Date: 8/10/2006 9:40 pm
By Christine ACY Kumar
In the course of breeding exotic finches, the inevitable invariably happens: a small waif is discovered on the bottom of the cage, parents abandon their nest for whatever reason, first time parents are clueless and are willing to incubate but not feed, or worse yet, one or both parents become sick or die and the other surviving parent is neither able nor willing to care for the chicks. This is a dilemma every finch breeder eventually faces. There are a few different ways to handle the situation including letting nature take its course, fostering, supplement and/or hand feeding. Nothing makes me sadder than a clutch of dead chicks, so over the years I have learned how to keep small finches alive through to weaning. Hopefully by reading this article, you too will find ways to keep your tossed, starving or orphaned Estrildid finches alive as well.
There are many reasons for nest abandonment including intrusive keepers and other birds in the flight cage. Intrusions should be minimalized. Nests should not have perches right in front of them. This prevents busy beaks from poking their nose in on the nesting pair. A first time breeder is best paired with an experienced partner, but this may not always be possible. If both members of a pair are young, they might need to experience and experiment with a few clutches before they get it right. Before breeding, I strongly recommend treating breeding pairs with an antiprotozoal medication. This can circumvent a lot of illnesses that occur while breeding. If the parents come down ill during breeding and feed, they can be treated with Ronidazole in their water and normally everyone does well. One must be careful not to overdose chicks or use too much medication in hot weather. Assuming you’ve done all the above correct, things can still go wrong.
The Waif: So there it is, small, naked and defenseless, lying there on the cage bottom. Totally helpless, the little alien twitches its undersized limbs and wanders aimlessly - going absolutely nowhere. It has no eyes yet, just dark spots that will eventually become its windows to the world. Depending upon the species, it may or may not have downy body fuzz. It cannot feed itself. It cannot defend itself. It cannot even run away or hide. It’s incapable of regulating its own body temperature and therefore cannot keep itself warm. Estrildid finches hatch out before they are completely developed (altricial) and are really still developing embryonically for the first few weeks of life. Until weaning, they are completely dependent upon their parents for everything – food, warmth and safety.
Out of the nest: When a chick is out of the nest, the parents may be agitated, but then again, they may be completely oblivious. The older the chick, usually the more fuss one can expect from the parents – but not always. Some parents or other flight members sadly might start to eat the chick, gnawing on its wings/toes or even peck it on the head, pygostyle or cloaca. A hatchling out of its nest is in a perilous life and death situation indeed. If not found quickly by you, the keeper, in about a half hour or so, an unfeathered chick may become excessively chilled. Even for feathered birds, after an hour or two, it’s now missed a feeding and is running out of food to fuel its furnace-like metabolism. Adult birds may have pecked at it or drug it about some, damaging delicate limbs. Left unattended, death is not far behind.
Why is the Chick out of the Nest?: Usually there are one of four reasons a hatchling is out of the nest: 1) the parents tossed it out, 2) another interfering cage member pulled or tossed the chick out (a very common problem in community flights and particularly with overstimulated Gouldian males), 3) the chicks are albinistic and have such dilute mouth markings the parents are confused or not stimulated to feed properly and even toss chicks based on their lack of skin pigment alone, and 4) the chick got a free ride and accidentally came out on one of the parent’s feathers. In the case of older chicks (pin feather stage) depending on what type of nest and how high the nesting material is, the bird might also have squirmed out of the nest under it’s own power.
Pitchers and Tossers: When a bird is intentionally dragging chicks out of the nest, odds are that the chicks are not going to fare well. Hard beaks tear tender flesh – ripping gaping holes in the skin of the chicks. Feet and wing tips can ‘disappear’. Nothing is more frustrating than a busybody finch who destroys the nest of another pair who were happily parenting their chicks. Removing the pitcher is the only cure for this problem. If the interloper can be determined and removed, it should be done immediately. If one of the parents is the pitcher, that troublesome parent (usually the male) should still be removed. This is a common problem with Gouldians and Blue Capped Cordon Bleus.
Single Parents: Many times single parents will successfully raise a clutch of chicks on their own, though it’s best to keep a very close eye on the situation and intervene if necessary. Parents left to raise a clutch by themselves are best rested after successfully weaning the clutch. Raising all those chicks by their lonesome can be very stressful for a single parent.
Albinistic Chicks: In the case of albinistic chicks such as Creaminos or Continental Chestnut Flanked Whites which are missing mouth markings, there are many methods a keeper can be employed to get more of these chicks on the perch: 1) Use fosters which are familiar with albinistic chicks, 2) using indelible markings, color in the beak to simulate the wild type finch, 3) split up the clutch so that albinistic chicks are being fed by one set of parents and the normals by a second (reducing prejudice/favoritism due to melanin pigmentation) or 4) hand feed.
Free Ride: The scenario can happen sometimes if the parents are new or if they are startled out of their nest. When I find only one chick from a clutch on the cage paper, assuming its not albinistic, my first conclusion is that it was an accident. I return the chick back to the nest, and then keep a watchful eye. If I find that or another chick out a second time, then I know either the parents or another bird is removing the chicks from their nest or the parents are too young and spastic to raise chicks properly.
Squirmer: Many times, this means the nesting material is too high in the nest and there isn’t a high enough rim to hold the chick inside the nest. If possible, remove some nesting material.
When the parents eschew their chicks completely or are maiming or starving their chicks, then fostering and/or hand feeding are necessary if you want to save the clutch. Many parenting issues are the result of inexperienced breeding pairs. It’s usually best to have at least one experienced parent in a breeding pair to help eliminate newbie errors. Breeders which refuse to catch on to responsible parenting are best sold into the pet trade or kept as eye candy. The reason for this is that currently, no one is quite sure if parenting skills are learned, genetic or a combination of the two.
Supplement Feeding: I will help out parents who are trying their best to raise their chicks but are struggling. Again, this is many times a function of inexperienced pairs. If I notice that chicks do not have full crops upon nest inspection or if I hear them begging nonstop, this is an indication to me that the parents are not keeping up with their chicks’ nutritional needs. I will supplement feed with hand feeding formula 2 or 3 times a day. Morning feeding seems to be critical to give the chicks energy to beg more aggressively. Many times, a few days of supplement feeding is sufficient to get the chicks over a hump, start growing and allows the parents time to improve their nurturing skills. I also supplement feed albinistic chicks for the first few days in the hopes their parents will feed them despite missing mouth markings and pink skin. Supplement feeding is my first choice, and I personally feel the best choice when faced with a poor parenting situation. It doesn’t always work out though.
Fostering: If the parents are not feeding the chicks or are tossing/maiming them, then fostering is the next best choice.
Conditioning Fosters: Ideally, one would have conditioned fosters set up on dummy eggs and timed along with the clutch from the species you are breeding. Conditioning fosters is easy. Purchase fake plastic canary eggs or use small finch egg-sized light colored marbles. Place three or four of these fake eggs into the nest of the birds you hope to use for fosters. Usually at least one week of ‘incubation’ is best to stimulate fosters to be conditioned and hormonally/mentally prepared to feed chicks.
Best Fosters: There are as many philosophies on fostering as there are finch breeders. Some use only Societies. Others use other species such as Zebras. Still others use whatever is available. I’ve had Blue Caps raised Gouldians, Societies and Zebras. I recently had a pair of Pearl Headed Amadines who’ve never shown any interest in breeding themselves actually fledge a Shafttail. A bird in breeding mode will do some pretty amazing things, even birds such as Blue Caps which themselves can be notoriously poor parents of their own chicks. Societies are the standard used for fostering, though Zebras are gaining in popularity.
Color of Fosters: There are many wives tales about what color fosters make the best parents. Some keepers will tell you to use only pied chocolate Societies. I say a good foster is a good foster, regardless of plumage color. I don’t keep pied anything in my flock yet I have many excellent fosters. In other words, the adage to use only pied chocolates is purely a MYTH. I routinely use chocolate selfs and even creaminos to foster chicks. My Zebra fosters have been Continental CFWs, Penguins, Normal Grays and Black Cheek. The color of the foster parent does not seem to make any difference.
