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Baby Birds

If you have found a wildlife baby of ANY kind, first assess the baby’s well being with the following questions:

  • Does Baby feel cold and lethargic?
  • Is Baby covered with parasites (fleas, fly strike or ticks)?
  • Has Baby been in a dog or cat’s mouth?
  • Does Baby have a broken limb or other obvious injury?
  • Does Baby have abrasions?
  • Is Baby having difficulty breathing (gasping, gurgling)?
  • Is Baby’s coat matted and/or patchy?
  • Does Baby have a head tilt and cannot hold its head straight?
  • Is Baby exhibiting odd behavior (circling, falling over, etc.)?
  • Is Baby bleeding?
  • Did you find what you believe to be Mom dead?

If you answered YES to any of the above questions, reuniting babies with Mom is no longer an option and baby needs to get to a rehabber immediately.  Please call the Wildlife Hotline @ 1-855-WILD-HELP for assistance and read the following protocol on how best to house and secure babies until you can get them to a rehabber.

*Regardless of species or time of year, ALWAYS make sure that babies are WARM to the touch before attempting to reunite.  A water bottle with hot water with a sock over it will work to warm babies, or a heating pad will do as well.  You can make your own heat source for babies by taking a clean tube sock, filling it with uncooked rice, tie the end of the sock so it won’t spill and microwave for 1-2 minutes.  Place the warm sock in with the babies and let them decide if they want to be on it or away from it.  If you decide to use a water bottle, make absolutely sure that you do not not let that bottle get cold!  Once the bottle is cold it will suck heat away from babies instead of warming them.  NEVER feed or give water without instruction from a rehabber!  We are available 24-Hours, 7 days a week – If you think baby needs food or water, call us first PLEASE! 

Age Determination

If you have found a baby bird that is not injured, then it will help to determine if baby is a nestling or fledgling.  Nestlings are too young to fly, while fledglings are learning to fly.  Determining the age of your babies will help you decide what to do next.

Fledglings might:

  • Look identical to adults but act unable to fly.
  • Rock back and forth and seem awkward in its movements, as though it is unsure and unsteady.
  • Have most of their feathers, but may also have some fluffy down left over from their recent baby days.
  • Have grey, white, or black bills and insides of their mouths and throats.  Younger birds have bright red or orange mouths and throats to attract their parents easily for feeding.
  • Perch on your index finger if placed on it.  They may not be able to balance for long, but they should be capable of perching for at least a moment or two.

Nestlings might:

  • Have no feathers at all, just bare pinkish grey skin.
  • Have fluffy down patches instead of feathers.
  • Look like a golf ball with wings that are too tiny for their body.
  • Act very friendly and ‘gape’ (stretch open their mouth for food) at you every time you get anywhere near them and chirp and yell at you if you don’t feed them.

It is extremely difficult to tell the difference between fledglings and nestlings.  Many of the bullet points listed here can be misleading.  Some fledglings will gape and chirp at you endlessly, and some nestlings may not show any of the characteristics that we usually see.  Please do not hesitate to call the hotline, or another rehabber to help determine what age baby you have found.

You can also view our Nestling Versus Fledgling Photo Gallery here.

How Do I Help a Nestling songbird?

A nestling is exactly what it sounds like – a baby bird that should not be out of the nest.  From time to time, they fall out or are blown out of their nests on especially windy days,  All we have to do is get baby back to their nest safe and sound.  Bird parents cannot pick up babies and carry them back to the nest the way that mammals can, so our intervention is absolutely necessary.  Reuniting baby with its nest:

  • Look around for the nest.  Look inside the nest to see if there are other baby birds that look just like the one that you have found.  There should be.  If not, look on the ground to make sure the others didn’t fall too.
  • Make sure the babies are WARM to the touch.  If they are cold, take them inside and warm with a heating pad or bottle with hot water in it wrapped in a washcloth for about 30-60 minutes before taking them back outside.  Even in the summer baby birds can get cold!
  • Place the babies back in the nest.  Yes, it is fine to use your bare hands.  Mom will not abandon babies because they smell like humans.  It’s just not true.  Would you abandon your baby if it smelled like bird?
  • Go inside or a considerable distance away from the nest and WATCH the nest.  We want to see Mom or Dad return to feed and check on the babies.  When the parents do this, they do it very quickly, so you have to watch the nest closely in order to catch it.  Mom swoops in, shoves food in each baby mouth, and then swoops off again to get more.  The feeding can be as quick as five seconds sometimes – watch closely.
  • If Mom doesn’t return in about 30 minutes, make sure you are far enough away for her to feel safe.  You should be at least 100 foot away, preferably inside looking out of a window.

If the parents return to feed the babies, you can stop watching at that point and know that those babies will have the best chance at survival with their natural mother due to your intervention.  Pat yourself on the back.  You did a good thing.  If the parents do NOT return in over an hour, and you are plenty far enough away, and babies are warm enough, something else is preventing Mom’s return.  Baby birds have an insanely high metabolism and need to be fed constantly during daylight hours, multiple times per hour.  If Mom does not return in an hour, getting them to a rehabber as soon as possible is absolutely critical for their survival.  Baby birds cannot wait until you get home from work, school, or go to the store.  Call the hotline, or another local rehabber to get advice as soon as you believe that there might be a problem.  Every situation is unique and one on one advice is really the best way to provide the best care for these babies.

How Do I Help a Fledgling Songbird?

Fledglings are young birds that are starting to learn how to leave the nest.  Fledglings are often ‘rescued’ when they don’t need to be.  The process of ‘fledging’ is hard to watch, but a necessary step in the growth and maturity of every songbird.  Parents are often in the trees nearby, difficult to spot, watching each of their babies (not usually near each other) and quietly rooting them on.  After the fledgling finally musters up the guts to jump out of the nest, he attempts to fly down to the ground, but often crash lands and bounces on the leaves and grass as he lands.  Then there is where he lies until he practices flying enough to get off the ground again.  He will flutter around, kind of half-flying, half-jumping, attempting to learn how to fly.  This is the major difference between a fledgling and a nestling.  Nestlings aren’t trying to fly at all.  They just sit and stare at you, often with open mouths. While the fledgling will be hopping around, fluttering, and will look like an adult bird.  Coloring is often exactly the same as a female adult bird of that species and it will be difficult to tell if it is a baby based on just appearance.  The actions of the bird will help you determine that it is a baby, not how he looks on the outside.  The point is, as you approach this bird, or even see it from a distance, it will LOOK as though it is perfectly capable of flying – nestlings do not.  You may even see this bird and think that it is an injured adult when in reality it is still on training wheels.

You can pick this bird up (Mom doesn’t care about your scent!) and place him on a nearby branch or other foliage.  Don’t put him up too high because chances are he’s going to fall right back off before you can even walk away.  He will probably flutter off to another branch, jump-flying from place to place.  Even if he does not though, and you don’t see any obvious injuries, leave him alone.  Placing him on a branch at least gets him away from stray pets and other predators.  His siblings are probably nearby, and his parents are watching all of this play out, so he has plenty of support out there.

Holding & Examining Baby Birds

Normally we look at birds as they fly or as they perch at a feeder. We see them at a distance, at least a few feet away, sometimes so far away that we’re looking through binoculars.  When you approach a baby bird to pick it up, you will be surprised by how tiny and fragile they seem.  Don’t be afraid to pick her up. Don’t worry that picking her up will cause her parents to reject her – that’s not true. You’ll need to pick her up in order to help her. Pick her up with your hands and hold her firmly, but gently. Take care not to hold her too tightly, but don’t hold her so loosely that she is in danger of dropping. Support the body of the bird and the bird’s feet with one hand. The feet should not be dangling, but should be just underneath the body of the bird, in the palm of your hand.

