Practical Avian Pediatrics

Breeding birds can be a fun and rewarding hobby. Some people get into breeding through the back door, when they find that a pair of their pet birds decide to go to nest and lay a clutch of eggs. Other people purchase a pair of bird hoping to breed them. But no matter how you get started in breeding, the whole experience can become a giant nightmare as you begin to speak with aviculturists, pet owners and pet store personnel. There is so much conflicting information out there, and without a basis of personal knowledge, it is impossible to know what to believe.

I have personally been involved with aviculture for over 35 years, and I have hand-fed some of the most rare and endangered parrots in the world. I have fed Queen of Bavaria (Golden) conures from day one. I have hand-fed many St. Vincent Amazon parrots, and also Cuban Amazons, Isle of Pine Amazons, Grand Cayman Amazons, Cayman Brac Amazons, Yellow-shouldered Amazons, Red-browed Amazons, Diadema Amazons and Yellow-lored Amazons. My wife and I own a breeding facility consisting of approximately 50 pairs of parrots, some endangered. We artificially incubate some of our more rare parrot eggs, and we hand-feed all of our baby birds. My wife is a Board Certified Avian Specialist, and I work with her in our avian practice, which consists of primarily avicultural clients, pet birds and exotics. We have traveled the country, evaluating aviary facilities and nurseries, both large commercial businesses and small hobbyist homes. We have also had the good fortune to work in aviaries in the Republic of South Africa. We have also helped many ratite breeders who got into the business hoping to make quick and easy money raising ostriches, emus and rheas. Most of these folks knew even less about aviculture than pet parrot owners did! Because of our vast experience, we have seen the entire range of avicultural management and nursery procedures. With that, and our vast experience raising our own birds, I feel that I can help beginning aviculturists cut through the thicket of information out there, and provide you with sound information that should help you streamline raising birds.

I would also like to say that, while the internet can be a wonderful place to meet aviculturists, there is an awful lot of scary information out there. The internet is populated with experts that are self-proclaimed. I advise you to take what you read on the internet with a grain of salt. Some information is wonderful and valuable, but before putting any advice into practice, please discuss it with your avian veterinarian.

The Physical Exam

All aviculturists should get into the habit of performing a complete physical examination on each baby bird in the nursery daily. This sounds daunting, but actually, it is rather simple to do. The amount of information that you will gain by doing this is very valuable, and if you do discover any abnormalities, you and your avian vet will be able to act quickly to correct the problem. With baby birds, the faster an abnormality is discovered, the easier it is to correct. A physical exam can be performed in just a few minutes.

All aviculturists should keep accurate records on all babies in the nursery, and any abnormalities found on physical exam should be noted. Every baby should be weighed in grams every morning, prior to the first feeding of the day. With an empty crop, you will get a more accurate reading of the weight. Use a strong focal light source to illuminate the bird and use a method of magnification so that you can better see small details.

Physical examination of the neonate requires that the baby be kept warm during the checkup. Neonates with only down feathers cannot thermoregulate and will chill quickly. Consider keeping one exam room warmer or place a heating pad or Thermofloor TM on the exam table for additional warmth.

Systematic examination of the neonate can be performed in a similar fashion to that of an adult bird. Note the color of the skin, and the texture. Some babies, such as the Eclectus parrot, have pigmented skin. Pale skin may signify anemia, malnutrition, chilling, shock or polyoma virus.

Evaluate the size of the head and beak in relation to the body. Examine the musculoskeletal system for symmetry, straightness, deviations, annular toe deformities or healed fractures. Some of the internal organs are visible through the translucent skin, including the liver, supraduodenal loop of intestine, yolk sac and lungs. Examine the umbilicus and abdomen. The ventriculus will be seen as a bulge that is palpable and firm. Auscultate the heart and lungs.

Check the beak for symmetry, lateral deviations, mandibular prognathism, bite wounds, other abnormalities, and note the color. In most species of birds, the egg tooth is shed between days 26-44. Using a light source and magnification, check the oropharynx for lesions, foreign bodies, plaques and note the color. Blue and Gold macaws usually have a black pigmented oropharynx, but some will lack pigment in patches, which can resemble Candida plaques or other pathology.

