What Can I Feed Orphan Baby Wild Doves & Pigeons?

Ron Hines DVM PhD 

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I love doves – their personality, their graceful beauty. Quite a few have come through my hands over the years. That is mostly due to their poor nest building abilities. Once a few sticks have been carelessly crossed, they consider the job done.

Doves and pigeons are one of the few groups of birds that you are likely to encounter in the USA, Canada or Europe that require a very specialized diet. While other baby birds are simply present their normal adult foods or insects by their parents, doves and pigeons (columbine birds) that are raising offspring transform their crop into a “milk” producing organ. (ref1, ref2

Lest you take the word “milk” literally, cow or goat milk is NOT a suitable food for doves and pigeons because they contain lactose sugar (milk sugar) that doves and pigeons cannot process. So the sugar ferments in their digestive tracts causing bloat, diarrhea and respiratory distress. Parrots, penguins and flamingos also produce crop milks. 

The percentage constituents of dove milk are unknown.  But pigeon milk, which is likely very similar, is about 70% water. Of the remaining solids in it, about 53-58% is protein and 34-35% is fat. Very little carbohydrates (including sugars) are present. The actual percentages of the contents of milk of all species of animals do not remain constant. They vary over time. Things like the time of day, the diet consumed by the parents, the number of offspring fed and the age of the offspring all factor in. Luckily, the infant animals of all species have been given the flexibility to deal with these variations. (ref1, ref2, ref3) That probably also accounts for the analysis variations in the preceding three references.  Of course, natural pigeon/dove milk also contains all the essential vitamins and trace minerals that the babies require. As the baby doves or pigeons mature, partially digested grains are regurgitated into this mix as well.

If you have occasion to raise orphan doves or pigeons, there are many recipes that have raised them quite successfully. For fat content, many contain  Nutrical® and/or olive or vegetable oils, for protein peas, hemp powder, or vegan soy products. Varying amounts of one or another human or animal vitamin supplement as well as digestive enzymes are often also thrown in for good measure. A pinch of this, a smidgen of that.

A commonly used recipe is called MAC Milk. Many have found that commercial parrot-raising formulas like Exact ® work well for them ; others in Europe use the Psittacus Catalonia Wildiet ®  formula.

My Technique:

Every year I feed out baby doves and pigeons with a recipe I prepare myself. I based the ingredients on what I know of avian nutrition and on products that are readily available to most anyone on short notice. This formula works well for me and, if you use it, it hope it works well for you too:

This Cup comfortably holds 1.5 measuring cups of coffee.

1) Pour 1.25 measuring cups of dry instant oatmeal into the empty cup.

2) To the cup, add 1 cup of shaken Silk® unsweetened organic soy milk that has been microwaved for 30 seconds. Unsweetened, non-flavored Silk® milk adds protein and calcium.

3) Mix them together well with spoon. Never microwave once the eggs have been added because the mixture will become lumpy and unusable.

4) Once the oatmeal and soy milk have cooled, add the contents of 2 large whole eggs and mix very well. As the birds reach maturity, reduced the number of eggs used to one per cup. Oatmeal is deficient in Vitamin D3. Egg yolk is a good sources of vitamin D and the egg whites are a good source of added protein. 

5) Mix well with a spoon until homogeneous.

6) Top off to a comfortable height with Silk® soy milk. Silk® soy milk has a short refrigerator shelf life. When I have only a few doves to feed, I freeze the soy milk in smaller pouches and thaw them as needed.

Let the finished mix sit in the refrigerator for an hour or so until it become smooth and creamy and all small lumps have dissolved.Add a bit more soy milk if still too thick or if the babies are very young. During the first week, the formula should drip from a syringe. As they get older, you can feed it thicker.

Bring the formula to room temp before feeding.

After feeding, the cup goes on the upper shelf of your refrigerator until it is time to bring it to room temperature for another feeding.

I prepare no more than I can use over a 48 hour period.

The most common cause of crop burn-throughs is feeding formulas that have been microwaved and contain hot spots. So I always stir well after microwaving and after that, place a dab on my wrist to be sure the temperature is safe. 

This mixture can be fed to baby doves and pigeons in many ways. It can be placed in a disposable pipette – like this one – also in view in the topmost photo layouts. A bit of formula is placed with it in the mouth with the bird allowed to swallow until its crop is full – but not tight. If placing your finger against the bird’s neck causes regurgitation, you have given too much. Many smaller feeding, spaced throughout the day are always safer than large, infrequent feeding. Babies during their first week of life get fed four times. That is gradually reduced to three feeding and then two. When the crop is empty, it is time to feed again. If the crop does not empty completely, you have not waited long enough or there is a problem. After sundown, there is no need to feed.

Because I usually have a lot of mouths to feed and because baby birds can be messy, I prefer to feed doves and pigeons using a 3ml disposable syringe. I cultivate contacts at local hospital supply departments and ask that intravenous catheter extension sets that have passed their FDA-mandated expiration date be set aside for me.

