Outlines how to feed baby birds, with expert tips for what to use, what to feed them and how to hold them and insert the food into their beaks. It also gives warning for what you should NOT do.
How to feed baby birds: the best tools
Because young birds naturally have a very small beak, in most cases feeding is not possible without aids. Tweezers are used to feed feed animals or pieces of food. This must absolutely be blunt, that is, it must be rounded at the front end to avoid injuries in the throat of the bird.
In some cases, instead of chunky food, small portions of porridge are fed (for example, vegetarians). Mash is drawn up with a disposable syringe (of course without a needle) and fed directly into the beak. Disposable syringes are available from the pharmacy or from the vet.
The feeding tool must be carefully cleaned with very hot water after each use! In addition, a separate feeding tool should be used for each group of young birds in a housing in order to avoid the transmission of any pathogens that may be present. It is therefore practical to have several pipettes, feeding syringes and tweezers in stock – especially if you are raising several young birds of different species at the same time.
How to feed baby birds: hygiene is crucial
Another aspect of crucial importance with regard to how to feed a baby bird is hygiene: hands should be washed thoroughly before feeding, because bacteria adhering to them could harm the young birds.
Important note: Anyone who tends to have damp hands or who needs a little time for feeding should wrap the bird with a thin cloth – for example with a handkerchief – so as not to damage its plumage. Migratory birds in particular depend on completely intact plumage. Since swifts, for example, have to be restrained by hand each time they are fed, we recommend that you only touch these birds with your bare hand in exceptional cases. It is generally advisable to use a cloth or wear thin cotton gloves.
Attention: If a bird is fed mash with the help of a feed syringe or other means, any leftover food should be wiped out of the plumage immediately while it is still moist. This is important because they become very hard as they dry and then cannot be easily removed. Never feed sailors and swallows with porridge, but only with freshly dead or frozen insects.
The best methods and tips
Fortunately, many young birds react very cooperatively when you approach them with food and it is then very easy to provide them with food. Ideally, the hungry young bird will open its beak wide on its own and you only have to push the food in with blunt tweezers.
Caution: Young birds should never lie on their backs when feeding and drinking because there is a risk of choking!
In the case of many young wild birds, it helps to wiggle the nest a little, then they usually automatically raise their heads and beg. The shaking simulates the vibrations that are triggered when a parent lands with food on the edge of the nest, causing it to vibrate.
Warning: Birds have their breathing opening just behind the tongue. If food or even water gets into it, the bird risks suffocation. You should therefore generally avoid giving water into the beak and make sure that the food is placed behind the breathing opening, i.e. far back in the throat.
The size of the food should be suitable for the young bird to be fed. Very young nestlings therefore either receive small feed prey or they are chopped up.
On the other hand, you can’t really get enough food for a young raven with a few flies, for example.
If the food has been swallowed, it gets into the crop of the young birds, which can usually be seen quite well as a small swelling after feeding. This is especially true for nestlings that are still feathered.
If the bird refuses to feed easily
Do not give up immediately if your fosterling does not beg for food or makes no move to open its beak. Many birds don’t open their beak on their own out of fear or weakness, which makes the situation a little more difficult for you, but the whole thing can still be mastered with a little effort. In such a case, you need to force-feed the bird carefully, which is not always easy for the inexperienced.
You may want to get a second person to assist you with feeding. One person opens the beak and holds it open, the other puts the food in the bird’s throat. With a little skill and practice, however, you will soon be able to do this on your own.
How to open the beak
To open the beak, hold the bird loosely with one hand and slide the thumbnail with the other hand between the upper and lower beak. Then gently press the two halves of the beak apart with the index finger of the “fixing hand” and hold the beak open. Always proceed very carefully because the beaked horn of young birds is still very soft and prone to injury.
Once you have managed to open the beak, you can enter the food with the help of blunt tweezers or a feeding syringe. As already explained above, it is important to put the food as deeply as possible in the throat, if necessary something can be pushed in with the tweezers (not with your fingers!).
Dr Alma Peterson is a skilled veterinary surgeon specialising in small animal practice and focusing on natural veterinary solutions wherever possible.