HAMILTON & DISTRICT BUDGERIGAR SOCIETY INC.



The Development of Parakeet Chicks

Leaving The Nest Box
Normally you leave the babies with their parents until you see them eating on their own unless one parent is chasing or harming them because they want to start another batch. Normal time for babies able to leave the nest is between 5 to 6 weeks. Once you see one eating on its own you can usually move all the babies to a separate cage as the older baby should feed the younger one or at least show them how to eat seed. You can also place the father with the babies for a week or two and then place him back with the hen after you are sure they can eat on their own.

Development
Parakeets are typical nidicolous, or nest-reared birds, the newborn hatchlings are incapable of locomotion at birth. They are also totally naked, blind, and so weak that they cannot even raise their heads--the way other kinds of baby birds do--and crane them toward the mother to beg for food. They are entirely dependent on the mother bird for survival. (Other birds, such as chickens and ducks, are so far developed as newborn chicks that they can follow the mother and look for food immediately after hatching.) But nidicolous birds, too, develop very quickly once they have hatched. Young parakeets are ready to fly at four to 6 weeks, and 10 months later they are already capable of reproducing. They grow rapidly and reach the adult weight of about thirty grams on the sixteenth or seventeenth day. In the following days they gain a little more but lose this extra weight again by the time they leave the nest box. The eyes open on the sixth or seventh day. On the seventh day the primary feathers begin to appear, and on the ninth day the tail feathers. The down covering is complete after ten to eleven days. By the time the birds are five to six weeks old--the point when they are ready to leave the nest box--the large wing feathers have grown three fourths of their full length and the tail feathers two thirds. The young birds are already good fliers. In another seven to ten days the flight feathers are as long as they are going to be.

The coloration of young parakeets before the first moult (the change from juvenile to adult plumage) is not as vivid and brilliant as that of adult birds, and the markings are not as clear. The eyes are completely dark without a light iris. It is not yet possible to sex the young birds by the color of the ceres (the swellings at the base of the nostrils). The change in color of the ceres is gradual and not fully complete until the birds are sexually mature. Up to this point there is no reliable sign by which to sex birds. If you have never seen parakeet chicks just a couple of days old what you see inside the nest box may look odd to you. But it isn't odd at all. The human observer may interpret the typical posture of a chick during its first few days of life as "miserable." The neck is twisted so much that the upper bill or the forehead rests on the floor. The wings hang down on the sides and are slightly bent. In this posture the chick huddles close to its nest mates--with belly, feet, legs, and head on the floor. During this phase the chicks try to stay in constant physical touch with the siblings or the mother and when separated keep turning around in circles and calling until contact is re-established. The hatchlings of different ages all huddle together with the littlest ones on the bottom and the bigger ones on top, neck resting on neck. They maintain these positions even when the mother bird leaves the box, for they have an intense need for body contact. This arrangement also offers warmth, some softness, and an optimal rest position. By the eighth or ninth day the baby birds are able to hold up their heads and begin to wander around the box and examine their surroundings. They are no longer in constant touch with their siblings but now examine them by nibbling at each other. At about three weeks they feed and scratch each other. When the younger chicks beg for food the older ones feed them. At this stage they also display a playful interest in investigating things (droppings). They also nibble on feathers. I have often watched two chicks pick up the same feather, and this would give rise to a delightful game of tug-of-war. Both birds would pull with all their might. When one succeeded in getting the feather away the other would pursue it and the game would start all over. For the young birds, getting to know their environment and their siblings is important for many reasons. It helps them feel more secure, and it helps strengthen the muscles for flying and eventually leaving the nest. In the course of play with siblings the nestlings practice behavior patterns that will later be crucial for social interaction.

