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Are You My Mother? How to Care for a Baby Bird

Caring for a baby bird can be rewarding. But taking on an infant is a situation full of challenges, and opinions differ over the best way to bring up a baby.

Some people believe that hand-raising a baby bird is the best way to obtain a loyal pet, but evidence suggests that there are great risks in store for inexperienced people who try to do it. Before reviewing the responsibilities associated with raising baby birds, the justification for hand-rearing should be debated.

Hand-raised baby birds do make great pets — usually for someone else. The reason becomes evident when the question is asked: “How many children want to spend their entire lives with their parents?” Young birds, like young people, reach an age of independence when they challenge authority. A bird that remains with the person who raised him may become defiant, but the owner of a bird raised by someone else becomes more of a friend than a parent to the animal, and the relationship can remain amicable for an indefinite period of time.

While hand-rearing a baby bird can be quite difficult and requires feeding every few hours by an experienced foster mom, purchasingjust-weaned or about-to-be-weaned birds who have no problems and eat readily can be a much easier experience.

Here’s what you need to know about raising and caring for baby birds.

How Much to Feed

The maximum amount of formula that should be fed to any baby prior to weaning should be approximately 10 percent of his body weight. The length of time between feedings should be determined by the amount of time it takes his crop to empty. (The crop is sufficiently emptied when you can feel little or no food remaining in the gullet, although it may remain slightly pendulous.) For most baby birds, it takes between four and six hours for the crop to empty.

Once every 24 hours, preferably at night, take a break from feedings. For example, if your bird’s crop empties every four hours, you should be feeding him every four to five hours between 6 a.m. and midnight. Starting at midnight, though, leave at least a six-hour period of time for extended crop emptying, which will allow residual food (and its increased numbers of bacteria) to be eliminated. Not coincidentally, taking a break also allows you to get some sleep.

As the baby grows, plan on fewer feedings, using slightly more formula. While there is a theory that some species do better with frequent small feedings, the problem with this approach is that few people – breeders or owners – can maintain a high-frequency feeding schedule.

The most important thing, though, is to control the amount of food offered at each feeding: Never allow the amount of formula to exceed 10 percent of the baby’s weight.

As the baby matures, he will begin to resist feeding. At that point, either reduce the number of formula feedings or eliminate them entirely. When feedings have reached only two or three a day, start your bird on solid food in the form of softened pellets or table food. If only two feedings remain and the bird resists food at night, eliminate the next morning’s feeding. Over the next two or three weeks, the bird should get used to eating solid food, and you can cut out evening feedings altogether.

What to Feed

Most baby birds thrive quite well on a commercial hand-rearing formula made especially for your species of bird. These complete diets are convenient since they’re easy to prepare. It’s important to mix these preparations as directed; do not add ingredients unless directed by your veterinarian. Formula that’s too thin won’t have the appropriate nutrients, and formula that’s too thick can become a hard ball in the crop and won’t be digested appropriately.

Formula Temperature

Formula should be fed at a temperature between 105 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. Baby birds won’t eat food that’s too cold. Conversely, many babies have died from novice bird owners feeding formula that is too hot, which causes a severe burn to the crop. As a precaution, use hot tap water and keep a cooking thermometer in the food formula at all times. If you choose to warm the formula with a microwave, remember to stir it very carefully because there can be hot pockets of food within the mix. Take the temperature before and after stirring.

How to Feed

Your bird is used to being fed by his human foster mom at the pet store or the aviary. Ideally, you should receive instructions from this person and copy the technique as closely as possible.

Spoon-feeding is just as it sounds. Gently stretch your bird’s neck straight up and support the head with one hand, with your thumb and forefinger placed gently at either side of the upper beak close to where it comes out of the skin. With the other hand, tilt the spoon of formula. Allow your bird to swallow and continue in this manner until he’s received the appropriate 10 percent.

When syringe-feeding, support your baby bird’s head in the same manner as when spoon-feeding and place the syringe in the side of his mouth, aiming towards the back of his throat. As he opens his throat, give him the formula. Practice with the syringe first because it’s common for too much to squirt out suddenly.