Foster Gender and Species: Fosters can be either sex, though be aware that young hens may be stimulated to lay their own eggs if used as fosters. Therefore, I prefer to use older hens (three years or older) or male trios when I’m using Society fosters. For Zebra fosters, again, I use an older hen (3 years or older) who typically is no longer a productive egg layer but was a fantastic mother. I pair bond her with a male of her liking – usually a male which is older as well. Unlike Societies, Zebra will pair bond for life and prefer to stay with their mates. I’ve never tried two Zebra males as fosters so I cannot comment. Based on male Zebra territorial tendencies, at first you may think two males would not make good fosters. However, same sex Zebras pair bond as strongly as true mating pairs so it may work. I have found that strongly bonded Zebra pairs will feed darn near anything that hatches underneath them so they are great to toss some eggs underneath if you have a need. Introducing hatchlings can be a bit more tricky, but Zebras too can learn to feed these chicks as well. Zebras who are already on a clutch of their own chicks are EXCELLENT in a pinch and will feed their chicks plus Gouldians, Blue Caps, Shafttails, Societies and I’m sure a lot more. The one worry with a mixed clutch under Zebras is that for chicks which take longer to fledge (Gouldians), the Zebra chicks will fledge a few days earlier. Care must be taken to ensure that the chicks still in the nest are attended to by their Zebra foster parents or you may have to finish the chicks off to maturity with formula.
Number of Fosters: A pair or trio of fosters works best. In the case of Societies, you can use up to three birds and they all seem to dote on the chicks while not squabbling amongst one another. When using other species, in my experience, a pair works best.
Other Tricks/Tips: While having conditioned fosters on hand hedges the odds in your favor, many times it still just doesn’t work out because you are caught by surprise by a clutch of needy chicks when you didn’t even know the parents had laid eggs. I have 30 four foot flights – surprises happen all the time. If you have fosters (typically Societies) at least sitting on a nest (with or without eggs), this tends to make acceptance go better. Placing dummy eggs in the nest along with the waif(s) also seems to stimulate fosters to start feeding sooner. A singleton usually doesn’t elicit the same feeding response as several chicks, and you should be prepared for a less than enthusiastic response to a sole fostered chick. Also, fosters which have fed well in the past but are tossing chicks or not feeding are tired fosters and should be rested for a few months before using them to foster again.
Supplement Feeding Again: While we’d all like to move the waif under fosters and have them take over, it’s seldom that quick and easy. If you are fortunate and have an accepting foster pair or trio, then great! But many times, it can take the fosters days to accept and FEED new chicks. Usually, however, fosters will brood the chicks, but not feed for the first few days. Some fosters just seem to be content sitting on fake eggs or chicks but whatever. If they help by keeping the chicks warm, then I’m all for it. If you have fosters willing to at least brood chicks, then you’ve won half the battle. Until you are positive that the fosters are feeding the chicks, supplemental or total hand feeding may be necessary.
Body Temperature/Brooding: Until Day 10 or thereabouts, chicks are unable to maintain their own body temperature. This is known as poikilothermic and is the same as cold-blooded lizards, snakes, fish and amphibians. Somewhere about Day 10 and in conjunction with the sprouting of their first true feathers, Estrildid chicks become homothermic, or warm blooded, and are able to maintain their own body temperature. Once they are able to regulate their body temperature properly, brooding is no longer critical. But until then, keeping the chicks warm is an essential part of the formula for life.
There are two ways to keep a chick warm – either being brooded by a finch (an adult finch that knows what it’s doing) or in an artificial brooder/incubator. After many years of trial and error, I prefer a live brooder (by this I mean a living finch) and will only go to a mechanical brooding setup when I cannot find any other birds willing to take on the chicks. I find that homemade mechanical incubators tend to be very dessicating, even with water in them to help raise humidity levels. There is one brooder I’ve seen where a fish tank full of heated water is used. I confess I haven’t tried this particular homemade version, but it may actually have reasonable humidity levels. Debra also gives handfeeding avice.
Live Brooders: I jokingly say that ‘bengie butts are always the right temperature’, and this is so true! I know if I get a pair or trio of fosters to brood chicks, the chicks will always be the perfect temperature. I need not worry if the chicks will be too hot or chilled or if they are becoming dehydrated. The other beauty of brooding small chicks with live fosters is that they will NOT dehydrate overnight. When using live fosters, I can get 8 hours of beauty sleep. If the chicks are in a mechanical brooder, I simply MUST get up somewhere between 2 – 4 am to feed them. No matter how much you adore your finch chicks, getting up in the middle of a night, night after sleep deprived night, is a real drag. Feeding tiny mouths while half asleep is also a sure way to have an accident. However, if you do not get up to hydrate the chicks during the night, then by the morning, they can be red from dehydration. For this reason alone, I prefer using live brooders, even if they don’t feed. Live fosters are not without their perils though. I have learned the hard way how capricious and even malicious seemingly accepting fosters can be at times, and have found mangled or tossed chicks in the morning, particularly albinistic ones.
Mechanical Brooders: I do not own a professionally constructed brooder so I cannot comment on which work best. Please see Figure 1 for diagrams versions of easy to make home brooders.
Brooder – Version 1
- Nest bowl – this should be round NOT FLAT bottomed – about 5-6” in diameter
- Straw or paper towels/toilet tissue
- Cotton balls – teased out and used as little pillows and props.
- 2 boxes – one about 8” cubed and one about 2’ x 2’ x 18’ wide
- Fever Thermometer (reads from ~95F to 105F)
- 75 Watt Reptile heat light or alternatively white light bulb or alternatively red party bulb
- Small container of water (to increase humidity) with fiberglass screening & rubber band
To set up brooder, place straw or tissue inside of nesting bowl. For very small chicks, I prefer tissue. Once they are about a week in age, I prefer to switch to straw or coco fibers. NEVER use a flat bottomed nesting container. The chicks cannot right themselves. They can struggle endlessly and hurt or exhaust themselves in the process. There is a good reason that most nests have rounded bottoms. Also, nesting material must provide some grip, otherwise splay legged chicks may result. Place nesting bowl inside of smaller cardboard box. Place this cardboard box inside of larger box. The second larger box acts to create a microclimate and stabilizes ambient temperature a bit more. Place the water container inside the larger box. I cover the water with fiberglass mesh, using a rubber band to hold the mesh in place. This is to prevent a chick from accidentally falling into the water container. They don’t swim, and they do drown very quickly. Yes, the voice of experience is speaking here. Place the thermometer into the nesting bowl at the same level as the chick. Adjust the distance between the light and the nesting bowl to provide the perfect temperature.
This brooder setup is subject to room temperature fluctuations. It constantly needs to be fine tuned, but in a pinch, it works well. I’ve raised dozens of chicks with this setup.
Brooder – Version 1 – Modified
- Small cage (approximately 12’ x 12’ in footprint size)
- Thick towel
- Nesting basket or small box (about 5” x 4”)
- Fever Thermometer (reads from ~95F to 105F)
- 75 Watt Reptile heat light or alternatively white light bulb or alternatively red party bulb
- Wooden blocks or other similar propping devices
- Small container of water (to increase humidity) with fiberglass screening & rubber band
- Binder clips to hold the towels and light cord in place
To set up brooder, place straw in bottom of cage. Cut top off of small box. Make a nest with coco fibers or straw. Set up heat light. Cover cage on top and four sides with towel. Leave a small open uncovered area on the top for heat to vent. Experiment with different lights what one keeps the brooder the right temperature. Using props, place the nest box a distance from the heat light so that it is the desired temperature. Place thermometer in nest box so that you are measuring its temp, not the temp of the inside of the cage. Set up water for humidity same as above.
This brooder is less sensitive to room temperature fluctuations (the toweling acts as a temperature buffer), but if you suddenly get a spell of hot weather, the towel may need to be adjusted or even removed in the worst of summer weather in order to allow more heat to escape. As chicks mature and become feathered/fledge, open towel on front of cage so they can see out. This also allows more heat to escape and adjusts the chicks to ambient room temperatures. The last thing you want is hothouse grown chicks.
This is the brooding version I typically use these days when I’m in a pinch. I also use nearly the identical set up (towel wrapped cage) for a hospital cage for sick adults.
