Before rescuing baby or juvenile birds, you must first assess the situation.
- Make sure the bird is really in need of help. Birds do not abandon young feathered chicks. It is normal for birds at fledging to be on the ground unable to fly! Birds need several days up to four weeks, depending on their species, to learn how to fly and forage for food. The parents will feed them during this period.
- Know where nesting sites are located and keep cats and dogs indoors around the time you think the birds will fledge to avoid predation. Ask neighbors to take responsibility for their pets as well.
- If a featherless or down-covered bird is out of its nest, try to put it back. However, make sure the young are warm to the touch. If the baby is not, you can simply warm the bird in your hands before returning it to the nest. Returning a young cold bird to the nest will sometimes encourage the parent to push the baby out of the nest, as it is trying to remove a cold object away from other warm eggs or young. Contrary to popular belief, the parents will not be frightened off by your “scent” and will return to feed the baby if it calls for food.
- If you can’t find the nest or it is unreachable, put the bird into a bush or tree close to where it was found. You may also construct a substitute nest (a grass lined plastic container with holes punched in the bottom) and secure it to the nearest place where the nestling was found. Keep pets away and watch from indoors to see if a parent returns (be patient, it may not happen immediately). If you know the parent of a young bird is dead, take it inside to a warm, quiet, dark place. Very young birds won’t try to get away when you approach them slowly, talk to them quietly, and handle them gently. They seem to like the warmth of your hands. Older birds, however, never get used to being handled and may even die after being handled or forced to eat.
- Do not give baby birds anything to drink. They may drown or get inhalation pneumonia.
- If a parent does not visit the nest after a half day, contact a licensed songbird rehabilitator for advice. Baby birds require much more attention than any household pet. If you find a baby bird on the ground that is in danger of being attacked by a predator, try to locate the nest. If at all possible, return the baby to the nest.
A Fallen Nest
Wedge the nest into a convenient crotch and tie down with thick string. Thin thread or fish line can strangle the young. Watch from an indoor location to be sure the parents return.
An adult bird needs help if there is blood, an open wound, it cannot stand or fly. However, never handle a bird that is too large. Adult birds see you as a threat and species such as hawks or owls have beaks and claws that can rip flesh with lightning speed. It is best to leave handling these birds to a wildlife professional.
A bird that needs help will have a physical injury (broken bones, lacerations, bleeding) or will run but cannot fly away (never chase an injured bird. This will frighten it and possibly cause more injuries). Also, a young bird that feels cold to the touch needs help. Any bird that has broken bones, bleeding, deformity, cat bites or other puncture wounds, maggots or warbles, tilting head, or large bubbles under the skin needs to be taken to your nearest wildlife veterinarian or wildlife rehabilitator for diagnosis and treatment.
- For an injured bird: Place a towel over the bird to calm it. Then gently put it into a box lined with soft material such as shredded newspaper, dried grass, or tissue. Contact a rehabilitator (or contact DWR).
- If you find a wet and chilled bird: Place it in a box near a 75-watt bulb as a source of heat. Make sure the bird can move away from the light if it gets too warm. After they are fully warmed and their feathers are dry, you can release them.
- If a bird hits a window: Check it for signs of injury such as bleeding, head tilt, broken wing etc. If it is injured, contact a rehabilitator. If it appears to only be stunned, put it in a covered box and wait for 2–3 hours, and then see if it will fly away.
Reasons Humans Should Not Attempt to Raise Healthy Songbirds
- Hand-reared birds that are kept indoors will not be unable to judge direction during migration since they cannot orient to the constellations.
- Birds deprived of hearing songs from a male of their species during their “critical period” will be unable to learn these songs later in their development and may be unable to attract a mate, breed, acquire territory, and understand others of their species.
- Even experienced wildlife rehabilitators are unable to teach young birds the skills they need for survival, such as predator avoidance and where to forage for food. If at all possible, allow baby birds to be raised by their parents in the wild.
Note: It is illegal to raise wild birds in captivity unless you have both state and federal permits.
If a wild animal has been injured or truly orphaned, locate a licensed wildlife rehabilitator by calling the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources’ toll-free wildlife conflict helpline at 1-855-571-9003, 8:00AM-4:30PM, Monday through Friday or visit the licensed wildlife rehabilitator section of this website.