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Hand-Rearing Baby Birds – Are you Qualified?

Hand-raised birds of all types make wonderful pets, and the process itself seems appealing and attracts many bird owners. However, there are a number of misconceptions concerning the need for hand-raising birds, and also regarding the ease of doing so.

The Question of Bonding

Umbrella Cockatoo ChicksParent-reared birds can bond quite strongly to people and become wonderful companions, especially if taken under one’s care soon after they become independent. In many cases, such birds will be sturdier than hand-reared chicks, and will have been taught important foraging and social skills.

If a bird is to be pulled from the nest for hand-rearing, it is not essential that the new owner be involved. If taken soon after fledging, the chick will bond to people other than those who have raised it. The prospective owners may wish to visit the chick while it is being fed by the breeder (but such is not strictly necessary)…this is definitely preferable to an inexperienced person trying to raise a chick.

Misleading Beliefs

Healthy parrot and other chicks seem so perpetually hungry that one might be forgiven for assuming that hand-rearing is simply a matter of filling their gaping mouths with a supply of suitable food (please see photo of common cuckoo for an extreme example!). However, nothing could be further from the truth. The undertaking is complex and fraught with difficulties.

The Time Factor

Even if one possesses the necessary facilities and expertise, the time factor must be considered. Depending upon age and species, chicks will need numerous feedings throughout the day and, sometimes, the night.

I well remember waking up at 1AM and trekking to the Bronx Zoo to provide early morning feedings to palm cockatoos and other orphaned birds…interesting, but not for weeks on end!

Typical Difficulties Encountered

Following is just a brief listing of some possible problem areas:

Chicks that are abandoned or purposely taken from the nest for hand-rearing are often stressed. As a result, their immune systems will be weakened, leaving them open to health problems.

Food that remains in the crop can decay and cause fatal bacterial or fungal infections; determining that the chick’s crop is empty is not an easy matter.

The preparation, cooking, storage and delivery temperature of the food is critical. Details vary greatly with species, age and health.

The actual process of feeding the bird often leads to aspiration pneumonia, which arises when the chick inhales food into its lungs; such is difficult to avoid if one is not well-experienced.

Feeding utensils can easily damage tender mouths and crops, especially as regards particularly vigorous or lethargic chicks. Utensils that are not adequately sterilized are a common source of bacterial infection.

The temperature at which the chick must be kept varies with species, age and health, and is critical. This affects overall health and digestion. If too cool, even by a degree or two, a chick will not be able to move its food through the digestive tract adequately; fatal bacterial and fungal infections are then likely.

Making a Decision

My work with injured and abandoned chicks has left me with many fond and a few sad memories. Please consider your options carefully, and write in for specific advice. In all cases, you should work with an experienced aviculturist before attempting to raise a chick on your own.

Further Reading

For a look at some of the joys and difficulties inherent in raising rare birds, please see my article Hand rearing Palm Cockatoos.

Image referenced from Wikipedia and originally posted by Tropical Birdland.

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