To hand-rear or not to hand-rear?

Hand-rearing a baby bird can be a very rewarding experience; it can also be distressing when things don’t go according to plan. It requires care and patience and places demands on your time and emotions and so should not be entered into just for the ‘fun’ of it.

The Positives

On many occasions necessity becomes the decision maker as to whether to take on the task of hand-rearing. When parent birds for whatever reason fail to rear their own young or in the case of wild birds, when there are orphaned chicks, hand-rearing is perhaps the only viable option to potentially save a life.                          

Hand-rearing also represents a procedure by which valuable genetic material, in the case of rare or endangered species, can be safeguarded from the vagaries of mother nature and to assist in increasing species numbers for release programmes. For commercial breeders, hand-rearing is seen to offer an opportunity to both maximise chick numbers and produce ‘tame’ pets. Or, it may be, as is practiced in canary, finch and parrot breeding, that ‘topping up’ the babies with supplementary feed ensures adequate nutrition and provides for optimal growth and development.

Hand-feeding (as opposed to hand-rearing) is an essential part of critical care management in many clinical situations both within veterinary and wildlife establishments. The techniques and foods used are similar to those of hand-rearing except that they are in general applied to older individuals.

The Negatives

Where the decision to hand-rear has been made to try and save a bird’s life, in general the downside can be no worse than if no action had been taken. However, inappropriate husbandry and feeding techniques, coupled with inadequate levels or incorrect food can result in prolonging a life that may have been better humanely ended earlier.

There is much that can be gained nutritionally by hand-rearing a parrot chick either removed from its parents or incubator hatched– there are also certain nutritional and developmental problems which can be associated with the process. Underfunding of gross energy due to insufficient calories per unit food (over-dilution), not enough food per feed, not enough feeds per day or simply a poor quality food, will result in stunting, poor skeletal development; long-term failure of the immune system and of course, potentially death. Whilst not generally considered a nutrient, water is also an essential part of feeding and dehydration due to low water intake, too concentrated a food source or excessive water loss possibly due to diarrhoea or too hot a brooder temperature, will be equally detrimental to chick survival.

Not only are nutritional issues associated with hand-rearing so are psychological ones. Parrots raised as individual birds rather than clutch reared by parents or crèche reared by breeders may imprint on their carer (or humans in general) with subsequent behavioural problems. Hand-rearing has been shown to be directly associated with reduced mental capacity in some species of parrots.

Hand-feeding is not without risk of associated disease issues. Candidiasisis, a condition caused by the yeast Candida albicans (also responsible for the infection ‘thrush’) results in excess fermentation in the crop giving it its common name of ‘sour crop’ due to the ‘yeasty’ smell that arises. This condition results in crop and gut stasis, dehydration, toxaemia and unless resolved, death. Candida is a ubiquitous organism and potentially found in all avian digestive systems where it lives as a commensal doing no harm. However, the conditions surrounding hand-rearing – stress, intermittent feeding patterns, too low or too high brooder temperature, less than adequate hygiene (using the same feeding equipment for different individuals within a rearing set up without adequate sterilisation and thus transferring bugs from one chick to another; inadequate sterilisation of feeding equipment between feeds allowing growth of yeast to accumulate etc.), reheating and refeeding of pre-prepared food, all predispose to establishing Candida (as well as other potentially pathogenic organisms) as a disease entity.

Care also needs to be taken when feeding baby birds that food is not aspirated into the respiratory system.

Weighing up the pros and cons

As mentioned above hand-rearing should not be done on a whim and requires dedication and is not without its downside but many of the pit-falls can be avoided by good husbandry techniques and a good quality commercial hand-rearing formulation. Learning to hand-rear requires practice and patience and some species are easier to rear than others, but as proficiency is gained, hand-rearing becomes a pleasurable and rewarding experience.

Nutritional requirements of a hand rearing food

It has been stressed in the preceding paragraphs that one of the main prerequisites to successful hand-rearing is a quality hand-rearing formula. Attempting to ‘formulate’ your own diet can lead to nutritional imbalances and associated growth problems and with a number of commercial formulations readily available in the marketplace there is no necessity to do so. These foods are scientifically formulated and nutritionally balanced for ideal chick growth. The desire to tinker with them by adding additional products should be resisted as this will unbalance this formulation. Formulated diets as well as providing adequate levels of appropriate nutrients, the ratios of, for example, protein:energy; energy:calcium; calcium:phosphate; vitA:vitD:vitK are also balanced to ensure efficient utilisation and optimal health and growth.

Need for different formulas for different species and different life stages

Growth rates of chicks vary with the age of the chick and the species of the bird. For certain species of parrot growth rate is rapid – from hatch to flying in a matter of 6-8 weeks. For other species growth rate is much slower. Large macaws for example may stay in the nest for months until they are mature enough to fly. These two examples suggest that one rearing food may not be entirely suitable for all species in terms of ensuring the correct growth-rate patterns. Within certain parameters tissue maturation is dynamic and growth rate flexible, however under and over provision of both gross and actual nutrients (see earlier) can result in skeletal and tissue (feathers are a common example here) developmental abnormalities.

