Hand Raised or Parent Raised: Which is Better for the Birds?

Updated: Jan 29

Hand Raised or Parent Raised - There are three methods of raising chicks: by the parents or foster parents feeding them to abundance weaning while people socialize them by handling them (co-parenting); by human (artificial) means only, known as hand-feeding or hand-raising; and by parents and humans, both engaging in feeding (still considered hand-feeding).

The arguments for and against hand-rearing of birds in the Psittacine family abound. Hand-rearing has been the accepted technique by breeders, buyers, and some veterinarians for more than 40 years, and most veterinarians have not discouraged the practice. During this time, studies have been done by researchers and veterinarians on the benefits and drawbacks associated with this practice.

There are two valid reasons for hand-raising chicks: The first is to preserve a species that is in danger of extinction due to the enormous number of birds of that species captured in the wild and the destruction of habitat. Many have died in the process of being captured, shipped, quarantined, and sold to people not knowledgeable about bird care, with very few of the species left in the wild or even in breeding programs.

Breeders of these species fear the parents may harm the chicks or not feed them well, so they pull the chicks and hand-feed them. In these cases, hand-raising will significantly reduce the potential for eggs being broken in the nest or parental neglect. This is frequently done in zoos and wildlife institutions.

The second reason is to prevent eggs and/or chicks from being harmed by parents who have a history of damaging eggs or attacking the chicks. One reason for parent birds harming or neglecting the young is that they have not been permitted to care for the chicks themselves in the past, and they are acting out of frustration.

1. Hand-rearing: A Historical Perspective

During the bird craze of the 1970’s, 1980’s and 1990’s, with the influx of so many wild-caught birds, breeding became big business. These birds were wild and aggressive, so breeders assumed that their offspring would be uncontrollable and aggressive too. Even after importation of wild-caught parrots was banned in many countries, breeders continued to hand-rear in order to produce tame birds for the pet trade. They assumed that if they took the eggs and chicks away from the parents and raised the babies by hand, the birds would bond with people instead of their wild parents and thus would make better pets. At the time, it was considered the best method of preparing the birds to be tame pets which would form a strong bond with the owner. It was cost-effective for the breeder since it prevented losses due to broken eggs, accidental injuries, and abuse or neglect from the parents [2]. Removing the eggs and incubating them artificially, away from parents, has been done for a decades -and this practice needs to stop! It is unnatural and results in many deaths in the egg and after hatching. Chicks are deprived of the comfort and bonding with their parents and siblings. Again, it’s thought that they will bond better with humans, which is not true. It creates maladjusted, often crippled and neurotic chicks, and frustrated parents. Breeders argue that the pairs will lay multiple clutches a year, thus bringing in more money for them. Selling them before they were weaned also brings them in more money since they didn’t have to wait as long for the sales, and new owners loved the idea of hand-feeding their new chicks. Breeders also contend that hand-reared birds are more tame and trusting of humans and consequently would become more desirable and enjoyable pets which would sell quickly. Even though now, many generations later, the original wild-caught birds have long since died, and the chicks we have seen in the last 20 years are now the descendants of tame birds, the practice has continued and still persists today [2]. For those who breed on a large scale, greed takes precedence over the needs of the birds. Most birds on the market today are produced in bird mills and sold in pet shops. It is from these mills that poorer quality, often unhealthy, diseased birds come. Neither the parents nor the chicks receive medical care, and their husbandry and quality of life are sub-standard. They are force-weaned, clipped to prevent flight, and sold to anyone who will pay the price. Some breeders never give their birds a break from breeding; both males and females become exhausted, malnourished, sick, and eventually die. The hens in particular die from calcium deficiency, egg-binding, cloacal prolapses, and other reproductive illnesses. Many of the chicks either die, or are of such poor quality for not having received superior quality and quantity nutrition and care, that they are not sellable; nor do they make good breeding stock, and so they are culled. Eggs are pulled and artificially incubated, or chicks are pulled from the nest after two weeks or sooner to be hand-fed [2]. The Netherlands now has legislation preventing breeders from hand-feeding their chicks and separating the parents from the chicks.

Information on avian welfare legislation may be found in Appendix I

Of course, there are reputable, small-scale breeders who do rest their birds so that they do not become exhausted by overproduction of chicks in a short amount of time. They provide quality nutrition and veterinary care and thus raise healthy, hand-fed chicks. There are still two crucial factors missing, though: the needs of the parent birds to complete the reproductive cycle by caring for their babies, and the needs of the chicks to be with their parents and siblings and learn how to become independent, self-confident adults [2]. So this begs the questions: Are these bird breeders really achieving their goals of making a profit if chicks die from poor breeding and hand-rearing techniques? Do the chicks necessarily become better pets for having been pulled and hand-fed? And is producing such birds truly advantageous if there are more negatives attached to this practice than positives?

2. Hand-rearing Techniques

Most pet birds that are reaching the pet market today have been hand-raised. Breeders either take the chicks from the parents and nest at a very young age and at an early stage of development and raise them in brooders, or they pull the eggs from the nest, incubate them artificially, and hatch them outside the nest. After that, the chicks are raised by humans and hand-fed with a hand-raising formula from a spoon, syringe or crop needle (see Figure 4 and 5). If the birds had been allowed to hatch in the nest, they are often pulled from the nest at approximately two weeks of age. This is about the time that the eyelids open. The hand-raised baby birds are kept in brooders or tubs, either singly or in small clutches, and are hand-fed until weaning. In the wild, parents whose chicks are lost due to predation or in-shell death will see this as nest failure and begin the reproductive cycle again. The same thing happens with captive birds. This is how breeders get the birds to lay multiple clutches within the year, thus earning them additional income [2].

