You've found a bird that appears to be injured. Or a baby bird out of its nest. What do you do? How can you help it? Keep reading for our tips on helping injured birds or baby birds that have fallen out of the nest.
This is a situation that arises most every year. You go into your backyard and find a bird on the ground that looks injured, or one you suspect may be a baby bird that fell out the nest. Your natural instinct is to try and help. You want to pick it up and care for it, providing food and water. But, there is a real chance you will do more harm than good if you follow that instinct to help. Yes, there are some things you can do to help, but you first need to know several things to be able to make the proper judgement.
First, you need to determine if the bird is a baby out of the nest or if it is injured or sick. Take some time to observe the bird to learn all you can. We know there will be times when you don't have that luxury, like if the bird is in danger of being killed by a cat, a dog, or a car. If you have the time, first determine if the bird is a baby bird. This isn't very hard, but appropriate actions to help will depend on the age of the bird and how well developed the feathers are. You have three choices: hatchlings, nestlings, and fledglings.
A hatchling is a baby bird in early stages of development. It could be naked (featherless), or it could have a layer of downy feathers, or it could have a few feathers just beginning to grow in. Often, their eyes will be closed, although this will vary by species. These are birds that can't generate their own body heat and are totally reliant on their parents to keep them warm. As such, they need to be back in their nest so their parents can keep them warm. And just so you know, it isn't always the mother bird that does this; in some species the father helps as well.
Nestlings are a bit older, and will have more feathers than a hatchling. There will generally be a growth of feathers all over the body, and for older nestlings the flight feathers will be starting to come in. Nestlings are more active than hatchlings, with their eyes open. Older ones can start perching on the edge of the nest, but are not capable of flight. Since they are more active, older ones have been known to fall out of the nest, particularly when trying to perch on the edge.
Fledglings are the young birds leaving the nest. For some, that means perching on the edge and climbing on a limb just out of the nest. For others, it's the ones trying to fly but are not quite capable of sustained flight. As such, you will find these fledglings on the ground near their nest. They will be alert and active, hopping around and flapping their wings at times.
If the bird is a hatchling or nestling, you really only have two choices. If you can find the nest it came from, and can gently do so, try to put it back in the nest. If you can't find the nest, or know you can't return it without damaging the bird or the nest, then your only choice is to find a Wildlife Rehabilitator. They can be found in your phone directory or through Google. While transporting it, or waiting for help, you can keep the baby in a small, rounded container. It could be a plastic tupperware bowl, a pyrex container, or a rounded bowl. Line it with toilet paper, which will help insulate the baby and offer some cushion. DO NOT try to feed it or force it to drink. You will only do more harm than good, and most likely kill it.
If the bird is a fledgling, your best bet is to do nothing. That's not easy to do, but it really is the best thing for the bird. Most likely, one or both parents know where the baby is and are probably already providing food. If the bird is in danger from a cat, dog, or car, feel free to gently coax it out of harm's way. You may not be able to easily catch it, but can herd it to shelter under a shrub or bush. If needed, you can pick it up and try to put it in a shrub or bush. Just know that it won't stay there for long. DO NOT try to take it inside and feed it or force it to drink. As with younger baby birds, you will only do more harm.
Studies have shown that the highest mortality for birds occurs when they are young. Less than half of all newly hatched baby birds live to become adults. Once a bird fledges (can fly well on its own), as many as two-thirds often don't survive the first two weeks. We know this doesn't seem fair, but it is how the natural world works.
Birds can become injured or sick from a variety of causes. In your backyard, the most common ones are having been attacked by cats, hitting a window on your home, having been hit by a car, and contracting any of several diseases (which are often passed from one bird to another while in close contact at a feeder). Here are some of the signs for a bird that is sick or injured:
So, what do you do to help an injured or sick bird? First, be careful. An injured bird will go into shock quickly, and generally this will be fatal. If you can pick it up, do so very carefully and place it in a cardboard box and cover the box with a towel. Place the box somewhere cool, preferably dark and quiet, and away from cats or dogs. Do NOT force the bird to eat or drink. You can provide a small amount of water in a shallow dish, but don't force any down the bird's throat. Now, you wait.
If the bird was stunned by hitting a window, take the box outside every 15-30 minutes. Take the towel off and give it a chance to fly away. Once it is alert, it will often fly off on its own. It it does, wish it well, for you have done all you could do.
If the bird is sick or injured in some other way, your best bet for a full recovery is to find a Wildlife Rehabilitator and let them work their magic. They have medicines and experience necessary to save many birds. However, just know that many sick birds will not recover. In the wild, birds will do everything possible to not let on they are ill. Predators often target sick or injured birds, and hiding an illness is one way of surviving. Once an illness is bad enough that it shows, the bird may be beyond help.
Nature may seem cruel, but the best way to help is to make your backyard as safe as possible. Preventing injuries from cats, dogs, cars, or windows is a good first step. Keeping your feeders and bird houses clean is necessary to help prevent disease. Do these things, and you can relax knowing you've done all you can.