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.
While my previous post, grumpy as it was, is true, I left out some important things. If you find yourself in the possession of a baby bird, the best thing you can do is to get it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. There are a few cases, however, where this may not be possible. Some rehabbers don’t accept invasive species (pigeons, Common Starlings, House Sparrows) or domestic species (e.g. domestic ducks). Some places don’t have a wildlife rehabber anywhere nearby (although do check—you might be surprised!).
If you’re in this situation, the internet is your friend. You can find recipes for nestling bird diets and instructions on care posted by people who care for those invasive species. Don’t just try to go with your gut: your intuition is mammal-based, and will mislead you. Search for reputable-seeming internet sources, and ideally find ones where you can contact the people to get detailed advice. There is a community of starling-keepers out there who may be able to help (especially if you’ve found a starling; unfortunately, bird species do differ in the care of their babies).
The most important thing is do not try to force-feed your bird water. Birds have an opening in their throat that leads to their lungs, and it is incredibly easy to drown them. Put the bird somewhere dark and warm and do your internet research before trying to do anything else with the bird.
Also, if you do an internet search on my name, you will find my email address. I am not a licensed rehabber and am definitely not the best person you could contact, but I’d certainly prefer to be asked how to keep the bird alive, rather than asked why it died.
Please, please, please do not “rescue” baby birds if they are covered in feathers. They are fine: they are hiding, and being fed by their parents, and growing, and soon they will be able to fly even if they can’t yet. If you find a naked pink baby bird, and can’t see the nest it fell out of and put it back, then please use the internet to find a local wildlife rehabilitator and bring the animal to them. They know how to keep baby birds alive. It is difficult. If you try to raise a baby bird yourself, without specialized knowledge, it will probably die. I volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation hospital, and our care of baby birds is complicated, from determining the diet to the amount to the best way to house and eventually release them. We are constantly advised by trained veterinarians. This is not something you should be trying to do at home unless, for some reason, there is absolutely no way to get the animal to a rehabilitator (maybe you live on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean?), and even then, you should contact a rehabilitator and ask for advice. Don’t just try to guess. You will guess wrong.
I know you want to help. I know you mean well. But good intentions will not prevent you from killing a baby bird. And then you comment on this blog to ask me why it died, and I get so many of these comments, so many stories of people accidentally-but-avoidably killing birds, and it makes me dread checking the comments on this blog in case there is another one of these stories. The baby bird died because you are not a bird and not a trained wildlife rehabilitator. Let the birds raise their babies.
I covered this is in this older post, including ways that you can help birds.
This wildlife rehabilitator has a good article on how to tell if an animal needs your help.
Growing up, I used to watch the Mallards breeding in the local pond every summer. The female would start out with many tiny, adorable ducklings; then, day by day, their number would shrink. I remember not understanding why I couldn’t take a few of the little fluffballs home and have them for myself. (Well, aside from the fact that a city apartment is perhaps not the optimal environment in which to keep ducks.) When so many died anyway, would they be missed? And wouldn’t I really be saving them by taking them?
I’ve been seeing similar sentiments on the internet lately: people who have found out how dangerous it is to be a baby bird asking whether it wouldn’t be best to preemptively “save” the chicks from their probable fate. They are babies in danger, after all—shouldn’t any good person help babies in danger?
Shouldn’t I just keep little YAMM for myself?
The simplest answer is that one should not steal away baby birds because it is illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—but that isn’t an answer likely to ease the consciences of animal lovers. So I’d like to talk about what it means to help wild animals, and when “helping” can be a really, really bad thing.
EDIT 5/26/2016: If you found this post because you have a baby bird and are wondering what to do with it, please see this post instead; it will be more useful.
Being a fledgling—a chick that has left the nest—is awkward.
Junco fledgling MAII illustrates the awkwardness via interpretive dance.
Fledglings are at one of the most dangerous time in their lives, facing an average mortality rate of 42% over just a week or two. Most of that mortality happens early, just after the little guys have left the nest. New fledglings have almost no skills: they can’t feed themselves, can’t fly well (or, in many cases, at all) and can’t do anything to defend themselves if something terrifying like a weasel, snake, crow, or even chipmunk decides to eat them.
A few weeks ago, one of my officemates and I were discussing how dangerous it is to be a baby bird when he mentioned that among the creatures that will eat young birds—rodents, deer, ants, slugs—are Western Scrub Jays. “I’ve seen them hunt down and eat young fledglings,” he said. So when, this weekend, I saw a scrub jay pecking at something small and cheeping, I dropped my grocery bags and ran.
The victim was a young fledgling, probably no more than a day or two out of the nest. He cowered on the ground when I reached him. I looked around for his parents, but although there were many spectators peering down from the branches—European Starlings, Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Bushtits—none of them seemed upset. They were there to watch a show, not defend a baby. And although I wasn’t sure what species the fledgling was, I could tell he was too big to be a chickadee or a Bushtit, and he lacked the long-faced look of young starlings.
Scrub jays are smart birds, and I knew if I left the fledgling there, he would go right back on the menu. Too, from the way he huddled and didn’t move, I worried that he was injured. I took him home.
Recently I’ve noticed that people are being referred to Tough Little Birds by searching things like “what to do when junco chicks fall out of the nest”—and, of course, finding this blog totally unhelpful. Whoops! I’m fixing that now.