Animal hospital vet: baby birds will not starve if you don’t feed them for a few hours

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The baby bird says “FEED ME!!” but it doesn’t know that you’re not this momma Cliff Swallow.

One of the veterinarians at the animal rehabiliation hospital recently lamented to me that so many animals she sees are “killed with kindness.” The most common problem by far is that of feeding baby birds. Well-meaning rescuers find a baby bird in need; they search the internet and find statements like “Baby birds must be fed every hour or they will die.” Terrified that the bird will starve before they can get it to the animal hospital—maybe the hospital is closed for the night; maybe it’s a 40-minute drive away—they feed the bird. It makes intuitive sense that babies need to eat, after all. What is not intuitive to us is how easy it is to fatally injure a baby bird by feeding it incorrectly.

“Nowhere on the internet says ‘It’s okay to not feed baby birds for a while, they won’t starve,'” the vet said. “And then they come in fed on milk or something, because the internet said that was a good idea, and they die.”

So: It is okay to not feed baby birds for a while. They will not starve in the several hours it takes to get them to the animal hospital. They will not starve overnight if you find them at 6pm and the animal hospital doesn’t open until 9am the next morning. Baby birds expect to fast the night: their parents sleep, after all. The risk to the bird of starvation is much smaller than the risk of a human trying to feed it without the necessary expertise.

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Acorn Woodpecker—who does have the necessary expertise—feeding a chick.

I think the reason that internet resources generally emphasize that baby birds need to eat frequently is that they want to discourage people from thinking that it will be easy to raise a bird. This is a good impulse, and is true to an extent: at the animal hospital we feed the youngest birds every 45 minutes during daylight. That’s because 1) we know exactly what to feed them, and 2) we know exactly how to feed them. In the hands of someone without that knowledge, a one-time fast is much, much safer for the bird than an attempt to feed it.

A few weeks ago, I came across a recently fledged hummingbird who was not yet able to fly upwards. It had gotten itself onto the ground of a gas station on a busy city street. There was little vegetation around and nowhere safe to put it that I could see. After some agonizing—it’s always better to leave a fledgling where it is, if you can—I decided to take it to the animal hospital rather than let it continue hanging out on the concrete with so many cars driving past.

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Gas stations are not good hummingbird habitat, little one!

“Shouldn’t you feed it?” A friend asked me as I got my car keys. “I heard hummingbirds have crazy metabolisms. They can starve to death so fast.” It was a compelling thought. Hummingbirds do have very fast metabolisms, to the point that they have to enter a state somewhat like hibernation simply to avoid starving during cold nights. The drive to the animal hospital was 45 mins, and I had no idea how long the hummer had been fasting before I found it.

But the animal hospital, on all of its pamphlets and websites, says: Don’t try to feed the animal before you bring it in. So I didn’t. I drove the bird up, and when I dropped it off, the volunteer who accepted it asked if I had tried to feed it anything. “No,” I said, feeling obscurely guilty, even though I knew I’d just been following instructions. Not feeding a baby animal feels mean. But: “That’s perfect,” she said happily. “That’s what we want. I’ll get him some food right away.”

A week later, the hummingbird—healthy and now able to fly—was released.

Even though it feels mean, don’t try to feed a baby bird if you have an expectation of getting it to a rehab facility within a few hours (or overnight). The baby bird won’t know to thank you, but you’ll know that you’ve done a good thing: quite probably, saved its life.

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Momma junco is maybe getting tired of feeding her giant baby (who is actually a cowbird).

(I know the blog has been focusing a lot on if-you-find-a-baby-bird posts lately; if you miss the more sciencey content, I apologize, and I promise there will be more of that too! This time of year I get a lot of Help I found a baby bird commenters, and I’m always hoping that this blog can help them and maybe counteract some of the misinformation that’s out there on these topics. But my favorite thing is still the science of animals, and that will continue to be the main the focus of the blog.)

