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

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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

skeleton

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.

anatomy

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.

reproduction

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.

luca_egg

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.

Acclimating and Taming Your New Bird

Basic Taming

Clip both the wings or have a professional do it for you prior to taming. Once you get the bird home give it about a day to adjust. Taming should be done in a small room without much furniture. Bathrooms, shower stalls, and hallways that can be blocked off work well. The bird should be transferred from the cage to the taming room with as little fuss as possible.

The cage should be completely out of the room. Frightened birds will head for the cage if it is in sight. If you have other birds, the training room should preferably be out of sight and sound of them as well. You basically want an area with you, the bird, the training tools and nothing else. Tools needed for taming include treats, a towel, two wooden dowels (perches) and a something nonthreatening for you do concentrate on (phone, book, tablet, crochet). Millet spray is a great treat for any bird; grapes, nuts and other fruits can be used for larger species.

Lesson 1: I am Not a Predator

The first lesson is designed to demonstrate that you are not some ravenous predator out to kill the bird. The procedure is simple: Place a towel on the floor a few feet away from you and place the treats on it. Place the bird on the floor, sit down, and do your nonthreatening activity while completely ignoring the bird. It will probably move as far away from you as it can. This is why the room must be small- you want the bird in fairly close proximity, not 10 feet away. Feel free to chirp on occasion, but avoid making eye contact. Eating healthy finger foods like carrots or popcorn while you read also helps. Eventually it may get the courage to taste some of the treats, move about, or preen. When the bird starts relaxing around you physically you can start the next lesson.

Lesson 2: Stick Training and the Up Command

The object is to get the bird to step up onto a wooden perch and then a finger. You’ll need two perches that are familiar to the bird. Don’t use anything strange or fancy that could frighten the bird. Wooden dowels from the bird’s cage work well.

Start by holding the perch at the very end and getting the bird to step up on the opposite end. This can take a while. Most birds step up willingly if correctly prompted. The perch should be offered above the feet, slightly lower than mid-chest. Too low or too high and the bird won’t step up. Gently push into the bird to move it off balance, and it should step up. Some birds heroically cling to their current perch, regardless of how off balance they are. You just have to be persistent.

Praise the bird once it steps up correctly, then try again. This time use a word to ask it to step up. “Up” is the standard word, but pick whatever you know you’ll use on a regular basis. I usually fall back on “come here.” Whatever you choose, use it consistently and have anyone else in the household use it as well. Remember to praise the bird profusely after EVERY correct step up.

Eventually the bird should begin stepping up easily when asked. This would be a good place to stop the session, depending on the bird. Some birds get bored with repeated step ups and will simply jump off and head elsewhere. You definitely want to stop before that happens.

Next you want to make the transition from perch to finger. Continue the step ups, but each time slide your hand along the perch a bit closer to the bird. If the bird freaks out move back and inch or two and try later. After a while you should be able to get your finger directly under the bird’s feet while still grasping the perch. At this point you can try switching completely to fingers. Make sure you hold your fingers straight. A crumpled finger isn’t very inviting.

Once the bird is finger trained in the taming room, try it again from the cage. Try to give it something fun to do when it is outside the cage, so it has a reason to come out. A playstand stocked with millet or other healthy treats should work well. If your bird can happily play by itself on a stand with you in the same room then you’ve accomplished a lot. Petting is something people tend to worry about, and it can’t really be trained. Not all birds enjoy being pet, and it’s not something you want to push them into. Cockatiels, cockatoos and conures usually like being pet; budgies don’t. Focus on building a good relationship with your bird. Earning their trust is key.

Types of Untame Birds

Budgies

Unlike most species, budgies don’t usually come handfed. For this reason, budgies are best purchased one at a time. Single birds are much easier to tame than two at a time. Once your first budgie is tame you can buy a second. The first may actually help you tame down the second. Birds watch each other closely, and a frightened bird may relax a bit if it sees a tame bird interacting with you. If you make the mistake of buying two budgies at once they should be separated (sight AND sound) for taming sessions.

The Timid Handfed

No taming problems for you! You wanted a nice friendly bird so you bought a handfed. However, the bird just sits there, not making a sound and avoiding contact. What went wrong?

Chances are that you’ve been tip-toeing around your new bird with the intention of letting it settle in. This is a problem. Birds are prey animals. In the wild they tend to make some level of noise when they feel comfortable. If their environment suddenly becomes silent, it is usually a sign of danger. By avoiding your bird and being as quiet as possible, you are conveying the message that danger is near. There is little in the way of “settling in” that birds need to do. They will need to adjust to their new cage and your daily routine, but that’s about it. Birds are much more adaptable that we give them credit for.

Handfeds need virtually no time to adjust. Don’t avoid them. Instead, immediately talking to them and wait no more than a day to start handling.

