So you’ve found a sick or injured bird, or a baby bird that you think has been abandoned? Knowing the right thing to do may save a bird’s life. Doing the wrong thing may unnecessarily cost a bird its life.
“Abandoned” or “orphaned” baby birds:
Hopefully, you’re already familiar with your local wildlife rehabber, as we encourage everyone who offers nestboxes for cavity nesters to locate a rehabber that is federally licensed for songbird care before an emergency arises. But perhaps you don’t know a rehabber, and you need to know what to do right now. Or perhaps you do know a rehabber, but you’re waiting for them to return your call. What do you do in the meantime? The following are provided as general guidelines to help you know what to do (if anything) before you contact a rehabber, or while waiting to be able to reach one. Please, read everything before doing anything!
ABANDONED or ORPHANED BABY BIRD
The first thing you must determine is — is this baby bird truly abandoned? Just because you see a baby bird on the ground, unable to fly, does not necessarily mean that the parents have abandoned it.
Nestlings: Is this a very tiny, featherless nestling that may have fallen or been blown out of the nest, or been pushed out by a nestmate, or removed and dropped by a predator? Look for nearby nests or nestboxes, and you may be able to put the baby back in the nest with its nestmates, where it belongs. That is where it will have the best chance of survival. If there are no nests apparent, or you see a nest but cannot reach it, you may do the following: Fashion a substitute nest from a clean plastic dish or small basket. If using a plastic dish, make drainage holes in the bottom. Line it with paper towels or facial tissue (not grass or pine needles). Nail or tack the nest in the tree close to where you found the baby. Do all this BEFORE placing the baby in the container! Then gently place the baby in the container, and back off and just OBSERVE. In most cases the parent birds will return and start feeding the baby. If, after watching for a while from a distance, you do not see the parent birds return, and you assume that the bird is an orphan, call the nearest wildlife rehabilitator immediately, and follow their advice. Do not attempt to give the baby food or liquids until speaking to the rehabilitator! You may do more harm than good.
Fledglings: Is the baby bird fully feathered, but sitting on the ground, unable to fly? Sometimes baby birds will fledge too early if frightened out of the nest. Occasionally the parent birds will call fledglings out too early if the nest is in danger of being raided by a predator. Sometimes a bird may be a “bad fledge” – something may actually be wrong with the bird that makes it unable to fly. But more often, you will see a fledgling on the ground when it is in the “training stage” – it is still learning to fly, but the parents are taking care of it. Often they will leave a fledgling for a short time to hunt food to bring to it. Don’t rush in to “rescue” a fledgling that appears to be alone, unless the bird is about to go into the road or be attacked by a wild animal. If that is the case, pick the bird up carefully and place it out of harm’s way. If there is a dog or cat or children nearby, and you fear the bird will be hurt, the best thing to do, if possible, is to leave the fledgling where it is and clear the area of animals and children, and then just back off and observe the fledgling. The parents may be nearby, and may have been frightened away. Once the danger has been removed, they may well return. (However, if the fledgling has already been attacked or injured, you should proceed as for “injured or sick birds” below.) If the parent birds appear, and are feeding the baby, then there is no need to rescue it unless, after watching the bird for an hour or two, it still seems unable to fly, and you have reason to believe it may be in danger. In that case, there may be some reasons for intervening. If so, then get an old Easter or other wicker basket, place it in the tree at the location you saw the bird and its parent, and re-nest the bird immediately. Let the parents continue to feed it, care for it, teach it lifeskills, and teach it how to forage. If, after watching for an hour or two, you are absolutely sure that the baby has been abandoned, then you can follow the steps below for sick or injured birds, including contacting a Wildlife Rehabber. This is essential for giving the fledgling the best chance of survival. Some people have asked “If I touch a baby bird, won’t the parents abandon it?” This is a myth! Most songbirds have a poorly developed sense of smell, and touching a baby will not cause the parents to abandon a baby.
SICK OR INJURED BIRD The guidelines below are for emergency care only – do not try to care for an injured or sick bird yourself. Contact your local wildlife rehabilitator as soon as you have safely placed the bird where it will be safe from further harm.
In a real emergency it may save precious minutes if you know the answer to these questions before calling the rehabber.
- Did the bird make an attempt to fly away? If not, that would be unusual and would probably indicate either a very severe injury or shock (most likely, shock). Is this a fledge, nestling, or adult?
- How long ago did the attack occur?
- Describe the injuries. Where exactly is the blood coming from? How much blood? Look at the bird head-on. Is there damage to the eyes? Is the bill held in the proper position?
- Look at the bird from the top down, are the wings symetrical (both at the same angle, held at the same level)? Is the bird standing or laying down?
- Is there damage only at the top of the head?
- Lightly blow on the feathers on the bird’s chest. Are there any puncture marks or scrapes? Any blood there?
- Look at the feet, are the legs both at the same angle?
- What is the general demeanor of the bird–is it alert and responsive? alert but non-responsive? lethargic?
Note: In the case of a raptor or bird of prey or any bird with a long pointed beak, contact your local rehabber before handling!! This is very important as these types of birds can cause very serious injuries. The beaks and talons of some hawks are meant to tear apart its prey—your arm is no challenge. Some heron and egrets stab fish with their powerful beaks–your eyes look like they are moving in a sea of fluids. Seek advice BEFORE handling these birds!! If a songbird truly needs treatment, gently place the bird into a cardboard box slightly larger than the bird itself (i.e. a shoebox or smaller) A small box keeps the bird confined so it can cause no further damage to itself if it panics, keeps the bird from sliding around in the box, plus provides a feeling of security.
