The Responsible Breeding Of Cockatiels Part IV: Handfeeding Cockatiel Chicks

In this article you will find detailed information on how to handfeed your cockatiel chicks, the dangers of aspiration while handfeeding and the danger of overstretching the crop. Other issues that are dealt with are how the crop functions, sour crop, crop burns, and crop stasis, dealing with chicks that refuse to eat or that beg excessively and disease processes which may keep the crop from emptying. The use of probiotics which are needed for the colonization of the digestive tract, why they are necessary and which ones are best to use with parrot chicks are also discussed.

Handfeeding How Its Done And Other Important Considerations

ibsourcrpSince the cockatiel is altricial, meaning it is born blind and naked, it is totally dependent on the parent birds or the handfeeder for food, for warmth, for companionship, for love, and for comfort. You are the one responsible for seeing that the chicks are well fed and have what they need nutritionally to support life and growth.

Handfeeding chicks for 3-10 weeks is a demanding, time consuming job, which often keeps you house bound because the chicks need to be fed when they are hungry. This dependence continues through the first eight to ten weeks of the chick’s life. If you choose to be the chick’s primary care giver, some thought needs to given to the problems that you may encounter during the process of handfeeding.

Pulling The Chicks From The Nestbox

It’s time to pull the chicks. The brooder is warm and ready to receive the chicks from mom and dad. In my opinion it is better to do this after the parent birds have fed them the last meal for the day. This allows the crop to empty completely overnight. Hungry chicks are much easier to feed when trying to introduce a new food such as formula and a strange feeding implement like the syringe.

If the chicks are pulled before being completely feathered out, the temperature in the brooder will need to be higher in order to provide adequate heat for the chicks. Chicks without feathers are unable to thermo-regulate their body temperatures, so extra heat must be provided.

It must be remembered that when keeping chicks at constant high temperatures there is an increased risk of dehydration. You will also need to exercise caution when adding light. Any light that gives off heat may prove fatal to the chicks, as this can cause the temperature within the brooder to rise to dangerous levels.

You will want to frequently monitor the temperature of the baby brooder. If you should notice that the chicks are panting and holding their wings away from their bodies, they are too hot. You will need to lower the temperature by one degree and wait to see if the chicks are more comfortable. As the chicks get older and become feathered out you can decrease the temperature within the brooder.


As the one now responsible for the chick’s nutrition you want to make sure that you slowly stretch the crop to allow for more food to be fed. This is critical to the well being of the chick. At the same time you do not want to overstretch the crop so that the muscles no longer contract to empty the food into the stomach.

The maximum capacity of a cockatiel’s crop is 15cc/ml and at no time should the chick ever be fed more than that. To stretch the crop you want to feed a half of a cc more than you did at the last feeding. If the crop is not emptying as it normally does, you need to make adjustments in the amount of food, the temperature of the food, and make sure that the food has adequate liquid.

You have everything ready for the chicks. The formula is the right temperature 105-107 degrees fahrenheit which you have carefully checked with a thermometer. You have warm water to keep the syringes at the right temperature so that the formula doesn’t become cold before you feed the last chick.

The food should be smooth and without lumps. Food that is too dry will cause problems with slow crop.

Have a different syringe for each chick. It is easy to color code them and keep a log that says which color is used for each chick.

Everything has been sterilized and disinfected. Dirty areas and supplies are breeding grounds for bacteria which may result in disease or infections.

It is a good idea to use a heavy towel, which has been folded several times, to allow support for the chick’s legs so that they don’t slide out from the hips.


With the chick facing you, take the syringe and go into the chick’s beak on your right side. Direct the syringe across the tongue of the chick and towards the back of the throat pointing to your left hand. This is a mirror image, so you are aiming the syringe at the chick’s right side which is where the espohagus and the entrance to the crop is located.

Gently hold the chick’s head between the thumb and index finger of your left hand to give the chick some support. Pull up some on the chick’s neck and at a 90 degree angle slowly depress the plunger into the beak. The chick will pump rapidly to take the food.

