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Help! I Found a Bird!

BBBO receives many inquiries from people who find injured or baby birds on the ground.   The most important thing to remember is that you are not equipped to take care of a bird on your own – and it’s actually illegal for you to do so!  Birds should be left to the care of their parents, or in the care of a licensed avian rehabiliator.  Here’s what to do if you find a baby or injured bird:

Baby Bird:  First, determine if the bird is a nestling or a fledgling.

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A nestling is a small, incompletely feathered bird that belongs in a nest.  Occasionally, nestlings fall or are pushed from their nests.  If you can locate and reach the nest without endangering it or the other nestlings, return the bird to the nest.  If you can find but not reach the nest, you can create a substitute nest out of a small strawberry box or other basket lined with tissues or other soft material, and hang it in a protected spot nearby.  The parents will care for the young in the “foster nest.”  If you cannot find the nest, if you are certain the parents are dead, or if the parents don’t return after two hours, you can take the baby to a bird rehabilitator.

A fledgling is a fully-feathered (usually close to full size) bird, often with stubby wings and a short tail.  They should be able to perch on your finger, are able to walk and might manage short hopping flights, but are incapable of sustained flight.  Many young birds actually leave the nest before they can fly.  This is normal, and their parents are almost always tending them nearby – and they are probably terribly worried that you are fussing with their offspring!  The best thing to do is leave the fledgling alone; this is part of its normal development.  If you are certain the baby has been abandoned, take the bird to a rehabilitator.

Precocial birds are those that emerge from their eggs already covered in downy feathers and that can swim or run shortly after hatching.  Ducks, geese and Killdeer are examples of precocial birds.  Ducks and geese often lay their eggs away from water, and then they lead their young back – sometimes crossing busy roads in the process.  Do not try to “help” the mothers by capturing the young  – you are more likely to scatter the flock.  The best you can do is try to stop traffic as the mother leads her brood to safer shores.  People sometimes hear baby Killdeer peeping, and when they investigate, discover a tiny bird apparently all alone.  In most cases, the parents are hiding nearby and the baby should be left alone.

Injured Bird: Do not attempt to capture an injured bird unless you are certain you can do so without causing harm to yourself or further harm to the bird.  Be alert for hazards like traffic and sharp bills or talons, and do not keep chasing a bird that you cannot seem to catch.

Most of the injured birds you will probably find have just struck windows and are temporarily stunned.  You can place stunned birds in a shoebox lined with a towel in a safe and shaded location.  If it is cold outside, you can heat a bottle of water briefly in a microwave, place it under the towel, and snuggle the bird next to the covered bottle.  The bottle must not be too hot or it will scald the bird.  Birds often recover from window strikes in relatively short order.

If you find a bird that appears to have an injury such as a broken wing, consider whether you can safely capture the bird.  If so, you can take the bird to a rehabilitator.  Do not try to catch large waterfowl or herons of any kind on your own; call the animal rehabilitator for assistance.  However, note that many rehabilitators are not equipped to capture large birds like swans or hawks; in such cases they may be able to point you in the direction of other agencies who can help.

For more information, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s page on “orphaned” baby birds and Kevin McGowan’s page on baby crows (but which applies to other songbirds as well).

To find an avian rehabilitator near you, you can start with this page from the Humane Society.   New Yorkers can start directly on the NYS DEC Wildlife Rehabilitator page, and those in the Rochester area can contact the East Ridge Animal Hospital.

Note that many rehabilitators pay the cost of caring for the animals out of their own pockets.  Please consider a small donation when you drop off your rescue.  

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