This is a difficult and emotive subject and often the topic of much debate. There is a feeling, amongst the public and some wildlife rescuers, that a broken wing is automatically reason for a bird to be euthanased. Some believe a broken wing can never be fixed and that a bird which cannot fly will automatically be miserable. We feel that such generalisations are dangerous and have ended many lives prematurely and unnecessarily.
Depending on the type of break, the actual bone involved, the type of bird and the quality of treatment the bird receives, it is sometimes possible to fix a broken wing well enough for the bird to be released into the wild.
There is a tendency to romanticise flight and assume that birds enjoy soaring through the air when in fact it is simply a means to take them to food and away from predators. If the wing cannot be repaired to a standard which will allow good flight it is sometimes possible to make the bird happy in captivity. This depends very much on the species of bird, the age of the bird and even the individual bird’s personality. For example, feral pigeons are generally quite laid back birds and many live very happily in captivity. On the other hand highly stressed species are unlikely to adapt to living in close proximity with humans. Waterfowl do relatively little flying and do not rely on their wings to carry them away from predators. Birds with damaged wings can therefore be relocated to a safe pond or lake and live very happily without the ability to fly. If it is a baby bird then it obviously has the chance to be handreared and get very used to people, thus increasing its chances of being comfortable in captivity.
If you find a bird with a broken wing it is very important to discuss with any rescues you ring the details of their policy on birds with broken wings. Whilst there are certainly times when ending the suffering of a bird with a broken wing is the kindest option, be wary of any organisation which has a blanket policy that all birds with this injury should be euthanased. Try to find an organisation which is willing to assess each bird on a individual basis and which works with an experienced avian vet.
Capture, Containment and Care
A bird with a suspected broken wing should be handled with great care so as not to make any injury worse. We recommend, if possible, covering the bird with a towel to minimise stress and movement. Wrap the towel around the bird, holding the wings against the body. Many birds feel more comfortable if their feet are supported when possible. Always keep the beak and talons away from your face to avoid injury.
Most small birds can be successfully contained in a cardboard or shoe box. For large birds a carry box designed for cats might be better if the bird is still lively and determined. If using a cardboard box make sure the lid is secured to prevent escape and there are sufficient air holes. A towel on the bottom will make the bird more comfortable. Place the box somewhere warm and quiet and keep children and pets away.
If the bird has been caught by a cat then you must seek urgent help. The bird will need to be given antibiotics within a few hours of being bitten or it may develop fatal septicaemia. Some wildlife rescues are available 24/7 for this sort of emergency and we try to give some indication of availability on our listings. You could also contact local vets – although they will not have facilities for the long term care of the bird, they may be willing to provide a one off dose of antibiotics. Some may even do so free or at a very reduced price.
It is not generally necessary or advisable to provide food and water if you are getting the bird to a rescue quickly. Never attempt to force feed water to a bird as it is very easy to drown them and never offer cow’s milk or alcohol.
It is likely that the bird will be shocked or weakened so supplementary heat can be very helpful here. You can 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. If the bird begins to pant, remove the heat source immediately.
NB – this advice is designed to cover the first couple of hours. 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.