Hand-Rearing: The Pros, the Cons, and When to Start

Taking care of a cockatiel chick – much like caring for any young animal – is incredibly demanding work. Therefore, it’s important to have a good understanding of the pros and cons of hand-rearing, and when to begin hand-rearing, before you make any serious decisions.

The Pros and Cons of Hand-Rearing

When you’re considering hand-rearing, especially if it’s your first time, its vital you have an understanding of exactly what you’re getting into, how it can affect your chick, and how it can affect the lives of the chick’s parents. Looking into the pros and cons first can help you to decide what’s best for all involved.

Pros

  • It gives you more control over the chick-rearing process. Humans typically don’t favour feeding one chick over another or abandon chicks due to feelings of being overburdened. Humans also have a range of other resources at their hands, such as scales to monitor weight gain, and are able to regularly monitor chicks to identify illness, provide medications and visit avian vets for treatment.
  • It’s a great experience! There are few things more amazing than seeing a newly hatched chick develop into a fully grown adult cockatiel. Watching a young bird go through life’s milestones, such as first flies, first feathers and eating on their own, can be both incredibly exciting and rewarding.
  • You may end up with a very tame bird. Hand-reared cockatiels are known as making one of the best pets available for a good reason. Cockatiels, when hand-reared, become reliant on humans and human contact, meaning they regularly seek out their human companions. When hand-reared, cockatiels can become just as affectionate as your domestic cat or dog, at half the size.
  • They are easy to sell. As stated above, hand-reared cockatiels are heavily sought after pets and, due to the amount of time and effort a hand-rearer will need to put in, a friendly hand-reared bird can be very difficult to find. This, in turn, means healthy hand-reared cockatiels can be sold for a relatively high price.

Cons

  • It’s a full-time job. If you’ve got a full-time job – or any job with shifts longer than around 4 straight hours – you can forget about hand-rearing those chicks. Cockatiel chicks require rigorously scheduled feeding times in order to stay happy and healthy. Even chicks at 3-weeks-old will require feedings every 5-6 hours.
  • It’s time consuming. Chicks not only require regular feedings, but the feedings themselves can often be time consuming. Chicks need to be weighed to ensure they’re gaining weight and eating the correct amount, fed, and cleaned after each feeding. Not to mention, if you’re rearing especially young chicks, you’ll likely be required to wake up throughout the night and early morning for feeds.
  • It’s heart-breaking. Young cockatiels – especially within the first few weeks of their lives – are incredibly susceptible to disease due to their basically non-existent immune systems. Some chicks are also born with life-altering conditions – such as diabetes melitus or neurological damage – that can severely impact a chick’s ability to survive. Unfortunately, it just isn’t realistic to expect all chicks to survive into adulthood, even when hand-reared, and dealing with the death of chicks is a skill all hand-rearers quickly learn.
  • It’s expensive. Cockatiels are one of the cheaper types of parrots to hand-rear due to their small size, but that’s certainly not to say these birds are cheap to raise. Cockatiel chicks require a range of different hand-feeding, brooding and general care equipment to ensure they are healthy. Although fully weaned hand-reared chicks can be sold for a decent price, you are still very unlikely to earn back the money you put in.
  • It can negatively impact the parent cockatiels. Parent cockatiels will lay eggs and hatch chicks in expectation of being able to rear those chicks themselves. When the chicks are taken off them, they may quickly try and reproduce once again so they can replace the missing chicks. This can often result in obsessive egg-laying and nesting behaviours. If all chicks are taken from the nest every time the parents hatch them, it can also cause the parents to lose interest in laying in the first place, as they never get to experience the parenting life they were originally wanting.

Pulling Chicks from the Nest

Before you begin setting up your hand-rearing gear, you’ll need to decide exactly when you’d like to start you’re hand-rearing journey. Cockatiel chicks will have different requirements depending on their age and developmental stage, so it’s important you make sure you’re able to provide these requirements before you begin hand-rearing the chick.

0-5 Days

A cockatiel chick will be most vulnerable during this age. It will be tiny, making it difficult to handle and hand-feed, and will be incredibly prone to disease. Chicks at this age will usually weight between 1 and 30 grams, and will therefore be difficult to weigh during usual feeding times to determine if they’re being fed correct amounts. They will be unlikely to control their eating habits, meaning they will be very easy to overfeed, and they will be difficult to treat if illness does arise. They will need to be fed every 2-4 hours, with a gap of around 6 hours rest overnight. Temperature management of the brooder, as well as temperature and consistency management of their formula, will be vital to keep these chicks alive and well. One tiny mistake at this age can quickly turn fatal.

6-10 Days

During this time, tiny signs of feather growth (such as slight colouring on the wings and top of the head) may appear. The chick may begin to improve balance and may be able to stand properly upright to beg for food. A chick at this age should be weighing around 30-50 grams and should be easier to pick up and handle. Chicks at this age, however, will still be unlikely to have any control over their eating habits and will still be very easy to over-feed. They will still require frequent feedings around every 3-4 hours, with a rest period overnight to allow the crop to fully empty. They will also still have a very weak immune system and all feeding tools will need to be thoroughly cleaned and sterilized with each feed.

11-14 Days

At this age, a chick will begin to look more like an adult cockatiel. They will be quite large – about the size of your palm – and will be well on their way to developing pinfeathers. Their eyes will begin to open and they will begin displaying defensive behaviours such as hissing and rocking. Feedings will be required less often – around every 4-5 hours now – but they will still have little control over their eating habits. Immune systems will still be vulnerable and illness due to overfeeding and lack of sanitation will still have a severe effect on the chick, with little option in terms of treatment.