FIGURE 1: Mechanical Brooder Setups
Brooder - Version 2 – Good for on the go!
- Nest bowl – this should be round NOT FLAT bottomed – about 5-6” in diameter
- Secondary container the nesting bowl can fit inside of – for safety. I use a plastic finely meshed basket.
- Straw or insulating material
- Paper towels or toilet tissue
- Cotton balls – teased out and used as little pillows and props.
- Heating pad which stays on (doesn’t automatically shut off) kept on the lowest setting
- Box (~1’ cubed)
- Thermometer (reads from ~95F to 105F)
- Lightweight cloth or draping
To set up brooder, place some straw or toweling inside around the edges of the box. This is for insulation material. Place heating pad in box, and then set up the cord so that it comes out of one of the top corners of the box. Place more straw or insulating material on top of the heating pad. Place the secondary container inside the box and arrange or pack it into the straw so that it’s stable. Place the nesting bowl inside the secondary container. The purpose of the secondary container is so that once the chicks get a bit larger and mobile, they don’t accidentally get out of the nesting bowl and come in contact directly (or via only a thin layer of protection) with the heating pad. Baby chicks cook if left in close contact with a heating pad – another lesson learned the hardest of possible ways.
WARNING: NEVER TURN THE HEATING PAD ABOVE THE LOWEST SETTING! You will cook or overheat your baby finches. Again, only use the lowest setting. More voice of experience speaking here.
When traveling, place some cloths on top of the nesting bowel and shut the box flaps. This provides more insulation and keeps the nesting bowl stable. Wrap the box in thick toweling (to hold more of the heat inside). Then place the entire setup inside a large bag – I used a woven plastic bag. The inside temperature of the nest will remain constant for about 30 minutes. Though the temperature does drop, you have an easy hour’s window of warmth for travel. I carted baby chicks back and forth to work like this for 2 years, even in the winter. Upon arrival, open box up, remove excess cloth, pull out the heating pad cord and plug it in. You are good to go! You can easily regulate the temperature of the brooder by covering the nesting bowl with a cloth to hold the heat in, or remove the cloth or place thin ones to allow most of the heat to dissipate. Always keep an eye on the temperature to ensure that the chick is not overheating.
If you need to keep the chicks warmer for a period longer than one hour, you should look into a converter for the cigarette lighter in your car. Others have told me they use those chemical hand warmer packs when transporting birds over long distances though I have not used these myself. I’ve also heard of using rice in a sock, microwaved to heat it up and placed in the brooder (not up against the chicks’ skin obviously). I have even taken fosters on road trips so that they can sit on the chicks in transit, providing warmth. Obviously, you need to know that your fosters will be OK with the travel.
This brooder setup is also subject to ambient temperature fluctuations, though it’s more stable than Version 1, above. Thin cloths resting either partially or completely over the top will hold more heat in. I partially cover the bowl at night in fall-spring as night time temperatures tend to drop. In the day, I would leave it uncovered. One needs to watch the temperature all the time – it’s a constant worry. But with attention to temperature, this setup also works well, and it has the added advantage of being mobile. I’ve raised hundreds of chicks with this simple setup. I’d probably still be using it, but my heating pad finally blew out. I replaced the heating pad, only to discover it was on a timer. The new one turns itself off after an hour – of course this is no good. I’ve yet to shop for a new heating pad, so for now I’ve been using live brooders or Brooder Version 1 - Modified, and this is working well for me.
Brooder Temperature: I have read that chicks should be brooded at temperature from 95F to 102F. I find that younger hatchlings fair better with higher temperatures while older nestlings are better at lower temperatures. A one day old chick brooded at 95F is not long for this world – it is 11 degrees too cold. I prefer 102 F for chicks that are 5 days or younger. With each day past 5 days of age, I decrease the temperature by one degree. By two weeks of age, they are being brooded at about 90 F. From there, as feathers are coming in heavily, you can then reduce the temperature further a few degrees per day until they have reached ambient room temperature. As chicks feather up, they cannot be kept at 95 or 100 F, as this will start to overheat them. Also keep in mind that higher temperatures, when used with dry heat, mean that chicks will dehydrate faster. The higher the temperature of the brooder, the closer eye one needs to keep on hydrating their chicks. There is no doubt that brooding temperature is directly related to metabolism and crop emptying. Lower temperatures translate into a slowed crop and a higher likelihood of yeast overgrowth. Higher temperatures mean a faster emptying time, so chicks will need to be fed more frequently and watched more closely for dehydration.
Dehydration: Red skin is your first tell tale sign that a chick is either too hot or dehydrated or sick. The cause for red skin on a chick which is kept in a brooder or incubater needs to be dealt with immediately. Rehydrate with formula – NEVER give chicks water to their beaks or give them water via syringe. Small amounts of liquid can be introduced via crop needle – but the risk of aspriration is a real one. Dehydrated chicks with open eyes may be squinting.
Humidity: Because I do not own a very accurate humidity gauge (hygrometer), it is hard for me to comment on this. I do keep an open container of water inside the brooder in order to increase humidity and help reduce dessication. In the summers, where I live it is very humid and therefore humidity is not an issue. However, in the winter, keeping humidity levels high is much more of a challenge.
List of Hand Feeding Materials:
- Flat toothpicks
- Q tips (cotton buds) and/or toilet paper
- Hand feeding formula
- 1 ml syringes
- 3 ml syringes
- 18 gauge crop needle
- Accepting fostering/brooding societies or zebras – if possible
- Cotton balls – Do not use synthetic ones. Tease these apart by pulling on them lengthwise to make little pillows. When using brooders, after feeding, place the chicks with their heads resting up onto the cotton pillows and with their bellies on the nesting bowl. This helps prevent aspiration by keeping their heads elevated. I don’t use cotton balls if the chicks are being brooded by live fosters.
Once you have a warm and safe haven for your waif, the next obvious worry is food. Everyone has a different way of hand feeding. Even if you have good foster pairs or trios, many times it takes several days until the fosters accept the chicks and actually start feeding them. First off, some say that a chick has a yolk sac and can live for 24 – 48 hours without being fed. I emphatically state this is not true. A chick needs to be fed within the first 24 hours of hatching, or it will be very weak. If not fed by 36 hours, it will be dead. One thing I have found through trial and error is that a chick needs to be fed at least 4 times a day in order to stay alive. Fewer feedings and the chick will not make it. With four feedings/day, the chick may not grow well, but it’s the bare minimum necessary to sustain a chick. Six feedings a day is sufficient for the chick to grow and thrive. More than six feedings a day really are just icing on the cake, and I no longer kill myself trying to feed more than this in most cases.
In general, I try NOT to frighten parents/fosters off of their nest if I am supplement feeding. If I do have to spook them off, I also offer either soft food, egg food, sprouts or millet spray as a diversion. This seems to help considerably with stressing them less while I muss with their nest box. Many finches are more tolerant of these intrusions than I originally thought. Species where I’ve been able to supplement feed their chicks include: Gouldians, Plumheads, Shafttails, Blue Capped Cordon Bleus, Zebras and yes, even the slow learning Society Finch or two. The amount of disturbance a breeding pair can take depends on that pair, the cage dynamics (if they are in with other birds) and the rapport you (the keeper) has with you finches. Many of my brooding fosters (both Zebras and Societies) will sit tight and actually drink hand feeding formula from the syringe as I feed the chicks!
Hand Feeding Tools: While there are various utensils one can use for hand feeding, I’ve found that a flat toothpick seems to work best for me. Others use a paintbrush or an aluminum split band applicator designed for those plastic and cellulose bands. All seem to work equally well – it’s just a matter of personal taste. Others use pipettes or eye droppers. I find these to be too sloppy as they do not have enough fine control for me. I steer clear of using them. Syringes are perfect for older chicks and feeding large numbers of chicks. I prefer 1 and 3 ml syringes.
Chicks under 5 days of age: Tiny chicks require a lot more work and TLC if they are to survive. They have miniscule crops and are very sensitive to ambient temperature fluctuations. Because chicks under five days have such tiny crops, they will need to be feed about every hour if in a mechanical brooder, or every 2 if being brooded by foster parents.
