The Baby Snatchers

If you have any plans to hand feed baby birds, for whatever reason, at some point you become a Baby Snatcher,  You either take the eggs and incubate them, and feed the hatchlings from day one, or you pull the chicks out of the nest at about two weeks and hand feed.  You harden your heart to the cries of the parents, and focus on the adorable baby birds.

I had an incubator for many years,  It was a very expensive one, but designed for reptile eggs, so there was no turning mechanism.  Reptile eggs need to remain still, while bird eggs need to be turned regularly.  I never got to the point where I wanted to use it, and I sold it.  Then I got button quail.  Now I wish I still had the incubator.  And if you read my prior post on button quail, sadly none of those chicks survived.  Back to the drawing board,

If I had an incubator, and I hatched any parrot or finch eggs, I would be faced with trying to hand feed just hatched babies.  It can be done, but not by someone with a full time job.  I think that held me back from using the incubator more than anything else.

A quick note on fostering, I have had society finches that were very good at hatching zebra finch eggs,  Sometimes they would even raise the chicks.  The worst experience I had involved cut throat finches.  Our pair were named Mac and Suki.  They took a while to lay eggs at all, and then hatched the babies but wouldn’t feed them.  Finding baby finches on the floor of the cage is never pleasant.  So the next round of eggs I slid under a pair of society finches.  They dutifully sat on the eggs, then just as if they had taken notes from the cut throats, they tossed the babies.

Most of the time, I let the parents hatch the eggs and do the first two weeks of feeding.  This serves the same purpose as breastfeeding a human child, transferring some of the parents’ antibodies to the chicks.  Then I pull the babies and hand them off to a qualified hand feeder.  My usual plan is to pay for the formula, and either split the clutch or split the money with the person who does all the work.  But this assumes we have more than one chick.

It can be difficult to take all the chicks out of a nest.  The parents continue to distrust you long after, and if you were building any sort of relationship with the birds, their reaction can hurt.  The chicks, however, are so cute and so cuddly and absolutely fear free, and that makes up for some of the heart-wrenching.

I have pretty good luck with my cockatiels breeding out in the aviary.  I have had bunches of clutches when I had no one to hand feed.  Now I have a hand feeder and the cockatiels are producing lots of eggs, but no chicks have hatched.  I am trying to be patient.

I want to focus on breeding violet love birds inside, but of the two pair I have, I am getting lots of eggs but only one chick hatched.  That chick went to the hand feeder last week.  The violet pair who are the parents have spent every day since then sounding an alarm call whenever I enter the bird room.  Both Mike and I have told them they just need to go lay more eggs, and they can have more chicks.  They will figure this out eventually.  And I may let them keep one chick just so they don’t get discouraged. And to make myself feel better about the whole process.

I try to be conscientious regarding the number of clutches I let the birds have.  Depending on the type of bird, 2 to 4 clutches per season is plenty.  The hens wear out so quickly that it is just resource conservation to limit the output.  The variable exists because if a pair don’t have to raise the chicks to fledging, then there is less stress on them both,  but any egg laying stresses the hen.  If the hen continues to lay eggs even if you pull all available nests, then you might need to take a few drastic steps.  Or possibly let her keep some eggs.

To give a hen eggs that won’t hatch, all you need to do is shake each egg thoroughly before returning it to the nest.  A hen usually knows when the egg is past hope of hatching, and will stop sitting on the nest after that point.  Another way to stop egg laying is to closely regulate how much food, water, and light the bird gets, and move the cage around.  Move things around in the cage, too.  No more than 8 hours of light per day, no more food than is needed for a single day, and no more water than enough to drink, no bathing.  The opposites of these triggers the spring breed response in many birds.

Pulling two-week-old chicks from cockatiels can involve bloodshed.  Cockatiel hens are protective of the nest, and sometimes the male will be as aggressive and defensive.  Even doing nest checks to determine if any eggs have hatched can be dangerous. Currently we have four boxes hung up, and three pair plus two single males using them.  Obviously one box is empty, since the unmated males haven’t convinced any females to lay eggs for them to sit on.  Male cockatiels can do a pretty good job of brooding eggs and feeding young, and a pair will often give you as good results as a heterosexual pair.

Once the chicks are pulled, they need to be kept warm, then delivered to the hand feeder who then puts them into a brooder of some sort.  Some sort of schedule will be in place to feed them every four hours, then every six or however long they can go.  Chicks do not need to be fed overnight, any more than wild birds would feed the chicks at night.  But they will need food first thing in the morning,

Most hand feeders will track weight gain in the chicks, just to be sure no problems arise.  Some also clip the birds’ wings before they actually can fly.  But this will only delay weening the chicks off hand feeding.  They will lose some weight and fly right when they are good to feed themselves.  It’s also a good idea to keep bits of good food in the cage once the babies are no longer in need of a brooder.  Bits of broccoli, lettuce or kale, apple, almonds, depending on the bird, these items can be left in the cage for a day so the babies can beak and taste and learn good nutrition.  Cooked pasta and hard boiled egg can also be put in, but for only an hour or so.  Make sure the food does not spoil however long you leave it with the birds.

Baby snatching is the inevitable task of those who raise birds for the pet trade.  The act may cause stress and unhappiness in the breeder for a time.  The end result, a calm beautiful parrot who likes to be with people, makes it worth while to the breeder.  To the parent birds, not so much.  But at least they will get another chance next breeding season.


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