Baby birds are one of the most common wild bird rescue situations that I deal with during the warmer months. At the time I’m typing this, I’m literally waiting for the night to end and daylight to come so I can follow-up on a case I dealt with yesterday. It might be summer here in Australia but I had hail bouncing off my head during this rescue yesterday. That particular chick is going to be the least of it; you can always anticipate a day of baby cases after a storm.
Myth #1: Parent birds will reject their offspring if a human handles it.
I don’t know where this myth originated but it’s well known globally and at best has caused a lot of unnecessary suffering and at worst has undoubtedly been the cause of many baby bird deaths. It is totally 100% definitely NOT true. Parent birds do not reject their young because you have touched their baby. Rather, if they notice you nearby, they’re probably trying to kill you for being there or else they are desperately trying to get their baby back if you do happen to pick it up.
Does the baby actually need to be ‘rescued’?
Well-meaning humans unnecessarily ‘rescue’ many baby birds, so this is the first question you should be asking yourself if a baby bird finds its way to you. In many cases, a baby bird learning to fly looks like it needs rescue when really it’s at a natural stage of development. The trick is to watch and see if the parents are around. They may be off foraging for food, but they will come back and feed their baby. If that’s the case, don’t steal the baby. The best option is to usually ask people in the area to contain pet dogs and cats for a couple of days while the chick learns to fly. Similarly if someone brings you a baby bird – check out the location where it came from, as you may be able to reunite it with its parents by just providing a fake nest.
Myth # 2: Birds learn to fly on their own.
There are many reasons why it is preferable for the parents to raise their own chicks. Flying is a skill and while some part of learning to fly is instinctual and birds should really get there in the end, the parents do teach their young many basics. Not to mention that they’re there to guard their babies as they learn.
The other thing to think about is the process of feeding. The way in which parent birds regurgitate food to their young actually works to help a chick establish correct gut flora. It’s also useful in helping the chick develop a stronger immune system. It also teaches the chick what sort of food they should be looking for when they eventually have to fend for themselves.
When is a rescue necessary?
Sometimes strong winds, a storm or a predator may bring a chick out of the nest earlier than it really should have been. This is when some intervention may be necessary but considering the above, it’s preferable if you can intervene in a way that doesn’t separate the chick from its parents.
Using the example of the case I’m currently working on… Yesterday we had some pretty dodgy weather here. One second it was sunny, the next second the sky was black and throwing things at us. One of the things that got thrown about was a small noisy miner bird chick. It was actually at the correct age for emerging from the nest and the parents were trying to look after it on the ground but intervention was necessary for a few reasons.
Firstly, the location was shocking. The chick was hopping around the carpark of a strip mall. Secondly, the weather was atrocious. The chick was trying to shelter from the hail by hiding under a parked car and it was clearly going to get too cold if it didn’t get some real shelter soon. Considering that parked cars don’t stay parked for long, there was a good chance it was going to get squashed or the parents were going to get hit by one of the cars. The other chicks were still high up in the nest and would be in serious trouble if something happened to their parents. Intervention was necessary but baby theft was not. (Tip: Observe what’s going on from a distance even if it means zooming in with a camera. You’ll find out if parents are feeding a chick a lot more quickly if you’re not in the way.)
If you put a bird in a fake nest, the parents will still feed it.
Duct tape is an awesome invention. I solved my miner bird problem with a cardboard box and duct tape. The box was the fake nest, the duct tape was the water-proofing and helped secure my ‘nest’ to a tree. I lined it with some paper towelling and grass. I caught the baby (who screeched like a banshee while a parent tried to de-eye me). Its temperature was dangerously low so I took it home and dried it off by warming it in a heatbox. Once it was stable I settled it in the cardboard box and took it back to the parents.
A few tips: Attach your fake ‘nest’ to a trunk/very thick branch so it doesn’t move too much in the wind. Don’t put it too high up in the tree because the baby will come out eventually and you don’t want it to fall too far. You don’t want it so low that a predator can get it either. I usually either write on the box or leave a sign so that people know why this thing is stuck in a tree. Clearly ask people not to touch it.
