You’ve gone to peek at a nest. For a moment, all the little feathered heads regard you with large, dark eyes—and then in a flurry and a tumble they are out of the nest, running every which way along the ground, and their parents are scolding you and swooping among their babies in apparent panic. Oh no! Will the babies be okay?
This is possibly the question I am asked most frequently. Sometimes the inquirer has managed to catch a few of the babies and replace them in the nest, only for the babies to promptly hop back out. Other times the babies have swiftly vanished, and the inquirer—often someone who has watched the nest over the course of weeks, growing attached to their fluffy neighbors—is left, quite suddenly, with silence and absence and a gnawing guilt.
Readers who have been with me a while will remember “Buddy,” the white-spotted male junco who lived near my workplace for years. Unusually-colored juncos aren’t as rare as, say, the recently-spotted yellow cardinal, but they aren’t common either. (In my field work in the Sierras we banded ~500 juncos, and only one had a color abnormality.) As a lover of both rare birds and juncos, I get pretty excited about them when I find them.
This particular junco flashed up out of a bush as I was walking past. The size, tail, and movement pattern all said “junco”—but when the bird landed in a tree and I got a good look, my brain’s bird-ID function got confused: “Big chickadee!” it suggested. “Small kestrel! Big-small-chickadee-kestrel-junco!”
Orphaned nestling American Robin, hungry.
It’s adorable, and it needs you. That’s an incredibly potent combination, and it does not make you want to take the animal to some strangers and leave it in their clinically-gloved hands. You have food, you have water—surely you can take care of this lost wild creature just as well as some rehabilitators, and with more love, too!
The problem here isn’t just the things you don’t know about wild animal care—it’s the things you don’t know that you don’t know. You will be a bad caretaker for this animal, no matter how much you love it, because you won’t know the things it may need. If you haven’t been inside a wildlife rehab facility, it’s hard to appreciate all the things that they do that your average person simply doesn’t have the knowledge or resources for.
Based on my experiences volunteering at a wildlife rehabilitation hospital, here are a few of the things that a wildlife rehabilitator may be able to do for that wild animal you just found.
Supportive medical care
A quick dose of pain medication will rapidly reduce the animal’s anxiety and suffering. Administration of subcutaneous fluids helps dehydrated animals feel immediately better. Even if apparently administered dispassionately (although trust me, the vets and vet techs do care deeply about the animals), these treatments are love the animal can feel.
Planet Earth II, the new BBC documentary narrated by Supreme Voice of Nature Sir David Attenborough, devotes one of its six episodes to animals living in cities. It’s unsurprisingly great. (Even if the ultimate masters of urban living, pigeons, who you might expect to be celebrated in this context, instead spend the episode getting unceremoniously eaten.) The “Cities” episode has to walk a delicate line, heralding animals’ ability to adapt to human landscapes without failing to acknowledge that humans overwhelmingly destroy habitat rather than creating it. It mostly leans to the optimistic side of the line; one segment makes New York City seem like a wildlife paradise.
The darker side of cities is represented by a segment on hatchling sea turtles. The turtles use the shine of moonlight on water to guide them from their nest in the sand into the ocean. Unfortunately, we humans love to shine lights even brighter than the moon, and more than half of the tiny turtles are drawn away from the ocean by the city’s lights.
A hatchling Hawksbill sea turtle in Planet Earth II.
As Attenborough narrates, footage rolls of the baby sea turtles gamely clambering across sidewalks and onto busy streets, heading for the ocean that isn’t there. The bodies of roadkilled turtles are visible in the background. One turtle makes it across the street, then tumbles halfway into a storm grate and gets stuck, lost to view save for one forlornly-waving flipper.
As soon as the episode ended, I began typing into Google: “planet earth 2 did”—at which point Google helpfully autocompleted the rest of the sentence: “planet earth 2 did they help the turtles“. Everyone else who had seen the episode wanted to know, too.
When I was kid, I thought I didn’t like cats. It didn’t help that every time I got near one, my eyes got itchy and my nose ran. My cat allergy disappeared around the time I went to college, where I volunteered at the local animal shelter and got a new perspective on felines. In the second year of my PhD program, I went to the East Bay SPCA and adopted a 3-year-old former stray.
I love my cat. She is 40% sweetheart, 40% terror, and 20% judgmental staring statue.
It looks like I’m sleeping, but I am watching your every move.
I am an ecologist, an ornithologist, and a bird-lover, so I know some things about cats that a lot of cat lovers may not. It all adds up to this: humans have put cats into an ecological trap, and we continue to do so, often with the best of intentions. It is not the cats’ fault. It is our human duty to get them out of this trap, for the cats’ sakes and for wildlife.
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.