TECHNIQUE

Hand Rearing Garden Birds etc. (Small Passerines) (Wildlife Casualty Management)
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Summary Information
Type of technique Health & Management / UK Wildlife Casualty Management / Techniques:
Synonyms and Keywords N.B. This information should be read in association with Hand-rearing of Orphaned Wildlife which contains background information together with links to the Electronic Library and Organisations (UK Contacts). The related Species pages contain similar linkages.
Description This page has been prepared for the "UK Wildlife: First Aid and Care" Wildpro module, and is designed for the needs of the following species groups: 
  • Passerines are altricial species. They grow and develop very quickly and require frequent feeds.
  • Chicks less than one week old (no or few pin-feathers) are very difficult to hand rear; they require constant provision of warmth and frequent feeding.
  • It may be possible to return nestlings to the nest, unless they are close to fledging.
    • If nestlings are close to hatching, trying to return one to the nest may result in all the chicks "exploding" from the nest.
    • This is a predator-avoidance mechanism designed to ensure not all the chicks are found and eaten.
    • Once chicks have scattered in this way it is extremely difficult to replace them in the nest.
  • Fledglings which are neither sick nor injured should not usually need to be taken in as their parents will generally return to feed them:
    • If in an exposed position (e.g. on the ground when cats are in the area) place on a branch as high as possible and keep cats away.
    • Fledglings which are sick or injured should be taken in for rearing and treatment.
  • Identify the species.
  • (B118.5.w5, J34.9.w1, P19.1.w4, D24, D29)

Initial Care: 

General bird information:

  • On arrival any young bird should be weighed, warmed, and given supplementary fluids by an appropriate route to counteract dehydration.
  • Cold, weak chicks may benefit greatly from a short period, for example 30 minutes, left in a dark cardboard box at 30-35C.(P19.1.w4)
  • The age should be determined if possible.
  • See: Hand-rearing of Orphaned Wildlife for further general information.

General Care (including warmth and hygiene):

General altricial/semialtricial bird information

  • Young birds, particularly altricial or semialtricial unfeathered/poorly down-covered nestlings, have poor ability to maintain body temperature and are prone to hypothermia, hyperthermia and burns.
  • Keep out of draughts but ensure ventilation is adequate.(V.w5)
  • A thermometer should be placed beside the nest box to indicate the temperature at which the chicks are being maintained.
  • An artificial nest may be made from a round container, similar in diameter to the natural nest for the species.
    • Plastic tubs are commonly used.
    • Line with paper towels.
    • A cardboard box may also be used.
    • (D24, D29, B203)
    • May be lined with cut up towels (without frayed edges) which gives a good grip for the nestlings.(V.w27)
  • The nest should be placed within a larger box:
    • The floor of the box may be covered with a towel (V.w27), absorbent paper towel or sand. 
    • Keep covered with e.g. a wire mesh cover or net curtain material (allowing light in).
    • (D29, B203, V.w27)
  • Keep warm , but avoid overheating.
    • Heat lamp or brooder may be used to provide heat
    • Alternative means of heating include placing the artificial nest on top of a towel-wrapped hot water bottle, placing the artificial nest in a small warm space such as an airing cupboard, placing the container near a radiator or raising the ambient temperature of the room.
    • More heat is required for featherless nestlings than for older, birds which have some feathers.
    • Keep at about 27-32C (B118.5.w5); 28C (B203), 30C/86F (D26) until feathered.
    • Note both thermometer temperature and behaviour of the chicks in adjusting the temperature (chicks which are too cold will feel cold to the touch; chicks which are too hot will have their necks stretched out, panting, keeping away from one another).
  • (B118.5.w5, B151, B203, D24, D26, D29)

Food:

The natural diet for the species should be considered when choosing what to feed nestlings and fledglings. However it is important to note that even species which are predominantly seed-eaters as adults often take a diet with a high insect content as juveniles.(P19.1.w9) See the individual species pages for further information on natural diets.