Examine the eyes for discharge, swelling, symmetry, or scabbing. Abnormal placement of the eyes under the lids can indicate stunting. Eyes usually open between 10-28 days of age, depending on the species. Always evaluate the ears. Ears are open at hatch in Old World Species, and macaw ears open at approximately 23 days. Macaws and Eclectus have their external ear canals covered with a membrane at hatch. Infection of the ear canals is fairly common in stunted macaws

The nares should be closely examined for swelling, discharge, or erythema. The crop should be examined for tone, movement, foreign bodies, which may be palpated within the ingluvies, and the consistency and volume of contents should also be palpated.

Neonatal down is small and fluffy and may lack a rachis. Baby birds will then develop a secondary growth of juvenile down, called the second down. Check that the feathers are emerging properly. Note any stress bars, hemorrhage in the feather shafts, abnormal colors, or any feather deformities.

Next, check the baby for the feeding response. In a normal neonate, by gently touching the beak in certain specific locations, usually the rictal areas, the feeding response will be elicited. In sick, cold or weak babies, the feeding response will be weak or absent.

Nursery Records

Evaluating the history is critical. Always bring in growth/weight records for review. A healthy neonate should gain weight daily, then level off, and ultimately lose approximately 10-15% of its body weight at weaning. The nursery environment and husbandry must be evaluated. It is important to know if a neonate is being kept at the correct temperature and humidity for its age and size. The container and substrate are important considerations, as they may contribute to management-related diseases and conditions. The hand-feeding formula, utensils, and their handling and storage need to be evaluated. Problems can arise from the hand-feeder mixing the formula incorrectly, or by the improper cleaning of utensils and hand-feeding equipment, or by improper storage of the hand-feeding equipment.

Lab Testing

Any diagnostics that can be performed on adult birds may be performed on neonates. Gram's stains are valuable as a quick screening method for identifying potential problems, however, bacterial cultures should be performed in conjunction with a CBC to confirm suspected infections. Gram's stains should not be relied upon solely for diagnosis of disease in birds. Fungal cultures are often helpful in differentiating pathogenic Candida versus brewer's yeast in a formula. Blood chemistries and serology are also useful diagnostic tools. Radiographs are a helpful diagnostic tool. When radiographing young birds, make sure that the crop is empty, to prevent regurgitation and subsequent aspiration of hand-feeding formula. The proventriculus is proportionately larger in hand-feeding babies than it is in adult birds.

Blood may easily be drawn from the right jugular, vein, or from the medial metatarsal vein. It is not advisable to clip a toenail short on a baby bird to get a blood sample, as it is possible to permanently damage the tissue, resulting in a deformed toenail. Testing for PBFD, Polyoma, chlamydia and other diseases should be performed.

Developmental and Husbandry Problems

Developmental and husbandry problems may occur in baby birds. Stunting of baby birds is manifested by poor growth rate or failure to thrive. Stunted babies often are pale, are very underweight, with no SQ body fat, poor muscling and a head and beak that appear too large in proportion to the rest of the body. It may occur as a result of poor husbandry, the inexperience of the hand-feeder, inadequate husbandry, underlying disease or as a result of poor incubation techniques. It may be reversible. Often, the beak will begin to deviate to one side if the stunting is not corrected early on. Leg and toe deformities are frequently seen. Neck problems may be corrected by the use of a padded neck brace or by taping the neck to the side of a container.

Lateral deviation of the maxilla (scissors beak) occurs most frequently in macaws, but is occasionally observed in other species. Mandibular prognathism, also called maxillary brachygnathism or ďbulldog beak,Ē occurs most frequently in cockatoos, but may be seen in other species. Early diagnosis of beak deformities will facilitate correction. Physical therapy and corrective grinding may be corrective in cases that are discovered early, but orthodontic devices or prosthetics may be necessary to correct beaks that have already hardened.

Gastrointestinal problems are the most common disorders of neonates, and may be related to improper husbandry, disease or metabolic disorders. Most systemic diseases in neonates result in slowed gut transit time, reflected by a crop that empties slowly. Aviculturists may call this "sour crop,Ē which is a catch-all phrase, and not a diagnosis. It is important to uncover the underlying disease that resulted in the crop emptying more slowly. Respiratory problems occur most commonly as a result of aspiration of hand-feeding formula.