Some smaller birds can be cupped in your hands the way you would when you catch a lightning bug and don’t want to smash it.  If the bird fits easily in the palm of your hand, then place your other hand over the top of the bird and hold the bird securely in both your hands. Don’t leave spaces between your hands that the bird may wiggle through. If the bird is bigger than the palm of your hand (a Cardinal or Blue Jay, for example), then hold the bird in one hand, as described above, and put your other hand around the shoulders of both wings of the bird, so that the wings are held folded in their normal, at-rest position against the body of the bird.

A baby bird will not hurt you, and, if you hold her securely and carefully, you will not hurt her. However, do not hold the bird any longer than you need to. Be aware that the baby bird is very frightened. Aside from being injured, she has just lost her home and her parents, and is now being carried around by a huge monster – you. She doesn’t know that you’re trying to help her.   The older a baby bird is and the closer she is to being a fledging, the more frightened she will be.  Take her inside into a secure room, one where the door can be closed, and where there are no animals or children. It is best if the room has little furniture because if the bird gets away from you, she may slip into a container or behind a piece of furniture and be hard to recover. A bathroom is often a good room to take the bird into; you can also put a towel under the bathroom door to block off the inch or two of ventilation space.

If you brought the baby bird in because you thought she might be injured, but you weren’t sure, then take this opportunity to look again at the baby bird, while still holding her. Just glance quickly to determine whether or not the bird is injured, cold, listless, or has her eyes half-closed in a slit. If this seems to be the case, the bird must be taken immediately to a rehabilitator.  Call us at the hotline 1-855-WILD-HELP to find the closest rehabber that can help.

Preparing a “Nest” and Transporting Baby Birds to Rehab

After you have spoken with a wildlife rehabilitator, you may need to build a temporary nest for the baby bird(s) in your care.  If you are attempting to raise House Sparrows or European Starlings yourself, follow these same instructions to build baby’s first nest.  Authentic nests are difficult to build and us humans aren’t very good at making them as sturdy as the birds do.  Plus, it is very difficult to keep ‘natural’ nests clean in captivity.  We are going to use a round plastic butter bowl, or a mixing bowl will do just fine too.  If you happen to have paper-plate type bowls, use one of those so it is disposable,  Fold a piece of paper towel (We like Viva paper towels) to fit into the bottom of the bowl/container as the ‘floor’.  Then fold a tissue or piece of toilet paper on top of that.  Push the towel and tissue into the container to form a soft little ‘cup’ with the edges of the paper creating soft sides to the container.  Paper towels and tissues are extremely cheap and disposable, making clean up a snap.  Nests for young birds must fit very securely around the bird, with no extra room.  Use as many tissues as you need to create this effect.  The sides should come up to about two-thirds of the height of the bird but should not be higher than the bird’s head.

*Warning about cloth bedding.  Do not use wash cloths or towels that have loops or fuzz.  If you must use cloth instead of paper products, please use a torn up pillow case, old t-shirt, or pieces of an old sheet.  Towel loops and terry cloth material cause little birds to get their toe nails stuck in the fabric and it will often cut off circulation leading to a necrotic toe if not leg,

Next place your baby bird into your little paper nest.  She won’t like it at all until you cover the top of the new nest with an extra paper towel.  Then she will feel secure and tucked in.  Every night you will want to cover her again to make her feel safe and warm.

