Introductory notes

Hand tame java finchesHand feeding baby finches, especially birds which just recently hatched, is a very challenging, time consuming, and tedious process. Unfortunately it does not always end in success even when the best efforts are made to save the bird's life. Fostering abandoned babies to another pair of finches is often the more successful route, but unfortunately not all people who encounter an abandoned baby finch will have a foster pair on hand that is able to take care of the baby. Therefore, if one is determined to attempt saving the life of a baby finch and has no other option for raising it, hand raising may be attempted. Some people also chose to hand raise young finches in order to yield a more hand tame pet. Although this can be done, I highly recommend allowing the biological parents to raise the young until their juvenile feathers begin to appear. At this point hand raising the birds is often met with greater success, because they are older and more developed.

Please note that hand raised finches may have special needs once they are weaned. For example, some hand raised finches may have behavioral problems as adults (e.g. they may act overly aggressive towards other finches) since they were not properly socialized as chicks. In this case, the hand raised finch must be housed separately from other finches and given the opportunity to interact with people instead of other birds.

Supply List

Syringe with crop feeding attachment Items you will need in order to hand raise finches:
  1. Kaytee EXACT Hand Feeding Formula (available at most pet stores).
  2. Infant apple sauce (available in the baby food isle of most grocery stores).
  3. Unflavored pedialyte (available in the baby pharmacy area of most grocery stores).
  4. 1cc needleless syringes (look for syringes that do NOT have a luer lock or catheter tip; TB syringes sold "without a needle" should work. This may be obtained from your veterinarian or found at some online retailers).
  5. A "crop feeding extension" for the 1cc needleless syringe (made from a "BD vacutainer butterfly blood collection set WITHOUT safety-lok" which may be available at your vet's or at an online retailer--just cut the tubing to a length of 2.2cm).
  6. Flat toothpicks.
  7. Paper towels & wash cloths.
  8. A thermometer to check the temperature of the formula you prepare.
  9. A small, outdoor thermometer (a thermometer designed for use in reptile enclosures will work--available at most pet stores) to check ambient temperature in the incubator/brooder.
  10. An incubator/brooder (which can be crafted at home--see below) or purchased. If you purchase an incubator, get one that has slow air flow and solid state thermostat controls.
Crop syringe

Proper Hygiene

Important: Because very young finches do not have the more robust immune system that adult finches do, they are more susceptible to certain diseases.16 Proper hygiene, therefore, is a must to prevent hand raised chicks from becoming sick.

  • Wash hands before & after feedings (if feeding more than one bird, wash hands between birds).
  • Sterilize all utensils in weak bleach solution (1 part bleach: 20 parts water; let the utensils soak for 15 minutes in this solution) and rinse well under cool water before EACH and every use. DO NOT boil the utensils as this will cause them to melt and distort.
  • Only use one feeding utensil per bird (in other words, each bird should have its own labeled syringe).
  • If feeding more than one bird, do not double dip the feeding utensil in the formula.
  • Store the Kaytee hand feeding formula (in its dry powder form) in the freezer.
  • Mix fresh feeding formula before each feeding; do not store & reheat old formula.
  • Do not let adult birds come into contact with the neonates.

Preparing the Brooder

First, you must acquire an incubator if you are trying to save a fertile egg that has not yet hatched. If the egg has already hatched, either a commercial incubator or a "home-made brooder" may be used to keep the chick warm. To construct your own brooder, you will need a plastic container with a wide, ventilated top (e.g. a critter keeper), a heating pad, heat-proof tape, washcloths and paper towels, and a small outdoor (or reptile) thermometer.

Tape the heating pad around the bottom of the plastic container and up around an inch or so of the sides of the container with the heat-resistant tape. Plug the heating pad in and place the it on medium. Place a washcloth on the inside bottom of the plastic container, and place a few paper towels over that; this is where the chicks will eventually be placed. Put the thermometer inside of the container on top of the paper towels. After about a half hour, check the temperature inside of the container. Adjust the temperature of the brooder as needed (by adding or removing wash cloths underneath the paper towels, or by changing the setting of the heating pad) according to the following table:

Stage of chick's developmentTemperature of brooder
Newly hatched92-94°F (33.3-34.4 °C)
Older, but still unfeathered90-92°F (32.2-33.3 °C)
Pin feathers present85-90°F (29.4-32.2 °C)
Fully feathered75-80°F (23.9-26.7 °C)
WeanedRoom temperature

Always allow a half hour to pass before checking the adjusted temperature. Once the temperature is correct, the chicks may be added to the brooder and replace the ventilated lid. Keep a close eye on the birds to see if they are too warm or too cold. Chicks which pant or hold their wings away from their bodies are too warm, whereas chicks which shiver or huddle are too cold. Keep the brooder in a dimly lit area.

