How to Rescue a Baby Bird

This post is brought to the Internet courtesy of the fact that I am finding dessicated carcasses of abandoned baby birds all over my neighborhood.  Unfortunately, that sentence is being a little kind.  Now that all my neighbors have taken to mowing their lawns on a regular basis, I’ve actually found several disturbing carnage scenes where a mower very clearly ran over a live, hearty fledgeling.

So I have decided that it is in the best interest of our infant avian friends if I dust off my biology degree for a quick instructional in baby bird rescue.  And you know what?  I think that this is a fairly important skill for us nature-loving Pagans to have down cold.  We strive to be responsible stewards to our environment, and giving appropriate aid to animals certainly falls in that category.

Despite popular myth, a baby bird's parents will not abandon their child because of scent you may leave on the fledgling.  Birds actually don't have a great sense of smell.

Yup.  You can hold a baby bird in your hands and its parents will still love it.

The first thing to be aware of is that you can actually touch a baby bird pretty safely.  There’s a major myth floating around American culture that if you touch a baby bird, its mother will instantly reject it.  In truth, birds have a poor sense of smell, and they will certainly accept their restored progeny.  The likelihood of you picking up a disease from handling the bird with bare hands is also very low, provided you thoroughly wash your hands any any other objects the bird has touched afterwards.

Those points being handled, here’s a handy ‘protocol’ to follow:

1.  IS THE BIRD SICK OR HURT?  Do you notice any bleeding?  Is it not able to move both wings or legs?  Are the wings drooping unevenly?  Is it weak or shivering?  Has it been attacked by a cat or dog?  (Note:  if you rescue the bird directly from a cat or dog and it ‘looks okay’, it likely isn’t.  Their teeth (especially cats) can cause nearly invisible puncture wounds, and salival bacteria can cause a lethal infection to the bird 3-5 days after attack.)

  • NO:  Continue to number 2.
  • YES:  Keep the bird warm in a dark, quiet container with good air flow and contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in your area.  A heating pad set on low under the box or a hot water bottle can provide heat.

2.  IS THE BIRD FEATHERED?  While almost all song birds emerge from their egg naked, blind, and completely dependent on their parents, other birds–like quails, ducks, etc–are more dependent upon hatching.    A good rule of thumb to follow is to look and see if the chick, however, old it is, has at least down covering its entire body and wing feathers beginning to come in.

  • NO:  It needs help!  If you can locate its nest and the nest is still intact, put the baby in the nest and observe it from a distance for about an hour.  If the parents are visiting the nest, you’ve done your job.  Leave the area.  If they are not, remove the bird, keep it in that warm, dark container, and contact a rehabilitator.  If you cannot find the nest or the nest is destroyed, try putting the bird in a berry basket, or a smaller plastic box.  Line the container with dry grass, the old nest, pine needles, or other such items and securely fasten it to a protected area in a nearby tree.  Observe it from a distance for about an hour.  If the parents do not respond to the chick, secure the chick in that warm, dark box and contact a rehabilitator.
  • YES:  If the bird is fully or partially feathered, chances are that it doesn’t need your help.  A guideline here is that the ‘downier’ a chick is, the more likely it needs assistance.  The more ‘grown up’ feathers it has, the more likely it is that it’s just fine.  As young birds develop, they outgrow their nest, so they typically leave it and move about on the ground or low branches for a few days before they can fly.  Unless the bird is injured or in an area where it could be hurt by other wildlife, cats, dogs, or curious children, it should be left where it is.  If it is healthy, but in an insecure area, put it in a sheltered bush or tree and observe it from a distance for an hour to see if its parents return to it.  If they do not, box the bird up and contact a rehabilitator.

Why put the bird in a warm, dark, quiet box?

  • Younger birds need a little help with thermoregulation, so they may need a heat source.  Try putting one end of the box on a heating pad set on low or a hot water bottle.  Alternately, fill a plastic baggie with warm water, wrap that in a cloth, and put that in one end of the box.  The dark and the quiet will also help soothe the bird.  It is almost certainly terrified of you and absolutely does not want to be cuddled!

Why contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator?

  • Taking care of a baby bird isn’t difficult, but you do want to limit your own exposure to pathogens and you want the bird to eventually be able to be a successful, wild creature…which it may not do with constant handfeedings.  Rehabilitators can give that bird the best possible chance of returning to the wild.  Also, the younger a bird is, the more it needs attention.  Feedings every 10 minutes are not uncommon!  You likely are a busy person, so it’s best to pass on this particular business to a professional!
  • Veterinarians are usually not able to rehabilitate wild animals, but their offices can probably put you in touch with a local agency.  If you cannot find a rehabilitator through local listings, your local Audubon Society chapter, or your state/county government information, call an area veternarian and ask for their assistance in contacting a rehabilitator.

Now you can be an informed friend to our infant feathered fellows!

UPDATE:  I just came across this amazing flowchart on the best webcomic for biologists, Bird and Moon.  It is so epic, I’m sharing it here.

Gotta watch out for those dromaeosaurs.  They're wily.

Gotta watch out for those dromaeosaurs. They’re wily.

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