Before placing the bird in the box,
- Check to make sure the box has not held insecticides, herbicides, cleaning fluids, or any other toxin.
- Punch some airholes in the box and crumple layers of white paper towels on the bottom. (Layering will give traction and keep the bird from splaying and possibly damaging the hips or legs; white because then it is easy to check the feces for signs of starvation or disease; paper towels and NOT bath towels because any type of loop material or frayed material may get wrapped around sharp little talons or tiny toes).
Location: Place the bird into a quiet area (no TV sounds, no other animal sounds, no “predator” sounds such as human voices). An unused laundry room or even a closet will work as a temporary shelter until transporting the bird.
Provide heat. For adult birds, place a heating pad set on the very lowest setting beneath a little less than one half of the box (this allows the bird to move to or from the heat as it needs). For unfeathered chicks this heat can be provided by a rice sock (a sock filled with rice and microwaved – test for heat by putting your fist into the very center of the sock) or a water bag (a regular ziplock bag halfway filled with hot water and sealed – test by laying the inside of your wrist against the bag for a few seconds). The temperature should be warm to your touch, but not hot.
Food and/or water: If it is an adult injured bird, and it can stand and seems coordinated, water can be provided in a very shallow bowl (such as a baby food jar lid).
For a shocky bird, an immature, or an uncoordinated bird do not offer water (it may fall in and drown, even in a small amount of water, or by wetting the bird it may cause a chill).
Do not give water to an unfeathered bird with a spoon or an eyedropper–it is much too easy to get fluids into the air sacs. Giving the wrong foods (i.e. grain products to insectivores, unbalanced diets to any bird) can cause more damage than the original injury.
An emaciated (starved) bird given food will cause it to use the last bit of energy trying to digest food, a dehydrated bird cannot process solids, and a cold bird’s body goes into shut-down mode which can cause the food to sit unabsorbed and souring in the digestive tract.
If a rehabber has not returned the phone call within two hours, an emergency measure to keep the bird from dehydrating further is to place one fingertip in a mixture of four teaspoons water and one teaspoon of table sugar and lightly rub the side of the bill of an alert bird, taking care not to get water into the nares (nostrils). (Do not use this formula with woodpeckers, swallows, or chimney swifts–use plain water applied in the same way.) The exception to this is in the case of a hummingbird, which has an extremely high metabolism. Offer the same mixture of sugar and water in the same proportions, but instead of applying it to the side of the beak, use a 3cc monojet style syringe (no needle) or fill a cocktail straw (those little red, thin straws used in cocktails or as coffee stirrers) and cover the other end with a finger to create a vacuum. Hold the straw directly in front of its beak with one droplet touching the tip of the beak. Hummingbirds drink by lapping with their tongues, and should be offered this sugar water formula every 15 minutes until it can be transported to a rehabber.
Transporting: When transporting any bird to a rehabber, place the covered box out of the direct flow of air from the air conditioner, heater, or windows. Keep the radio off and noise to a minimum. Do not smoke or use any perfumes in the car (remove car deodorizers). In most vehicles, place the box on the floor in the middle seat to avoid jarring in case of a sudden stop.
We all know what it’s like looking for a doctor in the middle of the night or on a weekend in an emergency if you don’t already have an established relationship with one. The same is true of wildlife rehabilitators – even more so, because you can’t just drive up to any old vet’s office with an injured bird and expect them to know what to do with it! And with a possible very few exceptions there are no community “birdie trauma centers” to fall back on.
Therefore, if you are hosting Bluebirds or other cavity nesting birds in nestboxes on your property, the wise thing to do is to make an acquaintance with an avian wildlife rehabilitator familiar with songbirds NOW – before any emergency ever arises. Knowing a local rehabber, or locating one, takes a lot of the stress off the finder during an emergency. Listed below are several websites where you can find lists of licensed wildlife rehabilitators by location. These were provided by Linda Hufford, an avian rehabilitator in Texas Take the time now to go through these lists. They will list general rehabber info, but under each listing should be what that person is permitted for, depending on the site. Be sure to note which permits each person has, and make sure they are avian permitted (federal) for songbirds before taking a bluebird to them.
Since these lists may not be updated frequently, it would be best to locate the rehabber closest to you and then make contact with them now to be sure that they are still in the area and doing rehabbing. Most rehabbers list their home numbers if they accept “private” intakes. If you’re calling a rehabber at home in an emergency keep in mind – they have a life, too. It is very rude to keep a sick or injured bird in your home for a couple of days, and then decide in the middle of the night that you don’t really know how to take care of it!
If a shelter or center is listed, they often have answering machines so it doesn’t matter what time folks call there.
IWRC (International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council) at: www.iwrc-online.org (pulls up home page, on top of page is category “emergency” )
NWRA (National Wildlife Rehabilitation Association) at: www.nwrawildlife.org (pulls up home page, on left side is category “need help”).
Within the state of Texas: www.tpwd.state.tx.us/nature/research/rehab/main.htm (locates rehabbers by county within Texas)
Many other states have lists of rehabbers within their state, many can be found through a good search engine by entering “wildlife rehabilitation” and the name of the state. Not all rehabbers are listed at all sites so you may also want to contact veterinarians and state and federal agencies. Some folks are not listed at all, but prefer to receive referrals from veterinarians and state or federal (USFW) officials.