The young parakeets leave their box at about four weeks but are still fed by the parents for a few days up to six weeks. Birds that have already left the nest are sometimes drawn back to the nest by the begging calls of their younger siblings and let themselves be fed along with them. Such birds should not be driven away. It is best to just leave them in the box with the others until they are all ready to go off on their own. As soon as the first nestling leaves the box it is important to place food and water where they are readily found. It is useful to have spray millet and food cups in several spots in the cage or aviary.
One more tip: The keeper should carefully peer into the nest box every day and examine the feet and legs of the baby birds. Sometimes feet get sticky with droppings that then harden and hamper the movement of the toes, possibly leading to crippling of the feet. It is important to wipe dirty feet gently with a soft damp cloth or paper towel if the hen is not cleaning them. Make sure you don't harm feather shafts with blood vessels in them because that would lead to mutilated feathers.

Feeding the Chicks:
Like many other habits of parakeets, the mother's way of feeding her chicks is unusual. Already while hatching, the baby birds are able to respond to the mother bird's touch by opening and closing their beaks. A baby chick's calls and leg kicks are signals for the mother to feed it. She gets up and strokes her bill over the chick's body. To get the chick to assume the feeding position she pushes her bill against the chick until it lies down on its back. Its bill points straight up, and the chick responds with louder and more urgent cries for food when the mother touches its bill. The mother bird now produces a slimy mixture of saliva and seeds from her crop. (This is not like the "pigeon milk" other kinds of birds feed their young.) She then runs her bill perpendicularly over the chick's bill, and through a rapid vibrating of her head and a shove of her tongue the seeds with the lubricating saliva are slid into the small beak. If the mother interrupts the feeding for a moment the chick raises its head with evident effort and immediately drops it again as soon as the feeding resumes. You might think that the chick would not call so loudly when it is full but the exact opposite is true. A louder and shriller call means "Please stop feeding me!" The mother strokes and feeds baby birds just a few days old only when they kick and call for food. She does not initiate the feeding as she does with the older chicks.

During their first few days the baby birds feed day and night. The mother spends the entire night with them. It is obviously important that she be able to find her way back to the nest box at dusk and during the night after she has left the box to defecate. I suggest therefore the use of a night light near the cage. This also helps a bird find its way back to the nest if it has been roused by an unfamiliar noise. The next question for any hobbyist or aviculturist may be what is the best raising feed. In some views parakeets do not need any special raising feed if the diet they usually get contains all the necessary nutrients. If you are unsure if the diet you give your birds is adequate you can supply a breeding formula bought from most pet shops or aviaries to help nourish the chicks. This is given to the parents once a day about one week before the babies are due to hatch and twice a day when the babies hatch up to the time they leave the nest. Female parakeets have raised many offspring, all of them birds of excellent health. The prerequisites for raising healthy parakeets are of course not only a proper diet but also optimal living conditions. Observation of wild parakeets in Australia has shown that the females do not eat anything different while raising their young but no long term tests have proven they do not. Since commercial parakeet chick feeds do no harm, the choice is up to the individual bird owner. It is better for the birds if you do, as most formulas have all the protein, vitamins and minerals the babies need to start off on a healthy foot. As the chicks get older the feeding pattern changes. From about the eighth day the nestlings are hardly fed at all at night, even if they beg for food. The begging behaviour of the young birds also changes. After four to six days the chicks no longer lie flat on their backs while being fed. Instead they sit up on their lower backs and call with head raised high. They are not yet strong enough to resist the pressure of the mother's beak when she feeds them and still fall flat on their backs at these times. They start sitting up for the entire feeding from the age of about ten to twelve days. Now they no longer cry louder when full than when hungry, but instead turn away and crawl under the mother's wing. The begging behaviour becomes discriminating with increasing physical development. After three weeks the nestlings start wandering about in the nest box and follow the mother, begging for food. They are able to aim their beaks at the mother, and their begging now takes the form of jerking jabs at the food. The mother feeds her three-week-old offspring not only when they beg but when she is ready, i.e., when she returns to the box. To positively urge the young birds to eat, the mother bird runs her bill over their bodies to make them open their bills. If one of them does not open up she turns to the others. The mother bird does most of the feeding, but the male parent also feeds the chicks when they address their begging to him--assuming the mother permits him to enter the box.