I like using a box because a lid with a hole in it will provide some shelter from the elements. A hanging plant basket is another option. Some people like to nail a container into a tree too (drill holes for drainage if you do this). If it will hold something that the bird can snuggle into and the parent can access the baby for feeding, it will work.
I have also used a cat crate in the past too. I usually use this when I can closely monitor the bird, when a bird is still too young to fly, and I want to ensure it doesn’t leave the fake nest too soon (especially if there are too many cats around that people won’t contain). I’m careful to use one with bar spacing that is wide enough to allow the parents to continue to feed the bird during the day but the chick still can’t escape. I bring the bird in to a heat lamp at night.
Following up on your fake nest.
Close monitoring is essential here, as you need to know the parents are maintaining feeding. If it’s in a private yard, the lazy person in me usually sets up a security camera and just reviews the footage at a higher speed while drinking coffee (beats staring at a tree all day). When the bird is old enough to leave the nest, I’ll switch from the cat crate to a hanging basket, so it can leave when ready. It usually doesn’t take long for the parents to call the baby out when it is ready.
Another reason to monitor your fake nests is to make sure the public haven’t messed with them. Over curious humans are annoying. This is another reason to use a cardboard box in a public location – people steal cat carriers and hanging baskets.
If the parents aren’t around/the bird is orphaned:
This is when a fake nest isn’t going to help you and unfortunately things get a lot more serious.
I don’t recommend hand-rearing if you don’t know what you are doing. A lot can go wrong and when it does – it happens very quickly. Get the chick to a wildlife rescuer/carer/organisation/vet. Even if you feel you know what you are doing with handfeeding a baby bird, the bird stands a better chance if you get it to someone who is doing this routinely. It isn’t just about keeping the chick healthy, it’s just as much about giving them the skills they need to survive.
Inadequate temperature is the number one thing that kills baby birds:
Inadequate temperature is the number one thing that will quickly kill a chick. If you find a baby bird – it is essential you keep it warm. A hot water bottle/heat pad wrapped in a tea towel (so it doesn’t burn the bird) will work. Heat lamps are even better. Click here to read a post on heat sources.
As a quick environment temperature guide:
- Sick/injured bird – 28 Degrees Celsius/82.4 Degrees Fahrenheit
- Naked young – 36 Degrees Celsius/96.8 Degrees Fahrenheit
- Feathered – 26 Degrees Celsius/78.8 Degrees Fahrenheit
- Fledglings – 23 Degrees Celsius/73.4 Degrees Fahrenheit
As always – watch your body language. A bird that is sitting fluffed up is too cold; a bird that is panting and holding its wings out is too hot.
Don’t stress the chick out!
Treat the chick as if it is in shock. Provide a heat source, quiet and darkness. Keep pets and noisy children away. Don’t over handle it. Don’t stick a flashing camera in its face.
I must stress the camera side of it. I don’t like seeing sick and injured wildlife in Facebook pictures. A rescue should be about the animal, not the cute picture. There is a reason I don’t post photos of the wildlife I deal with on a daily basis all over Facebook.
I understand that pics can be used for educational purposes (I’m using them myself in this post). However, as a wildlife rescuer/transporter I can honestly say it is very rare for me to be in a position to take a picture. When I see them, the animals usually aren’t stable enough to cope with that added stress. My focus is always the animal and that leaves little time to pull out a camera. There is time enough to take an educational picture when the animal has been stabilised and is doing well in care or in the case of some chicks – settled safely and calmly in their fake nest. None of the photos used in this post were taken in the early stages of rescue. Each picture is of a stable animal that is well past the ‘shock stage’. All pictures were taken after the animal had received appropriate vet care/treatment. (This is why there is no pic of the chick in the heatbox for example, instead I got one when it was warm and comfortable in the fake nest.) I think the pictures I’ve used still educate despite being past that initial stage.
I’ve done all of the training, I have all of the equipment, I have the space and time but I’m not a carer and I’m not a shelter. Instead, I limit my wildlife work to rescue, transport and helping at other shelters as required. The reason? I have a lot of pets.
I wouldn’t want to accidentally desensitise wild animals to the dangers of cats and dogs and I certainly wouldn’t want to risk my pets by exposing them to any diseases that wild animals are carrying.
