With it being spring in Houston, I’m seeing (and hearing!) lots of bird nests full of baby birds. I have outdoor cats and I worry about baby birds falling out of their nests. What should I do if I find a baby bird in distress?
Bird Nerd in Forest West
Dear Bird Nerd,
Birds do it. Bees do it. Even educated fleas do it…’tis the season for mating and (subsequently) babies. Birds are at their most vulnerable when they’re newly-hatched and dependent upon their parents for food and safety. Unfortunately, spring in Houston also can mean gusty, rainy weather, so baby birds can be in particular peril during our spring storms and windy days. Depending on the apparent age of the baby bird, what you should do if you encounter one in trouble differs slightly.
(Nestlings are completely helpless young birds that can’t walk, hop or fly. They won’t have any feathers and usually take that classic baby bird pose of a mouth wide open.)
When at all possible, nestlings should be returned to the nest quickly–it’s their best hope for survival. If the nest has been destroyed or is unreachable, you may substitute a strawberry basket or small box lined with tissue and suspend it from a branch near to where you believe its nest is located.
Nestlings get cold very quickly so if yours feels cold to the touch, warm it in your hands and then place it into a box with a covered hot water bottle on the bottom (use lukewarm water). Never give any water or milk. Both can kill the nestlings by getting into their lungs. Caring for a baby bird is a delicate and demanding task that should be done by a licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator. Luckily, we have the Texas Wildlife Rescue Center (http://www.twrcwildlifecenter.org/) located nearby. They accept all injured or abandoned wildlife and expertly care for them until they’re ready to be released.
Fledglings will have some feathers and maybe tufts of down. Since their flight feathers are not fully developed, they can only flutter from branch to branch and often rest in the grass in between practice flights. If the bird can balance on your thumb, then it’s a fledgling and should be out of the nest. Leave it alone and put it back where you found it–just make sure it will be safe. Watch from afar and you’ll probably see mom and dad return within half an hour.
The touching myth: Don’t worry about touching baby birds. It’s a fallacy that the parents will reject the baby if touched. Birds don’t have a developed sense of smell. While fledglings can be left on the ground, nestlings should be returned immediately to the nest.
Many species of birds such as robins, scrub jays, crows and owls leave the nest and spend as many as 2-5 days on the ground before they can fly. This is a normal and vital part of the young birds’ development. While they are on the ground, the birds are cared for and protected by their parents and are taught vital life skills (finding food, identifying predators, flying).
Taking these birds into captivity denies them the opportunity to learn skills they will need to survive in the wild. Unless a bird is injured, it is essential to leave them outside to learn from their parents. Do your best to remove neighborhood hazards, such as cats and children who might unknowingly harm the bird. So, the name of the game is to wait and see when you find a baby bird and only intervene when absolutely necessary.
Do you have a question for Tabby? If so, email her at: dear tabby email@example.com
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