3. Meeting the Needs of the Hand-raised Chick

If the breeder has no choice but to hand-rear the chick, he should make every effort to meet the bird’s physiological, behavioral, and emotional needs as it goes through each phase of its development. In addition, if the breeder raises neonates together in an enclosure instead of in individual containers, he may be able to avoid the abnormal developments often seen in hand-reared birds. These groupings should consist of birds of a similar age and species. “Mixed species and mixed-age settings, however, may also yield good results, whereby the young birds seek touching, sleep readily, play with, and are curious about others. Thus, this method poses as a suitable alternative that is widely accepted and used by breeders nowadays.” [1,2].

4. Significance of the Studies on Hand-rearing of Psittacine Birds

From the 1990’s up until today, some breeders, aviculturists, and veterinarians began to notice that the hand-feeding of birds was not working. Studies have been done during the past three decades on the advantages and disadvantages of hand-feeding, and comparisons were made between chicks that were parent-raised and those that were hand-raised by humans. Except for the need to care for the chick whose parents abandoned, neglected, harmed, or refused to feed the chick, or hand-rearing in order to preserve the species, there are no advantages for the parents or chicks in hand-feeding; in fact, there are many disadvantages [11]. In these studies and observations on the effects of egg-pulling and hand-rearing, it became obvious that hand-reared chicks were not as healthy, either physically or psychologically, as were their parent-raised counterparts. In addition, many breeding pairs refused to breed anymore; in fact, many will crush eggs, harm, or neglect the babies out of frustration at not being permitted to raise their chicks as nature intended. They refused to engage in the reproductive cycle [11].

5. Responsibilities of Breeders and Potential Owners

Hand-feeding and hand-raising birds continues to this day, even though research has shown it is not beneficial for the chicks or parents. It is also very time-consuming and stressful for the breeders to keep up this practice. Practitioners, aviculturists, pet-shop personnel, breeders, potential buyers, and bird owners need to be educated about the potentially harmful effects hand-raising has on birds. Breeders should be encouraged to replace hand-rearing of their chicks with parent-raising and co-parenting (handling of birds during the time the parents are raising them.) This way, the birds would be allowed to be in their nests for several weeks after weaning, allowing them to become socialized with other birds and ensuring that their development is based on self-orientation as birds. Those seeking to purchase should be encouraged to seek out parent-raised birds and be instructed about what to look for in a new bird prior to its purchase [2]. Allowing the parents to raise them for a few weeks, then pulling them for hand-feeding is not co-parenting; it is still hand-feeding.

6. Observations of Professional, Small-scale Breeders and Owners

The author has received several messages from hobby breeders and owners on this topic. They sent their perspectives on hand-feeding, parent-feeding, and co-parenting. As former hand-feeders, they have seen a dramatic improvement in the quality of the birds since they have begun co-parenting, and their birds are in high demand.

Comments by owners and breeders on the advantages of parent-raised birds are in Appendix II.

7. A Highly Respected Avian Veterinarian Compares Hand-raised and Parent-raised Chicks

In his studies, highly respected avian veterinarian Brian Speer makes the following observations as he compares hand-raised and parent-raised birds and their wild counterparts:

  • “Hand-fed parrot chicks in captivity receive human socialization, feeding, grooming and vocal contact from their hand-feeders. Parent-raised birds are fed and reared by their parents, with copious amounts of parental time invested in direct contact, feeding, vocalizing, grooming and physically contacting them during their development.

  • After these hand-fed young are fledged or weaned, however, they typically are sold into the pet trade with no further broadening of their social education necessarily planned or recommended. Parent-raised birds learn to fly and explore their environment with and from their parents, learn to recognize and communicate socially with other conspecifics (birds of the same species), and learn how to forage and recognize environmental hazards.

  • Owners of hand-fed birds persist with close physical contact, vocalization, preening and other parent-to-chick types of behaviors with their own mental picture that this type of contact and relationship is representative of a “quality” or “bonded” pet bird relationship. However, the chicks fail to learn the social skills necessary to make them good companion birds. Parent-raised birds learn social skills from their parents that enable them to live a healthy, happy existence.

  • The young, hand-reared parrots grow to the age of sexual maturity with virtually no learned social or communication skills other than those they received since hatching, making them unable to possess the necessary sexual maturity to effectively reproduce. However, at sexual maturation, parent-raised birds have learned social communication skills which allow them to be in sexually mature, monogamous pairings within a reproductive pair bond.

  • Those species that rely most heavily on learned, social-behavioral interaction skills and are hand-raised are more predisposed to problems than those species that are not as dependent. Parent-raised birds have few, if any, behavioral difficulties due to learned social interaction skills.” [11].

8. Disadvantages of Hand-raising Chicks

Many of the chicks:

  • Didn’t hatch.

  • Were deformed and thus were euthanized.

  • Became ill since they hadn’t received the immunity from their parents.

  • Died before they had a chance to mature due to poor handling and feeding methods.

  • Imprinted on people to the point that they became neurotic and very needy pets.

  • Suffered from stunted emotional development so intense that they could not be apart from the human for any length of time at all, for the rest of their lives, thus exhibiting neurotic behavior such as screaming, feather-picking and self-mutilation.