Infectious Diseases

Bacterial infections are commonly seen. It must be remembered that little pharmacokinetic data has been published for drugs in hatchlings, nestlings and fledglings. Several factors affect pediatric therapeutics including liver dysfunction, renal disease or dehydration.

By far, the most common viral disease seen in the nursery is polyoma virus. Only babies hatched at a facility should be raised in the nursery. If aviculturists purchase or trade baby birds with other facilities, their nursery can never be managed by other than a crisis-to-crisis basis. A DNA PCR blood test and testing from a swab taken from the choana are available for this virus. In a dead bird, swabbing the liver, spleen, bursa and kidney will be the best way to diagnose polyoma. Histopathology may also show characteristic inclusion bodies. Serum titers are confusing and unreliable diagnostically. Proventricular Dilatation Disease, PDD, and avian viral serositis, AVS, also occur.

Psittacine Beak and Feather Disease, PBFD, can occur in psittacine babies. A DNA PCR blood test is available, and requires a clean venipuncture stick, and not a toenail clip, for accurate testing. Positive and negative tests are interpreted differently, depending on the birdís age and clinical condition. A healthy looking bird should never be euthanized based on one positive test. This is considered malpractice. The virus can only develop into disease in a bird with an open Bursa of Fabricius, usually. Rarely, adult birds that have been exposed will develop disease, however, most exposed adults, while they may briefly test positive, due to virus particles circulating in the blood, will not develop disease. Follow-up testing will show that the bird has cleared the virus from the bloodstream and the bird is normal. An adult usually must have exposure from infected blood (transfusion, grinding tool) to develop disease. Most adults are very resistant to this virus, unless they are suffering from another immunosuppressive disease. Remember that cargo holds of airplanes, pet stores and vet clinics may be contaminated with the PBFD virus, and can act as a source of infection.

How To Interpret PBFD Testing:

(all tests performed using aseptic technique for clean venipuncture)
Young Bird (less than two years of age):
  Exam of Bird PBFD test result Interpretation What to Do
1. clinically normal negative bird is negative for PBFD nothing
2. clinically normal positive bird is viremic retest 90 d
3. + bird from #2 90 day retest
  bird remains normal negative bird has become immune nothing
  bird develops lesions positive bird developed PBFD isolate/euth
  bird remains normal positive bird may be latent carrier retest 90 days
Adult Bird (Bursa of Fabricius has closed, 2-3 yrs of age)
4. clinically normal negative bird is neg. for PBFD nothing
5. feather lesions positive bird has PBFD isolate/euth.
6. feather lesions negative may still have PBFD retest, biopsy
7. clinically normal positive latent carrier

Traumatic Problems

Traumatic problems may occur. Hepatic hepatomas may occur from blunt trauma. Wounds may occur from bites. Constricted toe syndrome occurs most commonly in Eclectus and macaws. Crop burns usually occur by food being fed too hot (over 110 degrees F.) Allow these to scab and fistulate prior to surgery, as surgery performed too soon will result in dehiscence. Try to postpone surgery for at least five days, give support care, parenteral fluids, antibiotics, antifungals. Esophageal punctures may occur from improper tube feeding. These will often result in cellulitis, toxemia and death without surgery. Fractures are uncommon in healthy young birds. Concussions may occur in birds that are fledging. Feather trauma may occur.

Other Problems

Wine-colored discoloration of urates may occur in juvenile Amazons, African Greys and pionus, and this is not associated with disease. ďLock-jawĒ may occur in juvenile cockatiels, as well as in other species, and is the result of infection and/or abscessation in the temporomandibular joints, most commonly caused by the bacterium Bordetella avium. Occasionally, other bacteria may be involved. Part the feathers over the TMJ area, moisten the skin with alcohol to better visualize the area, and it is possible to identify which joint or joints are involved. The joints may be tapped with a 25 or 27 gauge needle, and the aspirated material may be cultured or stained with Gramís stain.

The Importance of Necropsies

Necropsies of dead baby birds are very important. Every aviculturist should have a gross necropsy performed on every bird or egg that dies. This need not be expensive. If your avian vet cannot confirm the cause of death from the necropsy, it might be worthwhile to have your vet send in the tissues for histopathology (microscopic examination of the tissues). Sometimes, although the cause of death may appear to be clear-cut, there may be an underlying problem not evident at necropsy.

