Hydrating Newly Hatched Chicks

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Q: With permission from the state government in the Northern Territory of Australia, we have captured 100 red-tailed black cockatoos from the wild in order to set up a captive-breeding program. I am happy to say that they have begun to breed, and we are having an excellent success rate with parent-reared young. We are, however, having trouble with the chicks that we must hand-raise. Their growth rate is much lower than the parent-reared birds. This is the only species of cockatoo that is a problem for us.

Their birth weight is approximately 24 grams, and they increase to only about 42 grams at 21 days. After they hatch, the temperature is reduced over a five- to 10-day period to 96 degrees Fahrenheit. Humidity is kept at 40 to 55 percent. They are fed every three hours. They take 1.5 cc on the first feeding but seem to increase to only 2 cc during the first 21 days. Any more than this seems to stretch their crop excessively and extend emptying time dramatically. The first feed is 50-percent ENSURE PLUS and 50 percent water; we then switch to regular hand feeding formula. I have read your hand feeding book, but some of the products you mention are not available in Australia.

A: All of your methods seem to be sound practices-with one exception. I believe that your problem with these chicks is caused by the lack of proper hydration during their first three to five days of life. It does not surprise me that the chicks do not hold a normal amount of formula after the first day. In order to do so, they would have to be growing at a normal rate. The most important aspect of raising birds from the egg is proper hydration. In order to accomplish this, you must maintain correct brooding temperatures and feed the right ingredients.

Certain species of psittacines have a much greater propensity to hatch in a state of dehydration than others. All feeds, as well as all of the presently manufactured hand-feeding formulas, cause dehydration. A chick that is well hydrated upon hatching will have no problem handling the marginal dehydrating effects of digestion. This is not the case with dehydrated chicks. Those that are severely dehydrated will die if fed regular formula, regardless of how watery you mix it. Those that are marginally dehydrated tend to exhibit poor growth. The severity of the poor growth will depend on how much the chick is dehydrated upon hatching.

All of the chicks that are hatched at the Institute receive an electrolyte solution during the first three to five days of life. We then stop using the electrolyte solution and use water to mix the formula according to the manufacturers’ suggestions. Chicks that hatch well hydrated need the electrolyte solution for only three days. Dehydrated chicks will need five days of this treatment. Whatever you choose to use as your base formula, you should use an electrolyte solution, not water, to hydrate it during these first few critical days. This treatment has made a remarkable difference in chicks that previously had failed to thrive. All chicks will benefit from this, even if they are well hydrated upon hatching.

The electrolyte solution that we use in the United States is a product called Infalyte (by Meade Johnson). When used in the concentration available, 1 to 2 percent of the chicks will become overhydrated and exhibit subcutaneous fluid where their legs meet their bodies. This symptom can be reversed by switching to your regular formula with the use of water rather than an electrolyte solution. It can be avoided by using 75-percent electrolyte solution and 25-percent water to hydrate your formula. The formula is boiled after it is mixed with the solution.

Many formulas will gelatinize after being boiled and cooled. You must add quite a bit more electrolyte solution to these after they cool. It should be thinned to the consistency of thick pancake batter. The electrolyte solutions are manufactured for use in human infants who are dehydrated or need to keep from becoming dehydrated due to diarrhea. Although there is no Infalyte available in Australia, there is a powdered product that can be purchased at the chemist’s (pharmacy) that is used for the same purpose. Add water to the electrolyte powder as directed by the manufacturer, and use this in the formula that you have been using. If overhydration occurs, treat them as indicated above. In the future, increase the amount of water that you are using to mix the powder.