If you think that handfeeding means holding some seeds or pellets in your hand and convincing your bird to eat them, you are not alone. Quite a few other people think the same thing. However, handfeeding actually involves feeding a baby bird that is not yet able to eat on its own a soft diet. Most bird breeders use a specially designed formula for baby birds, but some breeders prefer to make their own handfeeding formula.
A handfed baby bird is usually a much better pet than a parent raised bird. However, most people don’t realize exactly how hard and time consuming it is to handfeed birds. If you have ever raised a child, think back to the first few weeks of your baby’s life. Remember feeling as though you’d never be able to sleep again? What about those 3 am feedings? You probably felt overwhelmed by the responsibility of keeping that tiny, fragile being alive and healthy.
Bird breeders face many of the same challenges new parents face, except they are responsible for a baby that can be as small as a thumbnail. In addition, breeders rarely have a break from raising miniscule newborns. Another pair of birds is always going to nest and not all of them are good parents. To keep a day old baby bird from dying when it is abandoned, most breeders will pull out their alarm clocks so they will wake up in time for feedings every two hours until the baby is a week old.
When most people handfeed a bird for the first time, they are either finishing the handfeeding of their six to eight week old baby bird or they are trying to save their first clutch of baby birds after the parents abandoned them. They probably have never seen a bird being handfed or have only had one quick lesson from a pet store employee or bird breeder and they don’t even know what equipment they need.
Fortunately, getting the supplies to handfeed baby birds is usually fairly simple. You will need a brooder, a handfeeding syringe, handfeeding formula, a cooking thermometer, bedding material and a way to mix and heat the formula. Few people have a brooder sitting around the house, but it is simple to make your own brooder in an emergency. You will need an aquarium or plastic pet habitat and a heating pad with a low setting.
Place the heating pad in a draft free location and plug it in on the low setting. Check it after about 15 minutes to be sure it has not gotten too hot. Once you are sure the low setting is working properly, place the aquarium or pet habitat on top of the heating pad, leaving a few inches off of the pad so the baby bird can move away if he gets too hot. Line the container with paper towels or a cloth baby diaper. Your brooder is ready to go.
Now that your baby bird can stay warm and safe, it is time to try handfeeding. There are two things you must remember:
1. Never squirt food into the wrong side of the bird’s mouth. You could get food into his lungs. His esophagus is on his right side, which means that when he is facing you, the food goes from your right to your left.
2. Never let the food get too cold or too hot. It should stay between 102 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
Mix the handfeeding formula according to the manufacturer directions. Basically, you want it to be as thick as a slightly watery pudding. Heat the formula and test the temperature. If it is too hot, you can injure your baby bird. Place the baby bird on a paper towel on your table facing you. Fill the syringe, being careful not to suck up air instead of formula. Grasp the syringe in your right hand and gently place the tip in your bird’s mouth so that it is aimed from right to left.
Slowly squeeze the syringe so that a bit of food goes into his mouth. Wait for him to swallow before giving him more food. Do not overfeed him. Older babies will usually back away when they are full, but newly hatched babies will not be able to do so. You can gently feel the crop to see if it is beginning to feel slightly firm, like a stress ball. If it is too firm, you are overfeeding your baby.
Once your bird is fed, tuck him back into his brooder. He will need to eat again in two hours if he is under a week. Two week old babies need four feedings a day and at four weeks you can drop to three feedings a day. Don’t be in a hurry to wean your babies. They may need to be handfed for as long as twelve weeks, especially if they are one of the larger parrot species.