By Diane Williams, Curator
Approaching spring, we have the privilege of watching many wild birds giving birth, and raising their young. But there are common problems that arise for our feathered friends during this delicate time. If you find a nestling on the ground, do you try to save it, or leave it? There is an “old wives tale” that says: if you handle a baby bird, the parents will detect human touch, and abandon the nestling. No so! Most avians, except for vultures and condors, have a poor sense of smell.
By all means, carefully pick up that little creature, and place it back in the nest, if possible. If the nest is out of reach, another plan is to construct a second nest out of a box, or basket, and line it with soft tissues and cloths, and affix it as high as possible to the tree the nestling fell out of (away from crows, ravens, or cats), and the parents will feed the baby regularly. Be sure it is on a branch that shades it from the sun. Parent birds will search for their babies even after 24 to 48 hours of absence. Even if the nest or babies are gone by some accident, or attack, the parents remain in the home territory, searching for their family. Most avians make great foster parents for an abandoned baby of the same species and age of their own. So that is another answer for an orphaned bird. However, clean your hands well, after touching them, remembering that they can have bacteria, or parasites you don’t want to spread.
If the baby bird is injured, or you can’t return it to a nest, place it in a small box with cloths, keep it warm, without feeding it, or giving it water, and immediately call a Wildlife Rehabilitator in your area. Don’t be tempted to let your children play with it, or allow any pets around it. Stress kills wildlife. And if you are not experienced in wildlife care, you can accidentally aspirate (drown) the bird by trying to feed it or give it water incorrectly. There is nothing worse in rescuing an animal, except, for it to die before it has a chance to be healed, or be returned to the wild.
What if the bird is a fledgling, or brancher, and is found on the ground? Fledglings are fully feathered and have short tails and wings, and can perch, and hop, or walk. They are learning to fly, and are usually watched over by doting parents for about two weeks. It is normal for them to take a tumble, and fall in the process. The parents will guide the fledgling to a bush, and hide it away from predators, and continue to feed it. If the parents are momentarily away, perch the bird on your finger, and place it in a nearby “safe” bush to await the parents call. Parents communicate with their young, and will locate the bird, and may move it to another protected bush. If possible, watch the area, just in case the baby is an actual orphan, and needs to be rescued. And, obviously, keep all pets away from the area.
In California, it is against the law to raise and release wildlife, unless you have a permit. There are zoonotic diseases that can be spread, and regulations regarding certain non-native animals. Raising orphaned birds is a long process, and takes patience and expertise. This cannot be a science project for the family. Give the animal the chance it deserves, and leave it to the specialists. You will be a hero for saving that precious life, and for helping our ecosystem, as a whole!