Communication between you and the finch is critical for a successful hand feeding experience. I usually tap lightly on the chick’s beak to encourage it to beg. When feeding, I tend to place the tip of the toothpick on the upper inside mandible. This cues the chick that food is coming and seems to reduce problems with aspiration. Sometimes, small chicks simply will not open up. I find that if tapping on the beak doesn’t elicit the begging response, then a light touch under the beak on the chin or very light back pressure (simulating a parent being on top of them) can sometimes do the trick. If this doesn’t work, flip the chick over onto its back – belly up. In fact, I prefer to feed 1-3 day old chicks on their backs. They don’t have to hold their heads up, and it seems to make the whole process go easier. As they gain strength, they will quickly right themselves and beg in the classic Estrildid crouch position. Again, chicks under five days of age really need to be fed as frequently as you have the time to do it. It is very time intensive and demanding and can be a grueling schedule to maintain.
Do not be alarmed if, as the chick gains in strength, they take the toothpick down into its crop. The first time this happens, it can be a bit startling. However, this is actually pretty normal and just indicates a healthy, actively begging chick. Gently pull the toothpick back out. Your chick will be no worse the wear. Note also that only the right side of the crop fills at this age.
In small chicks under 5 days of age, I aim for 8 feedings a day, but they can get by just fine on six feedings. Some will say that the chicks need to be fed every hour. Perhaps so, in a perfect world. I’m a realist however, and if I get them fed six times, I know that is more than ample food to sustain them. One observation I’ve made is that when chicks are handfed, they seem to need some time with a completely empty crop in order to avoid yeast infections. I’m unsure why this is the case, but based upon my observations, this is another reason why I now no longer try to maintain their crop with some food in it at all times. However, keep in mind that hand feeding formula doesn’t seem to stay in the crop as long as regurgitated egg food and seed. Furthermore, hand feeding formula has a higher proportion of moisture. Expect droppings from handfed chicks to be moister than those from parent or foster fed chicks.
Chicks in this age group (hatching to five days of age) are by far the HARDEST to keep alive. So many things can go wrong. They are so tiny and fragile. I’ve dropped them accidentally and a fall of only a foot or so onto a carpeted surface has been enough to kill them. If your chick dies when it’s this age, please don’t take it too hard (though I know I still do). They are just so delicate and hard to handle due to clumsy human fingers, and there is only so much we can do for them, particularly if they have been found severely chilled, starved and/or mutilated.
Chicks 6-10 days of age: By the time your chicks are about 6 days old, their crop should be expanding some in size. Crops always fill first on the chick’s right side, and as the crop stretches with chick growth, then the left side will begin to expand. You will find that they can start to take a bit more formula with each feeding. Usually at about 6 days, the mouth is large enough that I switch from a toothpick (which is very tedious going indeed) to a syringe. I use 3 ml BD plastic syringes to hand feed, however if you are not familiar with hand feeding, I strongly suggest you start with a 1 ml syringe first. A one milliliter syringe will dispense less formula as you push the plunger, giving you more control and greater leeway to prevent aspiration and mishaps. If you purchase slip tip syringes, then they are ready to use. If you purchase the leur lock style, then you need to cut the extra plastic ring from the tip of the syringe so that the chick can easily mouth the syringe tip. I remove this excess plastic ring with a pair of Fiskar style scissors. NEVER use a syringe larger than 3 mls to feed any finches – regardless of age or size. They dispense so much formula at once, and you can aspirate your chicks far too easily. They are not baby psittacines!!!
By six days of age, chicks are able to hold their heads up well and are usually quite aggressive and are becoming vocal beggars. Feedings should be about every 3 hours. I aim for 6 feedings a day for chicks of this age group. My typical feeding schedule is as follows: 8 am, 11 am, 2 pm, 5 pm, 8 pm and 11 pm. Then I sleep! If the fosters are going to kick in and feed, it will usually be during this time period. Your chick’s eyes should open somewhere about 8 days, give or take. If the eyes are not open by Day 10, then there is some sort of health problem. Crusted eyes can be opened using a cotton bud wet with warm water. By Day 10, you should start to see wing primaries emerging.
If you plan on close banding your chicks, then typically it should be done by Day 10.
Chicks 11 days of age to Fledging: By this age, pin feathers are coming in heavily, and it’s important to keep protein coming in steadily. Hopefully by now, if the chicks were with fosters, they have taken over, and your job is done. Alternatively, sometimes I’ve had fosters or parents STOP feeding at about this age which is particularly frustrating indeed. It can be more difficult for chicks of this age group to accept the syringe for the first time. Also by this age, chicks which are being brooded and living with fosters (even if still fed by you) may start to shrink away from you when you go to feed them. I see this mostly in Gouldian finches, but all finches will do this to some extent. While seeing your little chicks shy away from you may pinch your heart a little bit, it’s actually a good and healthy sign! It means the chicks are bonding more to their fosters than they are to you. In Gouldians, this is also the age when trich problems typically arise – see Diseases below.
Also worth noting, chicks in this age group are now able to regulate their own body temperature. Therefore, brooding is no longer critical. Crops should be fully expanded by this age and food should be seen on both the left and right side of the crop. Crops can also hold a remarkable amount of formula at this developmental stage – as much as 3 mls/feeding!!! An adult bird’s crop does not even hold this much food. I’ve had some Gouldians which have taken up to SIX mls of formula right before and during fledging. This is staggering. I normally will not feed a chick more than 3 mls of formula per feeding. Three milliliters is typically the maximum cutoff unless it’s a very HUGE finch.
For chicks of this age group, I aim for five feedings per day: 8 am, noon, 4 pm, 8 pm and right before my bed time somewhere about 11:30 pm.
Fledging to Weaning: If chicks are abandoned at this age, odds are they will not open up and beg for you very willingly. Some do, and that’s fabulous, but others will clamp their beaks shut tight. In this case, crop dosing is the only way to get food into them. Usually after a few times of having a cold hard needle wedged into their beak and down their throat, they soon realize that’s no fun and that you are feeding them/trying to help them. Typically they will start to open up and beg for you. If you’ve been hand feeding all along, this is not an issue, as by this time fledglings are firmly imprinted upon you and think of you as their parent.
Handfed chicks may fledge later than parent raised chicks. Additionally, handfed chicks may grow a bit more slowly and tend to take longer to wean than parent raised equivalents. Chicks will wean when they are ready. There’s no need to force it upon them. I feed my chicks as much as they want and as frequently as they’d like until they are able to take care of themselves. Fledged chicks will expect the same feeding schedule for about the first week and then, as they become braver and start beaking food items, they will require less food per feeding and/or less frequent feedings. But in some cases, handfed chicks will fledge and be self-sustaining in as little as two or three days. The fact is that no two chicks are exactly alike. I’ve had some chicks still taking formula at THREE months of age while I’ve had others who shun me and the syringe within 48 hours of fledging. I treat all birds the same, so these are individual differences.
Dehydration: One very real danger with all weaning finches, but particularly with handfed chicks, is DEHYDRATION. While being handfed chicks have more water going into their system than they need. As they wean onto sprouts, egg food, millet and eventually dried finch mix, they need to start drinking water. Amazing as it may seem, some finches do not catch onto this idea very quickly. The first sign of dehydration is a squinting finch. Weaning thirsty chicks may also drink the liquid portion of droppings made from other birds. While again, chicks need to be exposed to pathogens, drinking the liquid portion of fecal matter is probably not the most hygienic approach to immunization. Chicks may also mouth cups and founts which contain water, but they may not actually DRINK. Therefore, you need to be on a close lookout for chicks behaving in any of these manners. If not caught early on, severely dehydrated chicks can start to fall over backwards or stumble around drunkenly. They may become fluffed and lethargic. If found in this dire condition, the bird must immediately be given water which contains electrolytes or alternatively, crop fed formula. If the problem is dehydration, they will rebound very quickly – in a matter of an hour or two.
While I’ve tried many ways to teach chicks to drink for themselves, the best motivator usually involves an open cup and an unceremonious dunking. I will also dribble water droplets onto their beaks from my fingers (with washed hands first, of course). Birds which are recalcitrant to learning to drink from fonts sometimes need to be caught up and have their beaks dipped into the font repeatedly over a period of several days before they completely catch on. NEVER remove an open water cup from a cage unless you are 100% positive that your chicks understand and are using the fount/drinker properly. Open water cups are disease vectors and should only be used to train chicks to drink for themselves. Once the concept is grasped, they should be trained to drink from founts, and all open cups need to be removed.
