Regardless of whether you foster, merely "bump up", or fully hand feed your chicks, you will have to watch carefully to be sure the parents or fosters do not abuse the chicks or neglect them. Once the chicks are fully feathered, they stand a much better chance of surviving, but until then, it is important you watch closely. If the chicks aren't warm enough and you feed formula, they may not empty their crops. Should this happen, you will need to add supplemental heat. But in most cases, chicks survive quite well and in much better form this way with parents or fosters as an incubator than they would by moving them and allowing fosters to feed exclusively.

For the first two days of feeding, I use a super tiny, super flexible syringe tip made from silicone tubing. This fine tip will fit into even the tiniest of mouths. I do not attempt to crop feed this early, and literally feed one drop at a time until the chick appears to have food in the crop. As the chicks age, I graduate to a cannula tip to feed them. This tip is still very small, but not at all flexible. It offers more control for larger chicks who like to bob up to meet the syringe to be fed. As they age, I allow them to come up to the syringe. A simple tap on the beak usually sends them into a frenzy, and they eagerly bob up. Care must be taken, however. Many chicks will attempt to ram that feeding tip directly into their own crop. Damage can be done to the crop if complete control is not utilized. A punctured crop CAN heal, but it will usually mean the death of the chick. I try to avoid direct crop feeding unless absolutely necessary.

Each chick is fed so that its crop never expands beyond the size of its head. Initially, newly hatched chicks must be fed literally one drop at a time. As their crops expand, more formula may be fed – but never so much that the crop expands beyond the size of the chicks head. Doing so may allow the formula to harden in the crop because it will not empty fast enough. A day old chick will take no more than one or two drops at each feeding, while a 3-5 day old chick may take as much as .2 ml (cc). By the time they are feathered, most Gouldian chicks will take a full 2ml (cc) of formula or more, depending on the size of the chick. You’ll need to use your best judgment to decide how much each chick will need at each feeding.

In conclusion, fostering chicks is an option I’d personally prefer to avoid but will do in emergency situations. Even when fostering, hand feeding formula may be used to “bump up” fostered chicks or chicks fed poorly by the parents. Doing so can mean the difference between strong, healthy chicks and those who are soft, shaggy, and weak.

Same Shafttail chicks as in previous photo - with an unexpected Gould hatchling that was placed in the nest and FOSTERED by the Shafttail parents. The egg was laid on the bottom of the mixed flight cage and wasn't expected to be fertile. But even Shafttails will foster other species if hatched with their own. These chicks were continually "bumped up" because the parents were young and not feeding well until later.

My bird room is as much a giant science project as it is a home for my birds – my birds are my pets, my children, my babies – and are treated as such. And as I have done with my human children, I have spent years recording every aspect of my birds’ lives - from the size and weight of each egg laid all the way through adulthood and beyond. Recording this information not only helps me to better identify nutritional success or shortfalls, but helps me to tweak genetic lines and learn “what” makes my birds tick and “why” they respond the way they do. I form correlations from this data and, among other things, can use it to select better pairs for breeding. Using this information, and after years of measuring and recording crop contents and noting the difference between a foster raised chick and a parent raised chick, I’ve come to the conclusion that if parents aren’t able or refuse to feed their chicks, a same-species foster pair is a better option when available, or hand-feeding is better than using Societies or other species.

It should be noted that I raise mainly Australian species with a handful of African and other species. I have only recorded results from these species. I cannot say this information is true for any species I do not currently keep or have kept. However, my records for the species I have kept have shown consistent results.

To Society or Not To Society

It has been my experience that a Society finch may well care for a Gouldian chick and do a fine job of stuffing that chick to the brim with seed. However, if you were to compare the crop contents of a parent raised chick to a chick of the same age under Societies, you will notice a huge difference. Gouldians tend to feed crop milk far longer than Societies – on average, 5-7 days – while Societies usually only feed crop milk for the first 1-2 days, then stuff the chicks with seed (usually millet). And while those Societies may well be feeding those chicks, the chicks in my aviary do not flourish under Societies. It has been my experience that Gouldian chicks cannot process whole seed as easily as they can crop milk. Foster raised chicks tend to be soft in muscle and shaggy in feather because they could not fully process the food they were fed. They are not as robust as a parent raised chick.

