The Rites of Spring: From Egg to Chick
It is that time of year for the hatching of chicks — those from the wild and those in our homes! While they can be cute and fun, chicks are a lot of work and require proper care to survive and thrive. Many of the birds that we raise in captivity are altricial, which means that they born without feathers and unable to care for themselves. That means that the parents typically care for them for a period of time, depending on their species. For example, cockatiel chicks wean at about 8 weeks, while those of blue-and-gold macaws wean at about 16 to 20 weeks. The amount of time the parents spend in the nestbox is also dependent on the species. For example, cockatoos, in general, spend a large amount of time in the nestbox with their chicks with lots of touching and nurturing. Macaws do not spend as much time with their chicks while they are in the nest, but spend more time with them when they fledge from the nestbox compared to cockatoos.
We are at an early phase of understanding the rearing on parrot chicks. That is what aviculture is all about. Aviculture is the practice of keeping and breeding birds and the culture that forms around it. Aviculture is generally focused on not only the raising and breeding of birds, but also on preserving avian habitat and running public awareness campaigns. The truest meaning of aviculture, was described by Dr. Jean Delacour, the most dedicated, influential, and highly respected individual in the modern history of aviculture. “Aviculture — The worldwide hobby of keeping and breeding numerous species of wild birds in captivity to maintain their numerical status in nature with a view of forestalling their extinction by supplying aviary raised stock.”
There are times when we humans need to hand-rear wild birds. This might be done with birds that were injured or when there is a problem with the nest. These tend to be important species that need to be conserved. Fostering is a better option than hand-rearing if the chicks can be replaced into a nest of the same species. I was once hand-reared some bluebird chicks when the mom was attacked and killed by a cat. A young boy saw the cat kill the bluebird and then realized that no one was sitting on the nest of four bluebird eggs. He alerted his dad who brought him with the eggs to the vet hospital. We candled the eggs to determine that all four eggs were fertile. At that point, we put them in the incubator and when they hatched, we kept the young chicks going for several days by feeding them about a half an hour apart. Fortunately, we located two nests with nestlings of comparable age, so we placed two chicks each into each nest. The best news was when all of the chicks fledged from their nests and flew off in the fall with their adopted parents and their adopted siblings!
Fostering can occur with chicks or, in some cases, with eggs. Inexperienced pairs of your parrot species may lose valuable eggs while learning how to incubate their eggs. In cases like that, the eggs are put in nests of experienced parents while those that are inexperienced are given dummy eggs to learn how to sit on them properly. Many of the parrot species have an internal counter, as they will lay a certain number of eggs before they start to sit on the eggs and incubate them. That is why you should not pull eggs from a hen that is laying eggs, as she may continue to lay and in the process deplete her internal stores of calcium and protein. Let her lay her normal clutch and then let her sit on those eggs even if they are not fertile, which will give her body a rest before she starts to lay additional eggs.
Which brings me to an important point — hens will lay eggs without the presence of a male. That means, for example, that you might have your conure for 15 years and then one day she is down in the bottom of the cage with half-closed eyes. That should concern you greatly and you need to get your bird to the vet. But it might be that she is about to lay an egg, or it might be an egg that has become stuck in her oviduct. I once treated a female Amazon that had an egg stuck for about four months before she was brought to the vet hospital. It was very difficult to keep her alive, but she did make it. That is why it is important to know the sex of your companion parrot — just in case “she” might be trying to lay an egg.
Any bird that is laying eggs need to have additional nutrition. This mostly means increased levels of calcium, protein and the fat-soluble vitamins-vitamin A, E, D3 and K from a maintenance diet. With poultry, there are laying diets for the species and grower diets for the chicks. The proper diet can be very difficult to determine with our some of our parrot species. We know for example that macaws need increased levels of fat in the diet and the ingredients need to be highly digestible. It is even harder to determine the appropriate nutrient content for our wild bird species.
Feeding chicks the wrong foods may cause severe metabolic effects that include stunting. This is why it is important to get baby wild birds to a licensed rehabilitator. Often the wild bird chick has parents nearby. If they have feathers they may have just fledged and are trying to test their wings. If they are naked, they need to be put in a plastic container lined with paper towels and put up so that our four-footed friends (dogs and cats, in particular) can’t get to them. Stand back and watch for the parents to feed. If they don’t come back in about a half hour, it is time to warm then up and get them to a rehabilitator ASAP. These dedicated individuals take care of these wild creatures because they want to and took courses, obtained training and passed tests to allow them to care for these chicks. They are not paid by the wildlife agencies to do this so help them out as best you can. They shoulder most of the costs out of their pockets.
This is a wonderful time of the year. We can marvel at the wild birds raising their brood. We can also be reminded that our feathered friends in our home may also go through some rites of spring so we need to be vigilant owners. And remember to feed them right during this time of rebirth.