When a bird dies, the aviculturist has no idea if this was an isolated incident or the beginning of a wild-fire. It is for this reason that necropsies are so important. If other birds subsequently die, valuable time will have been lost by not having the information from the first dead bird. Think of necropsies as sound insurance. It will be money well spent.

The same tissues harvested for adult bird necropsies should be taken, with the addition of the Bursa, which is located near the cloaca in the coelom. This organ is vital for the diagnosis of many avian diseases and should always be included for histopathology. It is most beneficial to find a lab that will allow you to send in all necessary tissues for one price, as opposed to paying a per tissue charge. Many mistakes in diagnosis on histopath occur from being limited to sending in just a few tissues.

Pediatric Surgery

Avian pediatric medicine and surgery is a fascinating and challenging aspect of avian medicine. The same principles that apply to adult birds may usually be applied to neonates, with the exception of surgery and anesthesia. The rate of oxygen consumption in neonates is 2-3 times greater than adults, and the respiratory rate is also 2-3 times that of adults. Cardiac output is rate dependent because sympathetic innervation of the heart is immature, and bradycardia can be a serious problem if not detected and reversed. This is more likely to occur after 10-15 minutes of anesthesia. Blood loss is of greater consequence in neonates, and they are less able to compensate for hemorrhage, and a small volume of blood loss can result in tachycardia and hypotension. Featherless neonates must be kept from developing hypothermia during surgery. With any surgical procedure: use isoflurane, use careful anesthetic monitoring, use rapid surgical technique, limit surgical time to 15 minutes or less, and maintain total hemostasis.

Pediatric Medications

It must be noted that any baby bird that is receiving antibiotic therapy should also receive concurrent antifungal medication, to prevent overgrowth of Candida sp. This is very important and is a common mistake among inexperienced avian vets and aviculturists. Many pharmacokinetic studies have not been performed on baby birds, so most doses are extrapolated from those performed on adults.

If a bird has crop stasis, it is probably better to give parenteral medications, since absorption of oral medications is likely to be erratic.

Baby birds with GI stasis are frequently dehydrated, so SQ, IV or IO fluids may need to be given in conjunction with other therapeutics.

Practical Tips for the Aviculturist

1.   Aviculturist Donít Need to Be Sleep-Deprived
I am always amazed by aviculturists who insist on getting up at all hours to feed their baby birds. Most baby birds actually benefit from having the crop completely empty out once daily. So, by skipping one or two night feedings, the babyís crop will be allowed to completely empty. It is usually not dangerous, and is often beneficial, for the aviculturist to skip one night feeding, so that the baby goes for five hours without a feeding. Even incubator-hatched neonates, less than one week of age, under normal circumstances, do not need to be fed every two hours. There are exceptions to this, of course. Weak, dehydrated neonates, those with infections and those with special needs should be fed around the clock. Incubator-hatched neonates may need to be fed at least once during the night for the first week or so.

Some species of birds are very difficult to raise when hatched in the incubator. Queen of Bavarian conures, rose-breasted cockatoos, the black cockatoos, Goffinís cockatoos and hyacinth macaws are birds that often develop problems when incubator hatched. These species should be fed every two hours, and may require a slightly different formula than that fed to other babies.

2.   Donít Hold To a Rigid Hand-feeding Schedule
Breeders need not knock themselves out to rush home to feed babies on an exact schedule, and they donít need to completely disrupt their lives to successfully hand-feed baby birds. Although a bird may be on an every four hour feeding schedule, it wonít be detrimental to the babies if you are running late at the grocery store, and canít feed the babies exactly four hours after the last feeding.

Although it is a good idea to have a schedule for feeding babies, they should actually be fed when the crop is completely empty. The babies donít know how to tell time, so they may not empty out on schedule. If healthy babies are kept in a brooder at the proper temperature, and the formula has been mixed properly, and it is at the correct temperature, they will empty out predictably at intervals. The schedule should be your guide for hand-feeding, but it should not be written in stone. Be flexible. It is hard to enjoy your babies when you are being rigid with them.

3.   Donít Feed on a Partially Emptied Crop
If your feeding schedule indicates that a baby should be due to be fed again, and the crop is not empty, do not feed the baby. Make sure the temperature of the brooder is correct, and wait a while, checking the baby periodically. If the crop empties, then go ahead and feed the baby. If the crop hasnít emptied, it is time to call the vet.

