Orphaned Wild Baby Birds

Every once in a while, one of us may find a baby wild bird or birds who appear to have fallen out of the nest. We want to help, but don’t know what to do. Here are some guidelines on how to help an unfortunate baby bird.

Birds fall into two categories; precocial and altricial. Most ground nesters are precocial; quail, killdeer, ducks, geese and chickens to name a few. Meaning that the babies are born with downy feathers, eyes open and within hours are seen to be scurrying around and eating. Then we have the birds who nest in trees; these babies are altricial. They are born naked, eyes closed, and completely helpless and dependent upon the parent birds. These are the birds most often found abandoned and in need of human assistance.

When dealing with altricial birds there are stages of their development to help determine their approximate age.

  1. – The egg tooth disappears after three days.
  2. – Babies up to one week old will be naked except for down and beginning to show pin feathers.
  3. – By two weeks they will have their eyes open and be almost completely feathered.
  4. – By three weeks they should be completely feathered and hoping and fluttering about the nest.
  5. – At four to six weeks the birds will be able to fly or fledge as it is called.

Once we have established the approximate age of the bird, we can determine the course of action to be taken. Using the stages above we will discuss appropriate care and procedures..

  1. These babies must be kept warm and fed often. You can use a shoe box, aquarium, plastic container, etc. so long as you have sufficient heat. It is imperative that you use a thermometer to determine the temperature in what ever you are using. Build a ‘nest’ of washable materials such as old socks or undershirts. Using a heating pad or heat lamp bring the temperature up to between 95 – 100 degrees. Place the baby in the nest and once it is warm, start feeding it. NEVER feed a cold or chilled baby. Commercial hand feeding formula is wonderful but if you don’t have any on hand or can’t get it there are other things that will do in an emergency. You can take dry dog or cat food and soak it in hot water. By the time it is soft, it should be cool enough to feed. Take a pair of tweezers and pinch off small ‘bites’, tap the bird on the side of the beak. This should trigger a feeding response and the mouth should pop open. Place the food in the mouth and they will automatically swallow. Do not give them water. The water in which you soaked the food should will be sufficient. They will need to be fed small amounts about every hour during the day. Parent birds do not, as a rule, feed during the night but start up again at daylight. This is a good rule to follow because it allows the baby to rest and completely empty. Remember, you are not dealing with a bird that has a crop like our parrot babies.
  2. The process is basically the same as above except for temperature. You can determine the proper temperature by the baby. If it is panting, it is too hot. If it feels cold to the touch it is too cool. Once again, do NOT feed a cold or chilled baby. The same foods and method of feeding are appropriate.
  3. If you find a baby of this age and can determine where the nest is, replace it in the nest. It is NOT true that the parent birds will abandon the nest if they ‘smell’ a human scent on the baby. Most of the birds with which you will be dealing will have a very poor sense of smell. If you can’t locate the nest, place the bird in a large box or a small cage. It should not be necessary to offer heat at this stage, unless you keep your house extremely cold. Just be sure to keep it out of drafts and not to allow it to become chilled. Feeding now gets exciting. In addition to the previous foods you should offer live food. Meal worms are the easiest because you can purchase them in varying sizes. If you can’t get these, dig up some earth worms or go buy fishing worms if you don’t want to try your hand at worm prospecting. Whatever you do, continue to provide the moistened food and dip the worms, or portion thereof, in water subsequent to offering it to the bird.
  4. This is the stage at which you will usually find birds in your yard. LEAVE them alone. Don’t rush out and pick them up. First determine if they are in any danger from predators such as your dog or cat. If you can determine that they are relatively safe, LEAVE them alone. The parents will hear them calling for food and will go to them to feed. If you think they are in danger from your dog, place them in an open container (box or cage) where the parents can get to them to feed them. This container can be placed on a table or something equally high. You know your dog best but he probably won’t be interested once it is out of his grass and he isn’t attracted to the fluttering of tiny wings. If you have cats that are outside cats, then we are back to having to feed the bird because at this stage they are still dependent upon the parents. You can use the same procedure and foods as above.
  5. At this stage you would use the same judgments as above. The only difference is if you do determine that you have to feed, you need it place it in a large cage. You don’t want it to damage its wings because it is learning to fly and must have room to practice. You can offer it moistened dog food in a bowl, along with meal or earth worms and millet spray, popped corn, bread crumbs, a bowl of water, etc.. It is getting ready to go out into the world so it must be able to recognize different forms of food. Another thing that you can do is to place the cage on a porch or patio and late in the evening place a light close to the cage wire. The light will attract bugs and the bird will soon be seen catching its own dinner.

It is imperative that you handle the baby AS LITTLE as possible. You do not want to have the bird imprint on you. You are not a bird and they must learn to associate with their own kind. This is one reason for placing the cage outside as soon as it is old enough. There the bird can hear the songs and calls of the wild birds and learn from them even though you are still providing the food source.

Using these 5 steps you can take a bird from newly hatched to fledging and then you must become the responsible human and let it go. This can be done when you determine that the bird is eating a sufficient amount to maintain it. Don’t just open the cage and throw it out. Leave the cage where it is and open the door. Do not force the bird to leave. Once the bird is outside the cage, which in my experience takes about 30 minutes, refill the food and water dishes. The bird has never had to ‘hunt’ for food and we want to make sure that, if need be, it can come back and eat. There have been occasions where I have had a bird continue to eat in their cage for about a week. I have also had them hang around for a month or so. You can recognize your bird.

I do not know of any state in which it is legal to keep a native bird unless you have the proper permits and the bird is deemed non-releasable. One of the best and wisest things you could do would be to try to locate a rehabilitator in your area and get the bird to someone who has trained to take care of it. Perhaps you could volunteer and become a ‘foster parent’. I know that I never had enough help and dedicated help was almost impossible to find. If you find that foster parenting is not your thing, there are always cages to be cleaned, laundry to be done and a mountain of paper work due every quarter.

Thanks for caring.

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