Do not stick the cute stray bird in with your pet birds. Keep them separate and maintain quarantine standards. Don’t share equipment. I have wildlife transport carriers and pet carriers and I don’t mix them up. Use a cardboard box instead of your pet bird’s carrier. It sounds paranoid but if you’re dealing with wildlife rescue you probably share my paranoia. Disease is frighteningly common amongst wild birds and if it needs rescue – there is probably a reason behind that need. Don’t risk your own flock.
As a general rule, I advise people to contact a wildlife rescuer/carer/organisation/vet BEFORE trying to feed a chick. They will be able to advise you if they think the bird should be fed and if so, what the food should be and how much to give. In most cases, the bird should be ok until someone qualified can take over. It can be a real nightmare when a member of the public feeds a chick something incorrectly.
A big part of a wild bird’s care plan, is what they weigh (before food), how much food or water they take, how long it takes the crop to clear and how this affects their weight and poo and alertness. You get the idea. This information is essential for a carer if they are to monitor a bird’s progress.
Different species have different dietary requirements and those requirements are going to be different to what the adults in their species eat. Correctly identifying a chick is essential. Standard bird identification books aren’t going to help you here. The average identification book will show you what a juvenile bird looks like but not what a chick looks like. Here in Australia, I use a book called “Chicks, Nestlings & Fledglings of Australian Birds” by Norma Henderson. (Purchased through wildlife organisations, it isn’t easy to get.)
At this time of year, I keep a range of baby food products in my wildlife first aid kit. I like the brand “Wombaroo”. They have three powdered products that mix up into wet formulas for different types of birds. Insectivore is for insect and meat eaters; Granivore is for seed and fruit eaters, Nectarivore is for nectar and pollen eaters.
Water is usually a safe thing to offer, provided it is at a reasonable temperature that won’t change the bird’s temperature. Some species of bird (usually birds of prey) will often fulfil their daily water needs with the blood of their prey. Even these species of birds shouldn’t be hurt by drinking water.
Why get the bird to a wildlife rescue/vet even if you know what you’re doing:
I don’t keep the above food on hand because I plan to hand rear wild birds. I’m a rescuer/transporter NOT a carer (although I’ve done courses/training as a carer). I keep it on hand in case I have to feed a baby bird in the time that it is in my care. It can sometimes take hours to get a bird in to see a specialist vet if required. It can also take a few hours to arrange for the best possible carer/shelter to take a bird. My point is: if you get the bird to someone who does this routinely – they should have the specialist equipment and food on hand. They should also be collecting essential information and have the contacts to ensure the best possible outcome.
What do I mean by best possible shelter/carer? As an example, I will try to place Tawny Frogmouths in a shelter that I know has aviaries especially dedicated to Tawnies. Orphans benefit from a surrogate flock. If you can place a baby where other orphans of the same species are being raised, you stand a better chance of socialising the bird properly and preventing it from imprinting on you. So in the case of the Tawny Frogmouth shown in my pictures: It went to a shelter where there was an adult Tawny in care and another eight orphaned chicks. It was taught what real food looks like (cutting up dead mice with scissors isn’t for the faint-hearted). The setup included hunting training (think of things like a specially designed train set with cut up dead mouse bits attached so that the birds learn that mice move). A falconer was used for flight training. These are facilities that the average person simply doesn’t have.
You might have found a more common species of bird but they will still benefit from going somewhere that has a large flight aviary and other chicks of the same species.
It is actually completely illegal here in Australia to keep a wild animal in your care without the appropriate license. It’s true that you can keep some native birds as a pet without a licence. The key word there is ‘pet’. A wild injured galah requires a licence while a ‘pet’ galah does not. Wildlife carers here usually live in/run a licensed shelter and they really do go through a lot to get those licenses. When I say wildlife shelter – I am not referring to the RSPCA style of shelter. Wildlife shelters are usually private premises/houses. I have never taken a wild animal to the RSPCA and I never will. The RSPCA in Australia is better equipped for looking after cats and dogs.
The best bit?
The best bit is when you see a wild bird flying free and it pauses to look at you. I always walk away wondering if it paused because it knew me from a rescue? There is no better feeling.
Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.