While feeding do not place any pressure on the sides of the beak. At this young age the beak is very soft and maleable. Pressure can cause beak deformities or may result in scissors beak in the chick.

Do not feed too quickly. You want to give the chick time to swallow. If you see food beginning to back up into the mouth, stop feeding until the chick has had time to swallow all the food that is there. Aspiration is a very real danger when the food backs up into the chick’s throat. Food in the lungs most of the time is fatal to the chick. Aspiration, when not fatal, usually results in aspiration pneumonia, which requires treatment by an avian veterinarian so that the chick can receive the right antibiotic.

Food consistency is very important when handfeeding. When the chicks are just pulled, the food should be the consistency of a creamed soup. As the chick gets older, the food gets thicker while the number of feedings a day decreases. Between six to ten weeks I feed formula that is much like cake batter. The chicks are eating three feedings a day of 10cc/ml and are exploring their weaning foods.

When trying to cut out one of the feedings, I reduce the amount of food in the syringe until they will no longer eat any formula at that feeding. At the same time I check the chicks’ weights to be sure that they are not losing too much weight. The nutrition the chick receives is up to the handfeeder, so you must be viligant to ensure the health of the chicks.

One of the problems starts between three and four weeks when the tiel chick will go on the pre-flight diet, becoming more areo-dynamic for that first solo flight. This tends to confuse the novice handfeeder, thinking that the chicks are weaning early, when really what is happening is that the chicks are getting ready to fly. The chicks will refuse to eat.

At this time, I’ve found that it is best to feed less volume in the syringe more often. My goal is that the chicks receive twenty to thirty cc/mls of food each day. Five cc/mls at a feeding means four to five feedings in one day. This usually lasts until the chicks are six weeks old, at which time their appetites return and they require more food in each feeding.

Never allow any chick to go to bed with an empty crop. The crop should be checked and if not full, then food should be given to the chick before he/she goes to sleep for the night. During the hours before breakfast, the crop should be allowed to empty completely. A crop that is not empty in the morning is a warning flag that something may be wrong with the chick.

If this happens you may want to try some digestive enyzmes such as papaya or you can give a little baby applesauce. At the same time you want to consult with your avian veterinarian and ask for his/her recommendations as to how to deal with the problem. Some avian vets will recommend the use of probiotics. You want to establish a good relationship with your vet so if you encounter problems when handfeeding you will have a medical professional who can help.

Feeding How Much And When

Feeding your chicks is in direct relation to the age when you take the chicks away from their parents. When I pull chicks at ten days of age, I feed every three hours from 6am till midnight. The chicks are given 5-6cc/mls at a feeding. At the same time I am slowly stretching the crop at each feeding so that the crop will hold 10cc/ml by the time the chick is a week older. The food fed to chicks this young is the consistency of creamed soup.The food should have enough liquid that it is neither too dry or lumpy. Food that is too rich for the chicks may cause the crop to slow down.

As the chicks get older the number of feedings decrease while the handfeeding formula gets thicker to meet the chick’s nutritional needs. I prefer to slowly decrease the amount of food that is in the syringe when trying to remove one of the feedings, rather than cut the feeding out cold turkey. Once the chicks stop taking any formula for that particular feeding, I stop it. With chicks that are four weeks old I feed every four hours, at five weeks usually five times a day. Instead of starting feedings at 6am as I would with chicks just pulled from the nest, I move the morning feeding to 7am and the bedtime feeding to 11pm.

As the number of feedings decrease, the thickness of the formula that is fed increases. At eight weeks I feed food that is the consistency of cake batter – usually three feedings a day spaced eight hours apart. I continue this until weaning. Most of my chicks wean around ten weeks of age, so I am able to provide them with good nutrition as well as giving them an abundance of weaning foods.

Chicks should never be put to bed with an empty crop. Babies this age need food during the night, unlike adult birds. Your chicks can not go long hours without food. This may result in a weakened chick or can cause serious health problems.