  • Diet may need water adding immediately before feeding to avoid risk of dehydration.
  • Food for passerine chicks which are mainly seed eaters as adults tends to be high in insects. (P19.1.w9)
  • Tits, thrushes, starlings etc. feed young on e.g. caterpillars, earthworms. (P19.1.w9)
  • Finches and buntings feed young on mush of seed kernels, grit and small insects such as greenfly. (P19.1.w9)
  • Rearing diets should be supplemented with an appropriate vitamin/mineral mixture for these rapidly growing species, however over-supplementation should be avoided; a suggested quantity is one small pinch of powdered supplement (such as SA37 (Intervet UK Ltd.) Vionate (E.R. Squibb & Sons Ltd.) per chick per day.(P19.1.w9, V.w26)

A wide variety of food mixtures have been suggested for hand rearing passerines including:

  • Mix of insectivorous bird food, cat food, canary rearing mix.(D24)
  • Short term alternative: chopped hard boiled egg mixed with moist digestive biscuit. (D24)
  • Food mix: crushed soaked biscuit, scrambled egg, thin strips of ox heart or a few pieces of cut up earthworm. Moisten food before feeding. (D29)
    • Also small insects e.g. greenflies, green caterpillars, ant cocoons, cut up earthworms (depending on size of the bird).(D29)
    • Add vitamin/mineral supplement. (D29)
  • Two parts cat food, two parts Sluis Universal Food (Sluis) or Orlux ), one part water, liquidise and left for five minutes before feeding.(D26)
  • For very small species such as blue tits, sieved hard-boiled egg mixed with a little water to form a paste, and with crushed biscuit added as the nestlings grow. (D26)
  • High quality food, readily digestible, with adequate protein and not too much fibre (B118.5.w5); e.g.:
    • Hard-boiled egg (boil 30 minutes), passed through sieve, and mixed with four times volume of sweet biscuit, add pinch of salt, add water so crumbly-moist. Store in refrigerator but do not feed chilled.(B118.5.w5). Use of this mixture without any added salt is suggested.(V.w27)
    • Commercial insectivorous diet, initially moistened.(B118.5.w5)
    • Canary rearing mixture.(B118.5.w5)
    • Tinned baby food.(B118.5.w5)
    • Also mealworms, earthworms, chopped snails, maggots (with caution). (B118.5.w5)
  • Passerines and soft-bills generally may be reared using low-fat non-oily dog food moistened with water.(J34.9.w1)
  • Finches: commercial canary-rearing diets mixed in warm water (66-80F), with strained beef baby food and avian vitamin supplement.(J34.9.w1)
  • Insectivores: Mixture of 5 ounces canned dog food, 1 ounce turkey starter, 2 drops vitamin supplement, 1 brewer's yeast tablet. Add mealworms, waxworms, live insects from 2-3 weeks.(B150.w2)
  • Omnivores/frugivores: Mixture high-protein baby cereal, strained beef baby food, hardboiled egg yolk, cooked rice, apple sauce, vitamin/mineral supplement. Add 20% mixed berries.(B150.w2)
  • Seed eaters: Mixture of egg yolk, turkey starter 2 drops vitamin supplement, 1 brewers yeast tablet, water to make soupy consistency. (B150.w2)
  • Small birds {Parus spp. (tits), Passer spp. (sparrows), finches, Motacilia spp. (wagtails), Muscicapa spp. (flycatchers), buntings, Regulus regulus - goldcrest, warbler, Troglodytes troglodytes - wren} Tropican Rearing Mix (Rolf C Hagen). Mixed fresh each day for each group of chicks and kept refrigerated between meals. (B151)
  • Larger birds {Thrushes, cuckoos, Sturnus vulgaris - Starling, Sitta europaea - Nuthatch} "St Tiggywinkles Bird Glop"(B151)
  • Blackbirds, thrushes, starlings, finches: raw ox heart, with scrambled egg and a "fine dusting" of SA37 (Intervet UK Ltd.) vitamin/mineral supplement.(P19.1.w4)
  • Hard boiled egg, mashed, may be used as main food.(P19.1.w4)
  • Tinned cat food or dog food may be used but tends to result in messy droppings. (P19.1.w4)
  • Offer natural food if available: greenfly, caterpillars, flies, craneflies.(P19.1.w4)
  • Mealworms should be used only as part of a mixed diet and should not be given too frequently.(P19.1.w4)
  • Tits, wrens and other insect-eating birds may be offered waxworms.(V.w27)