A word of warning about open cups. Fledglings can easily drown in them. If you have some chicks fledging, then as a precaution, it’s best to only fill water cups halfway.
Socialization: A major concern with fostering and hand feeding is that of socialization. Chicks learn from their parents and cage mates. Therefore, to have a well adjusted finch, it must be exposed to the behavior of its peers. I no longer keep handfed chicks separate from other birds, rather I keep them in the flights with breeding pairs of their own species. I do this so that they hopefully learn their species specific mating behaviorisms (which do seem to be primarily genetically imprinted) and species specific mating calls (which are much more flexible and impressionable). After several years of handraising finches, NOTHING gives me more satisfaction than a healthy adult bird which behaves as it should for its species, one that is able to attract the proper mate and then breed successfully, raising its own chicks to weaning. A finchkeeper which rescues starving frozen chicks can have no great reward than that!
Imprinting: However, as a result of cross species fostering, I do have Gouldians which sing snippets of the Blue Cap mating song, Zebras which warble in Society Finch, and it looks like I might have a Shafttail which has learned a bit of a Zebra Finch song. While this is more likely to happen with cross species fostering, it can also happen in any community cage where you have a mix of several species. I have one male Gouldian which sings the complete Blue Cap mating song, high pitched, loud and complete with the ending garbled warble. He was fed by all members of his flight cage, including his Gouldian parents, Societies, Zebras, Star Finches and a pair of Blue Caps. Why he imprinted upon the Blue Cap is anyone’s guess?
In most cases, in order to avoid birds from learning the ‘wrong’ song, it is best to have them in with birds of their own sex and species during the impressionable first few months of life when song learning is critical. Once your Estrildid learns the wrong song, he will always sing the wrong song. This may affect his chances to attract a mate later in life.
Pets: I won’t lie and say that pet finches aren’t the best thing since sliced bread. They are all that and more. I’ve had so many various types of pets over the years, and of them all, tamed finches are perhaps my favorite. However, I would NEVER take a chick from its parents purely for the sole reason of making a pet finch. I only foster, supplement or hand feed when a true need arises for me to do so.
A pet finch is a special creature indeed. They are amazingly adaptable, easily going back and forth between you, their surrogate parent, and their own finch community. While having a tame finch is magical indeed and I could tell 100 stories, I also feel that intentionally robbing a chick of the natural bond with its parent is not something that I’m willing to do or would ever advocate. With as many finches as I breed, there are ample surrogate parenting chick feeding opportunities. I need not look for chicks to tear from their nests in order to make ‘pets’ of them. Having said that, it is a common practice in parts of Asia to make pets of Java Rice Finches. Pet finches can mimic human speech, are incredibly intelligent, have complex behaviors, can learn tricks and are a true joy indeed. In my experience, Blue Capped Cordon Bleus are fascinating and are by far my most preferred pet finch. Shafttails also make fabulous pets. I find the other finches I’ve raised are not as interactive and affectionate. It is impossible to describe what it’s like to have 10 grams of feathered neon blue attitude perched on your brow at 7 am, alternately preening your eye lids with needle-like precision and then scolding you in your ear for not yet being awake and feeding the chicks already. It’s the sort of thing one must experience to truly appreciate.
Formula Nuts & Bolts:
Formula Types and Considerations: There are three readily available formulas that most people use for hand feeding Estrildids: Kaytee Exact, Zupreem Embrace and Lafeber’s Nutri-Start. I happen to prefer Lafeber’s because it’s a rice & soy based formula. Therefore, it’s a very fine powder which can be crop dosed if necessary. The other two are corn based and will NEVER flow through an 18 gauge crop needle (which is the proper size for Estrildids). Nothing is more frustrating than a plugged crop needle. In the past, I’ve used Zupreem and then kept a special needs formula (one designed for birds with PDD) for crop dosing. I’ve found that with Lafeber’s, I can just keep this one formula, and it works well for hand feeding as well as crop dosing sick chicks or adults. Keeping one formula on hand is simpler. However, Lafeber’s does not hold up well in a double boiler situation (see ‘Ways to Prepare Formula” below), and therefore, I prepare Lafeber’s formula in the microwave. There are also plenty of other formulas available commercially, though I have not tried any others and therefore cannot comment.
Preservatives: Kaytee and Lafaber’s both use Ethoxyquin, a somewhat controversial chemically synthesized preservative to prevent the oils in their hand feeding formulas from going rancid. Zupreem does not use Ethoxyquin. I point this out so the you are aware of what is in your chicks formula. Despite the Ethoxyquin, I use Lafaber’s because it is the only rice based formula I can find easily and locally.
Formula Thickness and Consistency: The thickness of the formula is critical. If it’s too runny, then the birds can very easily reflux and aspirate. If it’s too thick, they seem to have trouble swallowing it – sort of like swallowing a mouthful of peanut butter. Therefore, the correct properly hydrated consistency is necessary to ensure that the formula is palatable and easily swallowed, but at the same time, is not accidentally refluxed and aspirated. To get the formula correct is trial and error.
FIGURE 2: DIAGRAM OF FORMULA CONSISTENCY
For chicks 5 days of age and under, I typically make the formula a bit runnier – like cream of mushroom soup. For older chicks, I typically tell people that the formula should be the consistency of pudding. It should be thick enough to make soft peaks when testing it, but not so thick as to make stiff peaks – for those who are familiar with egg whipping nomenclature. Every formula comes with the manufacturer’s directions on how to mix properly. Most are 3:1 water:formula. I do not really mix enough formula at any one time to actually measure it – or perhaps I’m just too lazy. Therefore, I go by the egg white whipping peak technique.
Formula which is not hydrated enough can pose serious problems. It will actually pull moisture out of the bird and can cause crop stasis. For this reason, I like to mix formula up and let it stand for at least five minutes before I check for consistency and feed it. If it’s still too thick, I can add some water and even reheat if necessary. Lafeber’s thickens considerably as it cools and this needs to be taken into consideration.
Some people advise making the formula VERY thick for older birds. I find that it gets to the point where the birds truly are having trouble swallowing it, or that I have a hard time sucking the formula up into a syringe. I don’t advise making the formula thicker than pudding consistency. If the chick refluxes, you can clear it with thinner formula thereby avoiding aspiration. If the formula is very thick, chicks cannot clear it themselves. You also may not be able to clear it and might end up with a dead chick – very sad indeed.
On the other hand, with chicks being fed with a toothpick, you can only make the formula so dilute before there no longer seems to be very much on the tip when you dip it into the hot formula.
Again, it’s a trial and error thing. Usually after a few batches, most people have caught onto what is the right consistency to feed.
Temperature: Manufacturer’s will tell you that formula needs to be fed at a certain temperature, somewhere about 98 – 100 F. Keeping in tune with my laziness and the fact that I don’t mix up huge batches of formula at once like those who are feeding psittacines might, I have learned to test the temperature of the formula the same way human parents do with their baby’s milk – the old wrist technique. I suck the formula up into the syringe, allow it to cool for some time and then test a drop on my wrist. If it’s scalding, then I allow it to cool a bit more and retest. If it’s too cool, then the formula needs to be reheated. Formula should feel warm but not hot on your inside wrist. When feeding chicks that are under 5 days of age and whose mouths are too tiny for a syringe, I dip the toothpick into the hot formula, pull it out with formula, making sure there’s food on the tip, and then count to ten (allowing time for the formula to cool some) and then feed. Works for me.
Ways to prepare formula: I use two methods for preparing formula, a double boiler system and heating in the microwave.
Double Boiler: I found that the double boiler was more convenient but also that Lafeber’s doesn’t not stand up to this level of sustained heating. Therefore, I only use this technique with Zupreem. I’ve never used it with Kaytee, so I cannot comment. To set up a double boiler, take a small electric crock pot and fill it with water. Turn on low (180 F). The first time you use this setup, you should take the time to check the water with a meat thermometer just to be sure it is actually is 180F. Next, take a ceramic mug (I used a soup mug) and mix the hand feeding formula to the correct consistency inside the mug. Place the soup mug in the water (paying attention to the displacement of the water). Voila! Double boiler. It will take about 30 – 45 minutes for the formula to heat up. You can speed this up by heating first in the microwave or adding boiling water to mix the formula.