 

22 thoughts on “Animal hospital vet: baby birds will not starve if you don’t feed them for a few hours

  1. Thanks! Awesome post learned alot! But my teacher said to me that her kids found a baby bird and they watched for four hours for the mama bird to come back it didn’t so they took it home she never said they fed or anything! But im wondering if that was a good idea? Also thanks again for the post and is there a way to tell how long its been since the bird ate? Sorry for the long comment and the questions :)! Thanks!

    • Hi Emily,
      It’s definitely not a good idea to take a bird home if you don’t know how to care for it. Most baby birds are quite tricky to care for. If you (or anyone you know) finds an abandoned baby bird, the best thing to do is to find a wildlife rescue (also called wildlife rehabilitator) that can take care of the baby bird. These places have training in wild animal care, and often veterinarians, and can make sure that the bird stays healthy. The idea behind not feeding a baby bird you find is so that you don’t accidentally feed it something bad before giving it to the wildlife rescue – the bird certainly will need to eat *eventually*, it can’t just not eat ever again.

  2. So my cat bought in a baby sparrow what has feathers on it it’s now in my cupboard in a makeshift Nest I haven’t fed it cos it is at night-time and so how do I feed it how do I feed it in the morning if it’s still alive

    • Hi Tina,

      You need to get this bird to a vet (ideally one specializing in wildlife; try googling “Wildlife rehabilitation center near [your location]”) ASAP! If your cat brought it in, it almost certainly has scratches (which may be too small for you to see) that are infected with the bacteria in a cat’s mouth, which will kill it within a few days if it doesn’t get veterinary care. I’ve seen this happen many times with cat-caught birds. This bird WILL DIE if it doesn’t get veterinary treatment!

      It would be best to let a wildlife vet take care of the bird, including feeding, but if it will be more than 8 hours until you can get it to the vet, you can try feeding it small strips of hard-boiled egg or (better) dead mealworms, which most pet stores should have. (This isn’t a complete long-term diet, but it would keep the bird alive until it gets to a vet.) You’ll need to put the food far back in the bird’s throat – think of how a mother bird sticks her head all the way into the baby’s mouth. Do NOT try to give the bird any water or other liquid: he doesn’t need it, and it could get into his lungs and kill him.

      I’m sorry there’s so much death in this reply – baby birds are delicate and unfortunately easy to kill, especially if they have encountered a cat. Thank you for trying to help this little fellow, and please please please get him to a vet! (And consider keeping your cat indoors as much as possible so this doesn’t happen again.)

  3. I would have loved to have taken these 3 hatchling robins to a wildlife rehab center but they are closed and/or not taking anything in because of this covid. So I’m the best chance these poor little things have since their mom was torn apart by a cat. I’m doing the best I can but some honest and truly helpful info concerning feeding would be wonderful. I believed the 15 min to 30 minute feeding crap that is on internet!

  4. How much longer will i have to feed the robin? I think my dogs killed the mother and am guessing it was about 5 days old, I have now fed it 21 days and its outside and comes to the door every 2 hours or so screaming to eat, it flies great, it just wont hunt worms can it learn how without a mother? if anyone has any information, I tried all the rescuers in this area, no one will contact me back.

    • Hi Judy, your robin will learn eventually but it does take a while! It will go faster if you can provide opportunities for it to practice; at the wildlife rescue we put out dishes with live mealworms on them, and dishes with dirt with mealworms in the dirt for the birds to find, etc. Try offering your food in a way that forces the robin to “hunt” it (although make sure it’s successfully eating, you don’t want to starve it!). He’s almost certainly trying to figure out how to get his own food right now, it just takes a while when you have to learn through trail-and-error.

  5. Hey I have a baby sparrow that fell down and it can’t be returned back to its nest as it’s way too high on our roof and we have nothing to climb up that far there. We left a makeshift nest with the bird in it, close to ground level, still no mother bird came by to tend to her young. It was incredibly vulnerable and all the animal rehab center was closed (will call in the morning), so we took it in and fed it softened dog food with some bugs and left under a warm incubating lamp. This little guy is still a nestling but has grown some feathers in already, maybe about a week old. What more can I do to keep it safe and healthy? Thanks a bunch.