This is what they look like (you can enlarge all my images). You can see one laying next to the scissors in the third photo – before I have cut it to length and another already placed down the squab’s throat. Once your second finger feels the end of the catheter where the bird’s neck enters its body, slowly inject the majority of the formula. As I slowly withdraw the catheter, I leave a teaser amount of formula near the rear of the bird’s mouth so it gets some taste, pleasure and satisfaction out of the procedure. Over the 50+ years I have been tubing baby birds, I do not recall a single case where the tube entered the windpipe rather than the esophagus. Baby birds have a very strong reflex when they gape or feel food in their mouth that locks their larynx shut. So a gently inserted tube going down wrong is quite unlikely. Never the less, watch an experienced aviculturalist or rehabber tube feed before attempting to do so unassisted.

Those Were Some Of Your Dos What Are Some Of Your Don’ts?

Don’t put pressure on the full or partially full crop or the bird might regurgitate and inhale formula.

Don’t attempt to pass a catheter unless the bird’s head is in a star gazing position and the neck extended.

Don’t ever attempt to force a catheter downward that does not pass effortlessly.

Don’t ever attempt to feed a bird that is not bright and alert.

Don’t neglect good sanitation. If it would not pass a health inspector’s muster in a restaurant setting, it’s not a fit in a bird kitchen either.

Don’t develop the habit of always feeding the dove or pigeon from the same side. That predisposes it to developing scissor beak – a situation where the upper and lower beaks are misaligned.  Open this photo of a  hand-fed nightjar that developed this problem:      

South Texas summers are quite hot and many of these infants are brought to me from far away. Most are dehydrated. After windy storms that blow them out of their nests and drench them, many are chilled despite the hot weather. Neither dehydrated babies nor chilled babies absorb nutrients well. In those babies, the natural wave like motion (peristalsis) that propels food down their digestive systems function poorly or not at all. Tube feeding babies that condition actually speeds their demise as the formula putrefies and ferments in their crop. Markedly dehydrated babies need subcutaneous and intramuscular fluids. Mildly dehydrated babies need their first few feedings to be no more than warmed lactated ringers solution (LRS). They also need supplemental warmth if they are chilled.   All wild creatures are masters at concealing stress, weakness and illness – until the very end. If the circumstances favor dehydration or chilling, just assume they are so, even if it is not outwardly apparent.

Once only small tufts of down remain on the head, I begin to place dishes of water and seed grains in the bird’s enclosures. A small rock (or marbles) placed in the water dishes (as seen in the second photo) help keep the birds from turning the water containers over when they perch on them.

Be sure they are accepting mixed grains before you release them. A quality seed mix suggested for wild song birds is fine. I add about a quarter amount of game bird (or turkey) starter crumbles to the mix. When seeds and grains are offered, I mix a bit of stone grit in with the food. The Hartz Gravel’n Grit™ is much too fine and goes right through them. Using well-washed masonry pea gravel/sand from a building supply or river, I first remove the fine sand with a kitchen sieve. Then I remove the large stones with a kitchen colander or by passing the gravel through a disc punched with an office hole punch (~3/16″ holes). Then I wash and re-wash what is left and let it dry. Ground poultry oyster shell works equally as well and provides an additional source of calcium. But some feed store oyster shell grinds are too large for doves. Grain-eating birds need small stone grit in their gizzards to obtain the full nutritional benefits of whole grains. Their is an inset image top right in the 4th photo at the top of this page of the proper size grit for a pigeon. The bird in that photo is already beginning to peck at whole grain.

I occasionally delay release of doves. I don’t like releasing late summer babies close to Texas dove hunting season. Others are birds that face medical issues. In both cases, I find it wise to supplement a grain-based/seed diet with ground dog chow prepared with the meat grinder as seen in the photo.

Why Do You Use An Oat-Based Diet?

Of all the cereal grains, whole oats are among the most nutritious – considerably more so than corn or wheat.  In their instant baby cereal form, baby instant oatmeal blends with warm water readily. It is marketed pre-fortified with vitamins and calcium that the all infants need. Because these items are marketed for children, and because liability issues dictate that their constituents be of top quality, these products are considerably more rigorously monitored for quality than diets marketed for animals (for example, the FDA proposes spending 24 times as much money in 2017 regulating human versus animal food). (ref)

Also, these name brand producers, like Gerber, have the where with all to do in depth analyses of their products that small niche pet food manufacturers generally do not have.

You will see two brands of baby oatmeal cereal in second photo at the top. I purchased Parent’s Choice because I noticed that it was all whole oat flour while the Gerber’s was only partially whole grain oat flour. I suppose because of that, the protein content of the Parent’s Choice was listed as significantly higher. But I cannot say that I noticed any difference in how the doves grew eating one versus the other.

Why Do You Add Raw Eggs To Your Diet?