15-21 Days

This age is the the most common age for cockatiel chicks to be pulled for hand-rearing. Pin feathers will be fully developed and pinfeather ‘casings’ will begin falling off to expose new, soft feathers. Their eyes will be fully opened and they will actively display defensive behaviours when the brooder is opened, such as hissing, rocking, fluffing up feathers or pin feathers and jumping up to bite at hands (though their beaks will not be strong enough to successfully bite). They will begin to partake in ‘wing-flapping’ sessions, which mimic flying in an attempt to strengthen muscles.

22+ Days

Some larger breeding companies that sell a high volume of chicks will begin to pull the chicks from the nest during this time frame. This is because chicks at these ages will require significantly less feeds, will not depend quite as much on exact brooder temperatures and will overall be far more independent than younger birds. These chicks will have a majority of their feathers and will nibble on seeds, meaning they will be closer to weaning. They will still be flapping their wings rapidly and at four weeks (28 days) they will begin taking their very first flights. Due to their size and the development of their immune-system, illness due to simple hand-rearing mistakes will be less likely and medical treatments due to illness will be more readily available.
However, as appealing as hand-rearing at this age might be, there are some down-sides. Chicks at this age will have spent a significant amount of time with their parents, meaning they will likely have grown attached and – if these parents are aviary birds (not tame) – they will have already learnt a range of ‘fear-responses’ to humans. A chick that fears humans will be difficult to hand-feed, more likely to hiss and bite, and will be overall less likely to bond with and trust humans. Although they can definitely be tamed at this young age, it will take far more time and patience than is needed to tame a younger chick.

Exceptions to the Rule

Just like everything else in life, there are always exceptions when it comes to the best hand-rearing ages. The biggest exception when it comes to cockatiel chicks is illness.

There are a range of different conditions and illnesses that can occur to young cockatiel chicks, and these conditions will need to be remedied fast if the chick is to be saved. One of these remedies will usually be to remove the chick from its parents and begin hand-rearing. This is due in part to possible abandonment, as chicks that are ill are very likely to be abandoned by their parents in an attempt to avoid the spread of illness to other healthy chicks in the clutch. Removing this chick will not only give the chick a better chance at survival, but may also save the other chicks in the clutch from contacting the condition. However, it is also notable that chicks at this age will have a very weak immune system, meaning they will be very unlikely to be able to fight off this disease themselves. Humans, luckily, do have some resources that can help to eradicate illnesses in chicks.

To see some examples of illnesses in cockatiel chicks and how to cure them, check out my article: Hand Rearing: Common Cockatiel Chick Illnesses and How to Cure Them

Cockatiel Chick ‘Chikka’ (right) compared to hid brothers (left). He is far smaller and less developed than a normal chick of his age.

Signs That a Chick Needs Help

If you’re not used to seeing cockatiel chicks, it can be difficult to tell a healthy and cared for chick from an unhealthy and abandoned one. However, there are some clear identifiers that can help.

  • Smaller than average size. This one should be obvious. Chicks within a clutch will usually hatch one day after the other, making it natural for one chick to be a few grams smaller than the others. What is not normal is a chick that looks so small compared to its siblings that it’s at risk of being physically crushed.
    This situation, like the example above, is especially common in large clutches of four or more chicks. The parent cockatiels may feel overwhelmed with the number of chicks they must raise, resulting in them abandoning one or more of the smallest chicks to focus on caring for the larger, more capable chicks.
  • Sitting outside the huddle. When in the nest, young cockatiel chicks will usually huddle together. When the parent cockatiels are in the nest, they will usually push the chicks under their bodies to both keep them warm and to protect them.
    An obvious sign that a chick may be unwell – or has been abandoned – is if this same chick is regularly found away from this huddle. A chick that has been abandoned by parents will likely need to be hand-reared.
  • Bruising or Lacerations. Some parent cockatiels – for reasons unknown – may view one of their chicks as a threat. For this reason, they may attack the chick, causing bruises or cuts that could be life-threatening. Chicks themselves are known to have rivalries among themselves, especially over food, and can occasionally injure their clutch-mates. If this occurs, you will likely need to separate the chick from the parents or siblings for hand-rearing.
  • Underdevelopment or stunting. When the first chick hatches, parents will begin their cycle of feeding and caring for their chicks. This cycle, however, does not start over for each chick. This means that the treatment the eldest chick is receiving, the youngest chick will also be receiving. This can cause issues, as the eldest chick may require thicker food at lower intervals, as well as less parental care, than the youngest chick of the clutch, causing possible health issues – commonly underdevelopment and stunting.
    An underdeveloped or stunted chick will appear smaller than the older chicks of the clutch were at the same age, will have a larger than average head (notably the back of the head), will have large nares, and may have signs of dehydration such as flaky or reddened skin. Chicks showing these symptoms may require hand-rearing.
  • Vomiting/regurgitation, diarrhea or droppings around the beak or face. Regurgitation and diarrhea are severe symptoms of illness and any chick that displays these symptoms should be removed for hand-rearing immediately.
    If a chick has droppings around its beak, it may indicate that the chick is not receiving as much food as it needs and it is therefore beginning to eat faeces to survive. This chick will need to be removed for hand-rearing if it appears underfed. However, it’s important to note that these problems can also occur if the nest is not being regularly cleaned (Should be cleaned once every 2-3 days once all chicks have hatched).

Whether or not you choose to hand-rear your chicks is a personal question, as it takes a range of different skills, along with a very flexible lifestyle, to take in baby birds.

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