Weighing Chicks and Record Keeping

During handfeeding you will want to closely monitor the weight of your chick. Closely monitoring the chick’s weight will help you to identify problems with the chick. Weight loss is one of the first warning signs that the chick is in trouble. You want to weigh the chick at the same time, and under the same conditions everyday.

Keeping a detailed log is important in assessing your chick’s progress. In the log you will want to note the age of the chick, the chick’s weight, the amount of food that has been given to the chick at each feeding. This is especially helpful when you are trying to stretch the capacity of the crop. It gives you an accurate guage by to determine progress in stretching the crop without over feeding the chick. You will want to include how much food the chick has eaten for the day and the chick’s weight gain.

Chicks should gain one to two grams a day. What is important here is that the chick is gaining weight. A weight gain of 10-12 grams per day is normal for very young chicks. There are two times during the handfeeding process when some weight loss is normal – pre-flight and weaning.

Cockatiel chicks are known for their pre-flight diet as they approach three to four weeks of age. Suddenly the chicks stop eating as much, which is confusing and frustrating to those who are new to handfeeding. At this time the chick will lose weight in preparation for flight. Novice handfeeders may mistake this for weaning. However after some solo flights the chick’s appetite returns – usually around the sixth week. At this time you will find the chick is more interested in eating and will increase the amount taken at each feeding. As the handfeeder you are ultimately responsible for seeing that the chicks get adequate nutrition while on the pre-flight diet. Many breeders will tell you that this is easier said than done. Tiel chicks can be especially stubborn when getting ready for flight. My own personal strategy for this is to feed less volume in the syringe more often. At three to four weeks I want my chicks to get 20-30cc/mls of food a day. The chick’s need for good nutrition doesn’t go away just because it is getting ready for flight. The diet must support growth and sustain life. To accomplish this I give 5cc/mls of food at each feeding which results in five to six feedings for the day.

This is why keeping a detailed log is so essential to the successful handfeeding of your cockatiel chicks. It will accurately reflect the progress of your chicks and will help you to quickly identify any chick that may be in trouble. Some of the warning signs are so subtle that they can be missed without keeping good records. If you have a chick that is losing weight and the chick is not fledging nor weaning you will need to consult your avian veterinarian as soon as possible.

Natural Intestinal Tract Flora

The use of probiotics in providing good bacteria to the gastrointestinal tract of baby birds is often used by a breeder. Cockatiels have about forty natural organisms in their digestive tract. These organisms are essential to the life and normal health of the bird. The sole purpose for giving gram positive bacteria is the colonization of the digestive tract. This it is hoped will prevent any disease causing bacteria, yeast, and other viral pathogens from becoming established in the bird’s system.

The digestive tract doesn’t function normally when the natural bacteria which the chick gets from mom and dad isn’t there or that bacteria is present in very limited quantities. The overuse of antibiotics and digestive upsets in the chicks will also effect the normal activity of the gastrointestinal tract. Providing a good probiotic is often beneficial to chicks who have been pulled early as a result of problems with the parent birds.

The Crop and Crop Problems

As mentioned in a previous article, 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 contracting as they push the food stored in the crop into the stomach.

When the crop becomes atonic (loses muscle tone) because of being overstretched with too much food, the muscles won’t contract efficiently. This causes food to be left in the bottom of the crop and it becomes sour. Food that has been in the crop for very long periods of time becomes acidic, creating an unhealthy environment in the crop. This condition is known as sour crop.

Sour crop may also develop if the food that is fed is too cool or if the brooding temperatures allow the chick to become cold. Food and environmental temperatures play a significant role in the development of sour crop.

Adding baking soda may be one way to neutralize acid in the crop. Before doing this, it is recommended that you consult with your avian veterinarian.

The problem can be made worse by adding new food on top of old sour food, which may cause the crop to shut down completely. When the crop shuts down, the chick is in danger of starving to death. This is known as crop stasis. Crop stasis involves more than just the crop. The intestines are affected and the liver may also be compromised. This is why decreasing the amount of protein and fat in the chick’s diet when the crop slows down is so important. A significant factor is that the chick is usually suffering from dehydration. If you are able to get fluids to the chick and rehydrate the digestive tract this will help to prevent the chick’s body from drawing so hard on the fluid content within the gut.