Societies also tend to wean sooner than Gouldian parents. All chicks lose some weight from the time they fledge to the time they wean as they learn to feed themselves. In the case of Society raised chicks, they tend lose on average 1-2 full grams more than a parent raised chick. Society raised Gouldians usually then go on to raise their own chicks in the same manner – stuffing them full of millet instead of crop milk, producing softer chicks that are not as robust. It is not something I like to see. I have other reasons for not fostering under Societies, but in my humble opinion, this is the most important. I’m interested in quality, not quantity, and will accept smaller clutches of parent raised or same-species fostered birds over larger numbers of Society raised ones every day of the week. It’s simply a matter of preference.

 Luckily for me, 99% of my birds of all species will self raise their chicks. Occasionally, pairs that were paired too young or those who were wild caught and skittish will abandon, toss, or just not feed their chicks. For chicks who’ve been completely abandoned or tossed, I will hand feed exclusively as long as I have the time to do so. If I won’t have time or will be gone a lot, I WILL use Societies and prefer a pair of cocks as opposed to any hens. It has been my experience that Society hens who have raised their own chicks don’t foster as well as those who haven’t, and in most cases, the cock is almost always the better parent – more attentive to the chicks’ needs.

I prepare my Societies ahead of time by offering them a good breeding diet and a nest with dummy eggs at the same time I prepare my other species. I run them through an anti-protozoal medication one week before the eggs I suspect will need to be fostered will hatch and scan their droppings under the microscope for any other signs of illness or infection. I set them up in a breeding cage that is identical to the pair I expect to have to foster, and feed them the same foods I want them to feed the species they will foster. One week after the eggs hatch, I run the Societies through a second round of anti-protozoal medication to be sure no protozoa are present to affect the chicks. Protozoa is commonly found in Societies. It does not usually affect them or their own chicks, but can quickly kill chicks of other species if not properly controlled. If the Societies ARE needed, they’ve been prepared to the best of my ability.

Leave 'Em & Bump 'Em

But for those parents who don’t toss, I prefer to leave the chicks with them. They might not feed the chicks or will feed inconsistently, but they are the perfect incubator. In such instances, I will bump those chicks up with hand-feeding formula, and in many cases, the screaming of chicks as they grow entices those parents to feed the chicks themselves...eventually! In most cases here, once a set of parents feeds their own chicks once, they continue to feed successive clutches without issue. It’s a win-win situation for my aviary.

When I say “bump up”, I mean to supplement any parent feedings with hand feeding formula. If the parents are not feeding at all and are merely keeping the chicks warm, I will hand feed exclusively. But when they are inconsistent feeders, I find supplementing the chicks goes far to keep them healthy and alive. In the early days, I will check the nest often to gauge how quickly their crops are emptying. Feeding times will depend upon the parents. If they are feeding a little, chicks are supplemented every few hours. If they are not feeding at all, chicks are fed “on demand” when their crops are empty, or nearly so. That could be anywhere from every 15 minutes to every 30 minutes for the first few days depending on how quickly the crops empty. If parents are keeping the chicks warm, newly hatched chicks should have empty crops within no more than 30 minutes. As their crops expand with each feeding, these times will fall farther apart.

