Before You Rescue

What you should know before helping your feathered friends

By George Harrison

Birds & Blooms

It’s only natural for people who care about birds to want to help them when they are injured or abandoned. Unfortunately, these good intentions aren’t always the best for our feathered friends.

By caring for needy wildlife, people often create a much greater problem for the animals they are trying to help. So before you take matters into your own hands, remember these few tips.

Out of Sight, Not Out of Mind

People often make the mistake of assuming a lone baby bird (like the eastern bluebird, above) has been abandoned and needs help. This usually involves a fledgling, found alone on the ground or in a shrub, begging for food. It has its mouth open and is flapping its wings, but there are no parents in sight.

It’s logical to think the baby bird is lost or abandoned. But this is rarely the case. Chances are, the parents know where the fledgling is, but they are hiding to keep from drawing attention to their offspring. If the parents are not nearby, they might be off gathering food or feeding a sibling. Rest assured, the baby bird has not been forgotten. Any fledgling that calls for food (like the young eastern kingbird, above right) will be heard and cared for.

Sometimes an infant bird (also known as a nestling) gets out of its nest before it is old enough to fly. When this happens, the best thing you can do is simply place the baby back into its nest.

Now one of the great birding myths claims if you do this, the parents will then reject the baby. This is not true! Birds have a poor sense of smell, so putting the nestling back in its nest is fine.

If an entire nest falls out of a tree or shrub and the young or eggs are still in it, secure it to a location as close to its original position as possible. There is a good chance the parent birds will accept it, especially if the young are still there.

The same is true of larger birds such as hawks and owls, but in this case, it’s best to leave the birds alone altogether. Raptors may pose a danger to humans who attempt to handle them. Even the babies have sharp talons and beaks that can cause serious injury.

Home Remedy

An injured or sick bird is another matter. Our natural instinct and compassion tells us to help a suffering animal, so many people want to take an ill bird home, confine it to a cozy box or cage and attempt to cure it. But by taking a sick or injured bird into captivity, a well-meaning person is violating federal and state laws. It is illegal to keep native species in captivity or disturb them in any way, even those that are sick and injured.

Besides, caring for wildlife requires extensive knowledge in wildlife nutrition and natural history. If it has a broken wing or leg, only a licensed rehabilitator should treat it.

Further, if a bird is sick, it’s nearly impossible to know why. It could be the West Nile virus, pesticide poisoning or a number of other things. Treatment by a layperson almost always ends with the death of the animal. The stress of capture by humans is usually too much for the ill animal to handle.

When you find a sick or injured bird, the best option is to leave it alone. If necessary, you can call a local wildlife rehabilitation center, which often operate through local humane societies or nature centers.

Another rescue challenge arises when a bird hits a window, stunning it or knocking it unconscious. The best care to give a bird that is stunned is to leave it where it falls, and cover it with a colander or large sieve. This will contain the bird and protect it from predators. It should recover within 20 or 30 minutes, and then you can release it.

Overall, the first year of life is difficult for young birds, but the best thing you can do is let nature take its course. So use your good intentions to build a birdhouse or fill a feeder, and then sit back and watch your feathered friends do the rest.