If the crop has been stretched out by feeding too much food, the crop may not empty on schedule. , A rule of thumb is to feed 10% of the babyís empty crop body weight at each feeding. For example, if a baby weighs 300 grams, it should be fed approximately 30 mls of hand-feeding formula. Often, a baby will continue to cry to be fed after it has received all the formula it should receive, and the owner will go on to feed more formula. This will stretch out the crop, resulting in decreased motility. If a crop is stretched, a crop bra will be necessary to help support the crop until the problem has resolved.

If the baby has developed an infection, the GI tract may slow down. In these cases, it is important to have the crop flushed out to remove old food, which may be fermenting, and any toxins produced by bacterial and fungal metabolism. Many aviculturists know how to perform this themselves, but often a vet is consulted. The vet can perform diagnostics of the crop material.

4.   Use a Thermometer to Take the Temperature of Formula Before Feeding
Crop burns should NEVER occur, but they still do. This is the result of feeding hand-feeding formula that is too hot. Feeding food 110 degrees F several times, or over 115 degrees F one time will cause crop burns. This could be avoided by taking the temperature of the formula prior to feeding.

Set your thermostat on your water heater lower, and you will never have formula hot enough to burn a baby.

NEVER microwave hand-feeding formula. Hot spots will occur, and even if you stir the formula, it can still cause crop burns. Donít do it. Leftover formula should be discarded after each feeding, and it should never be reheated in the microwave. If you wish to heat the water for the formula in the microwave, be sure that you take the temperature of the formula prior to feeding.

5.   Read the Hand-Feeding Formula Label and Follow the Directions for Mixing Up the Formula
Many problems occur from formula being fed at the wrong consistency. The label instructions will tell you how to make the formula to feed baby birds from day one. Donít just guess the ratios of food and water, measure them. Once you are familiar with the proper consistency of the formula, then you can just mix it up without measuring. The formula will be of different consistency, based on the age of the baby, so make sure that you mix the formula up correctly for the age and size of the babies you are feeding.

Donít add ingredients to the hand-feeding formula. The food manufacturers have done a tremendous amount of research to ensure that their formulas will be balanced and nutritious. When you add applesauce or baby food to the formula, you will change the protein to fat ratio, and that will change the GI transit time of the bird. Unless you have a Ph.D. in avian nutrition, you should not be changing the hand-feeding formula recipe.

6.   Donít Feed Unusual Concoctions to Babies During the First Few Days After Hatching
I constantly see breeders feeding all sorts of strange formulas during the first few days after hatching. Some feed only lactated ringers or sugar water, because they say that the baby is living off the yolk for the first few days. Parent birds in the nest donít just give their babies water during that time, so neither should we. If you read the label on the hand-feeding formulas, they give a recipe for feeding their formula from day one. I have used that exclusively for years now, with no problems.

There is no need to feed Ensure, human protein supplements, rice water or other formulas. These are unnecessary and will not give the baby the best start in life. Hand-feeding formulas from bird food companies will provide the baby with a balanced diet right from the start.

7.   You CAN Be Too Clean
It is not necessary, nor good, for baby birds to have their container cleaned every time they pass a dropping. Droppings in the brooder help to increase the humidity in the brooder. Humidity is good for babies. Babies kept at too low of a humidity may develop constricting bands around the toes. Placing babies on lotion-impregnated tissues may help prevent constricting bands by keeping the toes more moist. Allowing droppings to remain in a brooder will help raise the humidity.

Think of baby birds in the nest. They are in there passing droppings from the day they hatch, until they fledge, and the droppings are building up the whole time. There are bacteria in the droppings, and other microorganisms, and these probably help the baby bird build up a strong immune system by exposing them to natural microbes. It has been my observation that birds kept in a pristine environment are more likely to pick up infections, just like when a child enters daycare. If they have never been exposed to common pathogens, they are more likely to get sick.

Of course, this doesnít mean that a baby should be kept in swill, but allowing the droppings to build up for a day or two will certainly not hurt a healthy baby.

