Baby Birds 101 – To Rescue or Not to Rescue?

Working as a naturalist, I’ve received tons of calls about injured animals and thought I’d share some of my knowledge with you about handling situations with baby birds, since it’s the most common one.

Baby finch. Author photo.

Even if it’s not spring where you are, it’s good information to put on the back burner of your brain if you’re at all inclined to go out into nature during that beautiful waking-up time. We get tons of calls every year about baby birds and just as many baby birds brought in to us.

Baby birds of all species do not reach a certain age and then gracefully fly away from their nests into the high branches of the forest. What actually happens, after they’ve gotten a few feathers in, is they get some spunk under their butts and jump right out of the nest before they can fly.

Instead of learning to fly from the nest down, they actually learn to fly from the ground up.

They spend days, even a week or two, running around on the ground and jumping into low branches until they have enough feathers and experience to fly longer distances. In many cases, mom will follow baby around and continue to feed her. If there are easy ways for baby to get back into the nest, baby will climb back up.

This summer, for example, we had the privilege of watching this nest of sardine-packed swallow babies get their bearings before leaving for good. They’d all leap out if they were startled by us and land on various items or equipment around the outside of the shop. Later, we’d find them all tucked back up in the nest. They were far too large for mom to carry, and even though they weren’t yet great fliers, they still managed.

Just days or a week old, baby birds are all stomach. The inside of the mouths of many baby birds reflect UV light, which most birds can see, giving mom a target in which to regurgitate food. Baby swallow, author’s photo.

The same babies only a few weeks later! Young birds look like adults after only 3-5 weeks, depending on the species.

Now, a lot people that find a baby bird on the ground immediately kind of freak out. Most of the time, there’s really no need: baby birds are forever tenacious, curious, and demanding, and sometimes they just take a tumble. Since they’re not completely developed, they can take a pretty big fall without serious injury – or they’ve intentionally jumped out to go exploring and immediately realized it wasn’t their best decision.

So, if you find a baby bird, you should first stop and assess the situation:

1) Does it appear injured? Signs of injury in birds include: the inability to stand up without wobbling or falling over (signs of leg or head injuries), wings extended and unable to fully flap (wing injury or trying to keep itself balanced, which may mean leg injury), broken feathers (not the same as partially-developed feathers), blood or other fluids on the feathers or body, despondency, limpness, or eyes that don’t seem to want to stay open.

2) Is there a nest nearby? If the bird is uninjured, it’s usually safe to assume that it jumped or got knocked out of its nest (siblings can be real jerks). If you see the nest nearby, go ahead and gently place the baby back into it. You may need a ladder for this, and if you absolutely don’t have one, you can place the bird somewhere higher off the ground so it’s 1) protected from predators and 2) close enough to the nest so it will be easy for mom to find. If you’re in a residential area, sometimes placing the baby in a cardboard box with a towel and then placing the box securely onto a lower branch will do the trick. Mom will keep coming with food, and baby will be protected from kitties and dogs. Don’t be concerned if you can’t find a nest: they are, by design, well-camouflaged and may be too high in the tree to be seen.

3) Are you letting your feelings overcome your rationality? We are protective over babies by nature and often, well-meaning people take baby animals from situations when they really shouldn’t. Many baby birds die each year simply because people want to believe that they’re rescuing them. They end up going home with someone, orphaned from their perfectly healthy parents, and succumb to starvation, malnourishment, a family pet, or being played with by kids. If in doubt, leave the animal be. If the animal appears healthy, there is no excuse for bringing it home with you! Unless you see a baby’s dead parent on the ground and you’re good enough at bird ID to know which moms belong to which babies, chances are good that the bird (or any animal) is not orphaned.

 It is an absolute myth that if you touch a baby bird, its mother will abandon it because it can smell you on the baby. Most birds have a weak sense of smell and will not abandon their babies if you’ve handled them!

So put that baby back in its nest.

Undeveloped feathers are often mistaken for broken feathers. This image is from whatbird.com but since putting it here, the link no longer takes you to the original image and source. I believe it’s a baby Mourning Dove.

