Hand Feeding Finches
..it's possible but not easy
I want to start off by telling you that hand feeding a finch is a very difficult task and if your only reason for doing this is to make a tame pet ? don't do it! Even people who have experience hand feeding parrots have trouble hand feeding finches. This is no simple task and the odds of the chick dying are high.
I have only hand feed finches to save the babies lives. I will not pull a finch from a nest if the parents are caring for the chick and I do not condone such actions by others. If the chick is tossed, put it back in the nest. If it's tossed again, then try hand feeding.
That being said, if the need should arise I want you to have at least some chance of success. For more details about hand feeding please check out my Booklet: Hand Feeding & Raising Finches. It covers everything in much more detail than I can cover in one article.
This is a very important tool for hand feeding finches. In fact you'll probably fail without some type of brooder. You don't need to go out and buy a $400 brooder system either. You can make one with a shoe box or even a small Tupperware container.
What you will need is:
- A box, small aquarium, or some type of plastic container with a lid.
- A heating pad
- A small plastic bowl or canary nest for the baby to sleep in
- A washcloth or paper towels
- A small glass of water ? I like to use shot glasses.
- A thermometer for temperature and ideally one that registers humidity as well.
- A box of tissue paper at the ready (baby is gonna make a mess)
In the photo to the right you'll see a simple shoe box brooder that I built and raised many finches in. I also have a plastic one now as well. Please be sure that when the lid is on the box isn't sealed tightly. Air must be able to flow through the brooder at all times. If necessary cut small holes on the sides of the container ? do not cut holes in the lid.
Put the heating pad on the bottom and if possible allow it to also cover one or two of the sides. Set the heating pad to low. Add in a few layers of paper towels or maybe a small hand towel to keep the chick from getting too close to the heating pad. If the baby climbs out of the nest you don't want it to cook on the heating pad. Next put in your bird nest and line it with tissue paper. If the chick is very tiny (1-3 days old) use a lot of tissue paper to make the nest a snug fit. If the chicks' legs aren't kept under the body the hips will not form properly and your chick will grow up disabled (splay-legged). Add in your glass of water and the thermometer (place it next to the nest not in the nest) then close the lid.
Give the box a good 30 minutes to warm up and for the conditions inside to stabilize. Check the temp. If it's too hot, add more ventilation and/or more layers between the heating pad and the nest/thermometer. If it's too cold, cover a few holes. The ideal temperature is 90F for any chick under 10 days old. As they grow and develop feathers you will need to decrease the temperature. The humidity should be above 10%.
Once the temperature and humidity have stabilized you can put the baby in. Now the work begins.
Hand Feeding Formula:
There are many types of hand feeding formula on the market today. Before you ask, no "Nestling Food" is not Hand Feeding Formula. Be sure you buy the correct item. You'll probably find several types at your local pet store. Most do not work well for finches. They are designed for parrots. Whose crazy enough to hand feed a finch anyways?
If the primary ingredient is corn or corn meal don't buy it. Rice or Rice flour as the primary (meaning the first thing listed in the ingredients) ingredient is what you need to look for. It just works better for finches. Trust me I've tried just about everything out there. I found lafebers nutristart works best and that is what I will recommend to you.
Having the hand feeding formula is a good start. Now if you are working with 1-3 day old chicks I urge you to also buy some pedialyte (yes the stuff for human babies) and use that instead of water when mixing the formula. If the chicks aren't overly accepting of the food go back to your grocery store and walk down the (human) baby food isle in search of a few small jars of Gerber's baby food. Don't get anything exotic, simple rice cereal with applesauce works great. It does come in a jar, not a box. The stuff in the box isn't going to work as well. The Gerber's food is mixed in partly for flavoring but it also contains extra nutrition that will only benefit your little one.
If you are feeding an African species add in Breeders Blend to bring the protein concentration up. They do require more protein than species from other parts of the world.
Mix the formula until it is the consistency of a creamy pudding or ketchup and warm it to at least 80F but no more than 90F.
Warning! If the formula is too runny (like soup) you risk the chick aspirating, this is fatal 99% of the time. If it's too thick (like oat meal) the chick may not be able to swallow it quickly enough and will again aspirate and die. If the formula is too cold the chick may go in to shock and die, if it is too hot the mouth and crop may be burned and the chick will die.
