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Techniques for Handfeeding and Weaning a Ringneck Chick

(Or "Why the Heck did I Ever Decide to Undertake This ???")

I've received many emails asking me how to hand feed a ringneck chick. Every once in a while you will find a breeder who will sell an unweaned chick for a reduced price and let the purchaser complete the weaning process. The advantage for the breeder is a quick turn-around of inventory with limited expenses and labor incurred. Unless you are an experienced hand feeder it is NOT recommended that you purchase an unweaned chick. So often the novice believes that the younger he acquires a chick, the stronger the bond will be between bird and owner, plus he's delighted with his "bargain" price. Tragedy can strike quickly and the breeder will not assume the responsibility for your lack of knowledge. However, since this practice continues, I'm going to detail the whereto's and whatnot's of handfeeding and weaning a ringneck chick.

To dispel some of these notions, let me say that there is nothing documented that illustrates a chick's bonding to the person who has hand fed him. If this were the case, then months or even years later, if reunited with the original breeder / handfeeder, a bird would show instant recognition. This just doesn't happen, not even with a Cockatoo who will bond for life with it's original owner, but not with the breeder who fed him during his earliest stages of development. Furthermore, the cost-savings that you perceive are a false economy. Every purchase that you make for your chick will have to be duplicated for the mature bird to accomodate the change in his size.

Examples of this would be:

You also would incur the costs of bedding material, syringes, formula and weaning pellets. And for the inexperienced, you may lack the knowledge of a healthy diet for your mature bird and might not wean him on the appropriate foods, be them birdfood or human foods. And what is your knowledge of essential mineral supplements or of food products that are toxic to your bird? Do you just "wing it", pardon the pun, or are you one of those who researches as you go along and discover your mistakes after the fact ? Do you know what the weight of your chick should be throughout it's stages of development and are you aware of tell-tale signs that your chick isn't faring well ?

Okay, so I haven't talked you out of completing the hand feeding process. That being the case, I will say that the only plus to completing the weaning process is that you are the one in control of chosing the healthy diet that your chick will ultimately enjoy and are not receiving a bird who has been weaned only to seed (the least healthy of all bird diets, albeit the cheapest and often a breeder's first choice to keep his costs down). Once a bird becomes a seed junkie it's a tedious process to convert his diet to a more nutrious one.

Depending on the age that you receive your chick, you may need to house him in a brooder which is is a warmed structure for artifically rearing young birds. It can be as sophisticated as one that is thermostatically controlled, or can be as simple as a small glass aquarium covered with a towel and warmed with a heating pad. Alright, easy enough, you will make your own brooder with that never-used fish tank you keep in the shed. STERILIZE IT BEFORE USE !!!!! You can purchase commercially prepared disinfectants such as Roccal, Nolvasan, or Wavicide or simply use Clorox bleach and soapy water. No matter which product you choose, you want to make sure that you thoroughly rinse the brooder to remove any residue from the disinfectant after cleaning it.

Now you are ready to prepare the bedding material for your chick. You'll want to use a product that if ingested by the chick, will not become trapped in his crop. Products that I've used in the past are the environmentally friendly "Luv My Birdie" which is fully digestable, should your baby consume a pellet or two while foraging in his litter and I've also had success with CareFresh, a pulped paper product. Both absorb waste materials well and are relatively safe for small chicks. I lean towards "Luv My Birdie" because it can be recycled by sprinkling it in your yard after each bedding change, and you'll need to change the bedding after every feeding to minimize the bacterial content in the brooder. The bedding has a second function which is to help maintain the brooder temperature. Underneath the bedding material I line the tank with an easily disposable paper. Recycled brown grocery bags work well, although you can use newspaper. I don't like using woven materials such as towels as a chick's toenail can easily become caught in the fabric.

