Weaned Vs Unweaned Baby - - - by Liz Davies (aka "Mom")

When did selling unweaned babies become so popular?  Isn’t it surprising that so many inexperienced people are willing to take this on?   Maybe it’s the inexperience that makes it easy to agree to buy a baby that still must be hand fed.  It’s a controversial subject.  There are people who feel that it’s irresponsible to adopt an unweaned baby, and there are those who hold the opposite view.

Preparing the formula

Our Jesse came to us at 13 weeks of age – certainly not weaned.  Although she had begun to eat on her own, she still required 3 feedings per day of baby formula. 

Enthusiastic Attention

The package-mix formula our breeder uses and recommended to us is not difficult to fix, but I do have to say that the constant attention to details (the formula must be made up fresh for each meal, served at an exact temperature and the equipment must be absolutely sterile) has been more troublesome than I would have guessed. 

She's in her "baby begging" position

Then there’s the cleanup (the equipment, the kitchen counter, the floor, the walls, the bird, us).  Even after several weeks of practice and honing our skills, it never took less than 20 minutes per meal from start to end.

Ready to Begin, tilting her head back with my hand

Here let me share with you that precious moment (which came after Jesse had been with us for about a week and a half) when my dear husband turned to me and asked “How much longer will we have to keep up the feedings?”

And…oh the joy of wiping formula off the cabinets and walls…


Mama! Mama!  Give me to EAT!

Then there is the “can we cut back to 2 feedings a day safely” dance.  And constantly watching the bird’s weight (you really need a good digital kitchen scale) and worrying (obsessing) when some of the formula comes back up – or there’s a sudden loss of weight.

The breeder I chose (a man who I have great respect for) pretty much sells all his babies unweaned.  He aims to have his birds adopted just after they have grown their feathers in and are eating at least some on their own.  His contention is that the birds make better pets for the adoptive family because of the social learning that takes place during the last stages of handfeeding and weaning.  His conviction is birds learn more and faster at this stage than at any other point in their lives – and it’s the perfect time to instill behaviors and habits in them that will make them (and you) happier and healthier.  I think he’s got a strong case, really.  He’s probably 100% right – but – caring for a feisty baby with a 34-inch wingspan, who would rather play right now that eat that formula… ahh… it’s not a job to be taken on lightly. 

All in all, we managed pretty well with handfeeding Jesse.  And we were especially fortunate because the breeder made sure we knew the proper feeding technique before he allowed us to take her home.  Very, very wise on his part.

Learning to do this right wasn't all that easy.

Not everyone is so fortunate in the handfeeding experience.  Not everyone is fortunate to be working with such a dedicated and responsible breeder.

When we’d had Jesse for about a month, I started following a “macaw chat” message board on the Internet.  There I read several panicky messages left by new owners who suddenly found they weren’t well equipped – or well informed – enough for the task.  Fortunately, all of these cases worked out (the folks who run that message board were very generous with fast responses and excellent advice). 

Would I recommend adopting an unweaned baby? 

Well… that would depend on your circumstances.  I do believe we are having overall an easier time with Jesse because we’ve had her from such a young age.  By the time she was weaned, we’d learned a lot about how to handle her and what to expect.  We had a lot of success with her in terms of teaching her to come when called, potty training, and such – so I do think there is some accelerated learning because she was so young. Also - she is probably better "socialized" because we gave her so much attention; I can't imagine any breeder being as devoted and attentive to her as we (the adoptive parronts) were (and are). 

From what I’ve heard from others who have unweaned birds, our experience with Jesse’s pre-weaning days is typical – and we may have a much better companion in her than if we’d waited to bring her home.  That said, it’s also important to point out that my husband works at home, so there was no pressure about getting breakfast and lunch feedings (I work in an office several miles away from home, and would not have been able to do this on my own).  Also - I had kept parrots a very long time before adopting Jesse, so I already knew how demanding they can be (I was very well prepared for the experience).

If you are considering an unweaned baby – make sure you have someone experienced work with you the first couple of times you feed your bird.  Pay close attention to weight gains (or losses) and know the correct weight and size for the species at the age you are working with.  Don’t wait until after you have your bird to find out that 35cc’s of formula isn’t an adequate meal for, say, a 14-week old greenwing macaw.  You need to have the facts pretty much in your head from the start.

Know the correct amounts, the normal sizes and weights, and make sure you have access to a good avian vet.  Have this information in-hand before you bring the baby home.

Beyond the feeding issue, you’ll also need to know the correct way to pick up a bird who is too young to “step up” (don’t just grab them by the body like a chicken in the grocery store…), and you’ll need to consider how to care for a bird that does not yet perch.  When Jesse first came home, we covered the bottom of her cage with layers of newspaper (so her feet were protected and supported better than she’d have had with the bars on the cage bottom).  This paper had to be changed several times a day.  For quite a while, she slept in a cardboard box with a towel for warmth and comfort (also changed and laundered daily).  We supplied her with toys (baby keys, balls) that she could play with on the cage floor.

Bottom line?

Think about it long and hard first.  Don't do this as an impulse decision - and make sure you have honestly assessed your own limitations.  If, after looking at the pro's and con's, and reading/hearing the opinions of those who support and condemn the practice - you are (like we were) ready to go ahead - then ... ...proceed with caution.

Jesse and her "Da".