by Pat Pecora
Weaning is a gradual process in which babies learn to eat on their own. Each baby is an individual so there is no set time table or schedule in which to wean, but rather something that is done at the chick’s own rate. Even siblings within a clutch often wean at very different times. Different species of birds wean in different general time frames and usually larger species of birds take longer to wean than the smaller species. A baby parrot’s weaning experience can affect him for the rest of his life. It is up to the hand feeder to make it a pleasant one in which the baby feels safe and secure and builds confidence and independence. Keeping him well fed helps him develop desired traits such as trust and happiness which enable him to be a good companion.
It is important that anyone hand feeding or weaning a baby have an accurate gram scale and a notebook. The baby should be weighed the first thing every morning before any food is fed and his weight recorded. The weight can speak volumes in terms of how baby is doing. It will also let you know if at any time during the weaning process you need to take a step back and start giving him a bit more formula. At this time I always do a quick check of the baby and make a note of anything out of the ordinary. Is he alert and responsive? Do his eyes look bright and shiny? Are his nares clean and dry? How is his posture? Are his feathers ruffed up? Is he breathing normally with no harsh clicking, whistling or raspiness? Do his feet look nice and plump. Is his mouth clean rather than sticky or slimy?
One of the most important things to do when weaning a baby is to keep him well fed. Hungry babies are far too frustrated to try eating on their own. When they are hungry they can only think of how they want that hunger satisfied. When their hunger is well satisfied they are happy, ready to explore and try new things. A full, well fed baby will go over to a crock of food and taste or eat the food, whereas a baby that is hungry might just sit there and cry waiting for someone to come feed him. As babies get a little older I often find that the first thing babies will do after a formula feeding is toddle over to their food bowl and practice their independent eating skills.
I start to offer babies food long before they are actually able to eat it. As soon as I see babies start to pick at the bedding, their feet, a poop (I know gross), etc, I will put bits of food in with them. I like to use foods that they can be successful with in picking up. Crumbs of birdie bread, Cheerios or any non sugared cereal work well as does anything that is easy to break apart. At this point the food bits are something for them to explore and play with but eventually they accidentally swallow some and start to associate it with the fact that it is something to eat.
Babies will not search for food so it needs to be highly visible and easily accessible. Food dishes need to be heavy so they are not easily tipped over. Wide bowls with low sides placed on the cage bottom work well. I usually put a few bowls of food in with them so that they never have to go far to find them. I start giving them a water bowl about two weeks after first giving them food bowls or when I see that they are actually starting to eat and might want a drink after they eat. This usually corresponds to about the time I am taking them down to two formula feedings a day. Up until then they are getting plenty of water in their formula.
In the wild eating is a social event that parrots enjoy and babies learn quickly by example. I find it much easier to wean babies when I have more than one baby rather than just a single baby. With a group of babies, all it takes is for one to try something and it perks the others curiosity and they want to try it too. I usually keep a calm adult bird in my nursery with the babies to act as a mentor. I will bring the adult bird a dish of the same food at the same time I bring the babies a bowl. I will move the babies close enough so they can see the adult eating and hopefully they will want to do the same thing. When I have a single baby I eat all my meals with the baby and will offer him foods while I eat.
The consistency and variety of food I offer changes as the chick matures and his eating skills develop. In the earliest stage when the baby is still on paper towels but starting to be aware of things and pick at them I will sprinkle a few pieces of cereal or birdie bread on the paper towel with him. After I see him recognize and seek out these food crumbs as something he wishes to play with and explore I will start putting them in a small dish.
Scenic weaning pellets are one of my very favorite baby foods. They are served warm and wet and offer complete nutrition. I will offer these to chicks as soon as I take them out of the nest box. They are readily accepted by the chicks because they closely resemble what the parents were feeding them. I often use my fingers to feed the Scenic. At times I will gently grab the chick’s beak which usually elicits a feeding response. As the chick gets used to eating the Scenic I will then switch to a spoon with bent up sides and eventually just put them in a dish for him to eat on his own. Chicks that have been hand fed from day one don’t accept the weaning pellets as easily but after a few tries they soon learn to like them and look forward to them.
