The Responsible Breeding of Cockatiels Part III: All About Handfeeding Cockatiel Chicks

It is important to know why you are handfeeding and what you hope to accomplish through the handfeeding process. In this article we will look at the many factors that are needed to consider when choosing to hand feed. We will take a look at parent fed versus hand fed cockatiels. Is a rigid feeding schedule necessary or appropriate? Who should hand feed? Should I handfeed? Where do I find someone to teach me to handfeed? What do I need to learn to hand feed successfully? And when should you intervene if the parent birds are having problems?ibhf

Parent Fed Tiels

Cockatiels make great parents, not all of them, but most do. They keep their chick’s crops stuffed with food. A parent fed chick is more bonded to the parents and are fearful of the humans in their life. Chicks that have been raised solely by their parents are imprinted on them and are more stand-offish than handfeds. These chicks should make excellent breeders in two years when they will be of a good age to begin raising their own families.

Parent fed cockatiel chicks gain weight quickly and are heavier than their handfed counterparts. The parents are able to feed fresh food every time they go to feed their chicks. Parent fed tiel chicks have huge crops that are stuffed to capacity with large amounts of fresh food. This is not something the handfeeder can imitate. Any time you add water to the formula you increase the amount of bacteria present in the formula. The parents are able to supply their chicks with the bacteria needed for digestion, enzymes, and the immunities that they carry.

If you wish to allow the parents to feed, but also wish to have them tame and imprinted on humans, you will need to have a socialization program. Socializing means getting the chicks out of the nestbox for short periods of time to be cuddled, played with, talked too, and to spend quality time with their human companions. This can be started as early as ten days old.

Hand-fed Tiels

Handfed Cockatiels make better pets. The reason is that they have become imprinted on humans at a very young age. I pull chicks at ten days of age. Their eyes have just opened and after two or three feedings they already recognize me as the mommy bird who gives them food. Once pulled, the chicks are housed in a brooder.

Pulling chicks this young intensifies the feeding schedule because they need to eat often. Normally I feed every three hours from 6am till midnight. Not feeding the chick often enough is a mistake made by many who are new to handfeeding. Inadequate feeding leads to malnourished chicks that are stunted. The chicks may survive this compromised feeding schedule, however they won’t thrive under such conditions. The goal in handfeeding must be to raise fat, healthy, happy chicks that are well socialized and a joy to their human companions. To do it well, takes time.

Food quality is equally as important. Great care must be given so that the diet meets the nutritional needs of the chicks. Using a high quality handfeeding formula is important to the success of raising healthy cockatiel chicks. Equally important is feeding enough formula for the chicks’ needs on a daily basis. Handfeeding needs to be based on the chicks’ needs. When the chick is hungry, feed it. Make decisions and choices based on the needs of the chicks, not the dictates of a rigid schedule.

As you can see, handfeeding baby cockatiels is a huge undertaking which takes your time, your energy, and your committment to see it through until the chicks are weaned and ready for a loving home with their new human companions.

When pulling the chicks be aware that the parent birds are going to be distressed by the taking of their chicks. Normally this lasts about twenty-four hours. If it is the pair’s first clutch, they may immediately go to nest again and double clutch.

Who Should Hand Feed?

Hand Feeding is a difficult task which should only be attempted by those who are experienced in handfeeding. There is a huge learning curve to be able to do it properly. Someone who wishes to hand feed should contact an experienced breeder who can teach them how to go about hand feeding. A good mentor is a real asset which can help you deal with problems before they become critical. There are very subtle indications that things are not going well. Often the novice handfeeder will miss these due to a lack of experience.

Sometimes you are forced into handfeeding because of problems with the parent birds. These include aggression by the male in which he may try to kill the chicks, parents who consistently refuse to feed the chicks, or parents who are biting wings and feet. Sometimes a parent bird will nip at a wing because it is not receiving the feeding response that the parent needs to be able to feed the chick. Aggression is not unusual in males who are jealous of their chicks and see them as a threat. In any event, a chick that is bleeding is in need of immediate removal from the nestbox and appropriate medical care. There is always the danger that any wound may become infected and must be dealt with quickly.

