How to Feed Your Baby Bird

Feeding Your New Grey Baby Doesn’t Have to be Scary

by Jean Pattison

Editor’s Note: Not all members of the avian community feel it’s appropriate to bring a new bird into your life before it’s weaned/fledged/eating solid food. Whatever the circumstances may be that have brought a very young bird into your life, there’s no judgment here. Congratulations on this extraordinary experience with a young and precious life! Let’s now learn from an extraordinary woman’s decades of experience in hand-feeding baby parrots so we all know how to do it right.

African Grey Jean Pattison Illustration Airway OpenHand-feeding a baby parrot was one of the scariest things I have ever done.

I grew up in the city of Chicago, but I spent my summers on my grandparent’s farm. My granddad taught me so much about animals, the love and respect he showed was a big influence in my life. He would come in and tell me “I have something to show you” and he would take my hand and we would go out to the pasture, or barn, or hedgerow. He would sit with me and taught me to be very still and just watch. I watched barn swallows build nest, and fed their young, I saw tadpoles hatching, and mommy bunny uncover her babies and get in their nest to feed. When my granddad came in and said, “Give me your hand, I have something to show you”, I knew I was about to see a miracle. The one thing I wanted more than anything was to raise a baby bird, but my grandparents always told me, “If you take it away from its parents, it will die. You just can’t do that”. One day I found a baby bird had fallen from a nest and I snuck it into the house and tried to feed it. It of course died and broke my heart, and I cried and cried. Naturally I had to confess, with all that crying after all. I also felt I disappointed my grandparents.

I wanted a farm when I grew up, but chances of that happening years later wasn’t something I could ever see happening. Well, many years later here I am, a farmer. Not with cows and pigs, but parrots.

My first bird was a Jenday conure. I had purchased her from a little hobby breeder close to my home. I went and visited a few times a week. The woman was meticulous with cleanliness, and sanitizing everything. I watched her syringe feed the tiny chick. She would tell my how easy it was to aspirate, and how everything had to be perfect, and how fragile they were. Such a scary experience. I was always worried something would go wrong if she made one tiny mistake.

I had my first pair of Senegals go to nest, and I asked her to feed them for me when I took them from the parents. I was so scared when I took the chicks from their nest; I was shaking like a leaf. I kept hearing my grandparent’s warnings about taking baby birds from the parents.

My dream was to have a pair of greys. As the saying goes, “be careful what you wish for”. Anyway, this breeder also fed those babies for me, and a few clutches after that. As I obtained more pairs of greys, my best friend opened a bird only store, so she took over the hand-feeding. I now had to take chicks and drive them for over an hour away. More stress.

Five years later, having never fed a chick, my best friend was closing her store and no more hand-feeding. I thought I was going to faint. I had about 30 baby African greys coming into the nursery in about two weeks. Her answer to me was, “that’s why I am giving you a two week notice, but I will be there if you need me”, and she was, as well as many other breeders when I needed them. In the late evening I gathered my 30 some babies into my nursery. They had been fed by the parents and would be hungry in the morning, as well as me getting good nights sleep. I threw up most of the night terrified at my daunting task, so very little sleep. In the morning I mixed food, got syringes ready. The babies were hungry and they pumped like crazy, but with my shaking so bad, it was hit or miss. It took me three hours and multiple making of new food trying to keep it warm, but I did it.

Fast forward 34 years, and 100s of babies through those years, I sure learned a lot in a very short time especially dealing with only the African parrots. Many things with that many of a single species quickly falls into place. I must note, all my chicks are parent-fed in outside aviaries, so they have a pretty well developed immune system. They are completely different than dealing with incubator hatched chicks.

handfeeding instrumentsSince I learned to feed with a syringe, this is what I still use. I have used every other instrument available since I started, as distasteful as they may seem.

I had taken a Q-tip with a bit of warm water to clean a chick’s mouth. While doing so, I found I had to hold on to it. There seemed to be a pulling motion trying to pull it out of my fingers. I kind of played with the experience and found that if I relaxed it a bit, it felt like the bird would swallow it while the chick was pumping. When a chick pumps the head rapidly bobs up and down. This motion works in unison with the parent’s pumping while they are feeding the chick.

So what have I learned?

  1. Baby birds are not nearly as fragile as we all think, and they are very resilient!
  2. The opening of a parrot’s airway is in their tongue, and not in the back of their throat.
  3. Lots of other things, maybe for another article some day.
African Grey Parrot Papillae Airway
Note the papillae inside the bird’s mouth. These are the little points on each side of the back of the mouth. Learn to look at these and know what they should look like in your species of bird. Many health issues can be seen by how healthy the papillae are. Next time you visit your veterinarian, ask her to show them to you and what to look for.

When a bird is breathing through the nares (nostrils), the tongue is resting against the roof of the mouth. Air is traveling through the nares, through the hole in the tongue, to the trachea in the throat, (not the back of the mouth), and then into the internal airways.

When a chick has its mouth open and starts to pump the hole in the tongue closes and anything beyond that point is like a funnel to the esophagus. A hand-feeder in reality can feed from the left or right or even in the middle. Most have learned the bird’s left to bird’s right method, and it is an easy, comfortable position anyway. Many hand-feeders feeding day ones or macaws will often feed from both sides to prevent any beak misalignment. With day ones, hand-feeders will stretch their necks straight and insert a small feeding tip and go right down the middle into the esophagus. But, even tiny day one babies pump and while pumping the airway is closed so food can be just drizzled into their mouths.

So, when we use any of the instruments that go into the crop, we are not working around a maze of trachea and esophagus. Once past the closed hole in the tongue, the rest is open to any food or object inserted, leading to the crop. If someone uses latex or catheter tubing, or metal gavage, once the baby starts to pump its head the object slides right in, or is pulled in. There is nothing forceful using this technique. The pulling motion is more muscle contractions than it is actual swallowing. After all how could a bird “swallow” a Q-tip?

If you ever decide to hand-feed find a mentor and DON’T be scared.