  • They experienced stunted social development in that they feared other birds, did not know how to interact with other birds, or how to entertain themselves when left alone [11].

9. Hand-rearing Complications

Once the birds are a few weeks old, they are forced to wean, whether they are ready or not. The humans decide when to remove the babies from the nest, when and how to incubate the eggs, and when it is time for the chicks to be weaned to solid foods, such as pellets, seeds, fruits and vegetables. “This man-made definition of weaning is very different from that which occurs in the wild or in parent-raised breeding situations.” [2].

9.1 Forced Weaning of Hand-raised Birds is Physically Harmful to the Chicks

  • Hand-reared chicks are forced to wean at a very early age, sometimes months earlier than would occur naturally.

  • Weaning of hand-raised birds generally starts at the time when the birds fledge and is often completed after two weeks (fledging is the stage in a flying animal's life between hatching or birth and becoming capable of flight.).

  • After fledging, the birds are more difficult to control and often have their wings trimmed prior to developing adequate flight skills. This often results in damage to the wings, inability to fly ever again, crashes to the floor and damage to the keel, vent, and abdomen.

  • The birds are weaned onto solid foods for which their digestive tracts are not sufficiently developed.

  • Sale of the birds occurs as soon as weaning has been achieved. Birds are often sold prior to weaning so the birds can bond to the new owner. This is extremely detrimental since many owners have very little, if any, knowledge of how to correctly care for and wean the birds.

  • These birds have essentially been raised in isolation from the time that they can see. They have only seen humans providing a food source, and there is minimal socialization for any of these birds with other birds. They are then sold into generally a single bird household.” Parent-raised birds are raised and live in a flock. So living in a single-bird home is unnatural for them [2].

10. Behavioral Issues Associated with Hand-reared Chicks

So what are the consequences of hand-raising chicks? Because these birds were raised in an unnatural manner, they “never developed an appropriate sense of self” [2]. Pulling the eggs, artificially incubating them, and hand-feeding the chicks result in birds which have imprinted on humans instead of other birds. Even if they are allowed a few weeks in the nest before being pulled, the result is almost the same. The imprinting is not quite the same as it is with the artificially incubated chicks, but very close. Consequently, these birds “often have a human self-orientation, leading to the development of an abnormal human‐bird bond” [2].

10.1 Aberrant Behavior Involving Developmental Skills

According to A. Gallagher, There is a specific window of time during which birds learn initial, social developmental skills. They are learning how to be birds from other birds in the nest during this time. If this learning time is not permitted, and is instead replaced with abnormal human self-identification, it is essentially impossible to reverse. This bond produces many undesirable behaviors:

  • Separation anxiety. The new human family becomes the bird’s flock. The bird does not understand why the flock leaves it alone all day, defenseless. If this were a wild scenario, a lone bird would be defenseless against a predator. This situation causes severe anxieties for many companion birds [2].

  • Aggression. The new owners generally have no real understanding of the techniques required to discipline or train their bird as would naturally occur in the flock situation. This is why you will hear of many birds becoming ‘feral’ and aggressive after being cuddly babies [2].

  • Sexually-fueled separation anxiety. Before maturity, the bird will choose a mate from the human flock. The bird has the same expectations as the wild-breeding pairs. The bird expects to never be more than a few yards from its breeding mate. It does not understand the need for us to enter another room without it, go to work or leave for holidays. Again, extreme separation anxiety and neurotic behaviors occur, resulting in screaming, feather plucking and self-mutilation, stereotypic behaviors, nervous tics, aggression, and destructive behaviors [2].

  • Mate aggression. The bird will adore one family member (its breeding mate) but attack all others who come close [2].

  • Territorial aggression. These birds will defend their cage from other flock members, biting anyone who ventures too near the nest site (cage). Often birds will develop a predilection for other sites around the house for nesting and defense, e.g. behind kitchen appliances, in drawers, behind cushions, under beds or other furniture, even inside the owner’s clothes while being worn! [2].

  • Sexual frustration. Aggression is usually a result of failure on the part of the human to provide gratification. The human is the “chosen one,” the mate they want to reproduce with. When you pet and love her, that's foreplay to a bird who doesn't have another bird for a mate. When the attention you give the bird doesn't result in continuing the natural progression to breeding, she is frustrated and takes her anger out on the "chosen person" for not finishing what he/she started. The frustration can be huge, and the bird will often turn on herself or himself to relieve the frustration. Because hand-fed birds are abnormally attached to the chosen person, they will scream, self-mutilate, attack, masturbate, and lay eggs more than parent-raised birds do [2].

  • Excessive egg production. Female birds (hens) breed as a result of several external factors. The primary factors are generally long day lengths, a high-energy, high-calorie diet, frequent bathing, a stable mate, and nesting environment. Birds with an abnormal human‐bird bond, kept under artificial light after dusk and on a seed-based diet, have all the prerequisites for egg-laying. These birds generally lay large numbers of eggs. “This excess production has a dramatic impact on the hen’s nutritional status and often results in osteopenia (low bone density leading to osteoporosis), cloacal prolapses, fractures, and reproductive complications. When laying, most birds will display territorial aggression around the nest site” [2].