    • Sounds like you’re doing a good job! Softened dog food and bugs are great – the more bugs the better (mealworms [killed, so they don’t bite], crickets, waxworms are all good). Keeping him warm is important. If you can get him to a rehab center that will be his best chance, but I know many are closed these days. The mother is unlikely to come find him in a new nest if he’s young; she won’t be expecting him outside the nest. Be careful not to let him inhale any liquid (that hole in the bottom of his mouth goes straight to his lungs), and make sure his crop is emptying between feedings (i.e. the bulge by his neck should go away between feedings) to know that you aren’t overfeeding him. Wipe any food off his feathers with a damp cloth, you want his feathers clean. If the rehab centers can’t take him, expect to keep him until he can fly *up* and can catch live mealworms and eat seeds on his own, which will be a good few weeks. Let me know if you have specific questions I haven’t covered!

  6. My Granddaughter was at a friends,they found a nest turned upside down with two baby birds under it. One of them had a wound on its back. They talked me into taking them,I have had them a week and a half. Im pretty sure they are Cedar Waxwings,I’ve been feeding them canned cat food and berries. They seem to be doing good,should I be feeding them something else. Also when they learn to fly will they be able to survive on there own.

    • That’s great that they have survived this long! They still have a ways to grow before they can be released, though, and it will still be safer for them if they can get professional care at a wildlife rehabilitation facility. Most areas have a wildlife rescue, and some of them are closed due to covid but many are still open. Try googling “[your location] wildlife rehabilitation” to find if there are any near you. The vets there will be best able to make sure they’re getting exactly the right diet (including trace vitamins and other tricky things).

      If you can’t get them to a wildlife rescue: I’d strongly recommend adding insects to their diet – mealworms or crickets are available at pet stores. That’s the closest to the birds’ natural diet, and the insects have lots of protein and calcium for growing bodies. I’d also recommend replacing the canned cat food with dry dog kibble soaked in water until it’s soft. (That’s what the wildlife rescues I have volunteered at have fed.)

      They absolutely could survive on their own eventually! You’ll need to make sure that they are good at foraging before you release them, though, which will take longer than learning to fly. Before they are released, they should be eating independently, not begging from you anymore, and they should be able to deal with naturalistic food (like live mealworms, and berries scattered around rather than in a bowl). The biggest risk to them at that age will be starving, so it’s important that they get good at self-feeding before release.)

      I’ll make one more push for getting them to a wildlife rescue if you possibly can – it will be by far the safest option for them. Whatever happens, though, good luck with them!!

  7. Today, July 21, I found what appears to be a baby (nestling) European Starling that had fallen out of its nest. We looked to see if there was a nest, but couldn’t find one. We took the bird home after waiting to see if it’s parents returned to the baby, but none came. So we took the bird home and put the baby bird in a Tupperware tub with a old shirt as the nest. I have a heat lamp and put that a few inches (4) above the baby bird. It was chirping and begging for food and I hadn’t read this article yet soo…. I fed the baby bird some ants that were small enough that it could eat, as well as some gnats (don’t know if they can eat those). I read online that you should take dog food and soak it in water and feed it that? But I wanted to get some advice from people who were experts. If anyone knows what I can do to help this baby bird, please get back to me.

    • First: does the chick have feathers? Does it look like a sort of goofy bird or like a weird pink alien? Can it stand up on its legs and hop around? If it has feathers, basically looks like a bird, and hops, it’s a fledgling and you should put it back where you found it. Birds of that age will be out of the nest but still being cared for by their parents, and the best thing for them is to be raised naturally by those parents. (Google “nestling vs fledgling” for photo examples if you aren’t sure.)

      Assuming you have a nestling:
      The best option is always to get the bird to a wildlife rehabilitation facility: they have vets and lots of expertise and other birds to raise baby birds with. Use the internet to see if there are any near you. However, if you find one, do contact them first to check if they take starlings; some do and some don’t.

