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Spring’s Affect on Parrots, Budgerigars, Canaries, Finches and Other Cage Birds, Part II: Nestlings and Fledglings (Nutrition, Perches, Feather-Plucking)

Please see Part I of this article for information on other nesting concerns.

There are few events more rewarding to bird owners than the discovery of a nest full of newly-hatched chicks.  But along with the excitement of the new arrivals may come a few potential problems.  Today we’ll take a look at how to avoid and handle some of the more commonly-encountered of these.

Protein Needs

Parrots, finches and other pet birds go from helpless chick to adult-sized fledgling in record time.  As you can well imagine, such rapid development must be fueled by the proper foods, and lots of them.  One of the most common causes of nestling loss is poor nutrition.

Parrots are generally easier to deal with in this regard, and most of the foods needed are readily available…please be sure to write in for suggestions.  Canaries and finches however, are another matter.  While adults subsist largely upon seeds, the young of most require a high protein diet that is rich in insects.

Live and Canned Insects

Be sure to provide the parents with large quantities of small live crickets, waxworms, mealworms and mealworm pupae.  Wild-caught insects offer nutrients unobtainable elsewhere, and were standard fare for many species when I worked at the Bronx Zoo.  The Zoo Med Bug Napper  is an excellent insect trap, and is well worth considering.

Canned Insects  offer a very convenient means of providing breeding birds with much needed dietary variety, and are well-accepted by most finches.  I am quite sure that their role in aviculture will grow in coming years.

Other Protein Rich Foods

Other foods that should always be available to chick-rearing softbills,  canaries and other finches include Egg Food, Finch Nestling Food and Anole Food (dried flies).

Feather Plucking

For reasons that are not yet entirely understood, otherwise attentive parents sometimes suddenly begin to pluck their chicks’ feathers.  The attacks often center on the base of the neck, and are usually instigated by the hen, but males may be guilty as well.  The behavior often intensifies over time, and can leave the chicks with severe wounds and stress-related (as you can imagine!) ailments, and in some cases can result in their deaths.

Feather-plucking of chicks is most commonly seen in budgerigars, lovebirds and, to a lesser extent, cockatiels.  A number of theories have been proposed to explain this odd phenomenon.  Captive animals of many species often attack or even eat their young (never clean the cage of a female hamster with a new litter!), but the birds involved in feather-plucking are most often well adjusted to captivity and excellent parents in all other respects.

Some have suggested that the behavior springs from an inherited, genetic defect or a misguided re-nesting instinct, but a proven explanation is still lacking.

Discouraging Feather Plucking

Short of pulling the chicks for hand-rearing, Bitter Apple Spray is the most effective solution to the problem.  When applied to the nestlings’ feathers, this product is very effective in dissuading errant parent birds.  In most cases, the attacks stop and the pair goes on to successfully raise their chicks.

Slipped Claw

Recently fledged canaries and other finches sometimes fall victim to a condition known as “slipped claw”.  The rear claw (the one which points backward, in the opposite direction of the other three claws) slides forward and remains in that position as the youngster attempts to perch, eventually crippling the bird.

Fledgling-Safe Perches

The condition is largely confined to young birds that are kept on hard, smooth perches.  You can avoid this problem by providing your fledgling finches and canaries with thin, supple perches for the first few months of their lives.  Cotton Cable and Rope Perches are ideal.

Further Reading

Please see my articles Feeding Insects to Pet Birds and Zoo Med’s Anole Food for further information.



What to do Upon Discovering a Baby Bird that Seems to Have Fallen from its Nest?


Spring, slow as it may seem in arriving this very cold winter, is on its way.  Here on the outskirts of NYC I’ve already heard the songs of cardinals and song sparrows (both on February 19th) and, while I’ve not had the chance to check, it is likely that the red-winged blackbirds have returned from their winter retreats.  With the coming season I expect my annual plethora of “abandoned baby bird” phone calls, and so thought this might be a good time to address a few related points.

Feathered vs. Un-feathered Chicks

Most birds leave the nest (fledge) while barely able to fly, and are fed by the parents for a few days thereafter.  If the youngster you come upon has feathers, it has most likely not fallen or been abandoned…usually, the best course of action is to leave it be.

If the chick lacks feathers, and is unable to perch or move about, return it to the nest if you can do so safely.  Contrary to popular belief, the parents will not reject a chick that has been handled – in fact, if they see you near it, even the most timid of species will usually try to drive you away.  Wash your hands well after handling the bird.

If you cannot return the bird to its nest, or it is likely to run into trouble where it has landed, contact a veterinarian, nature center, local zoo or the organization listed below.

A Huge Time Commitment

Raising baby birds requires a good deal of expertise – most need to be fed at 20 minute intervals from sunrise to sunset, and require specialized diets.  If you have the opportunity, check out the Bronx Zoo’s World of Birds.  An exhibit there very graphically illustrates the scores of insects, earthworms, mice and fish that a single chick of various species requires weekly – very impressive.

In my work as a zookeeper and wildlife rehabilitator, I have hand-raised parrots, birds of prey, songbirds and shorebirds, and Australia’s charmingly bizarre frogmouth (please see photo), and can testify that it is more than a full time job – and I was well-supported by various institutions.  To do the same from home can be quite an ordeal.



Locating a Rehabilitator or Obtaining Training

The National Association of Wildlife Rehabilitators (http://www.tc.umn.edu/~devo0028/contact.htm; 320-230-9920) can refer you to local experts who accept birds, and offers advice to those wishing to become trained and licensed as rehabilitators.  Your state’s wildlife agency will also likely maintain a list of licensed rehabilitators.


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