Some owners attempt to relieve the bird’s anxiety by obtaining another bird, but often neither bird has the skills needed for social interaction, so “they often appear to live like ‘two lamps on a shelf’ with no recognition of each other” [2]. Once this abnormal human-bird bond develops and problem behaviors begin, it is very difficult to completely eliminate them, but these behaviors can be modified with education and training [2].

Pamela Clark’s Blog, Early Beginnings for Parrots, can be found in Appendix III

10.2 The Connection Between Hand-rearing, Aberrant Behaviors, and Health Issues in Specific Species

There is evidence of a pathological connection between hand-rearing and aberrant behavior in adult companion birds. Any species may exhibit these unwanted behaviors, but the groups in which these are most often seen are the cockatoos, Amazons, and to a somewhat lesser extent, macaws. Behavioral disorders are most frequently encountered in the larger psittacine species, although they can be found in the smaller species as well. And although physical health issues are more commonly seen in the smaller species, such as the cockatiel, budgerigar and parrotlets as a result of hand-rearing, they may be found in the larger species as well [2].

10.3 Differences in Behavioral Development toward Novel Objects

Parental separation and hand-rearing affect the development of other behaviors. When first introduced to new objects, hand-raised birds did not display as much fear as parent-raised birds. However, this fear was only postponed. By the time the birds were a year old, both hand-reared and parent-reared birds, housed under similar conditions after weaning, reacted in the same way after being exposed to new objects. It is possible that delayed maturation or “generalized exposure to new items” played a part in the difference [12]. Birds become less fearful of new things in their environment, indicating that they are sensitive to changes for quite a while after weaning; then they gradually adapt to new environmental conditions. “In the wild, this may aid them in decreasing the risks of predation or ingestion of toxic materials. It also may increase the chances that they’ll find new foraging sites, nest sites, or mates.” [12]. As a result, parrots that dwell in frequently changing environments tend to be less fearful of new situations and objects than those that inhabit relatively constant, predictable environments. Birds in captivity display the same behaviors. When young birds are exposed to items that are new or frequently rotated and environments that are diverse, they have less fear of new places or objects. These findings emphasize the importance of regular rotation of toys and other enrichments; simply providing the enrichments and leaving them indefinitely is not stimulating for the bird. There must be frequent changes in their environments. However, we must be very careful when presenting new objects or housing to fearful birds; too many changes too close together can intensify the fearful behaviors. “Individual differences in reactivity to novel experiences must always be considered when providing enrichment opportunities or new environments to birds.” [12].

Image 10A (left). This hand-raised African grey parrot on the left (Psittacus erithacus) was presented with a novel object, a child’s teething toy in the shape of a monkey. Although the bird did not panic, it was reluctant to approach this new toy. The reluctance to approach a novel object is referred to as “neophobia” (Image courtesy Yvonne Van Zeeland, in Speer: Current Therapy in Avian Medicine and Surgery). Image 10B (right). This parent-raised African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) was presented with the same novel object as the parrot in Figure 6- A. Despite the fact that this bird had also never been in contact with the toy, it immediately approached this new toy and started to explore it with its beak and feet (Image courtesy Yvonne Van Zeeland in Speer: Current Therapy in Avian Medicine and Surgery).

10.4 Abnormal Sexual Behaviors in Hand-reared Birds

Hand-raised birds are also more prone to develop abnormal sexual behaviors toward humans. These include regurgitation, masturbation, courtship behavior, territorial aggression, sudden onset of phobic behaviors, excessive vocalizations, continued begging and whining for food (including delayed weaning), and feather-damaging behavior. “Many of these abnormal behaviors may develop as a result of frustration (e.g., inability to sexually bond with humans) or to seek attention from the caregiver. As such, they appear similar to the “orphanage syndrome” or “relative-attachment disorder” described in human children who have been deprived of affection and stability in their early childhood” [12]. Birds that are hand-reared are deprived of the necessary contact with other birds of the same species as well as with their parents and siblings. This contact with conspecifics is needed to establish normal social and sexual behaviors [12].

11. Comparison of Emotional and Social Developmental between Hand-raised and Parent-raised Birds

Parrots are a highly social species, and their “visual, tactile, and auditory development is greatly influenced by interaction with parents and siblings.” [12]. Hand-reared birds consider humans part of the flock, and this means that parrots will become accustomed to being handled and having physical contact with people. In order to achieve this level of comfort with humans, hand-rearing “has long been the accepted method, as it is thought to help strengthen the human–psittacine bond, thereby resulting in a bird that is more attached to humans and able to positively interact with people.” [12]. However, the lack of parent involvement and interaction with other birds of its own species “can severely impact the emotional and social development of the captive psittacine bird and result in displays of abnormal behaviors.” [12].

11.1 Social Relationships

Social relationships may be disrupted as well when birds are hand-raised. Hand-reared parrots are often more inclined to prefer social contact with their humans than with other birds. However, birds that were raised by the parents and also handled by humans during the neonatal period (i.e., five, 20-minute sessions per week), preferred the companionship of humans and other birds of their species equally. Van Zeeland infers from this that hand-raising is more disruptive of a bird’s social development than the stresses of being tamed [12]. Chicks who are brooded and reared by their parents, in contrast, have many advantages over hand-raised chicks. “The brooding and rearing of chicks by the parents is far more beneficial for the chicks’ emotional and social development [12].