If the depth of the crock pot is too deep to fill it and use a mug, then place an inverted dish in the bottom to raise the mug level up some. This allows for more water to be inside the double boiler which means you need to refill it with replacement water less frequently. Keep the lid on the crock pot except when feeding chicks – this reduces evaporation. With this system, you can mix formula up once a day and then rehydrate the formula as necessary. Toss all formula at the end of each day. This technique is very safe – 180 F is hot enough to prevent all and any major disease organisms from growing. Be sure to cool the formula in the syringe before feeding it to the chicks. You cannot suck up 180 F degree formula into a syringe and feed it immediately to your chicks – you will scald their mouths and crops and possible kill them.
FIGURE 3: DIAGRAM OF DOUBLE BOILER
NEVER HOLD OR FEED THE CHICKS OVER TOP OF AN OPEN DOUBLE BOILER. Chicks tend to twitch while being fed and all it takes is one unanticipated movement, and the chick is off your hand and into the double boiler before you can blink your eye. YES, I’ve had this happen and with quick thinking on my part, I fished an only slightly scalded chick out of the formula before it became over heated or seriously burned. I had burned fingers for a day or two though. So yes – it’s very hot and holding chicks over an open double boiler is bad news. I was very fortunate that the chick fell into the formula and didn’t penetrate the hot formula surface very much. Had it fell into the surrounding water, it would have died from burning or drowned I’m sure. Because I dipped my hands into the formula to rescue the chick – I was quite thoroughly coated with scalding formula on several of my fingers. I think I actually suffered more than the baby finch did. Yet another hard learned lesson.
In the past, I have told people to use this double boiler technique for heating handfeeding formula. They then modified it in a way that was very dangerous for the health of their finches. They mixed formula and heated it in the double boiler only until it was hot enough to feed or about 100 F. After feeding the chicks, they removed the formula from the double boiler and stored the formula in the refrigerator. Two hours later, they removed the still not totally chilled formula from the fridge and reheated it back up to about 100 degrees F in the double boiler. And then put it back into the fridge after feeding. Wow, what a fertile ground for microbial growth!!!
Needless to say, their chicks came down with yeast infection, and of course they then blamed ME despite the fact I told them numerous times not to do that! The problem with their technique (which was not at all what I told them to do) is that the formula is not being heated to a high enough temperature to prevent the growth of microorganisms. If you use the double boiler method for your formula, then you need to leave the formula inside the double boiler at 180 degrees F, and only removed small amounts (I used a 3 ml syringe for this) as necessary to feed your chicks.
The main advantage of the double boiler system comes into play when you are feeding many finches at once. You do not spend huge parts of your day mixing and heating hand feeding formula. Four or five weeks of mixing formula four or six times a day can really wear a person down.
One final seemingly obvious word of caution – do not use this double boiler system if you have small children or pets in the house. They can accidentally tip the scalding water over onto themselves.
Now that I use Lafeber’s, which does not take the prolonged heat of the double boiler very well, I heat the formula in the microwave. I mix formula up in small ceramic mugs. Formula can heat EXTREMELY quickly in the microwave, so until you are familiar with your microwave and the amounts used, it’s best to heat in 10 – 20 second increments. I heat the formula to just below boiling and allow it to cool in the syringe before I feed it. The temperature is checked on my wrist. Be aware that very hot formula can seem to be thinner than it is when cooled a bit. Lafeber’s thickens considerably as it cools. This can take some practice to get the hang of, but once you get a feel for it, it just becomes second nature. The downside to this, of course, is mixing formula several times a day.
Feeding Technique/Cleanliness: Gently tap on the chick’s beak to let it know you are going to feed it. Once chicks are more familiar with you and your movements leading up to being fed, odds are they will be peeping and begging actively long before you are ready to actually feed them. Open eyes also make a difference as the chicks come to recognize you and associate you with food. Formula needs to be warm but not scalding. Cold formula and low brooding temperatures lead to crop infections. After feeding is completed, clean the chick’s face. You will be amazed at what a mess they can make of themselves in a very short time. I find that cotton buds dipped in warm water are excellent tools for cleaning tiny formula smeared finch faces. Alternatively, dry toilet paper works pretty well. As the feather quills start to emerge, always clean in the direction of the quills not against the nap. Growing feathers, still in quills, are tender and rubbing them the wrong way seems irritating or possibly even painful. Furthermore, you can damage growing feathers which have a very ready supply of blood to them. Ruptured blood feathers can bleed quite a bit, so it’s best not to break any of them. These problems can be avoided by always rubbing along in the same direction in which the feather quills lie. The face feathers are the LAST feathers to come in.
FIGURE 4: CHICK BEGGING VS GASPING DIAGRAM
Tricks to get a Chick to beg:
- Lightly tap beak with finger or feeding implement
- Tickle under chin
- Touch the top of the head
- Press lightly on the back to simulate a parent setting on top
- Be sure the chicks is warm – if not, cup it in your hand and blow on it to warm it up. Alternatively, place it under a heating light to warm it. Be careful, small chicks overheat very quickly.
- If old enough, get a clutch mate to start verbal begging sounds. Sometimes monkey hear, monkey do.
- If under 5 days, flip onto back and see if the chick responds with an open mouth.
- Touch a small amount of formula unto the tip of the beak and then move the toothpick upwards. This will crack open the beak, and if the formula is runny enough, a small amount will go into the mouth. Many times, a chick will respond to this.
****NEVER FORCE A CHICK TO TAKE FORMULA BY WEDGING ITS BEAK OPEN AND FILLING ITS MOUTH OR THROAT WITH FORMULA***. This is a recipe for aspiration.
Re-Using Formula: It is not recommended to reuse formula from feeding to feeding but rather to mix up new formula with each feeding. A lot of formula will go down the drain. This is part of hand feeding.
Sterile Technique/Handling Chicks: It’s best to always wash your hands before handling chicks. Chicks are developing an immune system and while they do need to be exposed, if your hands are full of human bacteria, it’s probably not a good thing. Washing will reduce/eliminate E. coli and yeast (Candida) on your hands. If I have parents brooding chicks, once the chicks are begging upright, I will remove the nest from the cage and feed the chicks while they are still INSIDE of the nest. I do this to minimize handling. Beginners at hand feeding may find this technique next to impossible to accomplish.
I don’t use a spoon to pick up chicks. I use my hands as I find I tend to have fewer mishaps when handling them directly. If the chicks are in a wicker hooded nest, you can turn the nest over and dump them out GENTLY. I’ve become a bit of an expert at getting my hands into these wicker nests and removing chicks without having to dump them. (Of course the backs of my hands get all scratched up). If you do chose to use a utensil to remove chicks, try a plastic spoon. Plastic is not as COLD as a metal. Remember, chicks under ten days of age are whatever temperature they are exposed to. A very cold spoon would be extremely uncomfortable for them.
After returning the chicks to their nests, always check to be sure that they are belly down and that their head is raised higher than their crop. I use an egg candler to easily see inside the nest and also to help flip or orient chicks so that they are not stuck on their backs. I find that chicks with their heads held higher than their full crops have less of a tendency to regurgitate and potentially aspirate.
All feeding utensils should be cleaned thoroughly or tossed after each feeding.
Nest Changes: Hand feeding formula has a very high water content, and this translates into wetter than normal droppings. Depending upon the nesting material and container used as well as the number of chicks being handfed, waste build up as well as fungus and bacterial overgrowth can become a major health issue, particularly in summer. If chicks are being reared in an artificial brooder, nesting material should be changed often. With every feeding is not too frequent. When I use a combination of paper towels and toilet tissue, I change the paper with each feeding. If I use coco fibers or timothy hay with sanitized feathers tossed in the mix, then I change the nest daily.
