Problems & SolutionsWildlife Rehabilitation and Emergency Baby Bird Care

Wildlife Rehabilitation and Emergency Baby Bird Care

If you find an orphaned or injured bird, do not try to care for it yourself- it is illegal and you will probably end up killing it, despite your good intentions. Instead, immediately contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator – find the closest one near you that handles songbirds: National Wildlife Rehabilitators Assn – to find a wildlife rehabber. In the meantime, put it in a shoebox covered lightly with a towel, and keep it warm, and do NOT give it any liquids. A prematurely fledged bird can be put in an artificial nest/birdcage near where the nest was to allow the parents to care for it until it is ready for release.

Jump to: Wildlife Rehabilitators | Locate Rehabber | Orphan Bird | Baby bird on ground that can’t fly | Egg found on ground | | Injured Bird | More info

Wildlife Rehabilitators

If you find an ill or injured bird (or other critter), it is crucial to the animal’s survival that it be given to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. It is not legal to keep and care for the animal unless you are a licensed rehabilitator. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, it is illegal to posses a wild native bird (or their nests, eggs or young) without a permit.

To find a rehabber nearest you, see link below. Most states have a Department of Natural Resources/Wildlife website which lists licensed Rehabilitators or phone numbers. Local Audubon chapters, some bird clubs, Wild Bird Centers, Humane Societies, and local animal control officers may have names. Or you can call your local nature center, or a bird specialty store. For ORPHANED BLUEBIRD NESTLINGS only, contact a bluebird society near you to see if they can foster a baby in an existing nest – see list.

Websites to Locate:
National Wildlife Rehabilitors Association – find a wildlife rehabber

To capture a sick or injured songbird, use a barrier, or try to lure it onto a porch or into a garage with food scattered on the ground, and then throw a T-shirt or pillowcase over it and gently but firmly pick it up through the cloth. (If you use a towel, broken feathers or toenails could get caught in the loops.)

For transportation, put the bird in a small bowl or ventilated shoe box lined with tissue, a paper towel, or a coffee filter, covered with a towel, and keep it warm, away from people and pets. Keep the radio and A/C off, and do not smoke in the vehicle while transporting the bird.

If you have nestboxes in your yard or are a bluebird trail monitor, being prepared for an emergency is important. Some rehabbers have had to close down due to lack of funding, so checking things out before the panic is crucial. Find your closest rehabber now who handles songbirds – before the emergency occurs. If you cannot locate a rehabber who will take the bird, it may be best to just let nature take its course. Not every bird can be saved. See more information about preventing future problems.

By the way, rehabbers that work with songbirds are not funded by the government. Almost all work independently (i.e., are not associated with a large nature center or organization) and must use their own money, time and resources to feed, house and treat the creatures they try to rescue. Some animals cannot be released into the wild, and require long term care. So if you do bring a animal to a rehabber, please consider donating something to them, to help them continue to operate. Money is great. They can also probably use in-kind donations like food – just ask them what they could use and drop it off. It’s a great way to make a difference.

More Information:

Emergency Baby Bluebird Care– 911!

orphaned American Robin begs for food. Photo by Bet Zimmerman

NEVER give baby songbirds water or liquids – they can inhale it and die. Return the bird to its nest if you can do so safely or get the bird to a licensed wildlife rehabber ASAP.


Tips for interim baby bird care information are provided only as a temporary resource for care until the bird can be delivered to – or picked up by – a trained, licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Read everything below before taking action! Note that these instructions apply to small cavity nesting songbirds (primarily bluebirds) – other types of birds (like hummingbirds, pigeons and doves, or raptors) require different care or handling.

A lot of times what we think is an emergency is not really (e.g., the last bluebird takes a day or two longer to fledge than its’ nest mates, but the parents are still caring for it and there is nothing wrong with it.)

