Humans are a profoundly empathic species. Although intra-species adoption is rarely observed in other social animals, we are the only creatures who routinely and willingly care for orphaned animals of other species. Almost anyone, if given the chance, would gladly take an orphaned baby bird under wing and raise it to adulthood.
Many people are faced with this decision. If you or your child has found an orphaned baby bird, you’re probably tempted to take care of it. But this is only rarely an appropriate decision. Here are some tips on what to do if you find an orphaned baby bird.
1. Understand that it’s probably not an orphan. Almost all baby birds that people find are not orphans. Rather, they are fledglings who have recently left the nest and haven’t yet mastered the skill of flight. Because of this, our intervention is unnecessary and will probably do more harm than good. If you find a fledgling– not an orphaned baby bird– you should leave it alone.
2. Know an orphan from a fledgling. Allow the bird to stand on your finger. Can he grip firmly and maintain something of a balance? If so, he’s old enough and mature enough to survive with no problem without human intervention. The best thing to do under this circumstance is to leave the “orphaned” bird alone in an area that is safe from cats and lawnmowers.
3. If the bird is too young to leave the nest— that is, if he can’t yet stand on your finger– give him back to his parents. Search high and low for his nest– it’s most likely in a nearby bush or tree. When you find it, gently place the baby bird back. His parents, who have probably been watching he entire scene, will probably return to him quickly.
4. If the “orphaned” bird is injured, take him to a veterinarian. Unless you are a veterinarian yourself, you absolutely can not rely on DIY instructions to rescue an injured bird. If his wing or foot is broken, his best chance for survival will involve expert veterinary care and rehabilitation. Do not try to set bones or create splints by yourself– this is cruel and not in the animal’s best interest.
5. If the baby bird is actually an orphan, he will need an expert to hand-raise him. If you watch the baby bird from a distance and an adult doesn’t return to him within two hours, you can bet that they are, in fact, deceased. In this situation, you should call your local Fish and Wildlife Department as soon as possible. It’s unlikely that you can successfully raise the orphaned baby bird yourself– they require around-the-clock feeding every 15 to 20 minutes and usually die even with “good” care by amateurs.
People who try to raise orphaned baby birds generally have good intentions, but this is a situation in which our intervention does far more harm than good. If you are interested in raising orphaned, sick or injured animals as a career, the best thing to do is to seek formal training in veterinary medicine and wildlife management.
The Cornell University of Ornithology offers more information about handling “orphaned” baby birds.