8.   Donít Soak Hand-Feeding Equipment in Chlorhexidine (Nolvasan)
Chlorhexidine does not kill the organism responsible for chlamydiosis, nor does it kill many potentially pathogenic bacteria, including Pseudomonas. Soaking hand-feeding equipment in chlorhexidine will give the owner a false sense of security that the equipment is disinfected.

What to do instead? Rinse hand-feeding tools in warm, soapy water after feeding, rinse in bleach water (1 cup per gallon of water), then rinse thoroughly in plain water. Allow the equipment to air-dry in between feedings.

Interestingly, there is no disinfectant recommended for cleaning human baby bottles. Steam is used in place of chemicals. It may be better to use a human baby bottle steam disinfection unit, rather than chemical disinfection.

9.   Use the Proper Equipment for Hand-Feeding or Tube-Feeding
First, let me say that there is nothing wrong with tube-feeding baby birds. Some people say that the babies wonít become socialized if they are tube-fed. Certainly, babies wonít receive a lot of time being handled, if they are tubed, but babies can be cuddled, played with and cleaned up if they are tube fed, too. Socialization can be accomplished in many ways, and not just by feeding a baby with a spoon or syringe.

If you use a soft tube for feeding babies, make sure that it is so long that if it pops off the tip of the syringe, that enough will be left that it will be sticking out of the birdís mouth to be easily retrieved. Short tubes will be swallowed and end up lost in the crop. This will necessitate a veterinary visit.

As an aside, most lost crop tubes can be easily manually manipulated up from the crop and out the mouth without the need for any fancy equipment or anesthesia. Surgery is rarely necessary, unless the tube has gone into the esophagus or stomach.

If a stainless steel feeding tube is used, make sure you know how to properly use it. These tubes can be dangerous in the hands of an inexperienced person.

Monoject curved-tip syringes should never be used for feeding baby birds. They end up perforating the esophagus or scraping the lining, causing potentially life-threatening damage. Even if the tube has been cut off to be shortened, it will still have rough edges that will damage the oropharynx or cause hematoma formation. Simply, they should not be used. Period.

10.   Identify Any Disease or Abnormalities So That They Can Be Quickly Corrected
Splayed legs, neck abnormalities, beak deviations and other problems should be identified by the daily physical examination, and corrected as soon as possible. Your avian vet will be able to correct problems discovered early, and once you feel comfortable, he or she may be able to teach you how to perform simple procedures yourself. The main thing is to be able to identify problems early, when they are the most simple to correct. The older a bird is, the more difficult it is to correct developmental abnormalities.

And donít forget to correct the underlying problem that caused the abnormalities. Feeding from one side of the beak will not, however, usually result in scissors beak. Typically, baby African Grey parrots are more likely to develop folding fractures and spinal deformities if they are from second, third or later clutches from breeding pairs. Grey pairs that tend to have babies with problems in later clutches should be supplemented with calcium. Macaw pairs that then to throw out all of the bedding from their nest box should be watched closely to make sure that their babies do not develop splayed legs from sitting on a slick surface. Stocky little baby Rose-breasted cockatoos should be placed in a small tub that wonít allow the legs to slide out from under them, which can also result in splay legs.


Raising baby birds for fun and profit can be enjoyable and rewarding. The whole process can be as difficult or easy as you make it. Donít make yourself crazy by listening to all the so-called experts out there. Trust your instincts and enjoy your baby birds. After all, isn't that why you decided to breed them in the first place?

Recommended reading

  1. Fudge AM. Pediatrics: Parts I and II. Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine. Vol. 1, No. 1, July 1992 and Vol. 2, No. 3, July 1993.
  2. Clubb SL, et al. Psittacine Pediatric Medicine in Shubot, RM, Clubb KJ, and Clubb SL (eds.) Psittacine Aviculture: Perspectives, Techniques and Research, ABRC, Loxahatchee, Fla. 1992
  3. Flammer K, and Clubb SL. Neonatology in Ritchie BW, Harrison GI, Harrison LR (eds). Avian Medicine: Principles and Application. Lake Worth, FL: Wingers Publishing Inc. 1994, pp 805-840.
  4. Wissman MA. Avian Pediatrics. The American Board of Veterinary Practitioners Avian In-Depth Review Course, June 24-25, 1995, pp 37-45.

Copyright © 2006 Margaret A. Wissman, D.V.M., D.A.B.V.P.
All Rights Reserved

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