Hand Feeding technique:
You have a few options here but before I go in to them I have another warning for you. Do not feed a 1 day old hatchling. Wait until the 2nd day. New born finches have the remnants of the yolk sac in their belly. That yolk will keep the baby alive for the first 20 hours or so. If you try to feed a chick under 20 hours old you risk the digestive system not being fully developed and this can lead to a serious blockage and death. Normally I say wait until the chick has made its' first poo, then start feeding.
Spooning: If the chick is very small you may find it easier to spoon a little of the food in to the mouth and let the chick swallow it. This is easily done with the flat end of a flat end toothpick. Just be sure you get the food far enough in to the back of the mouth to trigger the swallow reflex. Sometimes you need to hold the toothpick in the mouth to keep the chick swallowing until the mouthful is all the way down. A mouthful for a chick is about the size of a single seed. Please do not cram too much food down the baby at once, it will stop breathing. Once the food has been swallowed, wait 20 seconds and get the next mouthful ready.
Crop Tube: As the chick grows you can upgrade to a crop tube. This makes feeding a lot easier and there is much less risk of aspiration if done properly. A crop tube is simply a flexible tube on the end of a syringe. Suck the warm formula up through the tube and in to the syringe, watch for air bubbles and try to avoid them.
Put the tube down the chicks' throat over the top of the tongue and down in to crop. The crop is that clear pouch of skin on the neck that fills with food. Squirt the food in and fill the crop then remove the tube and you are done.
Is it really that easy? Yes and no. If you don't have the tube down far enough the food will come back up and out through the mouth ? now you risk the chick aspirating. Stop and pull the tube out. Let the chick swallow the food, wait a bit and try again. If the tube is pushed in too far you will feel resistance on the tube while inserting it or while trying to push the food in. In either case, stop and back off before you damage the crop or kill the chick. Also do not over fill the crop. The crop can be seriously damaged if you over fill it.
A crop of a chick 1-3 days old will hold about the equivalent of 3-5 seeds. 4-7 days old the capacity should double. 8-15 days old it should hold around 0.5CC, after that it'll hold 1CC or more depending on species.
Ideally you should be able to put the tube in, squirt in the food and remove the tube in about 30 seconds. Do not leave the tube in any longer than necessary.
The younger the chick is, the more often you need to feed it. Each chick will be different, watch the chick and check on it frequently for the first few days. Let the baby tell you how often to feed. Or more simply put, if the crop is empty, feed the baby and check on it more frequently. You really don't want that crop empty for more than 30 minutes, especially for very the very young. As the chick grows you can put more in the crop and therefore feed less often.
Night feedings are often necessary for 1-3 day old chicks. Hand feeding formula is very digestible and will pass through the baby very quickly. Do not let the chick go more than 3-4 hours between feedings at night until it is older.
- 1-3 days old: 30 minutes to an hour
- 4-7 days old: an hour to an hour and a half
- 8-15 days old: an hour and a half to 2 and a half hours
- 16-30 days old: every 2-4 hours
- 30-weaning: as needed
The chick will wean itself. Do not force a chick to wean. The weaning process will take longer with a human raised finch than it does for a finch raised finch. If the baby begs, you feed it. Feed it every time it begs and continue to offer food at least 3 times a day even if it isn't begging. The chick needs to know if can rely on you for food no matter what. Knowing this will help the chick to explore other foods on its own. And by now I sure hope you have been offering millet to the baby regularly.
Eventually there will come a day when the chick will beg all day long. You'll jump from 3 feedings back to 6 or more. You'll think the chick is back tracking, but in reality it's preparing to wean itself. This sudden spike in hand feeding may last 1-3 days. At some point the chick will probably beg, you'll feed and the chick will spit everything back up. A few hours later it'll happen again ? you feed and the chick spits. This may happen a few times or may last all day or a few days. Then out of the blue the chick will beg and clamp its mouth shut and not allow you to feed it. That's it; the chick has weaned itself and should be eating solid food all by itself. That is of course going with the assumption that the chick has seed/millet available to it 24/7 and has had this food source available for several weeks already.
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