Birds of Prey/Birds with Long Pointed Beaks: The instructions below apply to songbirds. Injured raptors (e.g., hawks, owls) and birds with long pointed beaks (e.g., herons) could seriously injure you, so do NOT handle them – call a wildlife rehabber or your State wildlife agency.

Baby birds on the ground that can’t fly

If you find nestlings on the ground with little or no feathering, it is best to try to return them to the nest. No human can care for nestlings, and help prepare them for the real world as well as their natural bird parents. Baby animals that become habituated to humans often do not do well when released in the wild – rehabbers know how to avoid this. Their parents are unlikely to reject the babies just because you have touched them. If the nest is in a tall tree, make sure you can return it safely (e.g., use a sturdy ladder that is held by someone else.)

To make an artificial nest: If you can’t reach the nest but can see it:

  1. Take a small, shallow basket or a small berry container, or a margarine container with small drainage holes poked in the bottom.
  2. Line it with dry pine needles so the baby is well supported. You don’t want their legs to splay, or feet to slip through holes. Also, the edges should not be sharp, as some babies will try to defecate over the edge of the nest to help keep it clean.
  3. Nail it to a tree as close as possible to where you found the baby.
  4. Put the baby inside.
  5. Then observe from a distance to see if the parents come to care for it. They will typically come feed it until it is ready to fledge.

NOTE: An alternative is to put the premature fledgling in a small wire bird cage, like the kind you can buy at any pet store. If it doesn’t have a plastic roof, attach a piece of cardboard with zip ties. Hang it up next to the nestbox/tree where the nest was. The parents will typically feed their baby through the bars, and then it can be released as soon as it is ready. (Do not put food/water in the cage, as nestling birds cannot feed themselves, and get moisture from their food/parents.) Bird parents can take care of their young much better than you can.

NOTE: COLD nestlings must be warmed before they are returned to a nest. Make a temporary nest with a small bowl lined with lots of paper towels or coffee filters so the baby is well supported. Place the nestling inside, cover it lightly with a soft cloth, and place it on a heating pad set on low and put it under half of the artificial nest (so the baby can move away if it gets too warm). Or you can fill a smooth sock with rice and microwave it – it should be warm to the touch but not hot – and put it under a T-shirt of paper towel, and place it under or with the baby. When babies feel warm and are opening their mouths for food, return them to the nest.

A feathered bird with short wings and a short tail found on the ground is probably a fledgling. Parents will continue to care for them, so unless there are obvious injuries, leave the bird alone. If it clearly cannot fly and you are able to drop a T-shirt or pillowcase over it, you can place it in a tree to prevent it from being attacked by cats or dogs. If the bird is calling loudly with no parent responding, observe it for 2 hours before rescuing.

If the young have prematurely fledged from a nestbox (before they are able to fly), stuff a sock in the entrance hole for about 10 minutes after returning them to the nest, so they calm down. Despite that, they may jump out again. More on premature fledging.

Abandoned Nest – Orphaned Songbird

Before attempting to rescue a baby bird, you must make sure it is truly orphaned. Observe a nest you THINK might be abandoned for 2 hours before rescuing. Parents may fly in and out of nest within seconds while feeding. Nestlings can live 24 hours without food. See more on widows/widowers and what to do if one or both parents are gone.

If the bird is clearly orphaned, and does need to be rescued bring it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible. Some rehabbers are very busy (many mouths to feed, other jobs, etc.) and may not return calls right away.

In the interim:

  • Put the orphaned bird in a small box or bowl lined with a paper towel or coffee filter that can be changed out underneath, cover it lightly with a smooth cloth (this will help it conserve heat and prevent it from becoming even more stressed- darkness calms them down), and keep it warm (e.g., sit the container on a heating pad set on LOW or use a warmed sock filled with rice – see above.)
  • Keep it away from people and pets and avoid handling it, which will stress it out even further.
  • You should not put anything in the baby’s mouth. NEVER give baby songbirds water or liquids – they can inhale it and die. Songbird nestlings get their moisture from food (unlike pigeons and doves.)
  • Do not put food or liquid into the container – baby birds do not feed themselves.
  • Never feed anything to an animal that is debilitated or dehydrated – even if it is begging. Food fed to a cold bird can sit in its crop and ferment because their digestive system is shutting down. They need to be re-hydrated using a special solution, by a licensed wildlife rehabber.
  • It is best not to feed the bird – as noted above, they can go 24 hours without eating. Each type of bird has different dietary requirements. Most songbird nestlings eat insects, but some like House Finches don’t.
    • If for some reason you are unable to immediately find a wildlife rehabber that takes songbirds, you can feed bluebirds or other insect eaters for a day or two with some chopped mealworms (usually available at pet stores) or other insects (flies, crickets, grasshoppers, moths), supplemented with some chopped cooked (cooled to room temperature) egg whites (no yolk), ideally dusted with some crushed Calcium Citrate.
      • Use a pair of tweezers to put the food into the babies mouth.
    • Never feed earthworms to baby bluebirds – it can make them very sick or kill them.
    • Avoid waxworms as they are big and could cause choking if fed to small birds, and are hard to cut up (they turn into a slimy mess.)
  • SOMETIMES it is possible to “foster” an orphaned bird into an active nest if it is the same species (e.g., a bluebird nestling in a bluebird nest), and the birds are the same age (or the orphan is a day or two older) – see more info.
  • I’ll say it again – get any orphaned or injured wild bird to a licensed wildlife rehabber as soon as you possibly can. Do not attempt to raise a wild baby bird. Many are killed by good intentions and might have survived if brought to a trained professional. Under no circumstances try to make a pet out of a wild native bird.

Injured Songbird

Window Strike: If the bird does not recover in a few moments and is motionless, put an upside down box or colander over it, or place it in a small box with a lid, or a grocery bag that has been folded closed. Put the container in a warm, quiet location. Do not attempt to force the bird to eat or drink. Avoid handling the bird. Release it outside as soon as it is alert and active (usually within an hour.) If the bird is seriously injured or does not recover in a few hours, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator.

Cat Attack: Any bird handled by a cat (the bird may have missing or matted feathers) or dog should be immediately taken to a licensed wildlife rehabber so it can receive antibiotics, even if the skin is not broken. Unfortunately, many do not survive, because cats and dog’s mouths are teaming with bacteria. Read more about preventing future cat attacks.

Other Injury: If it is a songbird, put the injured bird in a small box or bowl lined with a paper towel or coffee filter that can be changed out underneath (loops in a cloth towel can catch the birds’ feet), cover it lightly with a cloth (this will help it conserve heat and prevent it from becoming even more stressed- darkness calms them down), and keep it warm (e.g., sit the container on a heating pad set on LOW. Immediately contact a wildlife rehabber who handles songbirds so they can attempt to save the bird.

If you don’t hear back from the rehabber within two hours, and the bird can stand, you can put a small, stable, shallow container like a baby food jar lid with plain water in it with an adult bird. Songbirds don’t need much water. Check periodically to make sure the bird has not dumped the water and gotten its feathers wet. Remove liquids at night – a night with wet feathers could kill an already weakened bird.

Egg Found on the Ground

If you find an egg on the ground, it is unbroken and you know where the nest is and can safely reach it, you can try to gently place it back in the nest (eggs are very fragile.) Broken eggs will not hatched. If eggs are abandoned in a nest, it is not feasible to attempt to incubate them on your own. They must be maintained at an exact temperature, turned constantly, and even if the young did hatch (which is unlikely) they would have to be fed every 15-60 minutes with a specialized diet. See more info. (It is also illegal, see above.) If possible, the parents will re-start a nest elsewhere.

Note: sometimes House Sparrows, House Wrens and other birds throw other birds’ eggs out of nestboxes.

References and More Information:

Nature is not cruel, pitiless, indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous — indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.
– Richard Dawkins British ethologist, geneticist, & popularizer of genetics (1941 – )


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