It doesn’t matter whether you’re a bird lover or not. When we find a bird on the ground, our immediate thought is it’s hurt. And our immediate instinct is to save it.
This creature we are accustomed to watch sing in the trees and fly on the wind should not be sitting or worse, lying, on the ground. It violates the natural order of things.
This instinct to protect becomes a compulsion when it’s a baby bird. Maybe it’s because it looks especially fragile, so vulnerable.
But before swooping in, take a moment to think and to watch.
Don’t Rush In
Not all grounded baby birds are hurt. How you react should depend on two things: how mature does the bird appear to be and is there any sign of physical injury?
How Old is Your Baby Bird?
Small hops and awkward wing flaps may just be the sign of a fledgling bird learning to take to the sky. A fledgling will be active and fully alert. It’ll likely have short tail feathers, but otherwise most of their feathers should be in place. You may still see a tuff or two of downy baby feathers.
Watch the small bird carefully from a distance for at least two hours (keep pets indoors). Chances are high that mom or dad is watching. If it’s making noise, that’s a good sign… it may be calling for food and an adult may oblige.
On the other hand, if the bird appears particularly small, has little to no feathers, can’t stand or is very awkward, you’ve likely found a nestling. It probably fell out of the nest or was knocked out during a storm.
Ideally, you want to put the nestling back in its nest. If the nest fell as well or is too high, you can construct an artificial nest.
Get the container your berries came in, or an old margarine tub and poke holes in the bottom. Nail it up high in a tree as close to where you found the bird as you can; preferable the one it fell from. Fill it with dry pine needles, straw, leaves, or even an old tee-shirt will do.
Put the young birds in their new home and then get out of the way. Parents that are watching are looking out for predators. When you leave, they’ll be more likely to return.
When to Contact a Wildlife Rehabilitator or Vet
If you notice any of the following, however, you’ve got a situation and will want to contact a wildlife rehabilitator, wildlife rescue, or veterinarian:
- You see blood
- A wing or something else is broken
- The bird can’t stand or hop normally
- Its belly is wrinkled and sucked in
- The bird is wet, but it hasn’t been raining
Until you can get to help, keep the young bird warm. A heating pad set on low and put under half of a small box with air holes and a soft lining will do the trick. If it’s too warm, the bird can move to the cooler side. Keep your ward in a quiet and dark place.
Should I Feed a Baby Bird?
No, you shouldn’t.
Baby birds can survive without food for longer than you might think—about 24 hours. It’s also possible that when trying to feed it, you do more harm than good no matter how altruistic your intentions. For example, food can get into their tiny lungs and they’ll choke, or you can easily injure the inside of their mouths or throats.
Any feeding you do, despite the best advice not to, is only a temporary solution.
You need to do your best to find a wildlife rehabber. Unless you’re properly trained and licensed, it’s illegal to keep or care for wild animals. And unless you have a permit, it is not legal to possess a wild native bird, their nests, eggs, or young.
If you’re determined to feed a wild bird, then you should learn as much as you can before attempting it. Here I’ve provided a rudimentary summary of do’s and don’ts. It’s NOT all you need to know, but if those 24 hours have come and gone, this info might keep your bird alive until you can get qualified help.
What do Baby Birds Eat?
You might be able to find a pet store that carries baby food specially formulated for wild birds. If you can’t, then the knowledgeable folks at The Spruce recommend trying this list of foods for baby songbirds you’d typically find in your backyard:
- High-protein moist dog food
- Raw kidney or liver (no seasoning)
- High-protein dog biscuits (moistened)
- High-protein dog or cat kibble (moistened)
- Hard-boiled eggs (include finely crushed shells)
You absolutely don’t want to feed baby birds any of the following:
- Pet bird food
- Kitchen scraps
- Whole birdseed
- Bread or bread products
- Water (they get what they need from their food)
Baby birds have nutritional needs very different from their adult parents. What an adult bird eats can harm its babies. As baby birds grow, their diet can be adjusted to include more raw meat, so they get the protein they need. As for water, baby birds get the water they need from the foods they eat.
The one exception to these rules is hummingbirds. Hummingbirds need to eat often, or they will die. Mix four-parts water to one-part white table sugar. Use a thin straw or dip a cotton swab into the mixture, and let the bird drink the droplet. Let the hummingbird drink as much as it wants and repeat every 30 minutes but get help fast.
See also: 10 Best Foods for Bird Feeding
How to Feed a Baby Bird
You don’t want to unnecessarily handle the bird. Leave it in its container. And don’t force open its mouth.
A hungry baby bird will open its mouth wide—a behavior called gaping. If it isn’t opening up, gently tap on the makeshift nest. If you still get nothing, the bird isn’t hungry or is extremely ill.
I don’t like using a tweezer to feed. They’re hard and pointed and could cause injury to a bird’s mouth or throat. Instead, I suggest using something soft and flexible, like a small paint brush an artist might use (like in this video) or cotton swab stick with the cotton cut off.
Cut the food into very small pieces or mash it into a paste the consistency of oatmeal. If the food is of a proper consistency, it should stick to the swab. Drop the food into the bird’s mouth; don’t force it down it’s throat.
When full, the little bird will stop eating. You might also see the area beneath his chin protruding—a good sign the small bird is full.
This is the time of year when you are most likely to find baby birds. Before you help, make sure it’s needed. Fledglings can be moved under a bush if you think they are vulnerable to predators. Other than this, leave them alone.
Nestlings are extremely vulnerable and need to be returned to their own or an artificial nest. If that’s not possible, your best choice is to get it to a qualified wildlife rehabilitation center as soon as possible. Absent that, try your local veterinarian.
Above all, avoid the temptation to feed any wild baby bird you might find.
If you really want to help, and you can knit or crochet, try creating some warm nests and donating them to wildlife rehabilitation centers across the country.