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Wild bird 911: Rescuing abandoned baby birds

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Steps to help rescue abandoned baby birds. It's one of those heart-tugging moments: You walk outside, only to see a helpless chick floundering in the grass. You want to do something, but what?

First, calmly observe the baby bird's condition and age. If it is alert with no obvious injuries, and appears to have most of its long wing feathers, it's likely a fledgling out on its first clumsy solo flight. Mom and dad are probably nearby and keeping a watchful eye. If there's no immediate danger from dogs, cats, or children, leave it alone and watch from a safe distance to see if the parents are able to coax it to safety.

If the baby is still unfeathered, or if its flight feathers are too short to sustain flight, then it does need some human intervention. If it looks healthy and unhurt, and if you can reach the nest it fell from, gently scoop up the chick with both hands -- don't grab or squeeze -- and place it back into the nest. It's a myth that parent birds will reject a chick that's been handled by humans. Birds in general have a lousy sense of smell, so it's doubtful they're even able to detect a human scent.

If the nest is out of reach, try placing the chick into a small margarine tub lined with crumpled tissue, and place the tub into a crook of a nearby tree. The parents might continue to care for the baby in this secondary nest. If there's no sign of an adult bird in attendance after an hour or so, or if the chick has apparent injuries, you'll need to seek help.

"If there is any sign of blood on the chick, or if flies are hanging around, it is probably hurt,'' said Dawn Keller, founder and director of Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation, with locations in Barrington, Itasca, and Chicago, Ill. If that's the case, its only hope for survival is a quick transport to an avian veterinarian or licensed bird rehabber.

Finding help

To find a rehabber in your area, contact the local office of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, your state Department of Natural Resources, or your regular veterinarian. Baby birds can't survive for more than a few hours without specialized care, so it's a good idea to keep a rehabber's phone number on hand instead of frantically searching for one when an emergency occurs.

Keller offers the following tips:

  • Never try to give food or water to the chick. When a baby bird is being fed by its parent, it engages a feeding response that effectively closes off the trachea (windpipe) and shunts the food safely into the esophagus. If the chick is weak, frightened, or hurt, that feeding response won't happen, and it's extraordinarily easy to dribble food into the windpipe and cause the baby to suffocate.
  • Most backyard birds have an average body temperature somewhere between 104-108 degrees Fahrenheit. It takes a lot of energy to maintain that temperature, and a weakened chick might not have much to spare. Providing extra heat is the most critical aid to keeping a stressed or hurt bird alive. Place the chick in a covered box or small animal carrier lined with crumpled tissues, and if possible lay a heating pad set on "low'' across the top. When you're ready to transport, keep your car warm and drape the carrier with a thick towel.

Please do not consider keeping the wild bird as a pet. It's very unlikely to survive, and all but a very few bird species are protected by federal law. It's a crime to keep them in captivity unless you're a licensed rehabber, so for the bird's sake and your own, leave it with the pros.

Credit: Reviewed by Dr. Greg Harrison, DVM
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