1) Egg increase the diets fat/energy content

2) Raw egg albumin (egg white) makes my mix very “syringable”. Lumpy diets are hard to force through a standard syringe. When I blend dog foods to feed or tube other wildlife, I sometimes have to ream out the tip of the syringe with a 1/8” drill bit in order to get the slurry to pass.  The lecithin and albumin in eggs is also an excellent lubricant – so I do not need to use products like KY jelly on the syringe catheter. 

3) Like pigeon milk, raw eggs contain important vitamins and antioxidants.

4) But the most important thing that raw eggs contribute are protective antibodies. Most of these are called IgY antibodies.They are found primarily in the egg’s yolk. Although the chick was meant to absorb these antibodies from its yolk before hatching (ref1, ref2) , they remain protective in the intestine even when furnished after hatching. (ref1, ref2)  These antibodies are not only effective in controlling intestinal bacteria, they are also though to control the growth of C. albicans, the cause of avian thrush or candidiasis. (ref)

Once the pigeon or dove is born, these antibodies, which are present in the natural crop milk are still important. But after birth the antibodies are thought to only have the ability to act within the squabs intestinal tract. (ref) That is still quite beneficial. It is not only egg yolk that contains protective qualities – the whites do too (lysozymes). (ref)

It not required that the eggs used  be fertile. Normal cooking will destroy them.

Well, isn’t there a danger in feeding raw eggs?

Yes, but the risk is small. The risk is that approximately one out of 10 – 20,000 eggs test positive for salmonella. That risk can, perhaps be reduced even further by buying free-range chicken eggs. (ref)

Pasteurized, whole egg is another option. But I do not know if IgY antibodies survive the pasteurization process used in commercially available pasteurized products. If that processed did not  take the egg contents to over 60 degrees C (140F) for ten minutes, these antibodies should have survived intact. (ref) I am still waiting to hear back from Davidson’s regarding their process.

What About The Lack of Vitamin A In Eggs and Oats?

It is true that you will not find any vitamin A listed on oat cereals and a single large egg has only about one tenth a human’s daily suggested vitamin A intake. But both egg yolk and oatmeal are rich in carotenoids that avian bodies converts to vitamin A (retinol). (ref) Either vitamin A or carotinoids are very important in maintaining a strong defense against infections. (ref)

Although some egg producers artificially darken their egg yolks with artificial additives, most often, a darker yolk is a sign of greater carotenoids content. (ref) So when given the opportunity, pick eggs with the deeper orange yolks, like the one on the far left:

It is always safer to provide carotenoids than it is to supplement with vitamin A or things like cod liver oil. That is because too much vitamin A can be toxic. (ref)

What Are Feather Stress Bars?

During the period that a feather is forming, the follicle that produces the feather relies on a steady stream of nutrients (the amino acids needed to build feather β-keratin protein [ref]) obtained from the bird’s blood stream. If that steady flow of nutrients is interrupted, either by a lack of food or an disinclination to eat, the feather will no longer develop normally because the bird can no longer produce the keratin proteins that form the feather. When those nutrients again reach the proper level in the blood stream, feather development returns to normal. So a careful examination of a bird’s feathers gives you a look back into its past. In this particular dove, I apparently missed a scheduled feeding while the feather I am pointing to was developing. That resulted in the narrow white line – like a scissor cut present to the right of my finger. You can see that even the integrity and strength of of the feather shaft was compromised at that point. With time, that feather will break at both points. You can view a more idealized image of stress bars here and read a bit more about the problem and feathers in general here.

Is There Enough Calcium In This Diet?

Some rehabbers associate deformed legs and feet (such as in this deformed white Turkish dove) with insufficient calcium in their chick’s diet. I have never seen bone or joint problems in pigeons, doves or parrots fed this formula so I believe that its calcium content is adequate. When those sort of twisted foot or leg problems occur, it is much more likely that they were do to too smooth a cage footing or housing the birds in a container lined with paper towels. If the baby stands on a floor that is basically flat, when its toenails begin to curve downward, they exert a small twisting force to the toe. With time, like a tree branch, the toe will twist to accommodate that force. Eventually, the pad of the foot will not rest flat against the floor either. Those sort of problems can be prevented by furnishing the infant with a twig mat similar to the mat that forms the floor of its natural nest. Paper towels or Kleenex will not due. As the bird grows, twigs should be furnished that always exceed the diameter of the bird’s clenched toes. You can read more about that here. Twisted toes, once they have formed, are quite difficult to correct. Baby birds that are on slick surfaces, such as housed within a bowel, often develop spraddle leg. In those infants, the legs slowly splay outwards, giving the bird a “swimming” appearance. Indeed, among parakeet breeds, those offspring are referred to as swimmers. That problem is easier to correct than the toe problem if therapy is started before the birds hips and femur bones have fully matured. You can read how I do that here.

Why Do Your Wild Doves Have White On Their Wings?

I live in the tropics. Although I get some mourning doves, more are tropical white-winged doves and tiny Inca doves.

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