Maintaining the correct brooder temperature is dependent upon the age of your chick. Here is a simple chart that I use to regulate my own brooder:

Keep your brooder away from drafts, ceiling fans and AC vents and also do not place it in the kitchen because of the fluctuating cooking temperatures and the cooking fumes. You can warm your home-made brooder with a heating pad under the actual flooring of the structure and then cover the entire unit with a towel, leaving a small opening for ventilation. For added warmth, comfort and security, I also put in my brooder a small stuffed toy for the chick to cuddle up to. In a very small brooder the chick's own urine is enough to humidify his surroundings, but in a larger brooder you will want to put in a small glass of water.

Unlike a human baby, you can't always hear your chick cry out when he is hungry, so I maintain a strict feeding schedule and am mindful that this young life is totally dependent upon me for it's nourishment and well-being. Again, in correlation with his age, here is the guide I use:

Generally, the ringneck is fully weaned at 6 weeks of age, the late night formula being the last that is eliminated in the hand feeding process. I chart the progress of the chick before and after each feeding, noting the following:

The correct size of syringe or pipette needs to be used in relation to the chick's beak size. If I've pulled the chick at 10 days of age, I'll begin with a 3 cc syringe and graduate to a 5 cc when the circumference of the mouth is greater than the circumference of the syringe.

There are many different rearing formulae available on the market today and most follow up with their own brand of weaning pellets and then mature bird pellets. Personally, I mix and match, starting my young chicks off with Kaytee Exact Formula and then wean them to Zupreem fruit flavored pellets, ground down to chick size. Follow the instructions for preparing the formula exactly as the manufacturer states on his packaging. With the Kaytee, I mix one part formula to 1 3/4 parts hot water (not boiling and do not microwave the formula), and then stir to a pudding-like consistency, ensuring that the formula is totally mixed. Because of the small quantity that I prepare, it cools to the right temperature by the time I'm done stirring. Note that the formula will also harden quickly so if a second or third syringe full is required to fill your chick's crop, you may have to add a touch of additional water to maintain the right consistency. The syringe is placed in the left-hand side of the chick's mouth, pointing towards the right-hand side with his head slightly cupped with your other hand to guide him and stop him from bobbing anxiously while he feeds. Such erratic and excited motion by your chick leads to spillage and could easily fill his nostrils or go down his windpipe. To feed from the opposite side (right to left) could asphixiate your chick. The chick will generally regurg or pull away from the syringe when he has more than he can comfortably handle, or when his crop is full. Always depress the plunger of the syringe with a slow and steady action. The chick will pick out his rhythm of swallowing based on how you handle the syringe. By recording his intake with each feeding you should begin to see a pattern ... the intake will increase towards the end of the day and the amount that he takes as his final feeding will be the same amount that he requires for the first feeding of the next day. When the chick begins to refuse a meal, drop it from his schedule. Every bird is different in the weaning process so the above referenced chart is only a guideline to follow. Of course, you will need to replace a dropped formula meal with food that your chick can self-feed on and this is when the weaning off the formula begins. There will come the point where your chick stops gaining weight and begins to trim his plumpish body down. He is preparing himself for aerodynamics ... his first flight. Right after he has succeeded with this flight, have his primary flight feathers trimmed by your avian veterinarian, and have him show you how to do it yourself for the next time that it becomes necessary to trim them. If your chick loses weight before the weaning off process, supplement the formula with a little bit of apple sauce. If this doesn't put him back on track, then take him to your avian vet for an examination. And yes, I said "avian" vet. Your regular veterinarian has not specialized in this field of medicine. The anatomy and physiology of a bird is unlike that of a dog or cat !

