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Weaning of Cockatiels
By Tom Roudybush
For Exotic Bird Report Number 6 (7/1/1986)

 

Summary

 

Cockatiels were subjected to a variety of dietary regimes at weaning age (42-49 days of age). Stimulation of appetite by reduced hand-feeding and feeding a variety of diets did not reduce the age at weaning. Chicks with lower body weights between 8 and 30 days weaned later than chicks with higher 8-30 day body weights. Chicks with no previous experience with eating weaned quickly upon presentation of food at their normal weaning age.

 

Weaning appears not to be a learned process and is not affected by external stimulation of hunger. It is a process which develops as the bird matures, just as standing and flying develop.

 

Weaning of birds might reasonably be defined as the process of progressing from dependent feeding to independent feeding. The chick progresses from needing a parent or hand—feeder to put feed into its mouth to being able to seek and ingest adequate food on its own. This by itself, however, tells little about the process of weaning and what factors are likely to influence its timing and duration. One of the key words here is “adequate,” which means adequate to sustain the bird without additional feeding from some other source. If a bird does not eat enough feed to survive on its own, it is not weaned. Cockatiels, for example, wean by about 7 weeks of age, but consume limited amounts of food at about 3—1/2 weeks of age.

 

The following experiments were designed to help characterize the weaning process and to evaluate some factors which may influence the age at weaning.

 

Methods

 

Cockatiels from experiments on nutrient requirements for growth were caged 2 to a cage at about 3-1/2 weeks of age. Hand-feeding continued until growth had ceased and chicks could maintain their body weights on 2 feedings per day, one morning and one

evening. This generally occurred by about 4 weeks of age depending on the diet fed during the nutrition experiment. By 5 weeks of age most chicks weighed 75-90 grams.

 

Each chick was weighed before its morning feeding. Any chick which had maintained its body weight with no hand-feeding over a 3-day period was considered weaned and was no longer weighed or fed. The age of weaning was defined as the chick’s age the day after its last hand-fed meal. The hand-feeding diet fed, unless indicated otherwise, was the 20% protein diet used by Roudybush and Grau (1985).

 

Experiment 1. Growth and weaning


            To test the assumption that cockatiels were actually consuming food at 3-1/2 weeks of age instead of picking up food and dropping it, giving the appearance of eating, chicks were fed a crumbled diet (Grau and Roudybush, 1985) to which Rhodamine B was added. Feces were observed for dye and chicks’ skins were observed for presence of dye.

 

Experiment 2. Stimulation of voluntary food intake by hand—feeding restriction

 

Chicks at about 5 weeks of age were subjected to reduced hand-feeding intake or to being hand-fed a protein-free diet similar to that used by Roudybush and Grau (1985) except that starch was substituted for protein and methionine. Chicks were observed for changes in body weights and changes in the amount of time spent begging.

 

Experiment 3. Force feeding vs. ad libitum feeding

 

Five-week-old cockatiel chicks were fed either by squirting a pre—measured amount of feed directly into their crops or by allowing the chicks to consume as much hand-fed diet as they would voluntarily swallow from the tip of the syringe. Both groups were allowed access to crumbles and water and were observed for weaning.

 

Experiment 4. Preweaning diet compared to postweaning diet

 

Five-week-old hand-fed chicks were fed either the hand-feeding diet or the crumbled diet finely ground to allow hand-feeding. Chicks were observed for weaning.

 

Experiment 5. Seeds vs. crumbles as a weaning diet

 

Hand-fed chicks were offered either white proso millet or crumbles as the weaning diet. Chicks were observed for weaning.

 

Experiment 6. Learning and weaning

 

Twenty chicks were denied access to food or water except what they were hand-fed. They were fed twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. At weaning age (45 + 3 days) chicks were weighed and fed in the morning. All chicks were immediately offered crumbles in feeders and water in waterers, and the evening feeding was skipped. The following morning the chicks were weighed again and evaluated for weaning.

 

Experiment 7. Growth and weaning

 

Chicks from control groups from nutrient-requirement experiments were fed the 20% protein hand-feeding diet from time of hatching. Differences in growth rate were achieved by feeding different amounts of food to each group. Chicks were observed for growth rates, 35-day body weights, and weaning ages.

 

Results

 

Experiment 1. Age of voluntary food consumption

 

Red dye appeared in the feces skin of all chicks by 4-1/2 weeks age. Most 3-1/2-week-old chicks ate some food within 2 days of availability.

