Handfeeding finches Can you really do it? Many people over the last few years have asked me about the possibility of handfeeding finches. There are large assortments of questions that usually accompany the handfeeding issue. Most are curious if they will remain tame, others are concerned about the time commitment, the level of difficulty and many more are interested in saving chicks that otherwise would be lost.
Unlike most other captive raised animals, passerine chicks are one of the only species that are left to live or die by themselves. All other captive raised animals have been hand-reared when necessary. This article will attempt to explain in detail the how, why and various difficulties encountered in hand raising passerine species.
There are several important factors that you will have to take into consideration when feeding a finch.
1. You will need a place to keep it warm. The chicks will need to be kept between 95 and 99 degrees for the first few days. You can drop the temperature as the pinfeathers come in. If you see the chick panting and wiggling, as if uncomfortable it is too warm. If the food is taking a long time to be digested then the temperature is too cold. Make gradual changes to the temperature. However, if you stay within 95-99 degrees for a newly hatched chick you should have no problem. Once again as the bird feathers you must gradually drop the temperature.
2. You will need a cup lined with either a clean piece of paper towel or nesting material to keep the chick(s). If there is only one or two - you can use a small plastic candy-making cup. Several you can use something the size of a cream cheese container. Try to find something that has a flat bottom and make sure to line it with something that will give the chick(s) traction. This will avoid any future splay legs and/or foot problems. Also keep in mind that the chicks in the nest usually stay very close and cuddle together. Try to allow them this same level of comfort. As the chick(s) grow so must the container.
3. You will need to have handfeeding formula. There are many types available on the market. I have had the most success with Kaytee Handfeeding Formula. It is also readily available at most pet stores. You will be using only small amounts so it is important to leave the bag in the freezer for freshness as well as to prohibit the growth of bacteria. Each morning take out small amounts that will be used during the current day.
4. You will need to have something to use as a feeding tool. I like to use flat toothpicks for the first few days. They are small enough to fit in the mouth, cheap, and disposable so I don't have to worry about bacteria and sterilizing. Some people like to use the small end of a banding tool as a pseudo spoon. If you choose to use this type of tool it is very important that you wash and sterilize it after each use. After the first 5 or so days I switch over to mini disposable pipettes. These are meant to be one use only. Yes, it is more expensive but for me it is much more important not to have to deal with any sort of possible bacteria contamination.
5. Have pedialyte on hand. You can find several electrolyte solutions in the baby isle of the supermarket and any one will do. Keep this in the refrigerator. I like to use this after the first day of hatching because it helps the chick to stay hydrated and helps to maintain proper levels of fluids in the body. After several days I switch to regular filtered tap water. Some people boil their own water and still others use bottled water. Use what makes you comfortable. If your water quality is questionable then use an alternative
6. You will need to have a method of heating the water and a cooking/candy thermometer. Proper temperature is EXTREMELY important. The formula must be fed as close to body temperature as possible. If it is too cold you will give the chick a candida (yeast) infection. This can easily happen in feeding such a small chick. The easiest way for me is to heat water in a clean coffee cup in the microwave. I then put a very small amount of handfeeding formula in a Solo Cup Company paper cup that holds ¾ oz of liquid. To this I add water that I have heated to 110 degrees. I then float the paper cup in the coffee cup still filled with water. This insures that the formula stays warm and I will have enough time to feed the bird without it getting cool. 110 degrees is too hot to feed to the chick as is but by the time you get ready and get the food into the bird it will have cooled to approximately 103-104 degrees which is the ultimate temperature to feed a finch. Mix the consistency of water/formula so that it is not watery but not too thick. A pancake batter consistency will be just fine and it shouldn't drip off the feeding tool. It is also not advisable to microwave the water and formula together for hot spots can occur and unknowingly you can feed food that is dangerously hot. Be careful not to feed the formula too hot or you will burn the crop of the chick. Too cold and the chick will not want to eat and digestive problems/bacteria will surely occur.
7. You will also need to consider a realistic feeding schedule. If you work out of the house and can not bring the bird with you, it is almost impossible to maintain a proper feeding routine. Once a chick hatches and begins to show a feeding response I slowly begin to give it a small amount of food. I also wait until the yolk sac is totally absorbed (belly isn't bright yellow anymore). I find it is easier to hold the entire plastic cup in my hand rather than the small bird and it also allows the chick to beg in their natural position. However, if you have just picked a chick up off the floor of a cage or aviary and it has been starving for a long length of time; I would suggest you hold it in one hand and feed a small amount. Remember to always let the chick guide you in feeding and it is important to remember that many species have their own unique way of begging. I usually feed every 2 hours from the time I wake up until the time I go to bed. I do not feed through the night unless I feel it is a necessity. I usually allow a span of 6-7 hours overnight (8 is too long). This 2 hour feeding schedule does not have to be written in stone. I do leave the house, I do go shopping and I do maintain a life. I just try not to let a hungry chick go more than 4 hours at a time during the day and when I return I do feed a little more frequently the first few times.
8. How much to feed? Well honestly the first few days each feeding consists of a small amount of food. Perhaps only two or so toothpicks at a time. You will find that you discard more than you use. It is however important not to feed too much and cause the chick to aspirate! Once aspirated the chick may die immediately or it can linger on for several days. Aspiration just about always results in death. Most of the Australian finches have crops and you can see the food accumulating. The African finches however are a different story. The food enters the crop and quickly moves into the gut. If you feed an African chick and watch the belly you can actually see it fill up. Stops when you see the food in the belly- do not let it bulge in enormous proportions.
9. As the chick grows, it will require more food at each feeding. You can also let the chick go a little longer between feedings as it gets older. One important thing to remember is that a handfed chick will take longer to wean and a little longer to grow. Don't worry though eventually they all learn to be a "bird".
10. I have handfed many different types of species. Some will remain tame and others won't. Many are not interested in having a tame bird and fear that handfeeding will ruin a future breeder. This is not true. Don't play with it as you feed it and it will revert back to the finch it was meant to be. For those of you who would like to try and feed for pet purposes it can be extremely rewarding. After the chick develops pinfeathers and you don't have to worry about it getting to cold, you can begin building the bond. Give it a name, hold it while you watch TV and talk to it often. A few of the tamest species with the biggest personalities are the gouldians, blue-capped cordon blues, cherries and singers.
Handfeeding is a wonderful solution to unnecessary death and allows you the luxury of time to figure out why your breeding finches are not willing to care for their own young. Now that many of the imports have stopped and CITES finches are no longer available, the survival of our captive-bred birds with genetic diversity should be of utmost urgency. I have saved many finches that would have otherwise died. Handfeeding has also allowed me to save chicks that were extremely valuable to my breeding program and unexpectedly resulted in these young maturing into parent raising chicks.