Adult Garden Birds is a charity run advice website which is part of the Starlight Trust


Here we talk generally about when to help adult birds of the types you might commonly find visiting your garden or in your local park. If you’re looking for advice on when to help a baby garden bird, please see here.

When to Help

TickIf the bird has been caught by a cat.
The bacteria on the cats teeth can cause fatal septacaemia if the bird does not get antibiotic treatment within a few hours.
TickIf the bird has been hit by a car or attacked by a dog.
The bird should be treated for shock and properly assessed for injuries.
TickIf the bird has an obvious injury
If you can see a wound or a leg or wing is visibly damaged the bird will need help.
TickIf an adult bird can be easily approached
It should fly away from you. If it can’t or doesn’t attempt to then it’s in trouble.
TickIf a bird has flown into a window.
Make sure the bird is safe from cats and other predators and observe. If it does not fly away after a few minutes it will need picking up and keeping warm. You could keep the bird in a box overnight with food and water and release in the morning. Our general view is that it’s best to be safe and get the bird checked over by a wildlife rescue wherever possible.
TickA “grounded” swift
Swifts cannot take off from the ground so it will need to be “launched”. However, this should only be attempted by someone with experience and following an assessment to make sure the bird is well or a period of recovery if not. Contact a wildlife rescue for assistance.


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. It may help to pick the bird up in a towel – it will ease both the physical and mental stress on the bird. Although a small bird is unlikely to injure you with its beak or talons you’d be surprised quite how hard a bird such as a sparrow can bite!

If you need to pick up a large bird such as a crow or gull, it is advisable to do so using gardening gloves or a thick towel. Larger birds have powerful beaks and can peck really quite hard. Be sure to keep the beak well away from your face to avoid eye injuries.

Many birds shed feathers when stressed – if they lose their tail feathers they cannot fly and these can take months to regrow. They are also very susceptible to stress and some birds can even die from the stress of being handled by humans. Always hold the wings against the body to avoid the bird flapping and make it feel more secure. Many birds feel more comfortable if their feet are supported when possible.

If the bird is mobile or can still fly you can try to tempt it into a shed, garage or other roofed area to make capture easier. A trail of food may work for confident species such as pigeons, waterfowl or gulls. You could also try setting a simple trap – prop a cardboard box up at about a 45 degree angle using a stick. Tie a long piece of string to the base of the stick and place some food under the box. Observe from a distance and, when the bird is under the box, quickly yank the string to make the box fall. Practice this a few times without the bird so you’re confident you can make the box fall quickly. Adjust the size and weight according to the bird – it needs to be heavy enough that it will contain the bird but not so heavy that it will cause 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 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. If you want to care for the casualty yourself rather than taking it to a rescue, please read the information here.