About the time I move the chicks into a small cage they are ready to start learning to eat other foods. At this stage they are usually on three formula feeds, are at least partially feathered and no longer require a supplemental heat source. I start with soft easy to eat foods like beans, rice, cooked veggie mash, scrambled eggs, small pieces of banana or apple, cooked pasta, cooked sweet potato, etc. I usually offer them each a couple of bites with a spoon or my fingers as I bring the food and then leave them to eat on their own. This type of food spoils fast so I always make sure I change or remove it after about two hours. As their eating skills progress the foods they are given become more challenging for them to eat on their own. Once they are eating the soft foods well, I will start giving them fresh fruits and veggies rather than the softer cooked ones. These are served in larger pieces. I try to offer them a wide variety of healthy foods daily. The wide variety at an early age helps prevent them from becoming finicky eaters as they are older. Babies also like fresh millet sprays. I usually give them one daily and sometimes I will boil it first. I hang it in their cage from a millet holder. They enjoy eating/playing with it.
I feed all my birds pellets as part of their daily diet. Pellets are formulated to provide the balanced nutrition that all birds need. As soon as the baby has mastered crunching Cheerios, or something similar, I start giving them a small bowl of pellets which I leave in with them at all times. Babies seem to like to crunch on things and even though the transition from crunching softer Cheerios to the harder pellets is challenging at first, they soon master it and appear proud that they did so.
While I consider pellets the most important part of my birds diet, they are lacking in variety and stimulation which is also important for the bird. The addition of nutritious veggies, fruits, sprouts, cooked beans, grains, birdie bread, etc. fulfills this need. I also feed some birds a small amount of seed and they get an occasional nut as a treat.
I try to observe my babies carefully every day to see about how much food they are actually eating. When it is time for their mid day feeding I check their crop to see if they have been eating on their own and get an idea of how much food is in it. When I consistently find that they have eaten a fair amount of food I start to drop this feeding. I do it gradually rather than all at once. For example, if I am normally giving them four syringes of formula per feeding, I will eliminate one syringe per day and then stop giving the mid day feeding completely as long as I feel food in their crop.
As the chick’s eating skills continue to improve, the next feeding I drop is the morning one. I start by giving them a bowl of foods to eat on their own the first thing in the morning followed by their formula an hour or two later. I will usually feed them a couple of mouths full of food the first few times I make this change to let them know that this is what they are to eat now. As they start eating more on their own in the morning, I start to decrease the amount of formula I give them. Most of the time, they will naturally do this on their own. When they start to refuse to eat or regurgitate I know they are telling me they have fulfilled their hunger. Eventually they refuse the morning feed and just run away and go play.
The night time feeding is always the last one to be dropped. Even if the baby has a fair amount of food in his crop at the end of the day I still like to top him off with some nice warm formula. Babies generally don’t eat during the night and this helps keep his appetite satisfied until morning. I think it also helps baby to feel secure, content and happy which enables him to get a good night’s sleep. When baby no longer wants the formula he will simply refuse to eat it or will regurgitate it. Once baby has not had any formula for two weeks and has maintained his weight I consider him weaned.
Weaning regression will sometimes occur when a baby goes to a new home. He may feel nervous and insecure and need a little extra nurturing. This is simply a natural occurrence like when a person starts a new job feeling a bit nervous and should not be mistaken for “forced weaning” or not really completely weaned. Offer him some extra food; feed him some warm comfort foods or a bit of formula using a spoon, your fingers or a syringe. Eat your meals with him and offer him food. Put your hand gently on his back like a mother bird putting her chick under her wing. Talk softly to him and tell him how glad you are that he is here. He will soon learn that he can trust you to take care of him and his confidence and eating skills will quickly return.
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