Some diets which have been suggested for chicks of individual species of British birds in aviculture include:

Water:

  • Chicks may be at risk of dehydration, particularly as they are being kept in a warm box.
  • Dipping alternate mouthfuls of food in water, shaking off excess, has been suggested. (P19.1.w9)

Feeding Frequency:

The following suggestions have been made for frequency of feeding of nestlings of these species:

  • Feed every hour during daylight (dawn to dusk). (D24, D26, D29, B118.5.w5, J34.9.w1, P19.1.w9)
  • 1-4 days old, feed every 15 minutes for 12 hours a day. 5-10 days old, every 30 minutes increasing to every hour, by two weeks old every two hours.(B150.w2)
  • Feed every ten minutes, dawn to dusk.(B151)
  • Feed every half hour during the day, for e.g. finches, thrushes.(J34.9.w1)

Feeding Technique: 

Suggested feeding techniques include:

  • Healthy nestlings will usually gape on stimulation (e.g. at a slight tapping or hissing noise) but older birds (fledglings) may require the bill to be opened  initially. (B118.5.w5, D26D29)
    • If necessary, hold fledgling in left hand, ease bill open with thumbnail of right hand, hold bill open with thumb and first finger of left hand than place food as far in as possible, using blunt-ended forceps in right hand. (P19.1.w4, D29)
  • For small nestlings:
    • Give food on the tip of a fine artists paintbrush (3/16 or 1/4 inch); small amounts of water may be given in the same manner. (D24, D26)
    • Feed by gavage directly into crop, using small syringe with a teat cannula attached. (B151)
  • For larger birds: roll food into blunt pellets and feed using blunt forceps or tweezers:
    • Portion size: e.g. 13mm x 3mm (1/2 inch by 1/8 inch) for small nestling to 25mm x 13mm (1inch by 1/2inch) for large species. (B118.5.w5, D26, P19.1.w4)
    • Feed larger birds with e.g. a coffee stirrer for thrush-size birds, with a "spatula end" full given into throat. (B151)
  • Clean the chick's face and bill with after each feed.
    • A wet paintbrush wiped around the face may be used for removing spilt food while minimising handling.(V.w27)

Quantities:

  • Young birds may eat an equivalent of their body weight in food in a day. (D29, D26)
  • The bird's appetite may be used as a guide to the amount of food required, by feeding until the chick stops gaping/begging. (D26, P19.1.w9, B151)

Toileting: 

  • For young nestlings remove the faecal sac produced after the first cropful of each feed, using tweezers.
  • These sacs are delicate and care must be taken to avoid splitting the sac and soiling the bird or the nest.
  • (D24, D26, D29, B151, P19.1.w4, V.w26)

Weighing: 

General bird information:

  • Regular weighing provides a good indication of growth, however a balance must be chosen between the frequency of weighing for accurate monitoring of progress and the stress which may be caused by repeated handling.
  • Individuals in a brood or being reared in a group must be individually identifiable in order to allow the progress of each chick to be monitored.
    • Temporary identification may be made possible using small colour marks applied to the feathers. An appropriate non-toxic material such as coloured correction fluid (e.g. Tippex) or nail varnish may be used for this purpose.
    • Alternatively, for larger chicks, lightweight leg rings made of flat plastic may be used. These are available in a wide variety of colours. Rings must be of an appropriate size and changed as the bird grows.
  • (B150.w2, V.w5, V.w26)
  • Daily weighing of some of these species depending on their stage of rearing may involve excessive handling .(V.w27)

Weaning:

  • Add natural food to the diet as soon as possible (B150.w2); once eyes are open, offer appropriate adult food but continue supplementing with hand feeding.(B151)
  • Once fledglings are out of the nest leave dishes of food and water in the cage to encourage self feeding (D29);provide food scattered around the "nest", including live food.(D26)
  • Reduce feed frequency gradually to four feeds per day, continuing hand feeding until the birds stop begging.(D26)
  • The time to weaning is species-dependant.(V.w27)
  • Weaning foods include:
    • Sluis universal for insectivores, mixed with a little water.
    • Mealwoms, first insides only, later whole with head removed.
    • For seed eaters, provide small amounts grit as well as seed.
    • (P19.1.w9)
  • See: Feeding of Casualty Garden birds etc. (Small Passerines)
  • Change accommodation gradually once out of nest, rather than immediately transferring to a large aviary.
  • Once fledged/too active for the artificial nest:
    • Maintain in groups in breeder cages with perches.
    • Provide shallow dish of water each morning to encourage preening, maintain plumage condition.
  • May be moved to indoor aviaries once fledged, with feed provided in dishes hung from branches.(V.w27)

Release:

(B118.5.w5, B203, D24, D26, D29)

Appropriate Use (?)
  • For birds which are definitely orphaned, abandoned or injured, or in immediate danger.
    • Fledglings (feathered) found out of the nest will generally be being fed by their parents.
    • Featherless nestlings found out of the nest need to be replaced in the nest (if possible) or taken for rearing or euthanasia.
Notes
  • Growth is very rapid: e.g. blue tit weight just over 1 gram at hatching, more than 11 grams by fledging at fifteen days, with full set of feathers grown.(P19.1.w9)
  • A considerable input of time and effort is required to hand-rear these small birds.
  • Individuals in a brood or being reared in a group must be individually identifiable in order to allow the progress of each chick to be monitored and ensure all chicks are fed.
    • Temporary identification may be made possible using small colour marks applied to the feathers. An appropriate non-toxic material such as coloured correction fluid (e.g. Tippex) or nail varnish may be used for this purpose.
    • Alternatively, for larger chicks, lightweight leg rings made of flat plastic may be used. These are available in a wide variety of colours. Rings must be of an appropriate size and changed as the bird grows.
  • (V.w5, V.w26)
Complications/ Limitations / Risk
  • Rearing of very young chicks (less than one week old, unfeathered) is difficult and has a high failure rate.
  • Juveniles of these species have a naturally low survival rate in the wild.
  • There is always a risk of damaging the bill if opening it manually, this should only be done if the chick will not gape. (V.w6, V.w27)
Equipment / Chemicals required and Suppliers
  • Most foodstuffs are available among household items or from supermarkets and good pet stores.
  • Live foods are available from some pet stores and specialist mail-order companies.
  • Vionate (E.R. Squibb and Sons Limited, Animal Health Division, Regal House, Twickenham, Middlesex.): from pet stores or mail-order feed suppliers.
  • SA37 (Intervet UK Ltd., Science Park, Milton Road, Cambridge CB4 0FP): from pet stores or mail-order feed suppliers.
  • Tropican Rearing Mix (Rolf C. Hagen (UK) Ltd, Castleford, West Yorkshire, WF10 5QH): from pet stores
Expertise level / Ease of Use
  • The initial time commitment for birds requiring frequent (e.g. hourly) feeding is extreme and would be prohibitive for most people.
  • Manual dexterity is important for caring for these very small individuals.
  • Requires empathy, observation skills and the ability to "read" the birds body language.
  • Experience with hand rearing is useful and likely to greatly increase the success rate.
Cost/ Availability
  • Financial costs are relatively low.
  • Supplies required are readily available.
Legal and Ethical Considerations
  • Hand-rearing should not be started unless the carer is prepared to give the time and effort required for rearing to release, or to ensure that appropriate care will be continued through to release.
  • Consider whether hand-rearing is the best option for the individual compared with leaving it in the wild.
  • Consider whether euthanasia is a more humane/kinder option for the individual than attempting hand-rearing.
  • An offence may be committed under the Abandonment of Animals Act 1960 Section 1 if a released animal does not have a reasonable chance of survival (i.e. a chance similar to its non-rehabilitated peers). It is an offence under this Act for a person having control or charge of an animal to abandon it permanently or otherwise in circumstances likely to cause unnecessary suffering. This may include release at an unsuitable site, in the wrong territory, unfit, not having learned to hunt, at the wrong time of year etc. (J35.147.w1, B156.21.w21, B223, W5.Jan01)
  • See: Legislation relating to Wildlife Casualties.
Author Debra Bourne
Referee Becki Lawson and Suzanne Boardman
References

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