Caring for and Healing the Earth

Wild Animals & Birds

Emergency Information

What to do if you find a hurt, sick, or orphaned bird
by Laura Erickson (

First and foremost
It is illegal to keep any native American bird, or many non-native species, as a pet. It is legal, or at least you're not going to be arrested or fined, if you rescue a bird and do what you need to do for a SHORT TIME to keep it alive while you find a licensed rehabilitator. Most people who "rescue" birds make serious mistakes that condemn the bird to a short life and a painful death. If you genuinely feel compassion for a wild creature, you must give it what it needs to have a chance at a healthy long life in the wild.

Transporting Injured Birds
Never carry injured birds in a cage. The bars will fray their feathers. Instead, transport injured birds in a cardboard box. If you happen to have a piece of astroturf or some woodchips or cedar shavings handy put that at the bottom. Otherwise, paper towels work better than newspapers, because they aren't as slippery. Make sure there are a few airholes. In the dark, the bird should be fairly calm and rested. If you're transporting it in your car, keep the radio off or at least set at a low volume.

Sick birds
If you find a bird that seems sick rather than injured, do not try to nurse it back to health. One of the causes of illness is pesticide poisoning, and if any nearby lawns were treated with pesticides in the previous few days, that may be the cause. But serious and contagious illnesses, such as West Nile Virus, are also possible. West Nile Virus has been found in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, and it is a threat to human health as well as highly lethal to birds. If you find a dead bird that may have died from WNV, please contact your state's health department or DNR. In Wisconsin, call the DNR West Nile Virus Hotline at (800) 433-1610. In Minnesota, call the MN Department of Health at 1-877-676-5414 (toll free). If you handle any dead or sick bird, make sure you wear gloves, and wash your hands thoroughly when finished.

Concussion from Window Strikes
If a bird bonks into your window and isn't moving, or is just fluttering, first figure out what kind of bird you're dealing with. If it's a hawk or owl, it's a good idea to wear thick leather gloves when handling. Most songbirds, while dazed, won't injure you, but the talons on even a semi-conscious hawk can cause injuries. IMPORTANT! Never leave an injured bird laying on its back. In this position, many birds go into what seems like a hypnotic state, and they simply can't balance or right themselves. And never put any wild bird into a cage--the feathers will become frayed against the metal bars, and the bird's flying ability will be compromised.

The simplest, and usually the very wisest, thing to do when dealing with a window strike, is to gently place the bird right side up (propped if necessary in a "donut cushion" out of tissue) in a small cardboard box. For most backyard birds, a shoebox is perfect. Place the box in a quiet place. Every 10 or 15 minutes, take the box outdoors, open it, and see if the bird flies off. If you must hold the bird in hand when you go to release it, do not launch it as this will disorient the bird. Just open your hand and be patient.

Most birds with minor concussions will recover within an hour or two. DON'T open the box indoors!! And don't release a diurnal bird after dusk. Wait until morning to check on it. If blood or black spinal fluid is coming from the mouth, the bird will probably die. Otherwise, there is at least a fair chance that it will recover.

Attack by Cat
Cat bites cause puncture wounds, and their saliva is heavily laden with dangerous bacteria. Bird lungs are flat, and attach to the back ribs. There are NO muscles on the back to protect the lungs--just a very thin layer of skin. When I rehabbed birds, even with antibiotics all but one bird attacked by a cat ended up dying, most from terrible infections. People who brought these in mostly thought the bird "seemed okay." PLEASE keep your cats indoors, and encourage your neighbors to. If you live in Duluth, there is a cat leash law. If your neighbors allow a cat to run loose, remind them that it is illegal within city limits. If you find a bird that was attacked by a cat, get it to a rehabber immediately. Without antibiotics, it will die within a few days, even if it seems fine initially after the attack. To learn more about this problem, see the American Bird Conservancy's Cats Indoors.

Broken Wing
If a bird has been hit by a car or struck a window, you can usually recognize a broken or sprained wing because one wing droops or is held in a different way from the other. To hold the wing in a safe position to keep it from getting more severely injured while you transport it to a licensed rehabber, the very best thing to use is "Vet Wrap," but you're not likely to have that. The pink tape that is used to hold hair in place works really well, too, but few people have that around the house, either. Masking tape can be used, but it's best to stick it on the table and unstick it a few times in order to make it less sticky, so removing it won't remove many feathers.

Broken Tail Feathers
If a bird's tail feathers are pulled out, they will quickly grow back in. Many adult birds adapt quite readily to flying without their tail feathers. If the tail feathers are broken or frayed, new ones will not grow back in until the bird molts. Fledglings have very short tails for a week or more after leaving the nest--this is perfectly natural. Licensed rehabbers often attach replacement feathers when needed--this is painstaking, and requires expertise to do. (It also requires feathers, which are illegal for non-licensed people to possess.)

Baby Birds: Nestlings
You can recognize nestlings because they have a lot of bare skin and cannot hop about at all. They sometimes fall out of nests in high winds, sometimes are plucked from a nest by a crow or jay and dropped when mobbed by the parents and/or other birds, and, most rarely of all, are removed from a nest by the parents. If you can possibly return them to the nest, please do so. BIRDS DO NOT RECOGNIZE THEIR BABIES BY SMELL!!! They will not be upset by a baby that has been touched by human hands. If you absolutely cannot return it to the nest, or if the nest has been destroyed and can't be repaired, then get it to a rehabber as soon as possible.

NEVER feed a baby bird bread or milk. The simplest way to get a reasonably nutritious diet until you can get it to a rehabber is with a commercial hand-feeding diet for baby birds that you can purchase at a pet shop. "Kaytee Exact Handfeeding" food, a powdered mix, is one reasonably good diet. This is not a complete diet, and needs to be supplemented with more natural food, but the natural food items vary considerably depending on what species you're dealing with. Feed baby birds every 15 minutes or so, as much as they can eat, during daylight hours. If you must take a break for up to a couple of hours once a day, that's okay, but overall, parent birds devote their entire lives to raising their babies in the weeks that they have young, and if you are taking on the responsibility, that is the only way to do it.

You can tell when a nestling becomes a fledgling because it suddenly can hop or walk. Many fledglings cannot fly for several days or more, but still need to be loose outdoors in their natural habitat to properly develop. Probably at least 90% of fledglings "rescued" by people were being properly cared for by their parents. At the point when a nestful of babies fledge, each baby explores by itself for a few days, making sounds that attract its parents to feed it. But MOST of the time the parents are not with any one baby. So please don't assume that a baby hopping around is an orphan. If you're worried about your cat attacking a fledgling, keep your cat indoors. Taking the baby from its parents is cruel to both the bereft parents AND to the baby, who has its best chance of survival in the long term by being raised and educated by its parents.

Confining a fledgling to a box or cage is like keeping a human toddler in a crib. This is a CRITICAL stage in a young bird's development, when it is developing proper coordination and many of the skills that will keep it alive. If you do not know how to teach it to survive in the wild, you do a baby bird a terrible injury by raising it up to this point, because its best chance is to be handled by as few people as possible. Do your best to get it to a licensed rehabber with the expertise and facilities for proper release while it is still a nestling.

Precocious chicks such as ducklings, killdeer, and grouse are usually imprinted on their mothers, and have trouble adapting to a person or to feeding without their mother and siblings nearby. Often if these birds are released in the vicinity of ANY mother and same-size chicks of their species, they will join that family. These baby birds are adorable, and it is heartbreaking to watch them die. Get them to a rehabber, or release them near their own or a potential foster mother as quickly as possible.


For more information please visit Laura Erikson's website


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