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& Weaning

by Robyn Ashton

Hand-rearing can be a very rewarding experience, but it can also be a nightmare if you find yourself in an emergency situation needing to feed abandoned chicks and not having the first clue regarding what to do. This situation can be avoided with a little bit of forward thinking and preparation. If you are going to breed birds, at some point you will find yourself in the position of needing to be able to hand-rear a chick or chicks. It could be that the parent birds reject their chicks, you could have a death of one or the other parent birds, or any number of other situations could arise. If you have put some thought into what you will do if an emergency arises, your likelihood of a successful outcome is greatly increased.
deally your first experience with hand-rearing should be a pre-planned event. Chicks that may be suitable for pets could be removed from the nest at around 3 weeks of age. You will need to have a suitable container to keep them in, something around the same dimensions as a nest box will suffice at this stage. Shavings or paper towel will need to be replaced daily in the bottom of the box. At 3 weeks of age the chicks will need around 4 feeds per day. These feeds need to be scheduled starting in the morning, lunchtime, around 5pm and the last feed around 9pm. You need to leave around 4 hours between feeds to allow the chicks crops to empty before feeding again. If you are feeding the chick the correct amount it should easily digest it all in 4 hours.
If this is not happening, you are either feeding too much or a chick has a problem with its crop and it is not emptying at a normal rate. It is very important to use a suitable hand rearing food especially designed for parrots. Egg & Biscuit on its own is not a suitable hand-rearing food as it does not contain everything a baby bird needs to grow and flourish. There are several good quality hand-rearing mixes on the market. Roudybush is particularly good and is used by many professional "hand-rearers". This product can also be kept in the freezer for a longer life, which can be very handy when you need some urgently.  You need to follow the manufacturers instructions for feeding but generally the best idea is to mix up the required amount, depending on how many chicks you are feeding, and combine the dry food with some boiled water. Bring the food up to the required temperature and maintain a stable temperature by using the double bowl method (Container with hand rearing mix sitting in a slightly larger container filled with hot water to keep the food at optimum feeding temperature.)
Check once you have added the water to the formula that the density is something like a yoghurt consistency. Nice and smooth, but not too thick and not too thin. Method of feeding is really a personal preference, using either a small spoon with bent up sides or a small syringe. As long as the food gets into the chick without too much ending up all over the place is the main thing. Try to clean up any food that gets onto the feathers as you go along, rather than waiting until its sets rock hard and is difficult to remove.
Once you have done a bit of hand feeding, it is something you get a feel for as to the method etc. The most important thing is to get the food to the chick at a good temperature. Food that is too hot will burn the crop, but food that is too cold will also cause problems, with the crop slowing down.
Chicks will often refuse cold food, even if they are hungry. I have always used the method of testing a bit of the mix on the inside of my wrist or to my lip to test the temperature, much as you would with a human baby. This enables you to best decide if the mix is too hot or too cold and adjust accordingly. Generally a chick of around 3 to 4 weeks would eat approx 10mls per feed. It is best not to overfeed as this too can cause crop problems.
rom the age of about 4 weeks you will find that the chicks begin to attempt to fly. This would be the stage at which they would leave the nest box if they were still with the parent birds. This is the time that you can move them from their "holding box" into a cage. Once they are in a cage you can start introducing the chicks to seed, water and other foods (while still maintaining their regular hand feeds). Initially they will play with these new foods more so than eat them, but gradually they will get the hang of it and start to become more interested in eating on their own. Also provide the chicks with a calcium supplement such as cuttlebone or a calcium bell.
s the chicks get a bit older, you can gradually decrease the number of feeds and encourage them to start experimenting with other foods like seed, sprouts, greens, sweet corn etc. Millet sprays are also a good way to get young chicks used to eating seeds. Generally from around 4 to 5 weeks, feeds would drop to 3 per day. At around 6 weeks 2 feeds per day, and then hopefully by 7 to 8 weeks they are just about fully weaned and may only need one top up feed each day.  Naturally this can vary from chick to chick so you need to assess each chick's individual needs. Chicks are usually easier to wean if there is more than one, as they learn from each other. If you are trying to wean a single bird you may need to be a bit more creative with things to tempt them to start feeding themselves. If the chick is a bit inclined to just sit on the perch and wait until you bring the next feed along, try removing the perch to encourage the chick to walk around, nearer the food on the floor of the cage. Usually by the time the chick walks through the foods you have provided, it will start to try them and hopefully decide they are worth eating.  Only when you are confident the chick is able to sustain itself without your help, is it considered fully weaned.

                               Emergency Situation Do's & Don't.
he biggest mistake people can make is to try and feed a "chilled" chick. Imagine the situation. You find an icy cold chick abandoned by the parents but it is still alive. Its crop is completely empty so it is really a normal reaction to try and get some warm food into the chick. Unfortunately this is more than likely to hasten the chicks' demise rather than help. 

The correct procedure would be to warm the chick up first, either in a purpose built hospital cage, or if this is not available, some type of warm environment i.e.. a hot water bottle, lamp etc. Be careful not to overheat. Give the chick a small amount of warm water (with some electrolyte solution if available) to assist with rehydration. Once you are confident the chick has returned to a more normal body temperature and is moving around, and hopefully looking to be fed, this is the time to feed it with some nice warm food. Observe how well the chick digests this meal before you feed again. If the crop doesn't appear to be working too well it may be necessary to consult your avian vet.

It is very important when hand feeding chicks to observe good hygiene practices. Utensils need to be thoroughly washed after each feed. Keep the chicks nice and clean, as well as their environment. If you take these simple steps you will avoid many of the problems that may arise through bacterial contamination.

he more time and effort you put into the process of hand raising a baby bird, the better the result will be. Try not to rush the weaning process. It is usually counterproductive and this sometimes makes it harder to wean the bird than if you take the time to gradually decrease the hand feeding. Give the chick plenty of time to get used to the idea of feeding itself. Hand-rearing does take time, and is not something you can rush. So before you take on the job, realise the size of the commitment you are making and be prepared to do it
for as long as the chick needs your help……...

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