Used Birds

These birds usually come with problems. We humans have the tendency to teach our birds all kinds of annoying habits, and then give our pets up when they don’t meet our perception of The Perfect Bird™. I suggest consulting an avian behaviorist for truly troubled birds, as that is beyond the scope of this article. My goal here is to give you a jump start towards building a trusting, civil relationship.

Try to learn as much about your used bird as possible. What did it eat? Was it kept around children or pets? Physically abused? Exposed to toys? Other birds? The answer to each of these questions should influence how you treat your new bird. A bird with limited exposure to children, pets, toys and new foods may show fear at the introduction of any of these. Birds kept isolated from other birds for years probably have no flocking skills, particularly if they’ve been housed with a mirror (mirrors generally make birds antisocial or territorial). In this case you must use extreme caution when introducing it to other birds. A physically abused bird may be very fearful of humans.

Untame used birds are generally either fearful or hostile. A fearful bird will try as hard as it can to get away and will bite if cornered. A hostile bird holds its ground and bites if approached.

fry04Hostile Birds

Given the choice, I’d rather work with a hostile bird. These guys tend to tame down quicker- it’s a simple matter of winning them over while at the same time displaying your authority. Basically you can treat these guys like new birds that just hit puberty and got an attitude. Reinforce the “up” and “down” commands, and give them praise and treats for good behavior. You can also modify the basic taming technique. For instance, a few years ago I adopted a mitred conure who neither liked nor hated people. Fry would grudgingly step up on an arm, but he would not voluntarily interact with humans. I placed him on the back of a chair at the kitchen table. I then read a book and ate a bird-friendly meal (eggs and toast) with my sun conure. My sun would pig out on the egg yolks and Fry would greedily eye the toast from his perch- he loved white bread. Eventually he’d throw caution to the wind, jump down, grab some toast and drag it to the other side of the table. The goal was to force him to interact briefly, while making it seem like his idea.

Fearful Birds

Fearful birds take much longer to tame down. If the bird is cage-bound you may want to keep it in the original cage, no matter how inadequate, to make it feel more secure. If you have to you can always cut a hole in the side of the original cage and physically attach it to a larger one. That way the bird can explore a new area if it feels comfortable. Covering one side of the cage can make the bird feel more secure as well.

In this case taming involves making the bird feel welcome, then gradually introducing hands in a nonthreatening manner. It is essential that you move at a pace the bird is comfortable with. Start out by just sitting near the cage doing a nonthreatening activity or talking to the bird. The object is to very slowly build trust, and this can take a very long time. Since these birds are so fearful of humans, grooming might be best if done by a professional so that you don’t shatter any limited trust you’ve built.

Approaching Your Bird

If you’ve only dealt with dogs and cats then bird mannerisms can seem very alien. Always keep in mind that birds are prey animals- often their first instinct when faced with something new is to fear it. Your attitude and approach will have the greatest impact on how birds respond to you.

andy&loki2

Confident and Calm

Your attitude should be one of confidence and calm. Birds are very good at reading your emotions. If you are confident, the bird will be more likely to do what you ask. If you are calm and relaxed the bird should relax too. Many people are initially nervous about being bitten. These people tend to be overly timid, tense, and will jerk their hand back at the slightest provocation. You absolutely cannot act like this. The bird will sense your tension and become nervous as well. Practice with very tame birds first before approaching strange ones. Keep in mind that birds use their beaks like a hand. They will often reach out with it to steady themselves when stepping up, particularly if you are holding your hand too high or too far away.

The approach is simple. Walk towards the bird with your hands behind your back. Constantly talk to it in a sweet voice. Extend your hand with your fingers straight and your thumb down. Hold your hand up to the bird mid-belly. Do NOT press down on its feet. How is it supposed to raise its feet if you’re pressing down on them? Likewise, don’t hold your hand too high. Sticking your finger in its face is rude. Most handfeds are finger tame and should not have a problem stepping up so long as they are approached correctly. If the bird seems really nervous and tries to bolt, you will need to slow down your approach. Try moving your hand in from the side along the perch. Stop if the bird starts to move away, back up your hand and try again. Remember to keep talking to the bird in a sweet voice.

Birds seem to compartmentalize human bodies- arms, hands, head, face, torso – all can be viewed as separate objects. What your bird thinks of one body part may not apply to another. Many birds fear hands. Hands can grab, restrain, clip and even hit. If a bird runs away from hands, try offering your arm instead. You’d be amazed how many birds that bolt from hands will readily step onto an arm. The presentation of your various parts also makes a difference. As long as I sit or stand upright, my goffin sees my face as another bird. The moment I lie down my nose magically transforms into a chew toy.

