Psittacine Nursery Management
By Steve Duncan
Nursery management actually begins long before the babies are in the nursery. It begins before the breeders even lay their eggs. Successful nursery management is an integral part of the overall breeding facility management plan, but it begins with proper husbandry of the breeders that will be the source of the babies in the nursery.
When breeding a large number of mixed species, the biggest concern is disease control. Additional issues that affect the breeders and therefore affect the nursery are; streamlining care, record keeping, nutrition, and other general management strategies that influence the health and well-being of the breeders and therefore their ability to produce healthy chicks.
Reducing the likelihood of disease in the breeding birds will dramatically improve the chances of a disease free nursery. Quarantine and testing for all new breeders entering the collection is very important. Ideally, the breeders should also be segregated by type as much as possible. Species that originate from different continents should be segregated from each other – i.e.; African birds separate from South American birds which should be separate from Asian birds, etc. This helps reduce cross exposure to foreign disease-causing microbes. I also separate birds according to size so that even my South American birds are segregated with Conures in one area and Amazons and Macaws in another area. Segregating different types of birds carries through into the nursery as well.
Providing the best care and nutrition to your breeders will help keep them in top condition which is the only way to consistently produce healthy chicks and reduce problems in the nursery. Setting up breeding cages so that they are easily serviceable for feeding, cleaning and nest box inspection is essential. A facility that is well organized and efficient will make servicing the cages easier, and will result in healthier breeders. It will make record keeping easier and more accurate as well. The importance of detailed and accurate records for each bird cannot be stressed enough.
All aspects of breeding facility management work together in a successful aviary. Even the best nursery management cannot correct shortcomings in other areas of breeding facility management. This presentation will show the practices and procedures in place at Avian Resources that have been created and developed because they work for me for raising a large variety of hand-fed psittacines, including Conures, Poicephalus, Pionus, Amazons, Greys, Cockatoos, Macaws and other similar birds. There are many right ways to raise birds. Hopefully, you will find some of the techniques that I use to be useful in your management plan.
I currently use Avimate software for record keeping. It allows me to run reports on active clutches and past production for each pair. I generally run the reports in Avimate and export them into an Excel spreadsheet so I can sort the reports in the way that fits my routine. Avimate has quite a few shortcomings, but it works very well to monitor each egg and each resulting chick as they are reared and subsequently sold or added to the breeding collection.
Weekly Nestbox Inspection
Nest box inspections are carried out once per week. A weekly printout of all active clutches and hatched babies is prepared ahead of time. As each nest box is inspected, data are recorded on any new eggs, missing eggs, fertility, new chicks hatched, missing chicks, and any eggs or chicks pulled from the nest box and fostered or brought into the nursery.
LED light to check egg fertility.
Chicks are routinely pulled at an average age of 10-18 days of age. In large clutches, the oldest few chicks will be pulled, and the youngest will be left with the parents until the following week. Knowing the habits of your birds will allow you to make the right decisions on when to pull babies or eggs. Some pairs will only feed one baby so the first baby may be pulled as soon as the second baby hatches. Some pairs will incubate just fine, but may harm or kill babies when they hatch so these eggs must be fostered or pulled for artificial incubation before they hatch.
Vaccinating a Dusky-headed Conure
It is important to note that I use the term disease management not disease prevention. Although prevention is the goal, it is better to understand that disease is ultimately an inevitability that must be dealt with when birds eventually do get sick, so having protocols in place will prepare you for handling that when it happens.
Polyoma virus is probably the most significant disease threat to the Psittacine nursery. This virus is highly contagious and deadly for many species of parrots. Management of this virus should be an integral part of the overall nursery management plan not only to protect against an outbreak of Polyoma, but also because the same protocols will help prevent outbreaks of any other pathogen as well. Most of the workflows and hygiene steps in my nursery are centered on preventing the spread of Polyoma virus.
Polyoma management has one added measure that is not available for most other pathogens – vaccination. Unfortunately, the undeveloped immune system that makes young Psittacines susceptible to infection by many pathogens also works against making a vaccine as effective as needed. The vaccines work by exposing the body’s immune system to a killed virus. This stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies to the virus so if a real exposure happens, the antibodies will be able to defend against infection. Since the young immune systems are not developed enough to create a strong immune response to the vaccine, the vaccine manufacturer recommends waiting until the chicks are at least 1 month of age before vaccinating.