      If you need to raise the chick yourself:
      Don’t feed ants, only a few specialist bird species eat ants. Get mealworms and/or crickets at a pet store, kill them if they aren’t already dead (mealworms drown in about five minutes), and feed those. Dry dog kibble soaked in water until it’s soft is a good supplement too – it’s certainly cheaper – but the more bugs you can feed, the better. Don’t try to give liquids, the bird can inhale those and that can be fatal.
      When you feed, keep an eye on the crop, a sort of pre-stomach that the bird stores its food in. It will show up as a lump near the base of the neck. If it’s big and lumpy, the bird is still “full” (even if it’s begging: starlings LOVE to eat) and you should wait until the crop is empty before feeding it again, to make sure its digestion is moving along properly.
      Your heat lamp sounds a bit close – you don’t want to dry your bird out like a raisin! I’d pull it back a bit. If you have a heating pad that you could put under the bird (not directly, but under a pillowcase or tshirt), that’s better, since it won’t be so dehydrating.

      Unlike most birds in the US, starlings are legal to raise, so there are a lot of folks out there who do raise them and who post guidelines on the internet. Try searching simple stuff like “raising a baby starling” and you’ll find lots of info.

      Hope this helps! Good luck!

  8. What if your in a pandemic and there is no where to take a baby. I am feeding a 4 week old Mina bird I found in a parking lot terrified . I am no expert but have others around who are helping. I have to open her mouth and gently push mashed food and the right bird food. Feeding her every 3 hours until dark She is dehydrated of course but responding slowly. Sleeps on my chest in between feedings. I hope I can save this little creature but if you have any advise that could help I am all ears. I want to release her if she survives.

    • Yes, unfortunately the pandemic has closed a lot of wildlife rescues, in which case the best option is to try your best and not blame yourself if things turn out badly. Is your bird not begging? A 4 week old bird should either be begging for food, or feeding herself. If you offer her food, will she peck at it? Force-feeding them is stressful so the sooner you can get her eating on her own, the better. Try offering her food in front of her face and seeing if she pecks at it, and leaving a little food in her cage between feedings that she can practice picking up.

      Be careful when feeding not to feed food that is too liquidy; it’s very easy for them to accidentally inhale liquid (that hole in the bottom of the mouth leads to the lungs, if you can believe it), which can be fatal. If she is dehydrated, you can put slightly more water into your mashed food (as long as it doesn’t become too liquid), or you can dip solid food in water: at the animal rescue we often feed dead crickets or mealworms dipped in water. Also if she is 4 weeks old she could probably drink on her own if you leave a little shallow dish of water in her cage. She will be releasable when she can fly, when she eats entirely on her own, and when she can find hidden food (as practice for eating in the wild).

      I believe mina birds are sometimes kept as pets, so definitely try searching for advise on raising them from the pet community, they may have species-specific tips.

  9. Hi 2 1/2 days ago I found a bird nest overturned on the ground no trees near. Inside there were 3 eggs and no mama bird in sight so we took them in and incubated them. about one hour later they hatched they all survived the first night, but two died the next night, and now the third one will not open his mouth to eat, spits out any food we manage to get in him will not open mouth at all and is breathing funny. We have been feeding him cut up tent caterpillars . We think he is a eastern bluebird. Please help!

    • Hi Elise, I’m so sorry but I think all you can do is keep him warm and let him pass in peace. Raising chicks from hatch is *incredibly* difficult, even for specialized animal hospital veterinarians. If your bird isn’t wanting to eat and is breathing oddly, I think he has very little time left. (“Breathing funny” in birds is usually the end.) You did your best and let the babies spend a few more precious days in the warmth, which is much better than dying in the cold on the ground – you did a good thing, nature is just really hard sometimes.

      (If there is a wildlife rehabilitation hospital near you that is open, and the chick is still alive, I’d recommend taking him to them. I think it’s unlikely that even a vet could save him at this point, but that would be his best hope.)

    • Dead mealworms or crickets works for most species of birds, but I can’t know for sure without knowing the species. If there’s any way to get the bird to a wildlife rehabilitator (there are lots out there, you just have to do some googling to find them) they will be able to ID the bird and give it specialized food and care, and it will have a MUCH better chance of survival.

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