Weaning birds after a hand feeding process

Weaning is the process of gradually introducing a baby bird to what will be its adult diet when feeding made by their parents and/or handler is stopped. But as I see it, it’s not only this. This moment will bring a lot of new behaviors for the young birds that will be crucial for their future, to endure in a completely new world. 

An hornbill needs approximately 100 days to wean, therefore it’s really important that, when he makes two-thirds of the hand rearing process, he starts to be introduced to his final environment: the final aviary. It’s crucial that he leaves the box by himself, the same way as he would do in the nest if he was parent reared. And when he does it, he can enter his new environment instead of us transporting him there. Also, he is now more exposed to bacteria and fungus which will make his immunity system fortify slowly. It’s a deadly mistake, in my opinion, to only move the birds from the rearing room when they wean. I really believe that the final process of the hand rearing should be made in his final enclosure, of course if it’s possible. I know that can be really a challenge to do it with some species, but where’s the fun if it’s easy? 🙂

We have to realize that many birds that leave the nest still get the food from the parents for a few days, or even weeks. Some just leave the nest to a complete new world when they fell prepared. Imagine how stressful it can be for a bird when he leaves the box and we just put him in a completely different environment, with different noises, temperature, bacteria… It’s so easy for a hornbill to damage his casque because of this kind of handling. That also applies to their flight abilities.

It is in the natural behavior of some species, for example, to discover the new world from the safety of their nest. They look, they study… and at the right moment they give it a go and start to explore the new world. They stretch the wings, make big jumps, short flights. Often they come back to the nests. And when they are prepared then they go! In some species, as for example the Barnacle goose, the three-day-old goslings that are unable to fly, jump off the cliff and fall. It is the only way to get food because they start to eat by themselves from the moment of the first feeding. So the point here is that when, for some reason, we need to hand rear a bird, it is not only essential to avoid imprinting, and apply a good hygiene and good diet. For sure these points are very important! But they do not mean anything when the bird breaks his neck or beak on the first flight. Or if he gets so much stress that he never wants to go to an outside enclosure, for example.

Like our kids when they are small, the young birds absorb also much faster the information than adults. So a bad memory can be turned into a trauma for life. In my 15 years’ experience I strongly believe that many behavioral problems of some adult birds, come from an incorrect husbandry at weaning. If this is made in the right way, according to the specie we are working with, for sure the success will be much higher. Research into behavior in the wild will always be the key. Because weaning is a process, not a moment.

Tiago Nabiço – Manager Operations of Wisbroek Research & Development Center
June 2018

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