See “The Importance of Parental Nurturing” in Appendix IV

Image 13. This image shows what a typical hand-rearing nursery looks like. “After the incubation of the eggs, the birds are hatched and the chicks placed in large nurseries for hand-rearing. In this nursery setting, the birds are housed alone or in groupings with other birds of the same species. These large nest-bins can be pulled out to allow them to socialize with the other chicks who share their bin and those in the bins next to them. When these nest-bins are rolled in, they provide a secure, dark nest cavity. However, this method of chick-rearing is not as preferable as leaving them with the parents; they are not receiving the attention and socialization that are necessary for development that they would normally receive from the parents” (text and image courtesy Yvonne Van Zeeland in Speer: Current Therapy in Avian Medicine and Surgery).

When placed in these bins and rolled into darkness, the birds are entirely alone, which is terrifying for chicks. They need the parents and siblings to feel secure.

12. Comparison of Growth Rates between Hand-Raised and Parent-raised Chicks

In order to hand-raise birds, breeders will place the eggs in an incubator or remove them from the nest, separating them from the parents just after hatching. This disrupts the instinctive parental care the parents give the birds and is extremely stressful to them and the chicks. It “disrupts the normal behavioral and physiologic development of the bird” [12]. For example, a study on growth rate differences between hand-reared and parent-raised chicks showed slower growth rates in the hand-reared chicks [12].

13. Imprinting, Reproduction, and Sexual Maturation among Hand-reared Psittacines

If birds are cross-fostered to other species or raised by humans, they are more likely to imprint on their caregivers. They “learn to identify with these foster parents or caregivers, and may choose these as their preferred social and sexual partner after maturation.” [12]. Most of the time, cockatoos (Cacatua spp.) are more likely to display these behaviors as opposed to South American parrot species (macaws, Amazons, conures), but birds from any species can exhibit these aberrant behaviors. Birds which have imprinted on humans or have been improperly reared “may develop inappropriate reproductive behaviors as a result (e.g., impairment of normal copulatory behaviors and laying of eggs on the floor) and are less likely to successfully reproduce” [12]. These undesirable behaviors may not be the same in the males and females. For example, the hand-reared male may not inspect the next box as he should, and he may not reach a desirable level of fertility. The female does not seem as affected by it as the male, which demonstrates that males are more strongly influenced by sexual imprinting than females [12].

Image 14. Lovebird parent feeding chicks (Image from YouTube).

14. Vocalization Differences between Hand-raised and Parent-raised Birds

In studies, hand-raised birds and parent-raised birds differed in their abilities to learn human and species-typical vocalizations. These differences were in both the extent and speed at which they learned to vocalize. Hand-reared birds were capable of imitating human speech at an earlier age than parent-raised birds. They were also able to mimic these sounds found in human speech at an earlier age and to a greater extent than parent-reared birds; however, they were unable to “produce the species-typical vocalizations until placed with normal vocalizing conspecifics for at least a week” [12]. These differences were the result of the increased, earlier level of social interaction “whereby the extensive exposure to human speech and human contact function as positive reinforcement. This, in turn, results in hand-reared chicks that quickly master the ability to talk” [12]. However, that should not be the primary goal of the breeder or potential bird-owner. To some bird owners, the ability of a bird to talk is one of the main reasons for getting the bird; however, these individuals have not been educated to understand that this is not nearly as important as the companionship the human will get from the bird and the care and attention the bird will receive from the human. This should be made clear to the prospective buyer.

15. Comparison of Physical Development and Injury between Parent-raised and Hand-raised Birds

Parent-raised birds also have increased physical advantages. “The limited movement of a group of chicks within the nest box, for example, provides them with the necessary support for the appendicular skeleton to develop properly. Chicks raised individually in incubators, in contrast, lack the support of the nest and siblings and frequently move around (allegedly in search of parental or sibling contact). This excessive moving around has been associated with a significantly higher incidence of bony deformations and osteodystrophy” (abnormal bone development) [12]. It is true that deformities such as splayed legs can happen with both hand-raised and parent-raised chicks, but the numbers are by far higher with hand-raised birds.

Image 15. Cockatiel chick that was rescued and hand-raised by Nousin Mun who has a rescue center in Bangladesh. In this case, hand-raising saved the bird’s life since its parents abandoned it, however, it has splayed legs. Nousin Mun has worked with it to bring the legs together (Image credit Nousin Mun; used with permission).

Image 16. This hand-fed chick has difficulty with its feet since it is not in the nest with its siblings (Image courtesy Nancy Watters; used with permission).

16. Physical Illnesses and Conditions Brought About by Improper Hand-feeding

Image 17. This breeder is correctly hand-feeding a chick; however, one can see how easy it would be for someone not experienced to cause beak trauma (Image courtesy Kelly Vriesma; used with permission).

16.1 Beak Deformities from Poor Hand-feeding Techniques

Many people think they can hand-raise baby birds when they have had no experience or education from an experienced breeder on how to do this. They unintentionally harm the bird’s mouth, feet, and beak, and sometimes the deformities cannot be undone. Hand-feeding techniques are a common cause of beak deformities. Brian Speer explains this: “Incorrect incubation and/or hand feeding practices may be the more common causative factors, but the specifics of what those deficits are, may be poorly understood. It is theorized by many that bruising of the rictal phalanges (the upper rictal area is where the beak meets the cere, and the lower rictal phalanges are where the under part of the beak meets the skin.) occurs during hand-feeding. There are feather bristles in these areas; damage to one side or the other leads to uneven growth, and most likely results in a scissoring deformity. Hand-feeding technique flaws resulting in bruising of the rictal phalanges, incubation flaws, genetic etiologies, subclinical malnutrition, infectious sinusitis, trauma, and viral disease have all been suggested as possible contributing causes. Corrective procedures in young birds are designed to alter the forces that direct the rostral growth of the rhinotheca.” [10].