If the bird is old enough and well enough to walk, hop, and perch, we will have to make some additional modifications.  Still use the nest, and let the bird have the next in his ‘cage’ just in case he wants it still.  Take the nest that we have built and put it inside a plastic laundry basket or large cardboard box.  (A dog or cat pet crate works nicely as well – just make sure it is clean of any hair that might scare the bird)  If using a laundry basket, you will need to cover the open slats in the sides of the basket with screening or temporarily you can use two paper bags to cover the openings.  Keep the paper bag folded flat and slide one of the bags in the basket over the opening slits, fastening the bag with a simple piece of tape at the top of the basket.  Do the same thing with the other paper bag on the other side of the basket.  Cover the basket with a lightweight sheet, pillowcase, towel, or any piece of lace curtain or tablecloth you might have.  The lace is perfect for allowing air flow while still keeping the bird in the basket.  Fasten the sides of the lace, sheet, towel on all four sides, pulled taut, with clothespins to keep it from falling in on the bird.  If you are using a cardboard box, make sure to poke lots of little air holes into the box.  Lots of little holes are better than a few large holes that risk the bird getting out of the box.  This also provides light through the holes which birds need to survive long term.  If you have a heating pad, you can set it on “low”, then place a towel over it the pad, and set the box/basket half-way on top of the heating pad/towel.  This allows heat to get to the bird, but also allows the bird to get away from the heat if they need to by having the other side of the basket unheated.

Put the basket or box with the nest and bird inside, in a room in your home where pets and children cannot get to it.  Preferably the bird would like to be in a spot where it is dark, quiet and warm with no drafts or breezes from the air conditioner or fans.  Do not place them directly in sunlight either.  Then leave the bird alone until you talk to us at the hotline, or another rehabber who can guide you through what to do next.

DO NOT FEED OR GIVE WATER UNLESS YOU ARE SPECIFICALLY INSTRUCTED TO DO SO BY A REHABBER.  A PROFESSIONAL WILL INSTRUCT YOU ON WHAT TO FEED, HOW TO FEED, AND HOW OFTEN.  UNTIL YOU HAVE THESE INSTRUCTIONS FOR THE SPECIFIC SPECIES OF BIRD YOU HAVE FOUND – DO NOT FEED OR WATER!!  This means if you find instructions for sparrows and starlings and how to raise them it is NOT the same for all other species.  Having instructions for sparrows will not help you when you find a finch instead.  In fact, if a finch is fed by the sparrow instructions, the finch will likely die.  Don’t risk it. Pick up the phone and talk to someone before doing something that might hurt the bird.

Transport instructions for songbirds.

In the states of Missouri & Illinois it is illegal to raise native birds in your home without the proper permit from the United States Dept. of Fish & Game.  The exception to this rule is when it comes to NON-NATIVE birds.  The most common exceptions to this rule in our region are House Sparrows and European Starlings.  The difficulty comes in when a non-rehab-trained person has to try to identify a baby bird to see if it is a House sparrow or Starling.  This is extremely difficult, even for a trained eye.  If you believe that you have found one of these non-native baby birds, and have been unsuccessful in reuniting it to Mom, please call the Wildlife Hotline, a songbird rehab professional or take a picture with your camera phone and email to help@wildlifehotline.com for proper identification.

Even though House Sparrows and European Starlings are common in the Midwest and we see them every day, they are technically considered invasive species because they are both originally from Europe, not North America.  The sparrows and starlings are just like illegal aliens, and our federal government would prefer that we just “let nature take its course” when it comes to these birds.  However, a life is a life, and it is very difficult to let any animal die, especially just because it’s the wrong ‘breed’ of bird.  There is one option though – a rehab permit is NOT required to rehab non-native species of birds.  This means that any private citizen can raise baby Starlings and/or House Sparrows and they can’t get in trouble for doing so.  If you have come across a baby Starling or House Sparrow, and have made sure that you have properly identified these babies, and are interested in raising it yourself, please download the following document to learn how to do so, step by step.

Disclaimer:  The following document is SPECIFIC to House Sparrows and European Starlings. Please do NOT attempt to raise birds that you have not had professionally identified! For help with identification, send a photo to help@wildlifehotline.com.
It is a FEDERAL CRIME to keep wild birds of ANY kind that are native to North America.  The following protocol and diet is not designed for ANY other species of bird except for House Sparrows and European Starlings.

Download the House Sparrow & European Starling Baby Instructions (PDF)