Hand-Feeding Baby Birds

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

General Information 

Hand-feeding baby birds is a substitute for parents raising birds, but it does have certain advantages. Hand-raised baby birds usually make better pets, as they have been completely socialized with humans. Hand-raised babies grow up with less fear of humans or other potential dangers such as cats, dogs, and young children.

Hand-feeding is a huge responsibility and requires time, patience, and commitment. Hand-fed baby birds are entirely reliant on you for everything. Hand-feeding is a job best left for the experienced bird breeder or aviculturist. If you are considering hand-feeding a baby bird, you should contact your local bird breeder or avian veterinarian for help. This handout is designed to provide some basic guidelines on how to hand-feed.

When do I start hand-feeding a baby bird?

A chick may be removed from its parents any time before weaning, but many suggest leaving the babies with the parents for up to three weeks. Older babies may have more difficulty accepting hand-feeding.

Where do I keep a baby bird?

Precise temperature and humidity in the enclosure is critical for optimum growth and health of newly hatched birds. Initially, relative humidity greater than 50% is required. Hatchlings (without feathers) should be maintained at 95°F-97°F (35°C-36°C). As the chick gets older and develops feathers, it has a greater tolerance for temperature fluctuations. Baby birds may be kept in brooders, incubators, storage containers, plexiglass, or glass aquariums. Thermometers and humidity gauges should be placed in the enclosure if there is not one provided.

Generally, the temperature can be lowered by one degree every two to three days as feathering progresses. Chicks with new feathers (pinfeathers) should be fine at 75°F-85°F (24°C-30°C), depending on the development of the feathers. Fully feathered and weaned chicks can be maintained at room temperature. If you are raising a chick, always monitor your bird for signs of overheating or chilling. Panting, and wings extended or drooping indicate overheating. If the chicks shiver and cuddle together, it may indicate they are cold.

Poor growth or poor digestion (delayed crop emptying) may indicate poor health (including presence of gastrointestinal tract infections), improper consistency/mixing of hand feeding formula, improper temperature of formula, or improper environmental temperature and humidity. Good quality brooders are available that carefully regulate air circulation, temperature, and humidity.

Paper towels, diapers, hand towels, or other soft, disposable products can be used to line the bottom of the brooder and provide secure, clean, dry footing for birds. The bottom liner must be changed frequently to keep birds clean. If the bottom texture is too smooth, chicks’ legs may splay out sideways, leading to permanent leg deformities. The brooder should be carefully checked to ensure that it does not contain anything for birds to get their wings or legs stuck on or that might cause injury or deformities.

What should I feed my bird?

There are numerous commercially available hand-feeding formulas for baby birds. Choose one formula and use it until the baby is weaned. Changes in diet may be stressful on the baby's digestion. Be sure to discuss dietary choices with your avian veterinarian, an experienced bird breeder, or an aviculturist.

How do I feed my baby bird?

All food must be prepared fresh for every feeding. Food retained from one feeding to another is an ideal medium for the growth of harmful bacteria and yeast. Any food prepared or heated in a microwave oven must be mixed thoroughly to ensure that the food’s temperature is uniform and that there are no hot or cold spots. Food temperature should be at 102°F-106°F (39°C-41°C) throughout the mixture and should be measured with a thermometer.

Food that is too hot may cause severe burns to the crop. Food that is too cold may be rejected by baby birds and may slow down digestion. Hand-feeding formulas have specific directions on the packaging and explain how they should be mixed.

In general, the younger the bird, the thinner the mixture should be. A day-old chick requires a more dilute mixture (90% water), as it is still using the yolk sac as a source of nutrition. Chicks older than one or two days should have food containing approximately 70%-75% liquid.

Syringes are the preferred feeding tool, but some bird owners prefer a spoon with the sides bent up and inward. Accurate feeding volumes are better recorded with the syringe. Charting daily feedings is important. The natural feeding response of a baby bird is to rapidly bob the head in an up and down motion. This action can be stimulated with gentle finger pressure at the corners of the mouth. During this head bobbing, the trachea is closed and large amounts of food can be given relatively quickly. The use of feeding tubes is not recommended, as damage to the crop may occur or the feeding tube may slip off the syringe and require surgical removal.

If the bird does not display a strong feeding response, do not attempt to feed, as there is an increased chance of food aspiration into the trachea and lungs, which can lead to death. The best time to feed is when the crop is empty. The crop is the sac that hangs over the front of the chest at the base of the neck. When full, the crop will be visibly distended.

How often and how much do I feed? 

The amount and frequency of feeding depends on the age of the bird and the formula. The frequency of feeding for young birds is greater than that of older birds. The following are general guidelines.

With newly hatched chicks, the yolk sac is the source of nutrients for the first 12-24 hours post-hatching. Chicks less than one week old should be fed 6–10 times per day (every 2-3 hours).

During the first week of life, some birds benefit from feeding during the night. Chicks that have not yet opened their eyes may take 5–6 feedings per day (every 3-4 hours). Once birds’ eyes open, they can have 3–5 feedings (one every 5 hours). As their feathers start to grow in, they may only need to be fed 2–3 times per day (every 6–12 hours). Their crops should appear full when they are done.

Feeding between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. is not necessary, since this is the time that the baby bird should be sleeping. The best indication of a healthy, growing chick is a good, strong feeding response at every feeding, with the crop emptying between feedings, and the regular production of droppings (feces).

Monitor and record weight gain at the same time each day using a scale that weighs in grams, with 1-gram increments, to detect subtle increases or decreases. Birds’ weights may fluctuate up and down daily but should trend upward over a period of days to weeks. Birds that are not gaining weight should be checked by an avian veterinarian as soon as possible.

When should birds be weaned off hand-feeding formula? 

Deciding when to wean a bird off the hand-feeding formula is often a difficult decision for both the bird owner and the bird. As a bird gets older and develops a full complement of feathers, it should be encouraged to wean off formula and to eat more on its own. Some babies start weaning themselves by refusing certain feedings.

Offer birds a variety of foods, including formulated, pelleted diets as well as fresh fruits and vegetables to encourage exploration and experimentation. As the baby bird begins consuming pellets or fresh vegetables on its own, hand-feeding may be withheld at certain times, often starting with the mid-day feedings. With time, the morning feeding may be withheld and, ultimately, the evening feeding. Some birds learn quicker to eat on their own by watching other birds or older babies eat.

Should I be concerned about disinfection? 

Baby birds have poorly developed immune systems and are more susceptible to developing infections, so the brooder should be disinfected regularly. All feeding utensils must be cleaned, disinfected, and dried thoroughly between feedings. Using separate feeding utensils for every individual bird is recommended.

How do I know if something is wrong? 

If you suspect something is wrong with your bird, you should immediately contact your avian veterinarian. Signs to watch for include:

  • Chirping or crying all the time
  • Fussing a lot and not sleeping
  • Listless, droopy wings or head
  • Not accepting food
  • Lack of feeding response
  • Slow crop emptying or crop stasis
  • Poor weight gain
  • Slow growth
  • Abnormal posturing or abnormal wing and/or leg positions
  • Abnormal droppings or lack of droppings
  • Wetness or food on skin over the crop (indicating a possible crop burn)
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