Image 18: Anatomy of the beak (Image courtesy; used with permission).

  • The rhinotheca is the outer surface of the beak. It is composed of a horny layer of keratin which covers the beak.

  • The rhamphotheca is the layer of keratin on the maxilla (upper beak). The gnathotheca is the layer of keratin on the mandible (lower beak).

  • The commissure is the soft tissue at the back of the beak where the two parts meet. It is composed of soft tissue for the opening and closing of the beak to take place.

  • The rictal phalanges are the areas of the beak just below the commissure where the maxilla and mandible meet. There are usually bristle feathers in that area.

  • Tomia: cutting edges of the beak

  • Malocclusion (poor closure of the beak) is a consequence of trauma due to damage to the germinative layer of the beak, improper hand feeding, poor nutrition, or heredity. The practitioner may be able to use composite or acrylic materials to shape the beak properly and encourage normal growth following trauma [7]. (Newer techniques have been developed to correct malocclusions since this paper was written. JM).

16.1.1 Maxillary Brachygnathism

This is one condition that is sometimes caused by improper hand-feeding. With it, the maxilla extends well past the mandible. It is usually a congenital condition, and cockatoos are the most frequently affected species. It is most often caused by trauma which damages the germinal epithelium of the beak. “Young birds with this condition are often more receptive to having this condition corrected since their beaks are more pliable than adults’ beaks. Wiring or prostheses may be used to gently put the beak back in alignment.” [7].

Image 19: Maxillary brachygnathism, or overgrown beak, in an Amazon (Image courtesy Dan Razdik; used with permission).

Image 20: Mandibular prognathism, or maxilla inside mandible, in a cockatoo (Image courtesy Melanie Canatella; used with permission).

16.1.2 Mandibular Prognathism

This is another recognized pediatric condition sometimes caused by improper hand feeding. With this, the maxilla lies inside of the mandible, and it is most often observed in cockatoos. One technique which has been used to correct this deformity has been the application of acrylic to the maxilla. This technique “functionally extends the maxilla, making it more challenging for it to be placed inside of the mandible, and guides occlusion (closure of the beak) properly. Typically, when the acrylic loosens and comes off in 1-2 weeks, the problem is corrected” [10].

16.1.3 Scissors Beak

Young, hand-fed cockatoos and macaws are frequently afflicted with scissors beak. “Scissors beak deformities are characterized by a bending of the upper beak rhinothecal keratin and/or bone to one side to varying degrees, with the resultant overgrowth of the opposing lower gnathotheca. As force vectors are applied during the bird’s growth and regular use of its beak, this deformity usually will become progressive, ultimately generating into a ‘scissors’ effect.’ In addition, secondary deformities of the occlusal ledge of the rhinothecal keratin may develop.” [4]. “The occlusal edge is the underside of the maxilla or upper beak where it meets the mandible or lower beak; it acts as an anvil by which the bird can crush nuts and seeds and other foods.” (R. Dahlhausen, personal communication) “This deformity carries a significant impact on the salability and potential breeding performance of the birds” [10]. Due to the stress put on the bird from trying to eat and perform the usual beak grinding, an increase in the fear-based behavioral problems will occur. The owner should be encouraged to consider having these conditions surgically corrected. “The corrective techniques that are available today are vastly superior than in the past and are worth considering when one takes into account the quality of life and long-life expectancies of the larger species” [10]. Scissors-beak is most commonly seen in macaws, and the trans-sinus pinning technique as well as others are being used to correct this deformity. Application of corrective techniques for both conditions have been limited to use in young birds since they have not been successful in correcting these deformities in adult birds [10]. In adults, the beaks must be constantly trimmed and reshaped in order for the bird to be able to eat.

Images 21 and 22: Scissors beak in a cockatiel (Image courtesy Dr. Maria Angela Panelli Marchio; used with permission).

16.2. Damage to the Crop

16.2.1 Crop Stasis—a Case Study

A twelve-week-old blue and gold macaw was presented with a history of crop stasis of 24 hours duration. The bird had been purchased from a breeder in Georgia at the age of 6 weeks. The baby had been parent-fed for the first four weeks of its life and then switched to a commercial hand-feeding formula. On physical examination, the bird was bright, alert, and responsive and had a brisk feeding response. It was well grown for its age and was completely feathered. However, the crop was still full from the feeding the night before and the bird was mildly dehydrated, slightly thin, and there were many stress bars on the growing feathers. Gram’s stains of the crop showed budding yeasts and Gram-negative rod-shaped bacteria. “A Gram stain of a cloaca swab showed moderate numbers of Gram positive coccoid and large rod-shaped bacteria.” [8]. The white blood cell count was normal, but radiographs showed a distended proventriculus. A fecal float and direct smear were negative for parasites [8]. This was a case of crop stasis that in nestlings can have any number of causes, “ranging from improper husbandry to systemic infectious diseases.” [8]. It is not normal for fledglings to develop crop stasis, and it appeared that this bird had been under a great deal of stress for several days, as evidenced by the number of stress bars on his newly formed feathers [8]. The bird had not been digesting its food very well, and it resulted in an overgrowth of yeasts and bacteria in the crop. Some birds will develop distention of the proventriculus, but that also might be a sign of a primary disease of the gastrointestinal tract which affects motility [8].