The humidity in the brooder needs to be maintained above 50%. This may be accomplished by acquiring an unused spray bottle (found at a local grocery store), sterilizing it, filling it with distilled, lukewarm water, and spraying a little water in the incubator/brooder as needed. Only spray fresh water into the brooder, and never spray the chicks directly. Change all of the bedding in the incubator several times daily to keep the inside clean.

Don't forget that as the chicks age, the temperature inside of the brooder should be lowered slowly as described above. When the chicks are fully feathered, the temperature can be lowered (gradually, of course) to room temperature.

Preparing the Formula

Hand feeding formula First, heat water to 120°F using a stove, hot plate, or coffee maker (if your water has bacteria in it, boil the water for 15 minutes first). Mix the correct proportions of formula and hot water in a sterilized container. Follow the label on the KAYTEE Exact feeding formula (reproduced below) to mix the formula to the correct consistency (which varies as the chick ages). Do NOT heat or reheat mixed formula in the microwave, as doing so may lead to "hot spots" that could burn the chick's crop. Once the formula and the hot water have been mixed thoroughly, allow the mixture to cool to 101-104°F (38.3-40°C) before feeding the chicks. Feeding formula at this temperature allows the chicks to digest it properly.

Age in Days Amount Water Amount Formula Consistency
1 6 parts Pedialyte 1 part Broth (very watery)
2 6 parts (water) 1 part Broth
3-5 3 parts 1 part Creamy soup
5-weaning 2 parts 1 part Pudding

Only make small quantities of formula before each feeding. Discard left over formula; DO NOT reuse mixed formula! Instead, mix fresh formula at each feeding.

Feeding the Chick(s)

Before you being feeding, several general rules should be followed:
  • ALWAYS make fresh formula for each feeding; never refrigerate mixed formula.
  • Only use sterile feeding utensils. Clean utensils after each feeding.
  • Encourage the bird to beg for its food; never try to force feed it by forcing its beak open. Only feed during begging behavior (as the glottis and choana slit are closed at this time which allows food to be delivered safely). If you try to feed the chick while it is not begging, it may asphyxiate (choke) on the food. Dispense the food in rhythm with the chick's head-bobbing motion.
  • Pause every couple of seconds after providing the bird with food to allow it to breathe.
  • Do not get any formula in/on the bird's nostrils. Clean up any spilled food, especially food that may have gotten on the chick.
  • Do not over or under feed the baby. When it is full, the chick may stop begging or its crop (the sack which holds the food located near the base of its neck) will appear full, which ever comes first. Feed it again each time the crop becomes nearly empty. This should occur at regular intervals. Keep track of how long it takes for the crop to empty between each feeding, as any sign of slowing is bad and needs to be addressed immediately (see below).
  • Allow the crop to completely empty at least once each day (usually before first morning feeding).
  • Be sure to replace the paper towel which the bird is sitting on as needed (usually after each feeding).
  • Be gentle and use good judgment.

Age: 1 Day

When the chick first hatches, place a little pedialyte around its beak. Within forty-five minutes after it has hatched, the first real feeding may be given. This is done by mixing a very small amount of formula (which will be mostly pedialyte) and given to the bird by means of a flat toothpick. Scoop the formula up little by little with the toothpick and place it within the birds beak and not down its throat (do not force this, if the chick refuses to take it, try gently tapping its beak or stroking its back to encourage begging). Continue feeding it regularly whenever the crop is emptied (usually every hour). Also, four night feedings should be given to strengthen the baby.

Age: 2 Days

The same procedure for a 1 day old finch should be used here, however, pedialyte should be exchanged for water. Also, reduce night feedings to 3 times per night.