Preparing to Handfeed

Cockatiel Incubation takes 18-21 days. This is a good time to get the necessary supplies in for handfeeding so that you are ready when the chicks begin to hatch.

You will want to buy a good quality handfeeding formula to feed your chicks. Homemade recipes often fail to meet the minimum nutritional requirements for feeding cockatiel chicks. Commercial foods are carefully formulated to avoid nutritional deficiencies, preventing other serious complications such as weak bones, splayed legs, rickets, and stunted or retarded growth. These formulas help to produce healthy chicks that are not stunted or suffering from failure to thrive syndrome.

Next you must decide whether you are going to feed with a spoon that is bent, or a handfeeding syringe, or crop needle or tube feed the chicks. I prefer handfeeding with a syringe and keep a supply of syringes that are 1cc, 3cc, 5cc, and 10cc to use with the chicks.

Tube feeding is unnecessary unless the chick is sick. Using a tube bypasses the chick’s ability to taste and appreciate the food. The chick doesn’t learn how to eat and the pleasure of eating is lost to the chick.

However, you will want to have a crop needle and a feeding tube available in case of an emergency. Sometimes the only way to get food to a very sick chick is by feeding tube. It is important that the tube is the right size for the tiel chick. This you can get from your avian veterinarian. Make sure that your avian vet teaches you how to use the feeding tube correctly and that you understand all of the instructions given you by the vet. If you have not been taught how to use one, please do not use a feeding tube. There is danger of aspirating the chick or of puncturing the esophagus or the crop if you do not know how. It is not worth the risk. Consult your avian veterinarian.

A good disinfectant is necessary when undertaking handfeeding. Dirty bowls, syringes, and surfaces will cause sick chicks because of the bacteria that is present. An anti-bacterial for your hands is highly recommended. I prefer the ones that dry on my hands, so that I can scoop the chick up as soon as my hands are dry.

When handfeeding, an absolute must that you can’t be without is a thermometer. The food temperature should be checked every time you go to feed the chick. Cockatiel chicks seem to do quite well when the temperature is 105-107 degrees Fahrenheit. I do not recommend feeding formula at under 104 degrees Fahrenheit, as cooler temperatures cause problems with digestion. If the food is fed too hot, there is the possibility of severely burning the crop. Food that is fed cold usually results in a chick with sour crop.

A gram scale is an absolute must for anyone serious about handfeeding their chicks. This piece of equipment is vital to any handfeeder who wants to have plump healthy chicks. Weight loss of even one gram is so important that it may be the only sign that you ever get that the chick is in trouble.

Chicks should be weighed every morning and records kept which include the weight and the amount of food fed to the chick at each feeding. Summarizing the report at the end of the day needs to include the total number of grams fed and how much weight the chick has gained.

I rely on two pieces of equipment – my thermometer and my gram scale – without these you can’t handfeed.

A brooder is needed to house the chicks once they have been pulled from the parents. Another article will explain in detail how to set up a baby brooder and what temperatures are best for the different age group of chicks. Chicks that have no feathers will need more heat than a fully feathered out chick.

Also you will want to have on hand a supply of small bowls, spoons, and cloths for cleaning the chicks after eating. Blackstrap Molasses, Baking Soda, Pedialyte, and a good Probiotic such as Prozyme or Bene-bac would be good to have readily available in case the chick should suffer from any digestive upsets.

The Crop

The crop has one function – food storage. Without it birds would have to eat constantly because of their high metabolism. The crop is involved in moving food into the digestive tract. One of the signs that the crop is actively working is that the muscles can be seen as they contract. The muscles contract as they push the food stored in the crop into the stomach. It is very important to understand and monitor the chick’s crop and to be sure that it is emptying properly. It is a sign of health or problems with the chick.


ibsourcrpThere is much to know about the actual handfeeding process. How to hold the chick, the begging response, how often to feed and how much as the chick grows, how to judge a full or empty crop, using a brooder, monitoring the chick and much more. The next article will go into the details. However, an overview is presented here.

