaring tail or wings. When the female is ready to mate she droops her wings and raises her rump. The male typically mounts her (some species will mate side by side) and they rub their cloacas together. The cloaca is the opening underneath the base of the tail. It is used for passing feces, uric acid (bird equivalent of pee), eggs, and for transferring/receiving sperm.

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Cockatiels mating. Note the posture of both birds. Male is one top and female is on bottom. Photo by dorisalb.

Many of the ways you touch your bird could be interpreted sexually. Mutual preening (head scratching) can be done by flockmates but it is more common in bonded pairs. Petting your hen on the back can be stimulating, as she feels like you are trying to mount her for mating. Touching the cloaca should definitely be avoided. Some birds get excited when pet under the wings.

Always be aware of your bird’s body language while petting them. If they are exhibiting postures like those in the picture above, stop petting them as they are getting sexually stimulated. Males will usually pinpoint their eyes, dip their head, and raise their wings at the shoulder a bit. Hens will raise their rump, drop their wings and coo or shiver. Give them a period to calm down before petting again.

It is entirely possible that your bird will try masturbating on you. This may involve mounting your hand and rubbing the cloaca (in males) or backing up against you and rubbing the cloaca (in females). Masturbation should neither be encouraged nor discouraged directly. If your bird is trying to mate with you, simply move it to another location or place it back into the cage for a while.

Sometimes the object of affection is a toy. Never offer your pet a mirror or fake bird. Birds can become very attached to these items and defend them aggressively. If, however, a bird is masturbating on a wide variety of objects/toys I would be less concerned.

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Goffin hen masturbating on toy. Click here to see video. It’s a very good example of how hens behave.

My Goffin is actually trying to self-stimulate as I write this. Observe:

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This may seem innocuous to you- most pet owners would probably think so- but pay attention to her body language. Her eyes are half-closed, beak half-open, and she has a blissful expression. Where is her back? It’s pressed up against the underside of my desk. She’s using the desk to simulate a male mounting her. It’s more obvious from this angle:

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It’s not full on masturbation, but she’s definitely aroused. Were she to start making clucking or cooing noises I would remove her from my leg and place here elsewhere.

Everything I do is stimulatiing!

It’s not as bad as that. I once read an article that basically said touching your pet bird in any way ever was going to stimulate them, and while that’s semi-true, if you’re careful about stopping petting when your bird is getting aroused, and limiting other factors then you should be okay. I’ve had my Goffin for over a decade and she’s never laid a single egg. Nor has any other pet hen I’ve had since I became a breeder. Part of being a breeder is knowing how to shut your birds down effectively, especially when you handle species designed to bred any time adequate food is available.

My goal in writing this is not to scare you, but to make you aware of how many different things might be stimulating your bird. Again, the key is to educate yourself on their natural lifecycle and body language. Much of this comes down to your ability to correctly interpret body language and provide healthy distractions (toys! exercise! training!) when they’re becoming too aroused.

Hormone Therapy

Some birds get very hormonal every spring and no matter what their owners do, they can’t seem to get things under control. If this is the case and none of the above has worked, I recommend visiting a competent avian veterinarian about hormone therapy. There are certain injections they can do these days that will help limit the surge of seasonal hormones.

© 2016 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

Handfeeding FAQ

azul01

What kind of brooder do you use?
Unless you are raising chicks from the egg, you don’t need a fancy brooder. Very young chicks need strict temperature control. Older chicks in pinfeathers do not. My preferred brooder is a small fish tank or Kritter Keeper on top of a heating pad. This set up is cheap and very easy to transport. If you’re a hobby breeder this allows you to take chicks to your day job (if they allow such things).

I set the heating pad to Low. Medium can sometimes be alright if the bottom of the container it sufficiently padded. Always test with your hand to make sure the chicks won’t be burned. Chicks can be kept directly in the container or further divided into margarine tubs or baskets. If chicks are kept directly in the container then the pad should only be under 1/3 to 1/2 of it. This allows the chicks some movement from warm and cooler areas, though most don’t figure this out.