Also remember that your bird has to breathe at some point, so if you’re putting food in his mouth for more than a few seconds at a time, he may aspirate food into his lungs.

Be careful with babies that bob for their food vigorously. It’s very easy to injure the back of the throat with the syringe tip when these little ones are aggressively bobbing for food.

Dealing With Sour Crop

One of the most common problems that send a baby bird to the vet is a condition called “sour crop.” Sour crop is actually “crop stasis,” a condition in which the baby has a crop — or gullet — full of hand-feeding formula that has gone bad. The term “sour crop” describes the condition of the crop’s contents, but it’s rarely a disease unto itself. In the vast majority of cases it’s actually a symptom of other illness.

The danger of crop stasis comes from the spoiled food itself. Just as any other kind of food will go bad if it’s left in a warm room for too long, so undigested formula will accumulate toxins and bacteria — and threaten the bird’s life.

Crop stasis is a condition in which the crop ceases to function. In other words, the crop stops emptying. An owner will approach the baby for a scheduled feeding and observe that most or all of the food from the previous feeding is still there. It’s important to mention here that you should never give additional food to a baby that still has a full crop. Crop stasis is an emergency situation and you should call your veterinarian immediately.

Learning to Fly

The stage just after the bird is weaned is called the fledgling period — the bird becomes independent and is able to eat on his own. Most of the health risks associated with young birds have passed, yet the bird is still young enough to bond to a new owner.

A few things must be recognized with birds at this stage. First, they are toddlers in a sense. They waddle around, curious about everything in reach but unaware of danger. A fledgling left on a table or counter is likely to wander to the edge, where he can fall and hurt himself.

Being new to the world of foods, a fledgling bird may attempt to eat just about anything. Everything — from small toys to cage bedding to pieces of towel — all may tempt him and he will swallow the food in large pieces, posing a potential health hazard.

In terms of food, it is critical at this time to start your fledgling on a proper diet. Many people mistakenly believe it’s good to offer seeds to “encourage the bird to eat.” That’s like offering a human baby chocolate to get him to eat. Young birds will accept healthy foods just as readily as they will seed mixes, so there’s no excuse for starting them off on birdie junk food. The sooner a healthy diet is implemented, the better.

Flight begins at fledgling age. If your bird has reached the point where he is able to fly, he may launch himself on out-of-control assaults at the nearest wall or window. Flying is a skill that your bird will learn through a brief trial and error period. While it doesn’t take long to become competent aloft, the first few attempts at flight may be reckless, and injury may result if proper precautions aren’t taken.

Special Considerations for Orphan Wild Baby Birds

In the spring, it’s common to find baby birds away from their nests. Your first thought might be that the bird is in trouble, but this is not always the case. So, when should you intervene?

Uninjured baby birds with feathers should be left alone. These are fledglings that typically hop on the ground. The parents are probably nearby. If the baby bird does not have feathers, either put the baby back in the nest or make a substitute nest by poking holes in the bottom of an empty margarine tub and lining it with dry grass or pine needles. Leave the bird in the nest and observe him from a distance. If one of the parents does not visit within an hour, the baby needs help.

If you find a stranded baby bird, the best thing you can do for him is to contact a wildlife rehabilitation center. These facilities give orphaned babies the best chance of survival. If there is no wildlife center in your area that cares for orphan wild birds, you should be aware that only certain species are legal for people to rehabilitate. Pigeons, starlings, and sparrows are typically the only species that you should attempt to hand raise. Other species may be protected by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The most important things about trying to foster and rehabilitate wild birds is to offer a variety of food, keep the cage clean, and be consistent when feeding. Your care will mimic care received in the wild. Try to keep in mind that these babies are being raised as their wild mother would raise them.

Always wash your hand before and after caring for the birds to prevent contracting an infection. Periodic daily access to sunshine is very important but you must make sure the birds do not overheat. If you place the cage outside, make sure it is predator-proof.

Birds must be able to fly and eat on their own before they can be released.

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