You want to pull your chicks for handfeeding, however you aren’t sure when would be the best time. Normally I pull my own chicks at ten days old. When pulling chicks, I already have the baby brooder set up, warm, and waiting to receive the chicks from the nest.

The very best time to pull chicks is between two and three weeks of age, especially if you are very new to handfeeding. In order to thrive, chicks need to be fed when their crops are empty. Delaying feeding for too long a period may cause problems with the chick’s liver. The crop must empty completely once in every twenty-four hour period. The hours between midnight and 6am are a good time to allow this too happen. A chick with food still in its crop after the six hour fast needs to be treated for slow or sour crop. Taking a look at the husbandry practices may help to find the cause of the problem. Formula or environmental temperatures that are too cold will cause the crop to slow down. A chilled or cold chick will experience problems with slow crop.

As chicks grow, they can take more food at each feeding. Cockatiel parents feed the chicks an abundant amount of food and keep the crops stuffed. They will have stretched the crop sufficiently at three weeks of age, making it easier for you to feed the chicks. An older chick will do better with a thicker formula. At the start the formula is the consistency of a creamed soup as you get to the fifth week the formula is the consistency of a soft yogurt. Beyond the sixth week the formula is the consistency of cake batter.

Over time, the number of feedings per day will decrease, while the thickness of the formula increases. This assures that the chick is receiving adequate nutrition as it grows and needs more volume and a greater percentage of solids in the diet.

Hand fed tiel chicks grow quickly. You will find that they have grown from one feeding to the next. It is an awesome experience to watch the tiny blind and naked chick grow into a beautiful handsome tiel who is still a baby at ten weeks old. Growth rates will vary amongst the chicks and is dependent on the genetics of the parents. Some tiels have tiny bone structures and are not as heavy as other tiels of their same age.

I have taken the averages of my cockatiel chicks’ weights starting at 7 days. This is a general guideline not a strict chart from which you can’t deviate. Please remember that these weights are based on my own chicks and taken from my personal records. They are not etched in stone. My tiels are on the large size. For those with smaller parents, the weights of the chicks vary with the genetic history of the parents, depending on the breeder, whether the cockatiel is pet quality or show quality, or the overall health of the parents and chicks.

      Tiel Weights

7 days – 37 grams
14 days – 50-65 grams
21 days – 70-84 grams
28 days – 85-99 grams
35 days – 92-110 grams
42 days – 90-105 grams
49 days – 88-100 grams
56 days – 95-120 grams

Keeping good records will help you to identify any problems you may be having with the chicks. Most of my chicks fledge at three weeks of age. This means that they are already doing solo flights at 21 days of age. It is not unusual for chicks to lose some weight before their first flight. They will cut back on the amount of food they are eating in order to slim down for flying. This is instinctive with chicks who want to lose some of the baby fat so that they will be more aero-dynamic.

Many inexperienced handfeeders are fooled at this time thinking that the chick is weaning. I’ve found that the chicks’ appetites return around the sixth week when they begin to eat again. As a handfeeder it is important that you maintain the nutrition that is needed by the chick. This may mean with the fledging diet that you must feed less volume more often. I like my chicks to receive 20-30cc/ml of food each day. At this time I feed 5cc at each feeding and try to feed 4-5 times in a day depending upon the needs of the chick.

Handfeeding from Day One

Handfeeding day one chicks is more complicated due to the small size of the chick. There is more danger of aspirating a chick that is so small. Aspiration means that the food goes into the chick’s lungs rather than into the crop. When this happens the chick dies.

Another problem encountered with day one chicks is that we are unable to provide the same bacteria, immunities, and enzymes that the parent birds give their chicks. Chicks are born with sterile guts and need good bacteria to colonize the digestive tract. Bacteria is important for digestion. Without it, the chick is unable to properly digest the formula given to him. Even more important is that the handfeeder provide good gram positive bacteria to colonize the chick’s gut. Cockatiel chicks at hatch have a non functional immune system. The immune system remains immature until the tiel chick is three months old. The gram positive bacteria helps to fight off gram negative bacteria which would make the chick sick.

