What should I do if I find a baby bird?

Posted: Friday, June 11, 2010

This is the time of the year when the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge starts receiving calls from the public about injured or abandoned baby birds and nestlings.

Most songbirds such as the warblers, juncos, thrushes, and sparrows arrive on the Kenai Peninsula to breed by late May to early June. Flycatchers and pewees arrive a few weeks later. These songbirds are also known as "neo-tropical migrants" because they winter as far south as Central and South America, and migrate to Alaska to breed. All songbirds are born helpless, as are woodpeckers, hawks, owls, crows and ravens. Their eyes are usually still closed, and they have few or no feathers. They are completely dependent upon their parents for warmth and nourishment. Waterfowl and grouse-type birds, on the other hand, are usually feathered and able to feed themselves within a few days after hatching.

It is our human nature to help a baby bird which looks as though it has fallen out of a nest. The chick was either trying to leave the nest prematurely, may have fallen out, or was learning to fly. In some cases our help is appropriate, in other cases it is not.

If you spot an animal, particularly a young or juvenile animal that appears to be deserted or in difficulty, do not catch it right away. Take 20 minutes or so to observe its behavior. Try to locate its nest. It should be close by. Look in heavy brush, hollow tree branches, and in shrubbery. Some birds such as juncos and robins are ground nesters, so the nest may not be in a tree, but on the ground or in shrubs.

In the case of a young or juvenile animal, it may simply be waiting for a parent to return. Remember, adult animals will often leave their young to hunt for food and return within a short period of time to feed/care for the offspring. Don't worry if you only see one parent. A single parent can raise the young alone.

If you believe the animal is injured, call the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge at 262-7021 or 252-0349 BEFORE you pick up the animal. Injured or baby birds need special handling. Keep an eye on its whereabouts and describe its condition to the biologist or bird rehabilitator you reach on the phone. They will give you the proper course of action to take for that particular animal.

Even if you find another nest of the same species with nestlings in it, you may be instructed to put the baby there. This is especially successful for swallows, or if the baby is still naked and blind. If the baby bird seems warm and active, put it back in the nest immediately.

Don't worry that because you have touched the chick, its parents will abandon both it and the nest. The majority of birds do not have a highly developed sense of smell. They will not "smell" a human and reject the nestling if you replace it in the proper nest. The parent birds may abandon a nest that they are building if it is bothered, but they are not likely to abandon a nest once the eggs have hatched.

If you find a feathered baby bird that is not in a dangerous situation (away from dogs, cats, roadways), it is best to leave it alone. The parents are probably nearby and will take care of the baby. Several species of birds (i.e. jays, towhees, American robins) continue to care for their young and, in fact, finish the fledgling's education at ground level.

Many baby birds leave the nest before they are able to fly. The reason they do this is varied. It could be that the nest became too small to accommodate all the babies (they've been growing at a rapid speed!) or because parasites have invaded the nest, or because they sense they have a better chance against predators being out of the nest. It is however most likely that the parents have coaxed them, one-by-one, out of the nest because they know instinctively it is time for their babies to take their first flight.

The parents have not abandoned them; they are close by, watching and caring for these babies. They bring food to them throughout the day and within a short period of time (days) the babies are flying, not gracefully, but flying short distances and then they follow their parents who will show them the best sources of food and water.

The best thing to do is to leave the baby bird there. If you have picked the chick up, bring it back to the exact area you found it and place it in or under a bush. The parents have, most likely, been frantically looking and calling for this lost baby. You can wait and watch for a few hours to make sure the baby bird is OK, but do this from as far away as possible so you don't frighten the parents who are waiting for a safe time to approach the baby bird. If after watching from a distance for several hours you cannot see the bird's parents, follow the previous instructions and call the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

The one exception is if a baby bird is in an obviously dangerous situation, like sitting in the middle of the road, then pick it up and place it in a nearby bush where parents will still find it easily.

If you have released a baby bird, or are watching one in your backyard, it is very important to restrain your dogs and cats, and keep them indoors at this time. The majority of calls we receive about injured birds is because a loose or roaming cat or dog captured the baby bird or was harassing it, thus driving the fledging away from the nest, or separating it from the other babies in the nest.

If you find a baby duck, shorebird or grouse, try to locate the parents and the rest of the brood. Release the baby nearby and leave the area so that the adults and baby may find each other by calling. These babies are feathered and can feed themselves even if the parents do not find them right away.

The worst-case scenarios are where the parents have been injured or killed, the nest blown down or destroyed, leaving the baby injured, cold, or lethargic. In these situations you will need to contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who specializes in baby songbird care.

Remember, most species of birds are federally protected and therefore it is not legal to keep them unless you are licensed to do so. Beyond the legalities, these animals require specialized care and diets to grow up healthy and strong. It's important to turn them over to an experienced person as soon as possible.

If you are thinking of trying to raise a baby bird yourself, consider these facts:

* Nestlings must be fed every 14 to 20 minutes from sunrise to sunset;

* An adult robin makes about 400 trips every day to feed its young;

* If the nestling is a few days old, it will take several weeks before it can be released;

* Adult birds teach their young where to look for food and how to avoid predators -- things impossible for humans to do.

In Alaska, as in most states, wild bird rehabilitation is governed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Most large communities have established wildlife rehabilitation centers such as the Bird Treatment and Learning Center (BIRD TLC) in Anchorage at 907-562-4852.

The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has filled this niche locally with the help of a team of baby bird network volunteers. I am one of the federally licensed bird rehabilitators on staff who trains and works with a few very dedicated private citizens with extensive training in the Soldotna/Kenai area who are legally permitted to provide home care for baby birds that cannot be returned back to the wild. Marianne Clark is another licensed rehabilitator who helps with injured bird care in the Soldotna/Kenai area.

While the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge is fortunate to have a small network of experienced baby bird rehabilitators, humans nevertheless make poor substitutes for bird parents. If you happen across a small ball of feathers learning to fly, resist the temptation to rescue it. Its parents are probably not too far away.

Elizabeth Jozwiak is a wildlife biologist and federally licensed bird rehabilitator at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

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Previous Refuge Notebook articles can be viewed on the refuge website, http://kenai.fws.gov/. You can check on local birds or report your bird sighting on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Birding Hotline at 907-262-2300.

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