When mixing formula, I take into account the age of the chicks. A parent bird instinctively knows when and how much to feed a chick, but as a human, I must use my best judgment. Watching closely every chick of every species from hatch to adulthood, I’ve noticed that not all species will immediately feed the instant a chick has hatched. In some cases, they will not feed for up to two days. It has been said a chick will live off the yolk remaining in its belly until it is absorbed. And while that may be true, dehydration is a factor that must be taken into account, especially if your breeding season is in the winter and the furnace is running. If parents aren’t feeding at all, the biggest issue you’ll face is dehydration in the chicks. A dehydrated chick will go downhill quickly, refuse to raise its head to feed, and eventually die of dehydration and/or starvation. Thus here, the first day of formula is mixed so thin that it is almost entirely water. There is just enough formula in it to keep the chicks hydrated, but not enough nutrition to stop the absorption of the yolk if still present.

By the second day, the formula is mixed at a consistency that is thicker – like tomato soup - but still very thin. In most cases, by the time the chicks are 5 days old, formula may be mixed to a hefty consistency that will stick to any implement used to feed them.

Mixing Formula - IMPORTANT!!

Something that is of great importance when mixing the formula is to make sure you’ve allowed it to absorb as much of the water as it can hold before feeding. This can take as long as 10 minutes (some take less), depending on the brand of formula you are using. Finer ground formulas tend to take longer to absorb than those with larger grain. Improperly mixed formula can cause crop impactions. If not allowed to absorb the water, it will expand in the crop and harden. If parents are feeding at all, seed combined with hardened formula in the crop will eventually kill a chick. It will effectively starve to death, no matter how much formula you pump into it. I have run crop washes to attempt to dislodge any impacted formula or “stuck” seed with varied success. It is a dangerous procedure and is not always successful. It is not something I recommend for those who have little experience performing crop washes.

When mixing formula, I add a tablespoon of formula to a dish, then add mere drops of hot water to it and mix until I have all lumps out and bring it to a smooth consistency. The amount of water added will depend on the brand of formula you are using – they all respond differently. Here, I use
Abba's Fine 92 Hand Feeding Formula. These have a slightly higher protein content that seems to work better for Gouldians and insectivorous African species. The formula will cool as you mix, but it will still be warm enough to feed to the chicks by the time the mixing is complete. On days that I am offering supplements in the drinking water, I mix those same supplements with hot water and use it to mix the formula for the chicks. I keep a dish of KD Cleanser at disinfectant strength prepared to clean the syringe after each use.

Once I have the consistency I want, I then pull the nest from the cage and feed the chicks. I do not reheat the formula each time I feed the chicks. Room temperature (typically between 65-70) is fine as long as the chicks will be warmed once they finish eating – whether it be in a brooder, under foster parents, or under their own parents. As long as there is no obvious sign of illness in the chicks, I WILL use the same syringe to feed an entire clutch. However, if I am feeding more than one clutch of chicks, I use a different syringe for every clutch I am feeding.

I keep a dish of hot water nearby to rinse the syringe each time I fill it. This prevents messes in the nest, and tends to keep food off the faces of the chicks. I do keep cotton buds handy to wipe excess formula from their faces if necessary. One of the hazards of hand feeding chicks is that formula hardens quickly on their beaks, in the crevices of any nodules on the sides of their faces, and in the nostrils if not wiped away. I’ve seen infections crop up from improperly cleaned faces – on Gouldians specifically, where the nodules are present on either side of the beak. But I’ve also seen infections in the nostrils of several other species.


1.) Larger syringe with "cannula" tips that holds more formula to feed an entire clutch, 2.) Small syringe with "cannula" tip for feeding single chicks,

3.) Pipettes - usually best for only larger finches & canaries, and only after they've grown considerably, 4.) Silicone-tipped syringe for feeding newly hatched chicks a super fine formula (watery) the first few days - not meant to be used with thicker formula.




I understand fostering can be a contentious subject. Everyone has an opinion and their reasons for believing it is justifiable, and discussion on the subject can elicit some pretty strong responses. I know why I don’t like fostering and why I only use fosters in extreme emergencies. In this article, I’ll attempt to explain that reasoning, how I’ve come to my conclusions, and what I do instead of fostering.

These Shafttail chicks are being fed inconsistently by their parents. I am “bumping” them up with hand feeding formula.