The chick’s metabolism is adversely affected when cold food is fed, which results in a chilled chick. Food that is fed too cold will draw out the heat reserves in the body. The chick is then unable to properly digest his food because his metabolism has slowed down.

Another much more serious reason for the crop to stop emptying is disease. Fungal infections such as yeast may be far too advanced to cure. The kidneys may have stopped working because of fatty liver disease and kidney syndrome. If a bacterial or yeast infection is suspected, consulting an avian veterinarian is critical to saving the life of the chick. Without the immediate care of an avian veterinarian, the chick will die.

Early Warning Sign Of A Problem

It is very important to monitor chicks so that you are aware of the amount of time that it takes for the chick’s crop to empty. The crop should almost empty between feedings. A slower gut transit time is a definite indicator that all is not well with the chick.

If you notice that the food is moving more slowly through the gut, you will need to take appropriate steps to resolve the problem. After the crop has emptied reduce the protein and fat content of the diet. Too much protein may adversely affect the vital organs while the chick is ill. A diet rich in carbohydrates places less stress on the digestive tract of the chick. It is therefore best to feed a diet high in carbohydrates. The carbohydrates will add energy to the diet and will reduce the amount of time that it takes the food to move through the digestive tract. This makes it easier for the chick to receive the nutrients it needs and adds energy to the diet to support a bird that isn’t well.

Dangers When Feeding The Chick

There are several dangers that may be encountered with feeding the chick. Very young chicks swallow slowly, so time must be given for the chicks to swallow the food. The very young chick tires easily and loses body heat when it is away from the brooder. There is a grave danger that the chick will chill and that the chill will slow down the crop. You will want to have your hands warm before picking up the chick. As stated previously cold food causes sour crop.

Equally dangerous is food that is fed too hot. This can severely burn the crop. Recommended temperatures for feeding tiel chicks is 105-107 degrees Fahrenheit. Always check the temperature of the food being fed with a thermometer. Don’t trust your wrist as over time you desensitize to the temperature and could feed food that is much too hot for the chick.

Overfeeding the chick by putting too much food in the crop causes the muscles of the crop to overstretch and stop working. If this happens, the chick may starve to death.

The most serious of all is the aspiration of a chick – getting food into the chick’s lungs. In most young chicks, when this happens the chick dies in a matter of seconds. If the aspiration doesn’t result in the death of the chick, pneumonia develops. The chick must be taken to an avian veterinarian who will be able to prescribe antibiotics to stop the pneumonia.

Serious problems may be encountered with the choice of a handfeeding instrument. A gavage needle in the hands of someone who doesn’t know how to use it properly is deadly. It is easy to perforate the espoghaus or the crop with the needle. Tube feeding can be equally as deadly. If you have the tube in the lungs rather than in the crop you aspirate the chick. Another problem is if the tube is too short. You may lose the tube in the crop, which means an avian veterinarian is needed to remove the foreign body (the feeding tube) from the crop.

Making the formula fresh is also very important to successfully handfeed your chicks. Left over formula is a ripe breeding ground for bacteria and yeast which may harm the chick.

Chicks Won’t Eat

Allow the chicks to become hungry after pulling them from the nestbox. The best time to pull the chicks is after their last feeding by the parent birds. I’ve found that pulling the chicks late in the evening works best.

A well fed chick that is not hungry is going to be less cooperative when its time to eat from the new “strange” feeding syringe. Hungry chicks eat better from a syringe and are much more receptive to eating, since their tummies are empty.

The food temperature is critical. Chicks will refuse to eat food that is too cold or hot. If the chick is refusing the food, check the temperature with your thermometer. It is most likely too cold for the chick.

Some chicks are reluctant to eat simply because they do not like the taste of the handfeeding formula. One suggestion for dealing with this is to add a very small amount of baby sweet potato to the formula. I’ve found that this improves the taste for some of my chicks. Another thing which can be done is while the parent birds are feeding the chicks, add some dry handfeeding formula to the other foods that the parents are feeding. It is important to add dry handfeeding formula to dry foods. You do not want to get the handfeeding formula wet. Bacterial growth can result if the formula becomes wet.