In my experience, the problem with this is that if Polyoma virus is present, it has its greatest impact on chicks exposed at ages younger than 3 weeks, and the chicks will likely die as a result. If the chicks are exposed at over 1 month of age, the effects of the virus are less drastic. For many years, I discounted the use of the Polyoma vaccine because of this.
During a bout with Polyoma in the nursery a few years ago, I decided to go against the vaccine manufacturer’s recommendations and came up with a vaccination routine that works quite well. I found that I could vaccinate the chicks in the nest at 2 weeks of age, then leave them in the nest for an additional week before pulling them for hand-feeding. This seems to give them just enough of a boost in immune response to overcome exposure to Polyoma at 3 weeks of age when they were pulled into the nursery. Chicks that were not vaccinated, but were also pulled at 3 weeks of age had much higher mortality than those that were vaccinated at 2 weeks of age.
Fostering, Incubation & Hatch Assistance.
When I ran my bird farm as my only full-time occupation, I incubator hatched nearly everything I raised. Now that I am not home to monitor incubators and feed day-1’s throughout the day, I allow the parents to hatch and feed prior to pulling the babies for hand-feeding.
Inevitably, there will be those parents who do not go along with this plan. I try to foster eggs to other pairs when possible. This can lead to some interesting foster-parent/baby combinations. I have pairs of Amazons who successfully hatch and feed macaws and cockatoos. I even fostered a Meyer’s Parrot egg under a “pair” of female Red Lories once. They hatched and fed the chick for 2 weeks, at which time I pulled it for hand-feeding. Occasionally, I will use chickens, pigeons or doves to foster incubate, but of course these babies must be pulled for hand-feeding as soon as they hatch.
Red-crowned Amazon fostering a
If there are no options to foster eggs, they must be brought in for artificial incubation. Eggs that receive natural incubation for the first week or two will generally do much better than those that must be artificially incubated from the time they are laid.
I use Lyon Electric Turn-X incubators. They are fairly inexpensive, but I’ve found them to be very good over the years. It is vital to get the Turn-X model that has the “10 Turn Potentiometer” as this is much more accurate at temperature control. I do not normally use the automatic turners. They turn the eggs every hour which is too often in my opinion. I recommend turning the eggs 3-5 times per day instead.
Because Turn-X incubators are very affordable I can have several separate incubators instead of one expensive one. This way, hatching eggs can be put in a separate incubator from eggs that are not ready to hatch. This allows you to raise the humidity on hatching eggs which helps in the hatching process. It will also help prevent bacterial contamination of the other eggs from the fecal material of the newly hatched chick.
Having separate incubators will also give you the flexibility to incubate some eggs at higher humidity than others. Parrot eggs generally don’t require any water in the incubator during incubation. However, if an egg has an abnormally thin shell or a crack in the shell, it may need higher humidity than normal to prevent dehydration.
Ideally, eggs should lose approximately 15% of their weight over the normal incubation period. You can use a range of 12% to 18% as a good target. If you are incubating from day 1, you can track this with a good scale and a piece of graph paper. The vertical Y axis will be used to record the weight of the egg, and the horizontal X axis will be the days of incubation. Get the weight of the egg when it is laid and record that on the Y axis of your graph at day 1. Multiply this fresh weight by .88 to get the 12% weight loss figure and by .82 to get the 18% weight loss figure. Plot these 2 points on the line above the number of days it takes for the species to hatch. Now draw 2 lines from the fresh laid weight – 1 line to each of these 2 points on the other side of the graph to form two slightly diverging lines. Now you can weigh the egg every few days and plot the figure on the graph for that day of incubation. The point should fall within the two lines. If it is above the 2 lines, then the egg is not losing enough water. If it is below the line, it is drying out too fast.
As the egg approaches hatching time, it undergoes a series of changes. The first is drawdown, where the air cell begins to extend from the large end of the egg down one side of the egg. At this point, the egg should not be turned, and the drawdown portion should be kept facing up. This is the area of the egg where the chick’s beak is and is where it will make the first pip mark through the shell to allow access to fresh air as the chick switches to using its lungs to breathe.
If everything goes normally, the chick’s beak will first break through the membrane into the air cell (internal pip), then it will make the external pip through the shell sometime after that. During this time, the chick’s lungs are taking over respiratory function. It is not unusual for the chick to sit for a couple of days without any further changes. Just prior to emerging, the chick will draw the remaining yolk into its abdomen, and the blood vessels will recede. When the time is right, the chick will pip and rotate around the circumference of the egg in about 15-20 minutes. With a couple of great heaves, called surge pips, the chick will then push off the cap of the egg and emerge. Because nothing seems to be happening for quite a while before the chick rotates, many people mistakenly believe the chick is stuck and needs help.