16.2.2 Crop Burns

Crop burns that lead to fistulation normally occur in unweaned psittacines fed formulas that are too hot. Microwaving the formula is often the cause due to uneven heating. Damage to the crop may interfere with crop motility. Mild burns may cause inflammation and edema that may resolve. Extreme heat may cause a fistula (a hole leading to the outside) into subcutaneous space or a full-thickness fistula [1]. Birds will present with voracious appetite and weight loss. On physical examination, moistened feathers are noted in the area of the crop; normally a scab is present. It is recommended to wait 3-5 days in the case of full-thickness fistula. The tissue needs time to show the extent of the damage, otherwise repair may fail. Extensive burns require removal of an extensive area of the crop; prognosis may be poor due to lack of normal function [1].

Image 23. African Grey: Crop burn from hand-feeding with formula that was too hot from being heated in a microwave. A large fistula was present and needed to be repaired surgically (Image courtesy Aswathy Sathi; used with permission).

When the crop is burned or traumatized, there may be loss of significant portions of tissue. In some birds, there will be a true fistula with food dropping out. In more acute burns, it may be difficult to distinguish viable from devitalized tissues. In these cases it is best to wait 3-5 days for a line of demarcation between necrotic and viable tissue to develop. The wound edges should be debrided until the skin can be separated from the crop wall. The skin and crop are sutured closed as separate structures. Placing a feeding tube through the crop will help identify the lumen. “In cases where there is significant loss of crop tissue, it is best to maintain the longitudinal integrity of the esophagus (crop) as there is a higher likelihood of stricture formation with resection and anastomosis [1,3]. (An anastomosis is a connection made surgically between adjacent blood vessels, parts of the intestine, or other channels of the body, or the operation in which this is constructed.

16.2.3 Trauma to the Crop Caused by Improper Handling.

Laceration of the esophagus can occur following the use of a rigid feeding tube [7]. The ingluvies refers to the crop, an outpouching and storage area in the esophagus that is often full and protruding, making it susceptible to trauma. It may also be the site where a foreign body has lodged [1].

Image 24 (left). Full-thickness crop burn in an umbrella cockatoo. The scab is being pulled away to reveal the large fistula from which formula is leaking out (Image courtesy Scott McDonald). Image 25 (right). The umbrella cockatoo after crop-burn repair. The crop and skin are closed in separate layers after unhealthy tissue from wound edges is trimmed away.

17. Diseases

17.1 Bacterial Infections

Unweaned birds are particularly susceptible to bacterial infections. The causes are poor husbandry and an immune system which is not fully developed. Hand-feeding practices are the primary cause of crop infections: “Over feeding, feeding too frequently, improper formula temperature, or feeding before the crop empties can all lead to bacterial overgrowth. Primary viral infections destroying the immune system underlie severe secondary bacterial infections in young birds. Spontaneous, primary bacterial infections are uncommon in young birds when proper husbandry is practiced.” [9].

Image 26 (left). Porridge formula was too hot and infection set in, causing major damage to the crop (Image credit Galabin Mladenov). Image 27 (right). Surgery was required to close the significant fistula between the crop and the outside (Image credit Galabin Mladenov).

17.2 Illnesses due to malnutrition

Amino acids and proteins are the building blocks of life. They are organic compounds that combine to form proteins, and protein is broken down into component amino acids before being absorbed by the intestines. Amino acids are required for optimal health, but the body cannot synthesize them; they must be provided in foods or supplements. The terms, “EFA’s” and “amino acids” are used interchangeably. EFA’s refer to the Omega-3, 6, and 9 essential fatty acids. Most hand-rearing mixes for psittacines and pelleted diets lack sufficient quantities of the sulphur amino acids (methionine and cysteine) [5].

17.2.1 Rickets

Without sufficient calcium and vitamin D3 there is not enough calcium present to harden the bones in growing birds. This occurs mainly in hand-reared birds whose mineral intake is unbalanced. It is also termed, "Rubbery Bone Syndrome." [4].

17.2.2 Hepatic lipidosis

Hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease, is caused by high-fat foods, B-vitamin deficiencies, and obesity. It is a slow, on-going, progressive disease in which the liver tissue is replaced with fat. Juvenile, hand-fed birds that are overfed or hand-fed long after they should have been weaned are often diagnosed with it. Hand-feeding formulas are calorie-dense, and baby birds tend to be sedentary; any extra calories tend to end up being stored as fat in the liver. This is most often seen in cockatoos as they tend to beg even after satiated [5].

“Mother Nature’s way of parent-rearing always has a higher success rate. The chicks have a strong start since parents will always rear their chicks to completion.” Darrel K. Styles, DVM

Image 28. Healthy, parent-raised chicks (Image courtesy Jerry Randal; used with permission).

