Comprehensive Weaning Guide
One of the most intimidating aspects of adopting a baby bird is weaning. We wanted to put together a comprehensive weaning guide to help you learn how to help hand-fed weaning baby parrots. This will not simply be hand-feeding instructions, but rather, a weaning guide that supplements hand-feeding. This is to help wean your baby the BEST way—so that it’s happy, healthy, and has a great head start in its development.
An Introduction to Weaning
“Weaning” is the process of a baby bird transitioning off of formula and onto a diet of food and water. More specifically, weaning is the period of time when the bird begins picking at food until it is sustaining itself completely on food and water with no assistance from the formula. Baby birds must be offered food and water in order to wean. It is best to offer food and water once the baby bird is about halfway feathered. If babies do not have access to food and water, their weaning process will be stunted, resulting in prolonged hand feeding and delayed weaning. Foods to offer during weaning (and over the course of the bird’s life) include pellets, fresh fruits and veggies, millet and other seeds, and nuts. More on that below.
Smaller birds, such as lovebirds, budgies, and parrotlets, tend to wean the fastest, and weaning charts are available for different species of birds. The largest macaws take the longest to wean, which can sometimes be a year or longer. Medium birds, like African Greys and Eclectus parrots, typically wean by 16 weeks old.
Abundant Weaning Method
We like to use a method called “abundant weaning.” This is the method that most experts seem to agree is the safest and healthiest for weaning baby birds, but it is not the fastest. However, it is the highest quality method, resulting in the most well-adjusted birds. In this method, the formula is offered to the baby bird 3 or 4 times per day, whenever the bird begs. If the bird does not want the formula (shakes its head, backs away) then the feeding is skipped. The baby will become hungrier because of the skipped feeding, causing it to forage around its food and water dishes more, helping accelerate the learning process for eating and drinking independently.
It is important to note that you should never purposefully withhold formula from a hungry baby to try to make the bird forage. This is called “forced weaning,” which is the opposite of abundant weaning and can result in psychological issues for the bird.
When to Start Weaning
Birds available to go home may be on 3, 2, or 1 formula feedings per day. Typically, a bird on 3 feedings will be fed in the morning between 7-10 am, afternoon between 12-3 pm, and evening between 7-11 pm. As the bird becomes more feathered and more interested in pellets, fresh foods, and water, the middle feeding can be cut down and eliminated so that the bird is on 2 feedings per day, in the morning and evening. For the last few weeks of the bird’s weaning, it should be eating more on its own and drinking some water. It should still receive a night feeding, which is the last feeding to be eliminated. This is to make sure the baby is getting enough hydration and nutrients and isn’t going to bed hungry.
When to Stop Weaning
Babies typically begin rejecting one of their formula feedings as part of the weaning process once they’re fully feathered, or close to it. As the baby weans and rejects, its crop size will also shrink, and it will shift from receiving sustenance through the formula to sustaining itself with food and water.
Some babies wean more easily than others, with quaker parrots and green cheeks being some of the easiest babies to wean. One day they are loving the tube and taking 3 feedings per day. Then they begin rejecting their afternoon formula hand feeding, so we drop them to 2 feedings per day—just in the morning and evening. Then they rapidly realize that the pellets we give them are delicious, and they almost abruptly stop accepting formula feedings. You still want to offer for a few more days just to make sure your baby is really weaned.
A tip here is to wiggle the syringe tube in front of the baby if you are expecting the baby to want to reject the feeding. If the baby shows no interest in the tube, then it likely will reject the feeding. Only use this tip for babies who are near weaning, as you do not want to allow younger babies to skip feedings. Weigh your baby to make sure it’s gaining weight. Some weight loss right around weaning time is typical, up to 10% of the baby’s total weight.
Formula for Baby Birds
Birds have an internal temperature of around 105 degrees Fahrenheit, which is why the baby likes the formula from the mama bird to be nice and hot. It is important not to make it any hotter than 105 degrees Fahrenheit because a higher temperature can cause crop burn, which can require surgery and even cause death. If your bird is rejecting the formula, but is too young to wean, having formula that is too cold might be why. Have the formula be between 90-105 degrees. Do not re-use or refrigerate the formula. It must always be made fresh because it’s a nutrient-dense food that will grow bacteria quickly. Baby birds are susceptible to bacterial and fungal infections, so keeping that risk low is ideal.
Foods to Offer During Weaning
Our favorite types of foods to use while weaning for most birds includes the following: pellets- specifically we like Zupreem Fruitblend because it’s fresh, fruity, and colorful and the birds take to it easily. Fruitblend Zupreem is the main ingredient in our Megamix, which also includes little bits of dehydrated fruit and veggies, and a few nuts and seeds (but no sunflower seeds). We wean almost all of our babies onto this Zupreem Fruitblend megamix, which is a good diet for the course of their life and is a proprietary mix available in our store for $7.99 per pound. Please request a free sample if your bird has never tried some. It comes in 3 varieties: mini Fruitblend: for conures, caiques, cockatiels, budgies, parrotlets, Quakers, Indian ringnecks, and most small birds. Medium Fruitblend: for African Greys, Eclectus, macaws, cockatoos, and other medium and large birds. The large megamix is made with Nutblend and Veggieblend Zupreem pellets and includes whole, unshelled nuts in addition to the pellets, fruit and veggie pieces, and minimal seed.