Now, if the baby is injured, or you’re feeling confident that it’s nowhere near home (maybe some neighborhood kids have been carrying it around), and you decide to call a rehabber, there are a couple of things you can do to make baby comfortable. Birds (babies and adults) cannot grip onto slippery surfaces and can hurt themselves if they slide around on bare cardboard or plastic, so place some newspaper on the bottom of a container, such as a shoebox. Keep baby somewhere warm: hypothermia is a serious threat to baby birds (and mammals) because their feathers are not fully developed. However, don’t put something hot in the box or baby could get burned. Do NOT offer baby food or water: forcing water down baby’s throat can end in drowning and they need different types of food at different ages. Giving them the wrong thing to eat can do more damage than help.

Baby birds getting some grub. (Maybe literally.) No author info available, please contact me if this is your photo.

Baby birds certainly cannot eat seeds or fruit, and unless you’re interested in chewing up an earthworm and then spitting it into baby’s mouth, it’s best just to wait.

Now, if you think to yourself, “Well this can’t be too hard and he’s awfully cute, I’ll just keep him,” let me remind you that baby birds often need to be fed every 15-30 minutes. They make a ruckus when they’re hungry and they are absolute poop machines, so cleanup is pretty much constant. They also need to learn certain behaviors if they are releasable, and they should always be released if they are releasable. Besides all that, it’s illegal to possess native species without a permit. Rehabbers are trained to know the proper care techniques for baby animals and if you haven’t been trained, you’re probably more of a threat to the baby than a help.

If you are genuinely interested in wildlife rehabilitation, there are some resources out there to get you started, like the International Wildlife Rehab Council. Just remember: it’s hard work, long hours, and no one’s going to pay you to do it. You can’t leave your wards unsupervised, there is a lot of cleanup to be done every day, and it costs a fair amount of money to have adequate shelter, medical supplies, and food for all those critters. Also, many of them will die, regardless of how much care you give them.

If you’re all right with all of that, then by all means – get yourself involved! The first thing you should do is find your local rehabbers, which can often be done by contacting your state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, nature centers, zoos, vet offices, or museums. Often they’re willing to sit down with interested folks and chat about the realities of rehab, or take you on as a volunteer.

As a side note, if you find an injured raptor (bird of prey), it’s kind of a different story. Baby raptors, by the time they’re seen by us two-leggeds, usually look just like their adult parents. Baby owls, hawks, eagles, and falcons are far more dangerous than baby songbirds and should be handled with great care. Even if they do not appear to be afraid of you, if they exhibit any of the signs of injury mentioned above, please contact your local Fish and Wildlife department or a raptor rehabber immediately. Injured raptors can be scared, starving, and ready to defend themselves with sharp talons and strong beaks. Often, injured raptors are already too far gone by the time they’re found because they manage to keep themselves hidden until they’re too weak to hide anymore. Don’t wait around to contact someone about an injured raptor, and try not to get upset at the rehabber if it can’t be saved – we do everything we can to maintain life and quality of life for these amazing animals, but sometimes it’s just out of our hands.

A month-old Kestrel with a broken wing and a wet head from getting a bath. Author photo.

Don’t mess with this momma! Source unknown

My final note is on outdoor house cats: it’s an important issue. House cats that are allowed outside kill millions of songbirds each year – not because they’re hungry, but because they have an instinct to kill. Bells and bibs aren’t especially effective in preventing songbird deaths, so please, keep your cat indoors. Cats inflict traumatic wounds and cause serious infections due to the bacteria on their teeth, so birds attacked by cats usually have to be euthanized if the cat doesn’t kill them. You can read more about the issue on this Humane Society page.

Thanks for reading! It’s not terribly common to find baby birds or injured wildlife in general, so when you do, it’s great to have some information already in the back of your mind. Remember: if in doubt, leave it be, and if you need to remove it from the situation, get it to a licensed, reputable rehabber as soon as possible. Thanks for taking the time to read up and good luck! :)

You may also like to read Baby Birds 201.

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Posted on November 13, 2010, in Connected Living, Fauna and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

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