If chicks are being brooded by fosters, then nest cleanliness can still become an issue and cleaning nests can be a bit of a hassle. If they are in a wicker nest, the aeration is excellent. These nests seldom fowl. If they are in a nesting carton (I’ve switch to modified orange juice cartons in recent years), then fouling is a MAJOR concern. A handful of wood chips or saw dust on the bottom of the box helps some. Holes punched through the carton’s sides and bottom also increases aeration – as does removing the box top. However, the fact is that within a few days of hand feeding a clutch of three or four chicks of about 8 days of age, the nest will begin to foul and reek of strong urea smells. Bacteria and fungi can grow at an exponential not to mention astonishing rate, particularly in humid summer conditions. A very close and watchful eye has to be maintained.
I place new coco fibers into the nest on a daily basis. This helps to lift the chicks up out of their own muck. Every other day, I toss the nest, and build a new one inside the carton. If the carton gets particularly disgusting, I will toss the entire thing and start over fresh. I’ve become a bit of an expert at building coco fiber nests as a result of having large clutches of handfed chicks inside of nesting cartons. Again, I only need to replace nests in the nesting cartons. The wicker nests will stay dry enough through fledging without fungal growth.
The moisture problem is the one major drawback of the nesting cartons, but otherwise, for parent raised chicks, they work very well. They are cheap as they are made from recycled milk or juice cartons. They can be used and then tossed – no nest scrubbing. They are easily removed from the flights. And they are easy to get chicks into and out of without scratching your hands, manhandling chicks or having to dump the nest upside down. Furthermore and more importantly, I’ve yet to have a finch get its nails stuck in a nesting carton whereas that can be a regular occurrence with wicker nests. Like all things in life, it’s a trade off. Even one handfed chick in a clutch of parent fed chicks (a common scenario in my bird room with albinistic chicks) during the heat of summer will produce enough moisture from waste to cause the nesting cartons to go off. As long as breeders are aware of this potential problem, then it’s easily handled. Wasn’t I surprised the first time I used nesting cartons with a handfed chick and discovered a flourishing microbial soup in the carton after about a week of hand feeding. It’s not a pretty sight nor can it possibly be a healthy environment for chicks. However, aside from fouling from the feces of handfed finches, which can be managed, I feel that the advantages of these cartons far outweigh this one negative. The fosters and even most parents handle the regular nest changes without any problems. I have not yet experienced a nest abandonment due to swapping out a nest.
Nest Shape/Materials: There appears to be an excellent reason why nests are cup shaped or concave. This shape helps to hold eggs in the nest. Furthermore, chicks also seem to benefit from round bottomed nests. Flat bottomed nests make it next to impossible for chicks to right themselves if they accidentally become flipped over onto their backs.
The type of nesting material used is also important. If a material is used where the chicks cannot get a grip, they can become splay legged. For this reason, even in brooders, past the age of about ten days, I prefer to use either timothy hay or coco fibers in the nest.
A FEW NEVERS:
NEVER OVER FEED. You do not need to expand the crop to its fullest capacity at every feeding. I know it’s extremely tempting, and it’s taken me years to get over this over mothering urge, but it’s really not necessary. Feed them so that the crop is full and expanded, but not so full that the formula is starting to reach up the throat. In a very young chick of less than five days, the crop just seems to be the same difference as the throat, it’s not much of a pouch. On older birds, the crop is very obvious. Over feeding them so that they have formula up into the back of the throat is a recipe for reflux and aspiration. Chicks are like sloppy drunks in bars, they don’t know when to say when. You have to be the one to stop feeding them once they are full enough, and before they get to the point of aspiration risk with formula refluxing in the back of the throat.
NEVER FEED A BIRD WHICH DOESN’T HAVE AN EMPTY CROP. I don’t know why this is the case, but if you feed a chick before its crop is completely emptied, you are setting up conditions for a yeast infection. It seems that the parents can do this with their own gloppy regurgitant, and the chicks apparently fare OK, but when fed with formula, this practice is just begging for a yeast infection. Chicks 1-5 days old will empty their crops in about 30 minutes to one hour. Chicks 6-10 days old empty their crops in about 1 – 2 hours. Older chicks, if fed to maximal capacity, can take up to three hours to empty their crops. I can only sternly warn against repeatedly feeding chicks when they still have formula in their crops. Doing this will more than likely result in a yeast infection. Yeast infection, if not properly treated, will kill your chicks.
NEVER FEED WHEN IN A HURRY. Always allow the proper amount of time to feed without being in a rush. Hand feeding takes time and patience. When in a rush, accidents can happen so quickly. If you will only be out a few hours and are stressed/rushed, it’s better to forgo that feeding than to feed and accidentally aspirate them. Better yet, plan ahead the extra 15 minutes you’ll need to prepare and then you will have the time to feed your chicks in a relaxed manner. When I was working and hand feeding, I was chronically sleep deprived. This goes with the hand feeding territory as well, unfortunately. That is why fosters are so lovely!
Chicks On the Go: Brooder version #2 works well when you have to tote chicks around with you. Water, heated to boiling and then poured into a thermos works well for mixing up hot hand feeding formula. I’ve gone on whole day trips and still had hot, nearly boiling water at the end of a 16 hour day. I use a stainless thermos. Finch chicks, if protected from chilling and fed timely, can travel surprisingly well.
Crop feeding: Some chicks are recalcitrant and starving but are so frightened of you, the keeper, that they will not open their beaks. Other chicks are found when they are so cold and starved (even emaciated or severely dehydrated) that they physically cannot hold their heads up and beg. In the later case, the best way to handle the situation is to warm the chick. If it still will not open up, then deliver a tiny amount of formula via crop needle. Do not attempt to fill the crop completely until you have a good idea of how much formula the chick can take. Place the chick with fosters or in a brooder at the correct temperature. Check back in a half hour to an hour and see how much formula is gone. Sometimes, one feeding is all it takes to give a chick the strength it needs to beg. Other times, it can take one or even two days of crop feeding until the chick is strong enough to beg for itself. Many times, once a very sick chick starts begging, that is the first sign that it’s responding and becoming stronger. What a happy moment. Once the chick is begging actively, go to using either the syringe or toothpick to feed. Crop dosing is a necessary skill to learn in order to save chicks and sick adults. Most formulas do not flow through an 18 gauge crop needle. This is why I prefer Lafeber’s.
Air in Crop: There are two reasons for air being in the crop: either the chick has accidentally gulped some air while being fed, or it has a yeast infection (in which case it’s actually CO2, not air in the crop). I don’t burp my finches by pushing on the air in the crop – this never seems to work anyway. Many times, if the crop is full of air, then you cannot properly feed the finch – the air takes up much of the crop space. Air in the crop typically fixes itself. If there is a huge amount of air in the crop, I will get out a crop needle and remove the air by introducing the needle down the throat and carefully sucking the air out of the crop. This normally is not an issue. However if I see lots of air repeatedly in the crop, to me this is an indication that a yeast infection may be brewing.
Sadly, you can do everything right for your waifs and still something that is outside of your control goes terribly wrong. Assuming they don’t overheat, dehydrate, chill, aspirate or the fosters don’t toss them when you are not around to rescue them or otherwise pick them to death… Assuming your chicks beg heartily and grow rapidly, still there is disease to contend with.
Yeast (Candida): Also known as Sour Crop, this is the number one problem in handfed chicks. It is insidious and if not caught in time, all your hard work, love and care will be for naught. The first sign of yeast infection will be a slowing and cramping crop. Whereas before, the chick was taking 2 mls every two hours, now it only wants 1 ml every 3 hours. Rather than to procrastinate or hope it will somehow right itself, it’s best to get out the nyastatin and treat immediately. In fact, I urge all keepers who embark on hand feeding to just assume your chick will get a yeast infection and order the nyastatin on Day one. That way, if a yeast infection happens, you are prepared, rather than left scrambling and frustrated because you do not have the ONE thing that your finch really needs to be healthy. If addressed early enough, yeast is easily controlled.
Later signs of yeast infection include vomiting or spontaneous reflux/regurgitation. This happens because the crop muscles are spazzing. You can actually see this on chicks without feathers. The crop muscle will contract at the base of the throat and the contraction will run the entire length of the crop, squeezing the crop in a peristaltic motion. Once the contraction reaches the bottom of the crop, the crop contents are squeezed up into the back of the throat. If the contraction is severe enough, the formula is pushed out into the mouth. Then the contraction begins all over again at the back of the throat. A chick with a spazzing crop is at serious risk of aspiration. It can also get lung/air sac infections or worse, death.