Brooding and Defending the Nestlings:
Feeding her chicks is not the only job of a mother bird raising a family. She also broods (covers the chicks with her wings to give warmth and body contact) and defends the chicks. Brooding is especially important during the first few days because parakeet chicks, probably like other nidicolous nestlings, have trouble keeping an even body temperature. If you picture these tiny, naked, blind bits of skin and bone you will realise how much they need their mother's warmth. During the first few days the mother bird spends almost all her time sitting on the nestlings. She shoves them underneath herself so that they are completely covered. Not until the fourteenth day does she sometimes sit with closed wings next to a chick instead of taking it under her wing. As the nestlings move around more she broods them less, and when the chick that hatched last is sixteen days old she stops sitting on her brood altogether. If several pairs of birds are breeding in the same aviary the females will defend their broods aggressively (as they do in the wild). Should a strange female peer through the entry hole, the mother bird inside responds instantly and hacks at the intruder. If the latter does not withdraw promptly, a fight starts that can lead to serious wounds. This defensiveness about the brood is important because if the mother bird fails to protect her chicks their lives may be in danger. I have seen more than one female intruder kill an entire brood. There are females that go from box to box threatening the established brooding females without wanting to brood themselves. If you have such a troublemaker in your aviary there is only one solution: Remove the bird from the aviary and see if it will start a breeding cycle with a male in a separate cage. I have observed with my birds how two females, each of which had fought to obtain a nest box, proceeded to throw the dead chicks out of the entry hole and then settled down to raise broods of their own in the boxes they had taken by force. Other females attempted to brood with the previous brood of dead chicks still in the box. Needless to say, I removed the dead birds the first chance I had. Such incidents can be prevented only if you check the boxes regularly during the breeding period so that you can intervene in time if necessary.

What to Watch Out for after the Chicks Leave the Nest:
If your birds breed in an aviary the young will have enough space to train their flight muscles after they leave the nest. Even if the mother bird has already started on another breeding cycle she will not attack her previous offspring in an aviary, something she is quite likely to do in a small cage. If your cage is no bigger than the minimum dimensions (24" long by 12" wide by 16" tall) it is better to separate the young birds from their parents about two or three days after the young leave the nest. They should be moved to a generously large cage of their own. Make sure they are able to find their food easily. As a rule, birds of one brood are left together until they are five or six weeks old. Females rarely throw bits of droppings or other dirt out of her nest box, and I therefore recommend a thorough washing of the box with hot water and a disinfectant after each brood leaves and letting it dry before re-using it. While the chicks still live in the box no cleaning should be attempted. Under no circumstances should you hang the box back before you are prepared for more offspring from your birds, and I recommend that you not let any female raise more than three broods a year. Otherwise she will grow exhausted and the offspring are likely to be very small and susceptible to disease. Since parakeets living in` the wild keep breeding without a break while conditions are optimal (which they usually are in an aviary) it is difficult to keep females from brooding. One way to deal with this is to separate the male and the female after the brooding period and house them in different rooms. If the female has already started to lay eggs again, which is very likely, you wait until all the eggs are laid and then remove the nest box. If you don't wait long enough an egg might remain in the oviduct (egg binding), because the female could not find a suitable place to lay the egg. Egg binding is a very serious condition for the female. Usually she will sit on the ground weak and totally exhausted and hardly moving. If you pick the bird up carefully, hold her belly up, and gently run your finger upward from the vent in the direction of the head you can feel the egg clearly. There is only one way to save the bird. The egg has to be removed immediately. But this has to be left to an expert, preferably an experienced veterinarian, so that the weakened animal is not made to suffer needlessly. In many cases females lay eggs in the absence of a nest box and even of a partner. These eggs are obviously infertile. Unfortunately there is no easy way to prevent females from laying eggs. Some parakeet owners try to deal with this problem by giving their birds hormone treatments, but these seldom have the desired effect, and in my opinion the harm they do to the birds outweighs the benefits. Apart from separating the males from the females, there is no effective way of keeping them from breeding. If you do not want your birds to produce offspring, you should not keep several pairs together. A single pair is not quite so eager to breed as many birds.

E-Mail: berniehansen@sympatico.ca

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Hamilton & District Budgerigar Society Inc.