18. Co-parenting: The Ideal Method of Raising Chicks

Many veterinarians and aviculturists are now encouraging breeders to allow the parents to feed and raise them to weaning. Humans are able to help with the care, and as they continue to handle the chicks, the chicks become socialized to humans; thus, the parents are able to fulfill their instinctive reproductive responsibilities. So all concerned have the best of both worlds. Adults get to feed and care for their babies, humans don't have the round-the-clock feedings, and babies grow up into healthy, mature adult birds. The result is well-adjusted birds that aren't constantly desperate for their chosen person's attention. Of course there are exceptions: Parents who harm their babies or refuse to feed them must have the chicks removed from the nest, but if the aviaries are kept in the correct manner, this doesn’t usually happen. Co-parenting leads to well-adjusted birds who aren’t desperate for their person’s attention all the time. Many species take a considerably longer time to wean than humans allow them. Money is the root of this problem; there is not a quick turnover if chicks are allowed to be with the parents for a longer time. Fortunately, increasing numbers of breeders nowadays are allowing parents to incubate, hatch, and raise their chicks themselves until fledging. Human interaction with these chicks may then either begin in the nest box when the chicks are about two weeks old or after the chicks have successfully fledged. Using these methods, the juvenile birds are accustomed to human handling via brief daily interactions while still able to benefit from the interactions with their parents and siblings. Particularly, the co-parenting technique appears successful at producing offspring that are less responsive to stress and well-socialized to both humans and parrots. In addition, this method increases the chances of the chicks displaying normal reproductive behaviors once they mature since they had more intense contact with the parents and siblings than with humans. This often lowers the cost, time, and effort involved in successfully raising the chicks compared with conventional hand-rearing techniques. Human contact with the neonate may, however, also increase the risk of abandonment, abuse, or infanticide. As a result, the co-parenting technique may not be applicable to all species and individuals, especially those that appear prone to poor parenting [12].


The days of hand-rearing as an accepted method of rearing chicks are over, but many breeders refuse to discontinue the practice. For some, it is a habit they are afraid to break, as they think it will decrease the numbers of birds they can sell. For others, they enjoy the process so much they don’t want to give it up because of the pleasure it gives them. But with co-parenting, they can still enjoy handling the birds and offering other foods once, and even before, the birds are totally weaned, giving them ample opportunities to bond with the birds. That bond can only be had in a nurturing, warm, loving environment. A hand-raised chick will not be sweet and loving if all that’s done is feeding him and leaving. These chicks need to be held, talked to, and have time spent with them to become the ideal pet. It doesn’t matter if he’s hand or parent fed; unless the humans engage him and give him attention, he will still be wild. Rearing chicks by hand is completely unnatural in the normal lives of birds. If breeders would take the current thought to heart and allow their babies to be parent-raised and co-parented, they would find their birds would be in greater demand since the purchasers would be more satisfied with their birds than with birds from breeders who have hand-raised their birds. In the long run, then, these successes would attract more clients. The purpose of this paper is not to vilify those who choose to hand-feed. And the physical and psychological issues may occur in any chick, whether it is hand-fed or not. Not every hand-fed chick will experience physical or psychological issues; and not every parent-fed chick will grow to maturity without them. These are generalizations gleaned from many years of research, experimentation, and observation. The purpose is to persuade the breeder who hand-raises to consider allowing the parents to raise the chicks while still being actively involved in their handling and development. Knowledgeable veterinarians, bird owners, and aviculturists must continue to educate breeders and future companion-bird owners as to what to look for in a companion bird. They need to know of the potential difficulties that can result from the development of abnormal human-bird bonds and the potential for physical, social, and emotional damage from hand-feeding. We encourage new bird owners to seek education from their avian veterinarians and other respected aviculturists. In the words of Pamela Clark, “The solution? If you really love parrots, then vote with your dollars. Simply refuse to purchase unweaned babies. Don’t purchase babies who can’t fly because their wings were clipped before they ever had a chance to fledge. Don’t purchase a baby who is ‘weaned’ at an age before they would have fledged in the wild. Don’t purchase a baby whose early beginnings are going to commit him to a life of dependence, fear, and behavior problems. Educate yourselves and then drive this market toward improvement. We don’t want family members that have been reared by ‘farming industry practices.’ That is the answer. You are the answer.”


Appendix I: Animal Welfare Issues and Their Influence on Legislation

Because of public pressure on legislators, animal welfare laws are being passed in some countries. The Netherlands has passed laws regarding the hand rearing of psittacines. These laws prohibit the separation of immature animals from their parents, including parrots. Reports have described the welfare problems that can be caused by the separation of young animals from their parents, detailed which species were currently at risk, and proposed criteria for preventing problems caused by such separation. Final legislation was passed in 2014 [4]. The parent–chick separation law in the Netherlands is also likely to be enforced and should improve avian welfare by preventing hand-feeding by inexperienced owners and allowing proper socialization of psittacines, hopefully decreasing the behavioral problems often seen in these birds. Like the laws pertaining to animal cruelty, the bird-specific laws implemented to improve avian welfare will only be useful if they are enforced. Also, although these laws are meant to educate the public and improve avian welfare overall, such education is possible only if their availability is widely known. For the sake of improving avian welfare, it is worth the effort to discover what guidelines are available to help ensure at least minimally adequate husbandry for pet birds [4]. The sale of unweaned psittacines is an example of legislative issues regarding avian welfare. “Public pressure has resulted in laws addressing this practice in California and the Netherlands, but the matter has not been tackled in most jurisdictions. In Australia, some states allow the sale of unweaned birds (to knowledgeable buyers) and some do not. Whether or not bans on such sales become more common throughout other countries and states will depend on the politics of public pressure and industry resistance as played out on the worldwide scene” [4].

Author(s): Miesle J. In: Reviews in Veterinary Medicine by Revah I. Updated: AUG 26, 2020

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