Weaning off the formula is the fun part of hand-rearing your chick. Once you observe your chick refusing a meal, replace that meal the next day with small, soft cut-up veggies and slightly moistened chick-sized pellets or Cheerios. (I moisten them in orange juice .. a few drops will suffice). I don't even begin the weaning off process until the first feather has come out, generally around the third week. Offer the first pellet or veggie with your hand since the chick is so used to your hands as the source of his buffet. He may just play with the food out of curiousity, which is fine. Leave a small gerible sized crock in his quarters for him to explore, but don't expect too much the first day. Remove the crock within 2 to 4 hours, or before it spoils, as it becomes a good host to bacteria. I'll generally introduce corn, beans, peas and carrots with the moistened pellets. The feedings that are initially replaced are the 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. ones. Once you are satisfied that your chick is self-feeding adequately, you can drop one and then two of these interim feedings, and as his consumption increases, you then will change the interval of his feeding schedule, as per the above chart. The idea is that eventually the chick will have enough self-feeding foods to sustain him throughout the day. You'll continue to provide his morning and late night formula and when he's ready, he'll begin to reject those too. After a couple of days with the veggies and pellets, try introducing other foods such as broken up bits of mini-wheaties, rice, pasta, oranges, apples, chicken, roast, etc. Please ... no milk, no chocolate ! Also, no caffeine and no alcohol ! Many a time a novice will want to share everything that he eats with his chick, including items that are on the forbidden list. Read labels when you are purchasing cereal or cracker products for your chick ... low sodium, low sugar and low fat. You are wanting this bird to be your companion for many years to come. The days of replacing your small bird once a month or twice a year are days of old ... today there is much information available on looking after your avian pets and it all begins with proper nutrition.

I've always said that with weaning comes perching. At this stage you will want to transfer your chick to a weaning cage and introduce a dowel for him to perch on. Initially, you can leave the dowel sitting on the floor of the cage. He'll probably shy away from this strange object, even though he's already been perching on your finger prior to this time. Once you notice him comfortably standing on his dowel, and not just accidently stepping on it as he crosses over to the other side of his cage, try elevating it to the one inch mark. After he's successfully perched at that level for a while, again increase the elevation of the perch within the cage. Don't worry, he'll figure out how to reach the new elevation. This is also a good time to introduce a couple of chick-sized toys and a small swing. Place the toys up high the first day, just so he gets used to seeing them, and then lower them the second day so that he can actually begin to explore and entertain himself. Usually a good toy would be a combination of rawhide and wood blocks as the ringneck loves to chew. If you introduce a bell, be very careful that the clapper is not one that can be unfastened by your chick as he might swallow it. Also be leary of rope toys that can snag his toenails. Those nails will be very sharp, so a good little cement nail and beak conditioning perch should also be introduced. Make it the highest perch in his cage as the highest perch is the one that a bird will spend the majority of his time upon. You'll want to have three crocks in his cage ... a food crock, a treat crock and a water crock, all placed at perch level. The food crock will contain his pellets, the treat crock will contain his cereal mix and/or fruits, veggies, etc. and the water crock will double as his bath, unless you also put in a water feeding bottle. I say to place these crocks at perch level so as to keep them out of pooping range !

Modern research still has not provided us with exactly what nutrients a bird needs to maintain good health. Regardless of label information on bird foods, please add a good water soluable avian vitamin and mineral supplement to your bird's drinking water, or a dry supplement over his pellets. If you opt to use the water soluable supplement, then replace your bird's drinking water twice a day to slow down the bacterial growth that is promoted by such additives. Note: If your bird is prone to bathing in his water or washing his food, then definitely change the water twice a day. If you live in an area that is not serviced by Municipal water, please use a water purification method to help remove the "nasties".

On a final note, you've heard the expression "Cleanliness is next to Godliness". Keep this in mind when you are rearing your chick and then all throughout his adult life. Change his bedding or tray daily; wipe clean his cage bars from droppings and other debris; wash out his food and water bowls daily (and bleach them at least once a week); wash (and bleach) his toys regularly and always handle your bird with clean hands. A hand sanitizer in your birdroom is a good idea. Oh, and that brand new cage you just bought at the Pet Store ... please wash it thoroughly before putting your little friend in there. Remember, your pet is totally dependent upon you for his well-being.

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