Age: 3-5 Days

More formula and less water should be provided now (see chart above), and the 1 cc syringe with handy crop tube extension should be used for feedings. Crop feeding is a method whereby the small, flexible tubing attached to the syringe is inserted directly into the chick's crop by way of the mouth as the chick begs. Do NOT try to insert the tube if the chick is not engaged in begging behavior. Angle the tube towards the RIGHT side of the chick's throat and gently guide the tube down the chick's esophagus and into its crop. You will be able to see the tube in the crop; do not push it too far down. Dispense formula quickly but carefully until the crop is nearly full, then remove the tube gently. Do NOT continue dispensing food as you retract the tube. This method allows the chick to receive its entire meal more quickly than the previously used method (placing a small amount of formula in the mouth, waiting for the chick to swallow it, and then repeating until the chick is full). If the extension could not be found or if you do not feel comfortable crop feeding a baby finch, a pipette may replace the syringe for this age but do NOT attempt to crop feed using a pipette. Instead, just continue delivering small volumes of food into the chicks mouth and give it time to swallow and breathe between servings. Make sure the formula's not clogging the utensil and that no air bubbles get trapped within the formula once it is sucked into the syringe/pipette. Feedings should still be administered as the crop empties (about every hour and a half), and night feedings for day 5 should be reduced to 2 for that night.

Age: 5 Days to Weaning

The consistency of the formula now is comparable to pudding, but should not be so thick that it clogs the utensil. Feed when the crop becomes empty (every 2-3 hours), and reduce night feedings for days 6 & 7 to once per night. On day 8, cease night feedings. Soon the feathers will be emerging; when the bird is fully feathered, the temperature in the brooder may be gradually reduced to room temperature, as explained earlier. By 18-21 days, the birds will normally be at fledging age. During this time, they should be offered spray millet, soaked seed, and an egg-mix to nibble on. Wean them onto these foods as they begin to refuse taking any more formula, and place them into a cage of their own with low perches, fresh water, fresh foods, and a nest with nesting material until they fledge. If they are late fledging, place a mature bird in the cage with them to act as a mentor. Shortly after they get the hang of things, the cage may be rearranged to look like a normal finch cage, and the normal diet (the one you provide to your mature finches) may be given to the young ones.

Problems to Prevent & Watch For

First, when feeding the baby, do not overfeed it. Stretching its crop too far can lead to atony of the crop and inhibit the bird's ability to digest food properly.

Second, pay attention to the chick's skin. Normal skin looks pink to yellow in color and appears supple (minimal flaking is normal). If you notice excessive flaking and/or dry, deep-red colored skin, this is a sign that the chick is dehydrated. If the chick becomes dehydrated, give it a small volume of pedialyte immediately and mix future meals with a greater proportion of water to dilute the meals slightly. Also check the humidity in the brooder and make sure it is above 50%.

Third, pay attention to the color of the chick's feces. They should be yellow-brown in color. If the chick begins producing green feces, this is a sign that the crop has stopped emptying properly. Crop stasis (crop "slow down," or decreased crop emptying) may be a sign of infection. Other common causes of crop stasis are over feeding, feeding cold formula, and improper brooder temperatures. To help the crop empty, add a little warm water to the crop and gently massage its contents. Never massage a crop that is more than half full. Check the temperature of the brooder and the formula you have been feeding. Make any necessary adjustments and pay close attention to the time intervals between feedings. If the crop is still emptying too slowly, suspect infection and act immediately: mix equal parts of hand feeding formula and infant applesauce. Provide this mixture for all feedings during the next 24 hours and then slowly return to the normal concentration of formula over another 24 hour period. The infant applesauce lowers the pH of the crop and aims to rid it of any infection. If the chicks' condition does not improve, or if it deteriorates, call your avian vet. You may need to administer an antibiotic or antifungal medication to treat the chick.

One other problem you may encounter while hand feeding a baby finch is air in the crop. Sometimes feeding a finch too slowly may cause the bird to gulp air. You can relieve the air by "burping" the bird: while the chick is begging, gently apply pressure to the crop to push the air out. If this does not work or if you are not comfortable "burping" the chick, bring it to your avian vet. Air in the crop can also indicate infection (fermentation in the crop can cause air to build up inside of it) and may require treatment with an antibiotic or antifungal drug from an avian vet, if the applesauce-Kaytee treatment described above does not suffice.
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