Reverse Psychology/Nonthreatening Activities

Nonthreatening activities are an essential part of earning the trust of fearful birds. Remember- parrots are prey! Older birds in particular will be very frightened by new things and new people. UC Davis conducted a study that found that most parrots had a brief window in which they were open to new things. After that window had closed (usually two years for larger species) they became terrified at anything new in their environment. This is because when they are babies they are constantly learning about what is safe and what isn’t. Everything is new. However, once this learning period is complete anything new is assumed to be potentially dangerous. Better safe than sorry.

Acting nonchalant and using reverse psychology can help get around this somewhat. Here, Jennifer was having trouble getting Loki to play with a new toy. Instead of waving the toy in the bird’s face, she completely ignores the bird and concentrates on fiddling with the toy. Loki immediately comes over to see what’s up.

Copyright © 1997-2011 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.

First Aid

It always pays to be prepared for any emergencies, especially if you own birds. Chances are that if something goes wrong it will happen on Saturday night at 2:00 a.m. and you’ll have to wait until Monday morning before you can even try scheduling an appointment. This article is NOT meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. True, there are some things you can take care of at home. Most of us breeders would rather handle things ourselves unless we absolutely can’t, but unless you really know what you are doing you need seek out a qualified vet.

First Aid Kit

Every bird owner should have a first aid kit. In a crisis you don’t want to be running all over the house looking for this or that. You want everything to be in one accessible place. Things to place in your kit:

  • Syringes
  • Gavage feeder*
  • Vetwrap
  • Cotton balls
  • Q tips
  • Tissue paper
  • Nail clippers
  • Very small scissors
  • Flour or Kwik Stop

* ONLY if you are someone who KNOWS how to use it. A gavage can be a lifesaver in the right hands and an instant killer in the wrong hands.

Syringes and gavage tubes can be used to administer medication or feed birds unable/unwilling to feed themselves. Vetwrap is a very neat material that only sticks to itself- never skin, fur or feathers.

img_8245

Hospital tank with lamp and under-tank heater.

The Hospital Cage
Everyone needs a good hospital cage. It will where you will be housing birds that are sick and waiting for a vet appointment or recouping from illness or injury. This cage should be small enough to restrict movement, yet larger than a carrier. Plastic animal cages (those cheap ones with the colored lid and handle at your local pet store), brooders and small aquariums work the best. There should be one perch that can be removed if needed, or no perch at all. There should be no toys. The water bowl should be small and shallow to prevent drowning and the feed bowl should likewise be small. There should be no bottom grate. The substrate should consist of paper towels changed twice daily. If you are not using a brooder the hospital cage will need supplemental heating. Tubs and tanks can be kept half on/half off a heating pad set to low or medium. A heating light works better if you are using a cage or if it has a perch.

hospitalcage

While in the hospital cage, make sure you observe droppings and food intake. I would recommend taking pictures of droppings if they seem off. You can show these to the vet if need be. It’s always better to have too much information than not enough.

img_8947

Still under observation, but out of the tank. Heat lamp above but no under cage heater.

Injuries
With the exception of toe injuries and broken blood feathers, most injuries will require the bird to spend some time in the hospital cage.

Bitten toes and feet are usually not a problem unless the laceration is exceptionally bad. If a bird has a foot or toe injury with no apparent cause, try examining it closer. Birds can get tiny fibers, string or even human hair wrapped tightly around their toes. This can cut of circulation and cause severe damage. I recently adopted a cockatiel who lost its foot up to the ankle because its owner did not realize there was string wound around it (he thought it was just another bird bite). Close examination is always good with any ailment.

Broken bones require vet attention. Wings are very fragile so any injury to them requires a vet visit to make sure nothing is broken or torn. Keep the bird in a hospital cage until its appointment.

Beak, mouth and sinus injuries can allow infections to enter the brain. It is extremely important to seek a vet in these cases.

Broken blood feathers are not as horrific as they are made out to be. I know many people recommend the removal of any broken blood feathers. I do not, for several reasons:

  • By the time you find out a blood feather was broken, it has usually clotted up nicely.
  • Removing such a large feather is painful and can often cause more bleeding to occur.
  • I’ve never had a problem with one starting to bleed again.

Broken feathers are often caused by night frights. If you do catch one bleeding, I recommend holding flour onto in until it clots. Unless your bird is very skittish it probably won’t knock the feather hard enough to cause bleeding again. The same procedure goes for bleeding. Flour is a wonderful, inexpensive way to stop bleeding.

Splayed legs are easy to fix at home and require no vet assistance. Just use paper tape or vetwrap to bind the chick’s legs closer together (but not so tight that you’re cutting off the circulation). Do this for at least a one week, longer if needed (older chicks). Change the dressing every other day or if it falls off.

Remember, first aid can be a good tool in case of emergencies but for serious problems please consult a veterinarian.

© 1997-2016 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.