I’m often asked why a baby bird has died while being hand raised. There can be many reasons, the most common are : incorrect temperature – usually no heat provided; dehydration; blocked vent; starvation and stress.
Starvation is often a problem as food may be being offered only 3 or 4 times a day. Most baby birds need feeding often, as much as every half hour. Heat is critical and even in the extremely hot weather we are currently experiencing new arrivals will probably need some artificial heat, single birds definitely, at least for a few days. It is important to supply a nest, don’t leave the chick/s sitting in an ice cream container with a handful of tissues. Ice cream containers suitably lined with soft cloth with extra padding on the bottom make comfortable nests. It’s also a good idea to twist a roll of soft cloth around the inside of the container to make the ‘nest’ into a suitable size, for instance a clutch of Thornbills, even Wattlebird chicks will rattle around in the container unless the inside size is reduced so the birds are packed neatly together. Place the nest on a heat pad. I most often use an old electric saucepan, lined as for the ice cream container, it is fabulous and is also used for tiny sugar gliders, antechinus, and possums, as well as the occasional bat.
In the natural situation the heat generated by the adult sitting bird and the young chicks is moist, our heat is a dry heat so include a container of water covered with net. Although baby birds do not drink, in our artificial situation, and when the weather is very hot, you may need to offer the chicks fluid. On arrival my chicks usually have their food dipped in full cream natural yogurt – warmed – a few times, then food is dipped either in the Wombaroo First Aid for Birds or plain water.
For parrots, doves, etc that are fed a hand raising mix I prefer to feed directly into the crop using a crop needle, this method is quick, clean and most importantly I know exactly how much the bird has taken in, there is no risk of starvation. The parrots we have had in care over the last 6 or 7 weeks were fed every 2 hours for the first 48 hours so I could establish their requirements then every 3 hours for the first month. For the first two weeks between each feed they were given water, also with a crop needle directly into the crop. Most of these birds arrived for care within 24 hours of hatching so ensuring they didn’t become too dry in the saucepan was critical. After the first month they were left for up to 4 hours between each feed then the routine became 4 hourly the same as the joeys, 5 times each day [checking the crop regularly to see if it is emptying should be done before each feed]. Then their hand rearing mix was mixed with budgie starter this is coarser and contains small seeds. This was offered on a spoon, it took 2 days for the birds to become proficient feeding off the spoon, it also meant I had to check the crop of each bird after each feed to see if enough had been taken and thoroughly clean any food from around their mouths. Seeding grasses were also placed into their cage to encourage pecking as well as a water container and perches, after a few days small seed [canary mix] was also sprinkled on the floor of their cage.
When insectivorous birds have begun to pick up their own food, I continue to dip any artificial mixes in water to provide moisture but a container of water is also placed in the cage. Nectar feeding birds have a container of nectar mix in their cage but it is not left there all the time, it is important that honeyeaters don’t overdo the nectar mix and not take the supplied insects, bugs, etc. Nectar should make up no more than 15% of their total food intake.
Whole body eating birds – frogmouths, owls, magpies, currawongs, etc should not be fed fur or feathers for a few days when very small, try to keep any artificial mixes to a minimum and progress to the natural food including fur, feathers and bone as soon as possible. Natural food is vital to grow a strong healthy body.
When passing waste, some species will back up to the edge or entrance to their nest and squirt the faeces away from the nest; the parents of some sp will remove the faeces and some just poo straight into the nest. In the artificial situation the poo generally stays within the confines of the nest. This must be removed at each feed and at least once each day check the vent of the chicks to ensure the faeces are not stuck on the vent and preventing the passing of further faeces. You will notice that some chicks may poo as soon as they realize a feed is being offered, some after the first offering, have a tissue ready and collect the dropping, this will assist with keeping the nest and chicks clean. Change the nest liner as often as necessary, do not let soiled liners stay in the nest [I have had one instance where a bird arrived for care after being kept for several days in a nest that had never been changed, the bottom of the nest was crawling with maggots – and so was the chick!
As with all species, stress will also kill chicks, stick to the usual no stress routine – no handling unless necessary; no predator species close by; no loud, sudden noises; warm food; suitable nest.
Do not assume that because your bird can pick up food in a cage or aviary that it can find and catch its own on release. A slow death will be the result of a bird suddenly left to fend for itself.
All young birds will need supplementary feeding for some time after release. Soft releases are best for hand raised chicks, if you cannot soft release then it is in the best interest of the bird[s] that they are handed over to a carer who can when they first arrive, not when it’s time to release. Seed eating birds will recognise seeding grasses if these have been supplied throughout their time in care so provided there is plenty to choose from they should be okay but birds that eat live food will not be able to sustain themselves without some help, sometimes for a few weeks. Even magpies have to perfect their hunting skills, yes they hear the food underground but digging into the dirt and making a strike doesn’t happen for some time. Birds that take food on the wing take a long time to hone their hunting skills, without some training, and assistance with handouts for a time, these birds will not survive.