 

Experiment 2. Stimulation of voluntary food intake by hand-feeding restriction

 

When hand-feeding was restricted, chicks rapidly lost weight and increased begging. Chicks fed a zero protein diet developed bloody diarrhea within 3 days and begging increased, but they did not eat voluntarily.

 

Experiment 3. Force feeding vs. ad libitum feeding

 

Force-fed and ad libitum-fed chicks weaned at 45.1 days and 48.4 days and

at 77.6 grams and 81.0 grams, respectively (Table 1).

 

TABLE 1

Age of weaning and body weight at weaning of cockatiels

Experiment       Treatment                                 Age (days)                 Body weight (grams)

        3              Force-fed                                   45.1                                       77.6

                        Ad lib-fed                                   48.4                                       81.0

        4              Hand-fed purified diet*               49.8                                       86.7

                        Hand-fed ground crumbles          48.7                                       85.5

5                            Seeds                                         43.9                                       75.1

Crumbles                                    44.9                                       78.1

 

* Grau and Roudybush (1985).

 

Experiment 4. Preweaning diet compared to postweaning diet

 

Chicks fed the hand-feeding diet and the ground crumbles weaned at 49.8 days and 48.7 days and 86.7 grams and 85.5 grams, respectively (Table 1).

 

Experiment 5. Seeds vs. crumbles as  weaning diets

 

            Chicks fed seeds and chicks fed crumbles as weaning diets weaned at 43.9 days and 44.9 days, and 75.1 grams and 78.1 grams, respectively (Table 1).

 

Experiment 6. Learning and weaning

 

One-third of the chicks weaned upon presentation of food and water. All chicks weaned by 7 weeks of age.

 

Experiment 7. Growth and weaning

 

The growth curves of 4 groups of cockatiels are presented in Figure 1. The numbers beside each growth curve are the mean ages at which the chicks weaned. The curves of all groups converge at about the same weight at 35 days of age. Growth rate does, however, make some difference in the age of weaning. The chicks that weaned youngest were those whose growth curve most closely resembled the growth curve of parent-fed birds (Figure 2). Chicks that grew slower weaned later.

 


 

Discussion

 

Weaning of cockatiels appears to be a process brought on by maturation and development and not one that can be taught or stimulated by deprivation. Even though chicks were offered food and water beginning at 3-1/2 weeks of age and consumed food almost immediately, efforts to stimulate voluntary intake by either reduced hand-feeding or by removal of protein from the diet resulted in weight loss or diarrhea and increased begging. This indicated that chicks at that age had not matured to the point of altering their behavioral responses to food deprivation from begging to eating. Even though these chicks could and did eat some food at 3-1/2 weeks of age, they did not wean until this behavioral response had changed.

 

Efforts to expedite this change in behavior failed. In experiments 3-5, none of the feeding regimes had any effect in changing weaning age. Learning appeared also to be of little importance. Chicks which had had no experience with voluntary food or water intake weaned rapidly when presented with food and water at the expected weaning age. One-third of the chicks weaned immediately upon presentation of food with no prior experience with either eating food or watching food being eaten.

 

The only factors which influenced weaning age appeared to be growth rate or body weight between 8 and 30 days of age. The chicks with the more rapid growth rates and higher body weights during the 8-30 days of age period weaned earlier than chicks that had slower growth rates during the same period even though all of the groups achieved roughly the same body weight at 35 days of age. It appears that weaning age is regulated, at least in part, by growth and development of chicks during the time of rapid growth but not by the attainment of expected 35-day body weights.

 

Weaning appears not be a learned process and is not affected by external stimulation of hunger. It is rather a process which develops as the bird matures, just as standing and flying develop. Adequate food intake during the rapid growth phase results in rapid growth, higher 8-30 day body weights, and early weaning whereas inadequate food intake results in slower growth, lower 8-30 day body weights, and later weaning, even though all chicks reach about the same preweaning body weight at 35 days of age.

 

References

 

Roudybush, T. E., and C. R. Grau, 1986. Food and water interrelations and the protein requirement for growth of an altricial bird, the Cockatiel (Nymphicus hollandicus). J. Nutr. 116:552—559.

 

Grau, C. R., and T. E. Roudybush. 1985. Seeds, pellets, and crumbles for cagebirds. Exotic Bird Report (3):5—6.