In my opinion, people make hatching assistance far more complicated than it needs to be. Think of it this way – What’s the rush to get a chick out the shell??? All it means is that you have another mouth to feed. Relax! The developing embryo has lived in this shell for well over 3 weeks. It has survived off of the contents of the egg for that entire time. The only thing it has absorbed from the outside is Oxygen. As long as the chick is getting Oxygen, there is nothing urgent. Too many people feel the need to rush in and pull a chick out of a place that has served it well for 3-4 weeks. At hatching, the chick only needs to make the transition from using the blood vessels in the shell membrane to gather Oxygen, to using its lungs instead. Once the lungs are developed, then the yolk is absorbed and the blood vessels will recede. Let that happen. There is plenty of yolk to take care of the chick’s nutritional needs for 24-48 hours after a normal hatch. There should be no rush to get a chick out of the shell if it can breathe. As long as it has access to air through the pip, it can sit there all day, even after the blood vessels recede. It’s not going to starve. It has plenty of yolk. It’s not going to dehydrate, unless you get impatient and begin removing shell before it’s time to do so causing bleeding or too much exposure to outside air. For malpositioned chicks or chicks that pip below the air cell, there is nothing urgent if the chick is vocalizing. If you can hear the chick peeping, it simply means that it is able to get air into its lungs, which is what’s important. If the chick has pipped below the air cell and is vocalizing, it is getting air from outside through the pip mark – also good. There is no need to rush in to help the chick if you hear it peeping. If you put a pinhead sized hole in the shell over the air cell for upside-down chicks, it will relieve the pressure which will allow the chick more room to expand its lungs. That is the only thing I do until the blood vessels recede. With a good high-power candler, you will be able to see if any blood vessels remain. When they are gone, and the chick is still sitting there, only then is it advisable to begin removing shell from around the tip of the beak (pip mark) and slowly expose the head and check for unabsorbed yolk and free the chick from the shell if all is ready.
The procedure is a bit more delicate for malpositioned chicks that are not able to pip the shell. The egg must be monitored with a high-power candler to see where the tip of the chick’s beak is located. This is sometimes indicated by a slight discoloration from inside the egg shell where the beak is rubbing but not able to break through. A tiny amount of shell can be lifted with a pin without disturbing the shell membrane. Allow the underlying membrane to dry. Often times the blood vessels will then recede from the area allowing you to make a very small hole to allow air inside the egg for the chick to begin breathing. Once the chick is breathing, you can relax and let it absorb the yolk and allow the blood vessels to recede before pulling the chick out of the shell if necessary. My people feel the need to open the air cell to see what’s going on, and wet the membrane with distilled water. Opening the air cell will promote dehydration of the chick. I also recommend against wetting the membrane. All that will do is bring in possible infections, and as the water evaporates, it cools the baby. Furthermore, I think it actually causes the membranes to dry out even more in much the same way as licking your lips too much will cause chapped lips. If you leave the shell intact, or only put a pinhead-sized hole into the air cell, you won’t need to worry about wetting the membranes. Remember – It’s all about Oxygen. If the chick can breathe/vocalize, you are in good shape. Don’t watch the clock. Just leave it alone until the blood vessels are gone. One other tip, if you hold a hatching egg up to your ear, you will hear some clicking sounds if all is well. Many people interpret that as the chick pecking at the shell. In reality, it is the sound of the chick breathing. The clicking is part of the sounds made by a newly functioning respiratory system. It is one of the signs to tell you that the chick is getting air to its lungs and you can relax. You can hold a newly hatched chick to your ear and hear the exact same clicking sound.
Just as the breeders are segregated into groups, the chicks from each group are also segregated from each other when they are brought into the nursery. Incubator-hatched babies are kept separate from parent-hatched babies. The nursery has separate rooms for each group to prevent cross-contamination. I do sometimes mix babies from different pairs, as long as those pairs are in the same breeding group. Chicks are kept in 20 quart Sterilite plastic storage containers with several rows of 7/8 inch holes drilled in the tops for ventilation. Pyrrhura Conures are typically put in groups of 8-10. Small Aratingas (Peach-front, Halfmoon, Brown-throat, etc) are grouped 5-8. Birds the size of Suns, Jendays, Senegals and Meyers are grouped 3-6 per tub. Etc… Large Macaws and Large Cockatoos are started in the same 20 quart containers, but they graduate to 56 quart containers as they grow.