Some people like to make pellets moist for baby birds that are weaning. This is fine, just know that it reduces the life of the pellets in regard to how long they can be offered to the bird. Baby birds tend to like warm, moist pellets better, and anything being offered directly from a human hand is a baby’s favorite.
You should also supplement your bird’s diet with fruits and vegetables. Fresh is always best, but canned, frozen, and/or cooked is great (just watch out for temperatures). Some of the best fruits and veggies to use while weaning that babies take to the best include apples, corn, and papaya. Papaya is also good for first aid if a baby bird is digesting too slowly.
If you offer fruits, veggies, pellets, or anything else to your baby and they seem to be uninterested/rejecting the item, try offering again, even several times, over a period of days. The baby might develop a preference for something after being exposed multiple times.
Many birds love dairy, but they cannot digest it, and it’s not good for them. They will want a bite of your yogurt or ice cream. They will want to drink some of that milk and have a bite of the cereal you’re having. Dairy is not as toxic as avocado, alcohol, or chocolate, but should still be extremely limited/avoided. When your bird is a baby, this is the best time to expose it to the best foods and avoid no-no foods like dairy.
The Importance of Water During Weaning
You may not actually see your bird drinking water from its dish. It only needs a little water and drinks for just a few seconds, a few times a day. A clue that your baby bird has learned how to drink water is if the water is dirty with food particles. That is how you know they’ve been messing with their water. A baby bird given fresh water daily that dirties its water daily is definitely drinking water and is either weaned or on its way to being weaned. Some babies start drinking earlier than others. If water is not put in front of the baby, it will not learn how to drink it.
It is good to give a full drinking dish so that the baby bird can practice bathing when it’s ready. Conures, especially greencheeks and sun conures really love bathing and will naturally want to when they’re old enough. Please provide them with a shallow dish to bathe in daily. Some birds will only bathe in a small dish, others in a large dish, and some will only want a spray bottle or mister, while others still will only want to bathe in the shower, or the sink, or when it’s raining outside, or when the vacuum is running. Anything that mimics a waterfall sound can stimulate them to bathe.
Some birds are more difficult to wean than others because they love being hand-fed and want to keep asking for formula as long as you provide it. Birds who typically act this way include cockatiels and caiques. Sometimes macaws, conures, and African Greys do this. Parrotlets, green cheeks, budgies, lovebirds, and Quakers tend to be some of the easiest to wean. Once they discover food and water, they’re pretty much hooked on that, but keep offering for a few days. For the difficult birds that keep begging past their expected wean dates, cut the formula down gradually, by 2cc per feeding per day, every day, or every other day. Offer pellets and fresh fruits and veggies…and even offer from your fingers. Food from human fingers is always the best for the birds. Have millet available at all times for the baby to nibble on. Millet is one of the best things to help a bird wean, but should be given sparingly once the bird is weaned because they love it so much—it can turn into junk food for them.
Remember, this time while your baby is hand-feeding (unweaned) is a critical time to handle your baby a lot to make it tame and bonded to you. Everyone in the family should take turns spending time with the baby so that it views the whole family as its flock. No more than 15 minutes at a time off the heat if still required, especially while the baby has a full or partially full crop. Efforts made during this hand-feeding period of time are integral to the rest of the bird’s life. If you opt not to hand feed your bird, please visit with it on deposit at the store with us to get this crucial quality time in. And if you have any questions, please let us know!
Breed-Specific Weaning Tips
Weaning black palm cockatoos and hyacinth macaws: The diet for these birds must include macadamia nuts, and macadamia nuts must be ground and mixed into the formula while hand-feeding these species.
Weaning Lorikeets and Toucans: These birds require low iron diets and diets that are high in fruit. We carry low iron pellets and Lorikeet nectar for these species, and they should also have diets high in low iron fruits and vegetables.
Weaning Eclectus Parrots: Eclectus parrots should not eat sunflower seeds. They have the longest digestive tract of any parrot, and therefore should not eat colored pellets or have any kind of supplements. Eclectus parrots also require supplemental heat for their first 16 weeks of life. Not providing enough heat for the full 16 weeks can unfortunately kill this sensitive bird. 88 degrees is a good temperature. Our main source for specialized Eclectus care knowledge is Laurella Desborough at Eclectus Ark. You will see her name credited in almost any book written about Eclectus parrots.
Weaning Caiques: Caiques are also very heat/cold sensitive birds. They should have supplemental heat for a full 12 weeks of weaning and should be kept around 88 degrees.