If all early warnings of yeast overgrowth are ignored, the chick’s crop will eventually completely stop (crop stasis). The food goes absolutely nowhere. The formula starts to ferment in the crop, making the chick even sicker. Furthermore, because the crop isn’t moving, the chick is not receiving any hydration or nutrition. This is a dire situation. Therefore, the best thing to do is to learn the EARLY WARNING SIGNS of a yeast infection so that it doesn’t reach this level of concern.
When I have a finch with a completely stopped crop, I will try to get it going first with nyastatin treatment. If that is unsuccessful, then I will lavage the crop with warm water. Lavaging a finch’s crop is not an easy task and can only be done with patience, nerves of steel and a crop needle. This is VERY RISKY and undertaking this endeavor may result in aspiration and even death. When the sour crop contents from a finch sick with yeast are removed, they smell very foul, like a sourdough bread starter. After lavaging, the chick should be treated with nyastatin. Once this medication has emptied from the crop (this usually takes about a half hour) then I will feed the chick again, but only with watery formula. Do not put thick formula right back into a finch that is struggling with yeast infection – it will work against you. As the medication takes effect, the crop should begin to empty more normally and the thickness of the formula and the size and frequency of feedings can be increased slowly back to normal.
To treat yeast infection, I use Nyastatin in powdered form. To mix up a treatment dose for finches under 10 grams, I measure 50 mgs into 2 mls of sterile water and dose 100 microliters twice daily. For a finch under 5 days of age, 100 microliters of medication will take up the vast volume of the crop. I seldom have to treat finches of that age for yeast. But if I do, I treat with the nyastatin and then go back and feed with formula about a half hour later, once the crop has cleared of the medication. With finches of 10 -15 grams, I will mix up 50 mgs nyastatin into 1 ml of sterile water and dose 100 microliters 2x a day. For more recalcitrant cases, this can be increased to 300 microliters with no adverse affects. For finches over 15 grams and sick adults, I mix up 100 mgs of nyastatin into 1 ml of sterile water and dose 100 microliters twice daily. This can be doubled in more severe cases. Nyastatin is always best dosed on an empty crop. If the finch is sick with yeast, you should see a dramatic improvement in as little as 12 hours. Medication must be weighed out with an accurate gram scale. I mix meds in a large tablespoon and suck the med up into a 1 or 3 ml syringe.
Trichomonas: This protozoal disease will not be a problem if you are the only one who has ever fed the chick. However, if it was fed by its parents prior to your care, or if it was subsequently fed by fosters, trich is a real concern. Pretty much all finches carry trich, and chicks (with their underdeveloped immune systems) are particularly sensitive to this disease. Symptoms of trich include a red crop with irritation of the main artery/vein and decreased crop size with less formula taken per feeding. Trich seems to be particularly irritating to the crop tissue and is a necrotizing pathogen that kills the crop cells and reduces the elasticity (volume) of the crop. Diarrhea may also occur. However, because handfeeding formula is so moist to begin with, it may be hard to tell if a chick develops diarrhea. Chicks sick with trich may beg incessantly and even mewl like kittens but then refuse to actually take any offered food, even on a completely empty crop. Some birds will start to fling their heads around, shaking them back and forth while vomiting and in this respect, it can be confusing to tell if a vomiting chick has trich or yeast. You may start to find formula crusted on the sides of their beak or even on their face and head, when you know that you didn’t leave them in that condition.
Many times, I hear people complain about Goulds who aren’t feeding their begging chicks, but a bit of observation reveals that the chicks simply refuse to be fed despite their persistent and constant begging. When I have incessantly mewling chicks who consistently have empty crops, the problem is almost invariably trich.
If not recognized and treated in time, most chicks will succumb, starving to death from trich. Those who do survive untreated are carriers and shedders and can also be sickly and stunted. Trich can get outside of the gastrointestinal tract and wreck havoc in the liver and lungs resulting in a bird with chronic respiratory problems and/or an enlarged liver. Once trich is outside of the GI system, the bird’s health is permanently compromised. Therefore, its best to treat an ill bird before it reaches this crisis level.
Trich treatment is simple enough, I use either ronidazole or metrodinazole (flagyl). For parent fed chicks, I use ronidazole in the water as per the manufacturer’s instuctions. For handfed chicks, I use flagyl (thone tronid – purchased from Foy’s Pigeon Supply) mixed at the rate of 30 mg/ml of sterile hot water. I mix up one ml at a time using a syringe and store the unused portion in the refrigerator. Dose one drop (50 microliters) per 10 grams of body weight twice a day. For smaller chicks, you should dilute the flagyl medication by half, in other words, 15 mg/ml or 30 mg/2 mls of water. Unlike Medistatin, Thone Tronid is a bitter medication, and I find that it is best delivered via crop needle. Treat for a minimum of five days though I usually treat for one week. When treating with antibiotics, one must also keep a sharp eye out for yeast infection.
Coccidia: It can be harder to tell if a chick has coccidia. Usually, if they become ill and I’m already investing the time to treat for trich, then I will also treat for coccidia just to be sure. I use trimethaprim/sulfa. This med will also cover a range of bacteria.
If the chicks are being parent fed, I use Trimethoprim/Sulfaquinoxaline (20%:3%) as sold by DAC mixed at the rate of 130 mgs/250 mls given in their water founts. If the problem is with handfed chicks (having been contaminated by parents before I started feeding them), then I use Sulfamethoxazole/Trimethoprim Oral Suspension (200 mg/40 mg per 5ml). This comes in a pink liquid with ora-sweet to reduce bitterness somewhat. Shake medication well before using or dispensing.
In adults or birds of 15 grams or more, you can dose them with this medication straight – 30 to 50 microliters twice daily. Never dose more than 50 microliters – as you will poison your birds. I repeat, NEVER DOSE MORE THAN 50 MICROLITERS AS YOU WILL KILL YOUR BIRD. If you are unfamiliar with measurements and medications, then dilute the SULF/TMP 1:1 and dose twice as much. To dilute 1:1, suck up 500 microliters (1/2 ml) of SULF/TMP into a 1 ml syringe. Then suck up 500 ml (1/2 ml) sterile water. Voila! 1:1 dilution. Dispense 60 – 100 microliters of diluted solution.
In birds 10-15 grams in weight, I dilute the medication by half and then dose 50 microliters 2x a day. See above for how to dilute properly.
In small chicks and birds under 10 grams, I dilute 1:2 (medication:water) and then deliver 50 microliters 2x a day. To dilute 1:2, use a 1 ml syringe. Suck up 300 microliters (0.3 ml) of SULF/TMP. Then suck up 600microliters (0.6 mls) of sterile water. Voila – 1:2 dilution.
To dispense, you need syringes that have fine enough gradations to be able to read precisely 30 or 50 microliters. A three millimeter syringe is not nearly precise enough. You need to use a 1 ml or 50 ml diabetic syringe. I do not use syringes that are in UNITS. A single drop from a syringe is about 50 mls, but because you are on the cusp of the toxic dose, you really need to either dilute the medication or use a device where you can measure it accurately. Trimethoprim treatment will also cure E. coli and other various bacteria issues, see below.
Bacteria: E. coli can be a problem if you haven’t washed your hands before handling chicks. Many antibiotics will handle this bacteria including trimethoprim, flagyl and baytril. The first two are the safest for chicks. I seldom have this problem. See coccidia section for hints on how to treat handfed chicks with Trimethaprim.
Fostering Disease: Societies can carry various diseases particularly campylobacter. I clean my Societies of campylobacter by treating with erythromycin before using them to foster.
Conclusion: It’s impossible for me to anticipate every problem that will be encountered when hand feeding Estrildid chicks. I’ve been hand feeding for over four years now, and while I’d like to think that I’ve seen it all, the fact of the matter is, probably not. Every now and again, something new occurs, and I have to troubleshoot the situation. Keen observation, flexibility, ingenuity and quick thinking go a long way to seeing more of your handfed chicks actually make it to the perch. Good luck!