Observing from a distance may save its life.
-by Sunny Branson
This time of year aviaries and bird rehabilitators are flooded with calls from people who have found wild baby birds seemingly fallen, injured, abandoned or lost. What should people do when faced with helping, or not helping, a baby bird?
According to wild-bird rehabilitator Candy Carlson, the first thing to do is observe from a distance. What seems like a dire situation may simply be a young bird trying out its new wings. Interference by you may be a death sentence for the bird.
But in some cases, the chick does need help. How do you know when to step in and when to keep your distance?
Every bird rescue situation is different, and the best thing to do is call a licensed bird rehabilitator for advice on your specific circumstance. They volunteer their services and are locally found through Tracy Aviary. If you are unable to reach a rehabber, here are some tips for doing the best thing for the chick temporarily.
Is the chick featherless?
A featherless bird is a nestling and has probably fallen from its nest, which should be close by. If you can find the nest, you can return the baby to it by cupping the baby bird gently in your hand and quickly placing it back in the nest. The parents will take over from here.
"The most frequent question we get is whether touching the baby bird will cause the mother to reject it by giving it a human scent," says Candy. "This is a myth. Actually, most birds have a poor sense of smell but highly developed eyesight and hearing."
If the nest is out of reach or destroyed, you can build a makeshift nest out of a basket or margarine tub with holes in the bottom for drainage. Fill the container with paper towels, dried leaves, or pine needles to about an inch from the top, and make an indentation in the center. Then tie or nail it (aluminum nails preferred) to a mature tree, high enough to be safe from predators, and place the nestling in it.
If you don't know which tree the chick's nest is in, watch for a while to see if the mother bird comes to the aid of the chick. If there is no sign of the mother after an hour or so, get the nestling to a licensed bird rehabilitator.
Is the chick feathered?
If the chick is feathered, it is most likely a fledgling – a young bird with newly acquired flight feathers – and leaving the nest to learn to fly is absolutely crucial. A fledgling often looks like it has an injured wing because they aren't very skilled at using them. It usually takes them a few days to get the hang of it, and until then they may end up in unusual and sometimes precarious spots.
If the chick seems healthy and bright-eyed, the best thing to do is to leave it alone and move away from the bird. The mother is usually close by keeping an eye on it and will continue to feed her baby. Eventually the chick will regain its strength and attempt to fly again. If people hover over the bird, the mother won't feel safe enough to approach her baby and the fledgling won't feel secure enough to try to fly away.
If you know the chick is injured, for example if you witnessed an animal attacking it or saw it get hit by a car, get it to a licensed bird rehabilitator right away.
In all cases, it is best to keep pets inside until the bird is safe. If the bird is in danger, such as in the middle of the street or in direct sun, you can gently pick it up and move it to nearby safe shady area or up on a tree branch. Don't move the bird too far because if it's out of eye shot of the mother, she may not find it.
The big "don'ts" with baby birds
Don't delay in calling for help. Some people will attempt to "nurse" the bird for a few days and call for help when it's too late. By the fourth day, injured birds will get blown air sacs from bacteria and infection and will die.
Don't feed the bird. Many people try giving the bird bread, which is harmful for chicks. Adult birds have gravel in their digestive system that allows bread to be broken down. Young babies do not have the benefit of gravel and, as a result, the bread will become compacted. And never offer meat, even for birds of prey.
Don't offer a drink. The baby may be gaping for food or water but putting fluid in a syringe, even a small amount, and squirting it into the mouth can drown the bird. Don't make the mistake of giving milk. Unlike mammals, birds are not built to digest milk.
Don't pet the chick. Handling it any more than absolutely necessary will cause the bird undue stress.
Don't keep any wild birds, especially protected birds. If you find a bird protected under the Endangered Species Act or the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (and most Utah birds are), it is illegal to keep it for any length of time. Notify the local authorities as soon as possible.
Tazia Vickrey, another wild bird rehabilitator, feels strongly about not using a fallen chick or fledgling to educate or entertain a child. The lesson usually turns into a tragedy when the chick dies.
"One man wouldn't bring a duckling to me because he wanted to educate his two young children about caring for animals," says Tazia. "After a couple of weeks, he realized he was in over his head and when he finally brought me the duckling, its bill was deformed because of malnutrition. Ducklings develop very quickly and if they don't have a proper diet during this critical stage of life, they will die."
Keep the bird at the proper temperature. Baby birds depend on their mothers to moderate their body temperature. "They need to have a heat source to keep them at about 100 degrees," says Candy. "People will call me saying they kept the bird warm through the night, when all they did was keep it inside, maybe in a 70-degree house. If you can't get the chick to a rehabber, a desk lamp or heating pad under towels can help keep it warm through the night. A naked bird should feel the same temperature as your hand. You should be able to hold your own head under the heat source the same distance as the bird and not feel too warm."
Why should we save birds?
Many people object to manipulating nature and argue that it's the natural order that some chicks won't make it. This is true except that humans sometimes tip the natural order of things. A high proportion of rehab birds are in need of help because a tree was trimmed or cut down or they had a losing encounter with a window, car or pet.
Young birds are very delicate. You should never attempt long-term care for the bird yourself. Most efforts end up in death for the chick. Call the aviary, zoo, or even a veterinarian office to find a bird rehabilitator near you.
Sunny Branson is co-owner of Single Malt Media, volunteers for Wasatch Animal Rescue, and sponsors two pot-bellied pigs at Ching Farm Sanctuary.
Candy Carlson, licensed wild bird rehabilitator, tel. 412-7470.
Tracy Aviary: www.tracyaviary.org, tel. 596-8500.
You can learn where licensed rehabilitators are in your area by
contacting the nearest Division of Wildlife Resources office (the
offices are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays through Fridays):
Ogden office – (801) 476-2740
Salt Lake City office – (801) 538-4700