When handfeeding day one chicks you need to feed every one and a half to two hours around a twenty-four hour clock. It is important to feed as soon as the crop is empty. Since chicks may have crops that empty quickly, this is a very exhausting to the handfeeder. When undertaking feeding day one chicks its a good idea to have help. This allows for both to have a couple hours of sleep each day.

It’s recommended to handfeed day ones around the clock until they are five to seven days old or have gained enough weight to go longer without being handfed. This depends on the capacity of the crop to hold more food and if the handfeeder has slowly stretched the crop to increase the amount of food the crop will hold. It is not recommended that novices attempt to handfeed day one chicks because of the many problems that can be encountered. Overstretching the crop is a major problem and if the crop is filled beyond its normal capacity can result in a loss of muscle tone. Obviously handfeeding day ones is best left to the professional breeder who has the handfeeding experience necessary to do the job with a successful outcome.

Problems which may ocurr during handfeeding

One sign of trouble when handfeeding is that the chicks appear not to gain any weight. This can be due to a malabsorption problem, stunting, or failure to thrive. Many times a factor which is part of the trouble is that the chick is mildly to severely dehydrated. Fluids given by your avian veterinarian may make the difference in life or death for the chick. Sometimes the problems are so serious there is nothing that can be done to help a chick that is hatched with liver and kidney syndrome. Often the only indication that this is a problem is that the crop stops emptying.

Another sign of trouble is splayed legs in the chicks. This is when the leg juts out from the hip. There is thought to be multiple causes for this problem, one being a hen that is sitting too tight on her chicks. Another that the bedding in the nestbox is too slippery and doesn’t give the chick the firm footing needed to keep his legs under him. A calcium deficiency is thought to play a role in the development of splayed legs. It is important to remember that the embryo receives calcium from the egg shell while it is developing inside. Feeding the hen a calcium rich diet not only helps keep her healthy but also assures that the chick will have the calcium he needs as a developing embryo.

Other problems associated with handfeeding will be included in the next article.

When do tiel chicks wean?

One thing that any parent wants for their young is to see them independent and thriving in their lives. Tiel chicks are born dependent on their parents for every need. As handfeeders we worry about when the chick will wean. And are afraid that we will have the only tiel chick who remains wanting to be handfed at five years of age. Please believe when I say this – cockatiel chicks are the most stubbornly independent of any species of parrot. When they are completely weaned it is not likely that you will never be able to get a syringe back into their beaks.

So what are the signs that the chick is weaning. One sign is that they are begging less to be fed and eating more of the diet that is being put in front of them on a daily basis. Another is although they beg, whine, and cry to be handfed, when the syringe is placed in their mouth they take 1-2cc and go off to play. It is quite normal for a chick to lose some weight at weaning. A weight loss of more than ten percent is not normal and the chick should be evaluated by an avian veterinarian.

Weaning is a process. Each chick is a unique individual and no one can say that this chick will wean at this time. It is more important that weaning not be forced, but the chick be allowed to tell you when it is ready to be independent. Independent eating can be recognized by the chick’s ability to eat enough food to maintain his body weight from day to day. I recommend enjoying the time spent handfeeding and weaning the chick. You will find that they grow up quickly and become independent intelligent winged creatures sooner than you expected or wanted. Hopefully you will have raised healthy happy cockatiels and you have received much satisfaction in the experience of raising your chicks.

In the next articles we will cover the handfeeding process in more detail, such problems as slow crop, sour crop, crop stasis, crop burn, aspiration, bacterial and fungal infections, and dietary inadequacies and deficiences caused by an improper diet, setting up and using brooders and other handfeeding issues. I hope that this article will help you in making the decision whether to allow your chicks to be parent raised or hand fed. An informed and educated decision is one that needs to be made in the best interests of your birds.

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