Keeping the chicks grouped in this manner reduces the need for an artificial heat source if the room as kept at a comfortable temperature. The tubs have a 1-2 inch layer of animal bedding. During the coldest time of year, heating pads set on medium are used under the tubs with the youngest chicks. It is important to observe and understand what the birds are telling you. Comfortable chicks will nestle calmly with each other. They will be relaxed, not panting, and they will be warm to the touch. Chicks that are not warm enough will be lethargic and will feel cool to the touch. Chicks that are too warm will be restless, redder in color, and will cry more.
Tubs are placed on rolling baker’s racks. The youngest babies go on top. As they age, they are moved down the shelves. By the time they reach the bottom shelf, they are ready to ship. Each tub is considered a single group of chicks that will share a single syringe for hand-feeding. Each shelf is also considered a group so that all tubs on a shelf move down the rack together. Each baker’s rack is also considered a group so that tubs from different racks are not exchanged with each other. Additionally, the chicks are kept in several separate rooms and are not mixed between these rooms. This creates groups within groups within groups that provide layers of isolation to prevent cross-contamination and disease spread.
I use Kaytee Exact Hand-feeding formula with no additives except warm water for all ages and all types of baby psittacines. An electric mixer is used to blend the formula to a smooth consistency. A single batch of formula is prepared to feed all the chicks. This mixture is not kept heated. It cools over the time taken to feed the babies so that the last to get fed are often getting room-temperature formula. I do not use a thermometer because I never mix the formula anywhere near hot enough to injure the babies.
The full batch of formula is poured into a large pitcher. A small amount of formula is then poured from the pitcher into a disposable plastic cup for each tub of babies. The formula is drawn into the syringe from this cup. Because each tub is treated as a single group, a single syringe and cup is used per tub. The syringe and fingertips are rinsed in running water after feeding each chick. The syringe, cup and hands are washed after each tub is fed and before continuing to the next tub of babies. As an extra measure, I will also change gloves between tubs. The babies on the highest shelf are fed first, and then I move down the shelves in order.
Healthy chicks pulled at 10 days of age or older are fed only 2 times per day until they are ready to begin weaning, at which time the feeding is dropped to one per day in the evening. Formula is fed relatively thick. Thick formula provides a denser nutrient intake, allowing the chicks to process less water to get the needed nutrients for development. The crops will empty much slower with dense formula so 2 times per day is all that is needed. Feeding thick formula more often than twice per day will result in sour crop problems since the crops will not empty between feedings. It is okay for the chicks to sit for an hour or two with empty crops before the next feeding, but if the crops aren’t allowed to completely empty, then problems can result.
For small babies, I feed until the crop can’t hold any more (except for Caiques which will aspirate if you do that). By the time the babies’ pin feathers are just beginning to open, they are close to the peak volume of food they can take in a feeding. For Dusky Conures, that is about 14-18 cc’s per feeding. African Greys will generally get 60 cc’s. They can often take another 20-30 cc’s more than that, but they tend to empty a bit slower so I don’t always fill them completely full. I’ve even had Congo Greys that I’ve had to back down to 30cc’s twice a day. On rare occasions, I’ve even resorted to skipping a feeding on some 5-6 week old Greys so they only get fed once per day for a couple days until they process their food more quickly and feedings are increased again.
Again, it is important to observe what the birds are telling you. Properly fed chicks will not beg incessantly (yes, that goes for cockatoos too!). They are relaxed and will nestle with each other. They will be full-bodied, and they will not appear desperate at feeding time.
Occasionally, when I feed at the normal 12 hour interval, there will be a baby with a small amount of formula left in its crop. As long as the formula is loose (not doughy), then I don’t worry about it too much. I will feed that baby a little less to make sure it is empty next time. If it is not empty by the next feeding, then that is an indication of a problem and I separate that baby to a brooder at 99-100F and monitor it. A little TLC generally cures the problem.
If a chick is really having issues with a slow crop, the crop contents will become doughy. They also tend to get a dehydrated look to the face before you notice a slow crop. If the crop does not begin to process food after 2 feedings of warm water, there is likely to be a more serious underlying problem requiring veterinary attention.
