A barn owl chick: fierce AND fluffy.
The injured raptors at the wildlife rehabilitation hospital are kept in roomy metal cages lined with towels. There are pillow cases hung over the doors so that the raptors aren’t distressed by the sight of humans. The individual medical records hang on the outside of each door: Barn Owl, admitted 7/4/18, Fx L clavicle. It’s meant to be a calming environment, dim and quiet, with nothing for the raptors to do but eat their food and heal. Usually the raptors sit quietly in their cages, but occasionally there is one who throws himself at the door. You can’t see him, only hear him in his frustration: crash – crash – crash!
Most of the raptors need medications at least once per day. Liquid antibiotics and painkillers, topical eye ointments, pills. This requires one person to fetch them from their cage and restrain them from harming anyone while a second person medicates them.
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.
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.