South Plains Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, Inc.

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Baby Birds 101

Have you found a baby bird and don't know what to do?

Baby Birds 101

       By May, and often weeks earlier, baby songbird season is in full swing. A few guidelines will help you decide what to do if you find an orphaned, injured or displaced wild songbird. Rarely is a bird a true “orphan.”     

So many calls to the Wildlife Center start with: “I have a baby bird in my yard, and it can’t fly.” Our first question is: “Is the bird unable to fly because it’s too young — or is it because it’s injured?” There’s a big difference!

  1. Bring a bird to us if it’s cold, wet, bleeding, has a lame leg or injured wing.
  2. A bird that’s been in a cat’s mouth should be brought in immediately for treatment with antibiotics.
  3. If a bird is listless and in the same place/position for 20 minutes or more, it may be sick or hurt. Healthy fledglings are active and on the go.
  4. TIME is of the essence – transport ASAP in a shoebox/small box lined with tissues. Put a lid on the box with a rubber band around it – scared birds may try to hop out.
  5. Keep any casualty warm, dark and quiet, and never allow children to handle fragile, frightened youngsters.
  6. Do not feed the bird anything or try to give water. Call a volunteer if you live a distance away for advice. NEVER give bread or milk to any wild bird (or mammal).

Each spring and summer, scores of healthy birds are on the ground hopping about, learning the ropes of day-to-day survival from one or both parents.

A normal, healthy songbird should be active and bright-eyed and if you approach, it should run or

flutter away. If mom is nearby, she may buzz you to tell you to stay away. Youngsters look like the

parents but without the long tail feathers – those feathers continue to grow after fledging (leaving

the nest). Once fledglings leave the nest they don’t return.

It’s completely normal for a youngster to spend an average of 3-5 days or more on the ground perfecting flying skills. Parents continue to feed their offspring, teach them to avoid predators, find their natural foods, seek shelter in bad weather and locate places to roost at night. This is the most critical time in a youngster’s development as they learn vital survival skills. Bringing a healthy bird to a wildlife rehabilitator during this period actually sets it back, and sometimes the stress associated with capture and transport may even result in death.

Well- meaning People:   Day by day, young birds are able to fly better and higher, but unfortunately, this is when they also run into the most trouble. Predators – dogs, roaming cats and larger birds, including Blue Jays and Grackles – find young fledges easy targets during this, their most vulnerable period, but well-meaning people also take a toll on fledglings.

        Many normal, healthy juveniles are brought into the Center every day - birds that shouldn’t have been picked up in the first place. Some birds build nests on the ground like ducks, killdeer, and others and they’re virtually independent some hours after birth. Leave them alone unless injured.  Occasionally youngsters tumble from the nest during storms and they birds should always be warmed in tissues and brought to the Center as quickly as possible.   It’s almost impossible to return a bird to the nest because it’s often too high. I don’t advocate using an artificial nest placed near the real nest because without a parent to keep a baby warm, it won’t survive for long. 

Old Wives’ Tales:   It’s not true that if you touch a baby bird the adults will abandon it, but you can gently pick up a youngster that’s in harm’s way: if it’s in the street or in a backyard patrolled by a dog, move it to a safer yard nearby - under a shady shrub, or somewhere that offers protection from predators or the elements.

       Bird parents recognize their offspring the same way humans do: by sight and sound. A relocated, healthy youngster will call for food, and mom or dad will respond accordingly. You might not always see the parents, but they may have several fledglings going in all directions simultaneously. Chances are excellent they’re nearby. If you’re not sure, sit somewhere close by and watch for 15-20 minutes.  Healthy youngsters rarely have parasites but if a debilitated bird is on the ground for a period of time, it may attract tiny bird lice or ants. These casualties need help immediately. Don disposable gloves, place the patient in a tissue lined box and transport it promptly to the Center. Wash your hands, and any parasites will quickly be removed. 

When a rescue is necessary, never feed or give water to a bird casualty unless you’ve talked with a volunteer about any extenuating circumstances.

*Songbirds have species-specific diets and require proper nutrition. Stress and malnutrition are the biggest killers of baby birds. Youngsters must be fed their specific diets about every thirty minutes during daylight hours, so always bring them to us promptly. We’re in attendance during daylight hours.

Call 806 799-2142 if you still need assistance after reading these guidelines.