I try, but I don’t always feed at 12 hour intervals. It can vary from 8 hours to 15 hours. When I feed at 8 hours, many of the babies will have food left over, and I feed right on top of it. When I feed at 15 hours, the babies have been sitting empty for several hours with no ill effects. I think people worry too much about letting babies sit empty. It doesn’t hurt them as long as they are AT LEAST 7-10 days old and are getting enough nutrients during regular feedings. Also, it never happens that I feed at 15 hours twice in a row, nor do I feed at 8 hours twice in a row. Generally the reason that I might go long one time is because of something that delays my normal schedule. A 15 hour gap is typically followed by an 8 or 9 hour gap the next time because I am returning to my normal feeding times – usually around 7am and 7pm. Because I feed a lot of babies of many species, I’ve learned exactly how much each species gets to fill them up completely. I also know which species I shouldn’t fill up completely because they tend to be slower to empty – Greys, Suns and Senegals, for example, often take longer to empty at certain ages so they do get less than enough to fill them completely.
Baby parrots are fairly adaptable in the number of feedings they get and still develop normally. As long as they end up healthy and of full size when they wean, it doesn’t matter too much whether you feed them thin formula 4 times per day or thick formula 2 times per day. It is important to develop routines that work best for your situation and result in healthy, well-developed babies at weaning time.
I do feed day-1 babies on occasion. I feed them very thin, watery formula as often as possible for the first 2 days. The first day, they may get fed every hour or two. I do not feed in the middle of the night unless a baby is in distress from dehydration. I gradually thicken the formula on the second day until they are able to go onto the same schedule as the rest of the babies at around 7-10 days. When feeding day-1’s, the temptation is always there to slide in an extra feeding on the older chicks since you are in the nursery feeding already, but this an be a mistake. It’s better to let the babies older than 10 days to go empty for several hours than to keep food in the crop at all times.
The bedding is changed daily or at least every 2 days. Each tub is actually a pair of tubs nested together. When it’s time to clean, fresh bedding is added to the bottom tub and the babies are transferred to it. The dirty tub is cleaned and the other tub is now nested inside the newly cleaned tub. These 2 tubs are rotated for only this group of babies so they are not cross-contaminated with any other babies. The cleaning process starts at the top shelf of the baker’s rack and proceeds down the rack in the same order the babies are fed with a thorough hand-washing between each tub and shelf.
I currently use the pellet diet that I feed to my breeders as the bedding for the babies. If the babies swallow this bedding, it is harmless and will not cause impactions in the digestive system. Other bedding options I have used successfully are rabbit pellets, wood shavings, beet pulp, rolled oats, shredded newspaper, and towels.
Disinfectant and Hygiene
Most of the babies that I raise are shipped when they are fully-feathered and are ready to go into a cage and wean. Babies that are ready to be weaned but are not being shipped out are moved to wire bottomed cages in a separate weaning room. At this age, they become much more active and feather dust becomes a big issue. Because of this, it is best to have a separate room with a separate airflow from the younger babies. At weaning, the immune system is beginning to function better and healthy babies from different areas of the facility will be grouped together for the first time.
I used to have a strict policy of not shipping any babies until they are fully weaned. Over the years, I realized that babies that are shipped prior to weaning generally make the transition better. I still do not release unweaned babies to retail customers (pet owners), but I when I sell to experienced pet stores and wholesalers, I prefer to ship babies prior to being fully weaned.
A baby bird’s job is to eat, sleep and grow. If you can imagine the inside of a nesting cavity in the wild, it is a very small, dark and crowded space as the chicks grow. They do not get much chance to socialize and exercise until they can leave the nest at fledging. It is not necessary to handle and play with a growing chick to make it a good pet later. The minimal handling during hand-feeding and cleaning is more than enough to accustom the growing chick to human handling and to develop trust. When the chicks begin climbing and perching, then they are ready for more human interaction if they are to become pet birds, but they also benefit from staying in contact with their own kind for a while beyond weaning. Some pet birds, such as certain cockatoos, will actually benefit from minimal human interaction even beyond weaning and will make less demanding pets if allowed to mature a bit more by simply socializing with their own kind longer.
If the chicks are destined to be future breeders, it helps to keep them with their own species or closely-related species after weaning. I typically keep future young breeders in community flights in a mixed flock of similar birds until they approach breeding age.
Some of the practices I use may be considered controversial. In particular, feeding babies only twice a day seems to be one that either angers people, or makes them think I’m lying, or makes them curious enough to investigate using it as part of their own routine. It works very well for me, but that does not mean that it is right for everyone who hand-feeds baby psittacines.
There are many right ways to successfully raise birds. The measure of what is right is not what is recommended by the most people or even what is considered standard practice. The measure of what is right is in the results. Input from other experienced people is important, but it is more important to listen to what your birds are telling you. The birds will tell you what is right and wrong by their health and well-being. That is the measure which ultimately leads to avicultural success.