Assisting (or Not) Injured Baby Birds

Photo by naypong.

Springtime is the time of rebirth and a heck of a lot of regular birth, too. If you’ve found a hatchling on the ground and have with all good intention rushed to save its life, guest writer Dave Thraen, Executive Director of All Wildlife Rescue and Education (AWRE), has a heads-up for you before you take flight.

This is the time when baby birds will be on the ground, which makes us think we have an opportunity to save a life—or do we?

The last thing anyone wants to do is to unnecessarily create an orphan, especially when the baby bird is just going through a normal growing stage. To avoid this mistake, when dealing with baby birds, we need to understand the branching stage, which is the time when the baby bird is developing its feathers, gets on the side of the nest, starts flapping, gets a little bit of lift and can kind of—almost sort of—glide, but not very well and has no clue how to fly. The baby has now officially left the nest but still relies on its parents.

Repeating this flapping behavior, going from branch to branch, and throwing in a little gravity, the little bird will eventually end up on the ground. The parents may leave for up to 48 hours searching for food, and while they’re away, you have a simple case of an unsupervised child running amok. But the parents will return, find and continue to care for their baby.

How Can You Tell if the Baby Bird is Injured and Needs Human Intervention?

While on the ground, both wings should be held uniformly (this is a big key to identify whether the bird is actually injured or just branching). The wings might be down, they might be up or anywhere in between, but they should be held in the same manner in the same position. If that’s the case, leave it be; the parents will return. However, if the wings are held in different positions—for example, one is up and the other is dragging, it’s probably injured and needs help. But before you make an attempt, be sure you have a place to take it. Take into consideration that when you intervene, you are taking a baby from its parents and are now responsible for the feeding, care and welfare of this baby bird. And believe me, this is no simple task.

Finding Resources

If the bird seems injured and you’re in the Long Beach area, you can call AWRE at 562.434.0141. Outside the area, you can find a licensed wildlife rehabber near you by calling 866.WILD911, or 866.945.3911. Follow the automated instructions, and you’ll be given the contact information for a licensed rehabber in your area that treats that species. This is a free service and covers the state of California, but please remember that when you call a rehabber and get their answering machine; he or she is probably out caring for animals and isn’t going to set their patient down, stopping treatment to go answer the phone. They will do their best to answer your message just as soon as they can.

Just remember: A baby bird on the ground doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs human help.

Editor’s note: Long Beach Animal Hospital also treats injured wildlife at no cost. As Dave Thraen says, however, make sure that the bird is injured before you bring it in.

Though I found your hand full of wilted fern,
Steel-bright June-grass, and blackening heads of clover.
’Twas a nest full of young birds on the ground
…And left defenseless to the heat and light.
You wanted to restore them to their right
…The way the nest-full every time we stirred
Stood up to us as to a mother-bird
Whose coming home has been too long deferred,
Made me ask would the mother-bird return
And care for them in such a change of scene
And might our meddling make her more afraid.
That was a thing we could not wait to learn.
We saw the risk we took in doing good,
But dared not spare to do the best we could
Though harm should come of it; so built the screen
You had begun, and gave them back their shade.
All this to prove we cared.

~ From “The Exposed Nest,” Robert Frost

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