Two examples will perhaps help clarify the concept here. A cockatiel’s growth rate is rapid especially in the early stages of its development. It requires a high protein (essential amino acids + energy) formulation to cope with this growth rate. Feather production is also rapid again requiring a high protein food. As growth rate of tissue is fast a cockatiel also requires a relatively high level of calcium (per unit energy) to ensure adequate mineralisation of the developing bones. Once the growth rate has slowed a reduced protein/energy food will allow maturation of the tissues and not predispose to wing/feather deformities seen in other species of birds (angle wing) or obesity and fatty liver issues.

The other side of the coin is seen in larger parrots. Although being able to use a high protein/energy food early in its development (where proteins are more easily digested and assimilated than fats and carbohydrates), too high a plane of nutrition for too long will potentially result in either tissue growth/weight being too great for the strength of the bones or excess calories being stored as fat in the tissue or liver. With these species of birds a lower energy input for a longer period is requires to allow tissues of differing types to mature in an appropriate and parallel time frame.

Simple overview of Harrisons hand rearing formulas

As the nutritional requirements of each species of birds vary from hatching to fledging, Harrison's has produced a range of hand-rearing foods of high nutritive value, formulated for ease of digestion to meet each growing bird's needs.

For those breeders who hand-rear their young from day 1 or 2, Neonate Formula provides the ideal starter diet for most parrots and indeed the majority of small passerine birds. As the baby parrots develop Juvenile Formula provides the correct nutritional balance for continued development.

For those who are dedicated to wild bird rehabilitation and the rearing of orphaned nestlings, Recovery Formula provides the critical nutrients to stabilise injured and debilitated birds.

In conjunction with Neonate Formula, Recovery Formula provides the diets for rearing the majority of wild bird nestlings. 

Harrison's Neonate formula

Neonate Formula is an easily digested nutritional hand-feeding diet for baby parrots from hatching to 2-3 weeks of age (see chart).

Its formulation makes it the hand-feeding diet of choice for many passerines such as swifts, swallows, flycatchers and warblers, shrikes, titmice, larks, woodpeckers, jays, robins, grosbeaks, song sparrows, finches, canaries and more, from hatching to fledging.

Because of its high nutritive quality and digestibility when mixed with High Potency Mash, it makes an ideal rearing/weaning food for finches, canaries and budgies.

Harrison's Recovery formula

Recovery Formula provides an easily assimilated source of nutrients for ill avian patients (passerines and psittacines).


  • When anorexia has slowed gastrointestinal emptying time. Not for cases of illeus or stasis.
  • As a dietary transition for recovering patients that have been on a seed diet and need nutritional support.
  • Medical and surgical patients that are recovering from pansystemic failure and have progressed to a point where oral, easily digested diets are indicated.
  • For debilitated or injured birds use as gavage (tube) mix until the bird is self-feeding.
  • For those dedicated to the rehabilitation of orphaned nestlings,  Recovery Formula is ideal as a hand-feeding diet from hatching to fledging of small insectivorous birds with an apparent inability to digest cornstarch

Juvenile formula

Juvenile Formula is recommended for the hand-feeding of large psittacine chicks from day one; hand-feeding baby parrots over seven days of age until weaning (see chart below)

This formula should not be used in cockatiels under 21 days of age.

Special uses: In common with Recovery and Neonate formulas, Juvenile formula can be used as a digestive aid, for hospitalised birds that require supplemental feeding; birds with beak injury; tube feeding for diet conversion of extremely stubborn birds.  

Which should I use?

The Harrison's food recommended for certain scenarios is summarised below.

Hand-feeding infants

* For doves and pigeons, from 8-10 days old onwards, each day incrementally decrease the level of Recovery Formula in the hand-rearing mix and substitute with Juvenile Formula so that on day 21 the mix is 100% Juvenile Formula.

Foods to aid recovery and digestion

Recovery Formula is an ideal formula to use when hand-feeding in the following situations:

  • For debilitated or injured birds. The high protein content aids the recovery in ‘critical care’ situations.
  • A hand rearing food for small insectivorous birds with apparent inability to digest cornstarch.
  • For medical and surgical patients recovering from pansystemic failure and as a dietary transition for recovering patients.
  • In instances of anorexia with slowed gastrointestinal emptying time.

Fauna Flora is a blend of enzymes designed to aid digestion. It promotes food breakdown and nutrient absorption whilst acting as a probiotic.

It may be beneficial for:

  • Sluggish digestion
  • Intestinal bacterial and yeast overgrowth
  • Avian Diabetes
  • Sour Crop
  • Improper nutrition
  • Geriatric animals
  • Adjunct to post-operative/convalescent digestion


  • Feeding should not be attempted by inexperienced persons.
  • Do not attempt to feed birds that are not aggressively feeding as this may result in inhalation of the food.
  • Do not use formula that is too cold or too liquid.
  • Feedings must be accomplished promptly to avoid appetite loss.
  • Failure to heed cautions could result in the death of the bird.