For bedding I use a paper towel and then a layer of shavings on top.

Which is best: syringe, spoon, or tube/gavage?
The syringe is my own tool of choice. It allows quick feeding and minimal mess. The spoon is much slower and messier. I don’t care for it because it may involve dipping back into the formula (contamination risk) and because it allows the formula to cool, but mainly because it’s tedious. Many people like the spoon because they think it gives them more of a chance to bond with their chicks. However, bonding can be achieved more freely outside the feeding time.

Tube or gavage feeding is frowned upon by many aviculurists. This is because it is often used by large breeding operations to quickly feed chicks in an assembly-line fashion. The problem is not with the method itself (though this instrument can be deadly in the hands of an amateur), but with the people who tend to use it. Often they won’t properly socialize their chicks at all. It also bypasses the chick’s normal feeding/swallowing and shoots food directly into the crop. I don’t recommend it for day-to-day feeding. Nevertheless, every breeder should own at least one tube. It is invaluable for feeding stubborn/ill chicks who may have no feeding response, and for administering medicine to an uncooperative chick.

How much do I feed?
You want to fill the crop but not stretch it out so much that it won’t drain properly. I suggest looking at parent-raised chicks for reference. My cockatiels are certainly more daring to swell chicks’ crops than I am. By the way, some chicks continue to beg even if they’re ready to burst so begging cannot be used as a reference. This is a good guide on crop health.

How often do I feed?
(based on the smaller species)
For the first few days chicks will take formula every 1 1/2 to 2 hours around the clock. Over the next week you can probably up this to every three hours, still around the clock. By the time the pinfeathers start coming in they should be up to every four hours, with only one night feeding (or none at all if you stay up really late and wake up really early). If I’m home I let the chicks decide- when they cry I feed them.

When do I pull the chicks for feeding?
Some breeders believe that in order to be tame chicks need to be hatched from Day 1 so that the first thing they see is people. This is utter nonsense. Tameness is directly related to how much time you spend with the chicks and what you do. Socialization during and directly after weaning is key. Leaving the chicks with their parents for a while is generally much healthier for the babies. I pull my chicks when they have pinfeathers, but well before the feathers start opening. For something like cockatiels this would be about two weeks. For larger species it will be later. Go by developmental stage.

What temperature do you feed the formula?
I go by Parrots: Handfeeding and Nursery Management with all my measurements. I begin sucking formula into syringes at 110 degrees. It cools quickly. Birds will often refuse formula if it is too cold. Too hot and it will burn them. You can keep formula warm by floating your formula cup within a larger dish of hot water.

What disinfectant do you use?
There are many on the market- each killing it’s own type of pathogens. I use bleach. It’s like duct tape- works for everything. Add one teaspoon of bleach per gallon of water. The only problem with bleach is that it tends to corrode your stuff over time.

What formula do you use? Do you add anything to it?
I use Kaytee Exact formula. Commercial formulas are designed to have all the nutrition a bird needs and you’re not supposed to add anything to them (it will upset the balance). Still, I add Spirulina because I hear it’s good for the immune system and sometimes peanut butter during weaning (the babies eat less so I want to make what they do eat more fatty).

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Most food will be played with at first. Remove uneaten soft foods after an hour so they don’t spoil.

How do I wean babies?
Weaning is probably the most stressful part of a bird’s life and the most agonizing for the feeder. Weaning starts when your babies start refusing food. They’ll beg to be fed just as usual and then as soon as you point the syringe at their mouth they’ll clamp their beak shut. Even before the bird begins refusing formula you should be adding solid foods to the cage. Try softer things, or things that are easy to pick up. I start with bananas, Cheerios and parsley. Check the chick’s crop a couple times a day (just move those feathers aside) to see if it’s eaten anything. Once they actually start eating the food I offer a wider selection, starting with softer foods and then working up to harder. Expose them to as many different textures and foods as possible.

