This advice relates to garden birds, this being the most common type of baby bird encountered by humans. For advice on waterfowl chicks please see here
There is a great deal of misinformation about what you should do with baby birds and a great number of birds die unnecessarily as a result. Certain national domestic animal charities run huge campaigns each year telling the public never to pick up a baby bird. If you call them you’ll be told to leave the bird alone regardless of the situation, any injuries and the age of the bird.
It certainly is important not to interfere when not needed but each situation should be assessed individually and ideally by a wildlife expert. There is no one single appropriate response to a baby bird situation.
The sad fact is that baby bird casualties run into many, many thousands each year. Caring for them is extremely resource intensive, pretty mundane, messy and sometimes disappointing as a fair number will die. As a result, some organisations are keen to avoid taking them in and not above giving out incorrect information to achieve this. The advice which follows is unbiased. It is based on many years of experience in caring for baby birds but with nothing to gain from giving you incorrect information. Our only motive is ensuring that baby birds are given the help they need when they need it.
When to Help
|If the bird has been caught by a cat.|
|Any bird which has been bitten by a cat, regardless of its age, will need rescue and treatment. There are bacteria on cat’s teeth which will pass into the bird’s bloodstream when it is bitten. Without antibiotics within a few hours of the attack the bird may develop fatal septacaemia. Urgent action is required here.|
|If the bird is obviously injured|
|If you can see a wound, or a wing or leg is obviously damaged then the bird needs help. Survival in the wild is unlikely with an injury.|
|If the bird is out if its nest and is not feathered.|
|If you know where the nest is, try to return the baby to the nest and watch to see if the parents return. If you can’t find the nest, try making a replacement nest and placing it in a bush or hanging it from a tree branch. For example, take an ice cream tub, make a hole in each side and thread some string through and then hang it from a low branch. Wait for an hour or so to see if the parents return. If there’s no sign of the parents it will need rescuing. Birds of this age are very fragile so you must take urgent action and ensure the baby is kept warm and fed (see “Capture, Care and Containment” below)|
|If the bird is out of its nest, only partially feathered (its tail is short and it still has a fluffy appearance) and there is no sign of any parent birds for a couple of hours.|
|The baby is less vulnerable at this age but still needs to be fed by Mum and Dad. Make sure baby is safe, placing it in a bush or hedge if needs be, and keeping pets and humans well away. Watch to see if the parent birds return and attend to their baby. If not, it will need rescuing.|
|If the nest has been destroyed and the occupants are not fully feathered.|
|Try placing the babies in a makeshift nest as above and watch to see if the parents return. If not, the babies will need rescuing.|
|If the bird is in immediate danger from a cat, cars or any other threat.|
|Try placing the bird in a safe place such as a bush or low branch of a tree but if it is still in danger it will need rescuing.|
|If both parents have been killed.|
|If the bird is fully feathered, not injured and not in immediate danger.|
|The bird is probably a fledgling taking its first flight. If possible place the bird in a hedge or low branch of a tree to keep it safer. Observe to make sure the bird remains safe.|
|A baby owl at the bottom of a tree|
|This is quite normal. Only intervene if the baby is injured or in immediate danger.|
If you find a baby pigeon the same rules for whether or not you should intervene apply, although baby pigeons are fluffy when they hatch, never actually bald. You should not attempt to feed a baby pigeon – this should only be done by very experienced handlers – but the good news is they can safely go without food for several hours. Baby pigeons are often mistaken for ducklings so this is what a baby pigeon looks like
Capture, Care and Containment
One common myth is that once you have touched a baby the parents won’t take it back. This is not true for birds as they actually have quite a poor sense of smell and recognise their young by sound. So if a baby’s parents are still around but the baby is simply in a precarious place, you can safely pick up and move the bird to a safer place nearby.
You’re unlikely to be bitten or otherwise harmed by a baby bird but you can pick the bird up with gloves or a light towel if you prefer. Any small bird needs to be handled with care. Their bones are very delicate and it would be easy to injure them by handling them roughly. They will usually feel more secure if you hold their wings against their body and support their feet.
If the bird needs to be rescued, place it in something like a shoebox or ice cream tub lined with tissues. If you need a lid to keep the bird contained, don’t forget to provide plenty of air holes. Place the box somewhere warm and quiet and keep children and pets away.
Any baby bird which needs rescuing should be taken to a wildlife rescue as soon as possible, ideally within an hour. The baby is likely to need supplementary heat, especially if it is not fully feathered. An airing cupboard may suffice for partially feathered birds but, for younger ones, put a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel at one end of the box, either inside, underneath or next to the box, ensuring the bird can get away from the heat if it wants to. As a rule, the baby should feel warm to the touch. If it feels cold it needs more heat and if it is panting or feels very hot, it may need less.
Baby birds need feeding very regularly and can quickly die through lack of food. Do not attempt to feed a baby bird without first seeking expert advice based on the age and species of your casualty. Never attempt to force feed water to a bird as it is very easy to drown them and never offer cow’s milk, worms or alcohol.
NB – this advice is designed to cover the first hour or so. If you are not able to get the bird to a wildlife rescue within this time, please at least speak to someone by phone for further advice about care beyond this period.
Could I just keep it?
No, no, no, no, no! If you take only one thing away from this website please let it be this. Wild animals are just that. They are not pets. Rearing baby birds is a full time job and then some. They need to be fed every 15 minutes from dawn til dusk. In the summer this means up at 6 and feeding til 10 without a break. They need to be fed a specially formulated mix containing the right balance of vitamins and minerals otherwise they will fail to develop properly or even die. Knowing when to stop feeding them is a practiced art and many inexperienced people overfeed and choke a baby bird. They also need to be kept at just the right temperature.
Even if you get the bird through this difficult stage what will you do with it then? Do you really think it fair to keep a bird designed to fly free in a cage, on its own with no company of its own kind? As it grows up it will revert to its wild state and come to fear and hate you. You will be condemning the bird to a miserable existence. If you’re reading this website, if you’ve gone to the trouble to rescue a bird then you must care about animals. Please demonstrate this by doing what is best for it. Please take it to an experienced wildlife rescue so that it can have the best possible chance of being rehabilitated and returned to the wild. If you have fallen in love with it why not offer to help at your local wildlife rescue and perhaps get involved with rearing babies for them? Some rescues have foster schemes where helpers take babies home with them either full time or even just an evening a week to help ease the burden on them.