Chicks Are Begging Excessively

Hungry chicks beg to be fed. The cockatiel utters a static whine accompanied by head bobbing which indicates the chick is begging for food. If the chick is begging excessively, you need to determine the cause. Inadequate feeding may be the problem. Insufficient volume will compromise the nutrition that the chick is receiving. The frequency that the chick is fed is equally important. A sufficient number of feedings each day are essential to meet the chick’s needs. If the formula is too watery, it won’t meet the chick’s daily requirements for vitamins and minerals. As a result the chick may become stunted or suffer from failure to thrive because of malnutrition.

Whether handfed or parent-fed, the nutrient needs of young altricial birds are presumably the same. Thus, breeding adult psittacines that are raising their young requires diets that are adequate to support growth. If the parents are fed an inadequate diet, they are not able to give to their chicks the immunities, good bacteria, and vital health factors which are needed by the chicks.

Air In The Crop

When feeding very young chicks, novice handfeeders will occasionally have air in the crop. This is because the chick is attempting to eat the formula faster than the food is being fed. As a result, the chick is swallowing air as he tries to gulp the food. A major concern is that the air is taking up space instead of food. This, if not corrected, will compromise the nutrition that the chick is receiving. In order to get rid of the air in the crop, it is best to burp the chick. In order to burp the chick you will want to want until the crop is almost empty and it’s time for the chick’s next feeding. You will want to very gently extend the neck and massage the crop pushing the air out, thus burping the chick. Once the chick is burped, you want to feed a sufficient quantity of food as fast as the chick wants to eat it so that you eliminate the chick gulping air during the feeding. As the chick gets older, this problem usually corrects itself. However if there continues to be a problem with air in the crop, an avian vet should be consulted in order to diagnose the problem.


During the process of handfeeding you may encounter a problem with the chick vomiting. Some causes for this happening are overfeeding, gastrointestinal infections such as yeast or bacteria, blockage in the digestive tract, weaning, or crop stasis. It is very important to determine the reason for the vomiting, whether it is related to the husbandry techniques of the breeder or actual disease in the chick. Some psittacines normally vomit during the weaning process. This is normal in the African Grey parrot. You will want to evaluate your husbandry practices to see if perhaps the chick is being overfed or is in the process of weaning. After making that determination if the problem persists, then you should immediately contact your avian veterinarian so that you don’t lose the chick. Vomiting results in a badly dehydrated chick which is critically ill and needs emergency medical care. It is very important that you make the assessment quickly to save the chick’s life.

Impaction of the Proventriculus, Ventriculus

Impaction in the chick is normally associated with the ingestion of bedding substrate, the feeding of grit, or by feeding formula that is too dry for the chick. This is quite serious as it completely shuts down the chick’s digestive tract. Since the chick is badly dehydrated, there is an urgent need to get fluids to the chick as soon as possible. This is easily remedied when the cause is feeding formula that is too dry. You can give the chick non-flavored pedialyte at the same temperature you would for feeding formula and very gently massage the crop without pushing up. Pushing up on the crop may cause food to be forced into the chick’s lungs and thereby aspirating the chick. When the reason for the impaction is the ingestion of a foreign object, bedding substrate, or grit you need to get the chick to an avian veterinarian as soon as possible.

As you can see handfeeding is a time consuming job that you as the handfeeder must assume full responsibility for. Being the source of life for another creature must be taken seriously. Providing for the needs of parrot chicks that are born naked and blind unable to care for themselves is a challenging and rewarding job. However it is a job that requires commitment. The goal is to produce happy, fat, healthy chicks who are well socialized and enjoy life with their companions. When considering taking on the job of raising another, creature it is important to make the decision that you will do it the right way, no matter what the cost. Breeding is not for fun. It is serious business that involves the nuturing care of the lives of parrots. My hope is if you decide to breed your cockatiels, you will do it for love and with respect for the lives of your birds.

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