The chicks should naturally cut back on formula on their own, though many will beg for formula as a comfort thing. In the wild parents may continue to feed their chicks well past the point when they can fend for themselves. I’ve heard that macaws have been witnessed feeding their offspring for up to two years. My own Goffin cockatoo enjoyed comfort feeding until she was a year old. I can’t say when to stop formula completely- whenever the bird is eating completely fine on it’s own. You may still want to offer formula on occasion just in case.

Weaning is not something to be pushed. Birds will wean at their own pace. Forcing them to wean faster than this will result in poorly-socialized chicks with attachment issues.

Additional Tips:

  • Aim your syringe from the left side of the birds mouth to the right. The trachea (windpipe) is on the left. You want the syringe to point over it towards the esophagus on the right.
  • Mixing formula and then heating it in the microwave can develop “hot spots” that can burn your chicks. Instead, heat the water first and add this to the dry formula.
  • Wipe your babies off! Formula turns to cement when it dries. I’ve seen many a chick develop nasty a formula chunk mustache. Tissue paper works good for this. Be gentle.
  • Formula cools quickly as you feed. Make some system to keep it warm. I heat up the water in one cup and mix the formula in another. Then I fill the syringes and drop the ones I’m not using into the hot water cup. This keeps them nice and warm.
  • Dispose of any leftover formula.
  • For sanitary reasons, it is best to use one syringe for each bird. If you absolutely must use the same syringe for multiple birds, at least stick to clutch mates and don’t double-dip.

Links:

Slow, Sour and Yeasty Crop Remedies– Great read that goes into more detail about handfeeding.

Handfeeding Birds from Conure to Macaw

Handfeeding Cockatiel Babies (video)

Avian Anatomy

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Parrot skeleton. Taken from “Parrots of the World” by Forshaw.

Skeletal System
The avian skeleton is very unique, having been adapted for flight in most species. It is lightweight and delicate yet very strong. Most of the long bones are hollow to make them lighter. The inside is reinforced with a honeycombed substructure. The main thing you need to know about is the sternum. Flying species have a pronounced keel, the place on the sternum that the flight muscles attach to. Birds that are clipped too severely can crash land and easily injure their keel. See the Respiratory System below for more information on the sternum and its function.

Respiratory System
The avian respiratory system differs from mammals in many ways. Bird respiration is much more efficient. Birds do not have a diaphram. In mammals, this muscle moves up and down to expand and contract the chest cavity. This is what causes the lungs to expand and air to rush in or out. Birds push the sternum in and out to the same effect. Owners therefore must be careful when holding their birds about the waist. If held too tightly the sternum will not be able to expand and the bird will suffocate.

The flow of air enters through the nostrils, down the trachea and into the lungs and air sacs. The trachea, or windpipe, is what breeders have to be careful of while handfeeding. Syringes should be aimed from the bird’s left to right (over the trachea and into the esophagus) to avoid aspirating the chick. Bird lungs are very compact and take up much less space than mammal lungs. With the help of thin-walled air sacs which extend through the body cavity and even into the bones, birds can keep a continuous flow of air through the lungs. If your bird ever starts to inflate like a little balloon, they may have punctured an air sac.

Breathing rate varies depending on size of birds. A hummingbird breathes 143 times per minute while a turkey breathes 7 times per minute. This rate increases during flight. 

Click here to learn more about avian respiration.

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Avian anatomy. Taken from “Parrots of the World” by Forshaw.

Digestive System

Birds do not chew their food and have specialized digestive tracts to compensate. All food must be broken down within the body itself. First the food travels down through the esophagus and into the crop. The crop is actually just an expanded section of the esophagus and it acts as a holding tank for food before it can enter the proventriculus- the bird version of a stomach. The proventriculus produces acid and adds enzymes which aid in breaking down the food, which is next passed to the gizzard. The gizzard helps grind tougher food like seed. According to Ornithology by Gill, a turkey gizzard can “pulverize English walnuts, steel needles, and surgical lancets.” The gizzard is highly keratinized to make the surface rough (keritan is what makes up fingernails and hair).

