I Found a Baby Bird… Now What?

I Found a Baby Bird… Now What?

In the next few months, WildCare's Living with Wildlife Hotline (415-456-SAVE) operators will have their hands full answering phone calls about baby birds.

Every year hundreds of baby birds fall or are blown from their nests, or are found following an ill-timed tree trimming. A pink, featherless nestling definitely needs to be rescued, as does any baby that is injured or ill. But a feathered fledgling on the ground who appears bright-eyed, hopping and healthy may actually not be in trouble. WildCare's Hotline team works hard to prevent "over-rescue" (inadvertent "kidnapping") of young birds at this time of year.

How can you know the difference between a young bird that needs rescue and one that doesn't? Read on!

Quick Review of Bird Family Life

Most birds have their own territories. Even if their nest has been destroyed and their babies have disappeared, parent birds will remain in their home territory, often searching for their babies for up to two days or more.

Nestlings are pink, helpless, featherless or pin-feathered birds that cannot keep themselves warm. Any nestling bird found on the ground is at great risk of hypothermia. Always pick up a nestling and keep him warm, while calling WildCare at 415-456-7283. Despite what we may have learned as children, parent birds will NOT reject their babies just because they have been handled by humans. WildCare reunites dozens of baby birds with their parents every year. As long as the baby birds are warm and healthy, the parents will accept them back into the nest. In fact, they will even accept and care for orphaned baby birds of the same age and species as their own nestlings. However, because nestlings cannot yet regulate their body temperature, they are extremely prone to hypothermia. Just assume that a nestling baby bird on the ground needs immediate help and warmth.

Fledglings are slightly older birds with feathers and short tails. They can perch, hop or walk. Birds at this age are learning to fly, and may live on the ground for as long as two weeks while developing their flying skills. Unless they are injured, or in immediate danger from humans or other predators, they are best left where they are. A fledgling's parents continue to feed it until it learns to fly and is able to find food. Sometimes this takes a while. Swallows, for example, have to learn to snatch insects from the air in mid-flight. Can you imagine how much practice that takes? Parents will guide their fledglings into bushes at night to hide from predators, but will not come to their babies if you or your pets are nearby.

When to Rescue

There are situations that do require rescue. Naked nestlings generally need immediate care because they are so prone to hypothermia. If you think a fledgling (feathered) baby bird has been abandoned, watch for the parents. Observe the baby continuously for 60-90 minutes from a distance of 50 feet or more. Remain quiet, out of sight, and keep children and pets away from the area. Watch carefully; the parents fly in and out quickly.

If you have the fledgling bird in a box, check the feces. Clear droppings with white or green bile indicates a baby bird is not being fed and is likely orphaned. Color in the feces indicates that the the baby has eaten recently, and you can put the bird back where she was found.

If the nest is inaccessible, or if the baby bird of any age is cold or injured, she should be handled carefully, kept warm, and brought to WildCare. Symptoms of an injury or illness include:

  • Falling over on her side
  • Inability to flutter wings, wing tweaked upward or drooping
  • Weak or shivering, feathers fluffed up, eyes closed
  • Attacked by a cat or dog
  • Bleeding or blood showing
  • Inability to stand
  • Insects crawling on the the baby

If the bird shows any of these symptoms, she should be taken to a wildlife hospital for treatment. This is the case especially if the bird has been caught by a cat. Cat bites create puncture wounds, which, if left untreated, become infected very quickly. Any animal caught by a cat needs immediate care in a wildlife hospital!

How to Rescue

Naked and pin-feathered birds that have fallen from nests should be kept warm while you call WildCare 415-456-7283. While it may be possible to return a baby to the nest, any baby found on his own must be returned to the original nest with his siblings, not placed in a separate location. The parents will only sit on and feed the babies in one nest. Babies sometimes fall or are pushed from the nest for a reason, and weak or unfit nestlings will not be able to successfully compete with their healthier siblings for their parents' attention.

Again because they are so sensitive to heat and cold and cannot yet regulate their own body temperature, rescued nestlings should be kept warm while you bring them to WildCare. Note that it's possible for birds to carry parasites, and viral, bacterial and fungal diseases. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after handling a bird. If you find a baby bird, please call WildCare's Living with Wildlife Hotline at 415-456-SAVE (7283) for advice on handling safety for you and for the bird.

Temporary Care for Rescued Birds

An injured baby bird must be kept warm and quiet until he can be taken to a wildlife hospital. A tissue-filled shoebox with holes for air works well. To keep the baby warm, you can place one end of the box on a heating pad set on low. Be careful not to overheat the baby. Keep children and pets away, and leave the bird alone without handling or unnecessary noises such as conversations, televisions or radios. Bring the baby to WildCare or your closest wildlife rehabilitator (visit Animal Help Now to find your closest wildlife care center) as soon as possible.

Raising a wild bird properly takes two to four months of intensive care and specialized diets, so do not attempt to give an injured or orphaned bird food or water or raise it yourself. Nestlings must be fed every 30 minutes from dawn to dark. Skipping any feedings or feeding the wrong diet during this critical period can result in impaired feather growth and metabolic bone disease – irreversible deformities that will show up when the bird is a juvenile.

It is extremely difficult to raise a baby bird, and this is one of the reasons it is illegal for unlicensed individuals to keep wild animals – even if they plan to release them. Even veterinarians, unless they themselves are also licensed wildlife rehabilitators, are only permitted to stabilize wildlife for 48 hours until it can be transferred to a licensed wildlife rehabilitation center like WildCare.

Orphan Care at WildCare

When the baby bird arrives at WildCare, hospital staff will perform a careful medical examination, and, if necessary, hydrate her and treat her for injuries. We'll identify what age and type of bird she is, and establish a feeding schedule for it based on the species. If the baby is very tiny, we will place her in an incubator. When the baby has grown stronger, she will be promoted from the incubator to a box with a heating pad and one or more nestlings of her own species and age. The little "family group" will then graduate to a larger cage, and finally to the outdoor aviary in preparation for release.

Certain species of birds that are easily stressed or require a special diet, like hummingbirds, goldfinches and wrens, especially benefit from expert care in trained volunteer foster homes, where they are subject to less noise and stress than they are in the midst of the activity of WildCare's songbird ward.

The goal of the care we give our baby birds at WildCare is always to raise them to be healthy and then release them back to the wild. The timing of release itself depends upon the progress of the individual bird. When the young bird is fully feathered, has good muscle tone and lung capacity, is able to fly competently, can identify natural wild foods, maintain her weight, and recognize her own species, the "family group" is taken to a suitable habitat and released.