Food then takes its time passing through the intestinal tract, where nutrients are absorbed. Birds that eat large quantities of plant matter (greens, not fruit) will have a large cecum. This area of the intestines specializes in breaking down plants via acid, enzymes, and specialized bacteria. Parrots do not have enlarged cecums. Waste is then expelled through the cloaca, or vent.

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Female reproductive system. Taken from “Parrots of the World” by Forshaw.

Reproductive System

The reproductive organs shrink when birds are not in mating season. This drastically decreases their weight, making flight easier. Males have two testes and females have one ovary.

Eggs are produced thus: The ovum is fertilized and passes through a long tube called the oviduct. Each section of the oviduct adds a different part to the egg, just like an assembly line. In the infundibulum the egg stays 20 minutes before passing along to the magnum, where the albumen (egg white) is added. Now the egg goes to the isthmus, where inner and outer membranes are formed around the albumen. This takes about an hour. In the uterus the shell and all pigments are added. This process takes the longest, about 20 hours. The egg then passes through the vagina and out the cloaca.

Ever find a little pink or brown thing inside a chicken egg? Laying hens do not have access to roosters, so their eggs are not fertilized. If you find something odd in an egg it is most likely a piece of the reproductive tract that sloughed off while the egg was passing through.

Body Parts
Ever wondered what names like green-cheeked conure, golden-mantled rosella, red-lored amazon and red-rumped parakeet are referring to?

  1. Crestbody1body2
  2. Nape
  3. Mantle
  4. Upper back
  5. Lower back
  6. Tertials
  7. Primaries (clipped)
  8. Breast
  9. Foreneck
  10. Cheek
  11. Lores
  12. Crown
  13. Forehead
  14. Cere
  15. Chin
  16. Throat
  17. Metal band
  18. Rump

Copyright © 2011 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission. Images taken from Parrots of the World by Forshaw where noted. 

 

 

Egg Laying in Pets

Ah, spring…sunshine, showers, flowers, and egg laying in pet birds.

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Not all female pets will lay eggs. My Goffin is 14 and has yet to lay a single egg. Others, often cockatiels, will habitually lay every year. So what do you do?

Step One: Remove anything that could be interpreted as a nest site- Happy Huts, boxes, enclosed toys/dishes, tents, etc. Also, do NOT pet your bird on the back or under the tail. head scratches are fine, but touching her back is going to simulate a male mounting her.

Step Two: Provide lots of calcium and protein. Excess laying will deplete a hen’s calcium reserves, which can lead to soft shelled eggs (more likely to fracture internally) and brittle bones. Offer cuttlebone and/or mineral block, and cooked scrambled eggs with the shell. If this has been going on a long time, you may need to see a veterinarian for a quicker form of supplementation.

Step Three: STOP REMOVING EGGS. Birds can count and usually have a specific clutch size that they are trying to reach. Removing eggs means that they never finish their clutch so they just keep laying more. Removing broken eggs is fine. Once her clutch is complete she may try to incubate the eggs. Incubation lasts three to four weeks for most species. Eventually she should realize that her eggs are duds and abandon them. At this point they can be safely removed. Some hens will lay again, others will not. If she does lay again you can try leaving the eggs in longer. At the very least, leaving eggs in will space out the time in between clutches.

Step Four: Decrease daylight hours. Most species are springtime breeders. Even birds that can lay year-round usually become more hormonal during the spring. You can try to shorten their breeding season by fudging their daylight hours. Covering the cage early at night may help, though cockatiels are prone to night frights when covered. For cockatiels I would move them to a room with limited sunlight and get blackout curtains. Close the curtains well before sunset every day.

Do I need to swap out the eggs with fakes? No. You certainly can, but I don’t really see a reason to do so.

For more information: Discouraging Breeding Behavior in Pet Birds

©2016 by Karen Trinkaus May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission. Image submitted by reader.