How to Help an Injured Wild Bird
Is the bird an adult, a baby or a fledgling?
If you have found a songbird who appears to be a baby (e.g., seems young and healthy but is not flying), please see “Baby Bird Rescue.” Even if a wild bird you have found appears to be an adult, it’s possible that the bird is in fact a fledgling (a young bird who has only recently acquired his flight feathers). During the spring, summer and early fall months, many young birds just leaving the nest for the first time are found on the ground by people.
Injured bird rescue
Any songbird you find on the ground who is an adult, rather than a fledgling, and who does not immediately fly away from you is in need of help. The bird is either sick or injured and must be taken right away to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
Important: For the bird to have the best chance of recovery and release, you must contact a rehabilitator right away and transport the songbird there immediately. Don’t ever try to care for the bird yourself. In most cases, the chances of the bird surviving and being released back to the wild are almost non-existent. Only a licensed wildlife rehabilitator has the special equipment and skills to provide the injured bird with proper care.
If you have determined that an adult bird needs rescuing, follow the instructions below for catching and transporting the bird to a wildlife rehabilitator.
How to catch a hurt bird
There are a great many situations in which you may find an injured bird. Here’s how to catch a bird in different situations:
- Bird is in the mouth of a dog or cat or caught in a fence: Extricate the bird as carefully and quickly as you can. Try to maintain your hold on the bird so that he does not fly away, only to die later of his injuries.
- Bird is on the ground and unable to fly: Approach the bird from behind quietly and slowly, then reach down quickly and precisely, and without hesitating, put your hand around the bird’s shoulders, holding the wings folded against the body, and pick the bird up. If this does not work in the daytime, try again in the early evening, when it is almost dark.
- Bird is able to run, walk or hop: Try to maneuver him into a corner or against a wall, so that you can pick him up, or ask one or two other people to help you. A bird net may be useful.
- The bird can fly a little: You may be able to catch the bird after dark, or by maneuvering her into a corner. Again, a bird net may help. If the bird can fly well, you may be able to catch her the next day, when she may be weaker from her injuries.
- The bird is flying well, but has an injury that you can see: It may not be possible to catch the bird. Do not get into a situation in which you are chasing the bird with no possibility of catching him. That will accomplish nothing, and the bird may die of stress.
Trapping a bird in need of help
In some cases, especially with a bird who lives in your yard, you may be able to set out seed on the ground, leading to a pet carrier, and, over a number of days, the bird may go into the carrier, and you may be able to shut the door. However, this method is unsafe for many songbirds because you may trap, and even injure, other birds, and the one who is injured may further injure himself. This method works best with injured pigeons, doves and some other ground feeders.
Legal considerations for helping wild birds
This information is meant for use only with injured or ill adult songbirds. There is no reason, and it is also illegal, to catch an adult bird who is not injured or ill. It is legal to take a native wild bird directly to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, but not legal to possess such a bird otherwise.
Handling an adult songbird
Once you have the bird in hand, do not let her go; keep a firm (but not tight) hold on the bird. Don’t ever pick up a songbird by a wing, or by both wings, by the head, or by one or both legs — only by the body.
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.) 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 pigeon, for example), 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.
Here are some things to be aware of as you handle the bird:
- Be aware that the bird is very frightened. She is injured; she is in an unfamiliar situation; she is being separated from her mate or her flock; and she is being held by a large predator (you). She is not aware of your good intentions.
- The bird may be extremely still, but that does not mean that she is calm. Birds adopt this still state when they feel their lives are threatened; it is a defense against being noticed by predators.
- Injured adult songbirds may very easily die of stress. Do not hold the bird any longer than you need to. Don’t stare at her, try to examine her, or attempt to assess her injuries. You want to handle her as little as possible because she will be frightened, not comforted, by being “petted.”
Take the bird 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 it may be hard to recover her. 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 the bird seems able to fly, it’s best to cover the windows, until you have the bird inside a box. Otherwise, the bird might get away from you and injure himself by flying into the window.
Cardboard box for an impaired bird
Before you contact a rehabilitator, you’ll need to prepare a box in which to transport the bird. Here are the steps:
- Find a sturdy cardboard box that has a top. For most songbirds, a shoebox is a good size.
- Put a cloth (not terry cloth) inside on the bottom. A tea towel, a T-shirt or even a couple of paper towels will do fine. You don’t want to use terry cloth (the fabric most towels are made of) because the bird could catch his beak or toes on the loops.
- Make a “nest” that fits the bird. On top of the cloth or paper towels in the bottom of the box, roll a second small towel (this needs to be a cloth one, but not terry cloth) into a doughnut shape. Place the bird lying down (if he will lie down) inside the “nest.” If he doesn’t stay there, that’s OK. Although adult birds do not use nests except when they have babies, an injured adult bird may need one.
- Put several small air holes, each about the diameter of a pencil, in the top of the cardboard box. More small air holes are better than a few big air holes. Be sure to make the air holes before placing the bird in the box.
- Place the bird in the box. Then, tape the top to the bottom of the box. Usually, one or two pieces of tape will do. However, if the bird is very small and very lively and could slip out between the top and bottom of the box, that’s a problem you’ll need to resolve — with more tape or a different box. When placing the bird inside the box, be very careful that he does not fly away. This can happen very easily, and he can re-injure himself that way. Don’t assume that the bird can’t fly; he may regain his ability to fly unexpectedly.
- Add a source of heat. If you have a heating pad, set it on low, place a towel over the heating pad, and then set the box with the bird in it on top of the heating pad. A good temperature for an injured songbird is 85 degrees.
Put the cardboard box in an area inside the house where the bird will be away from pets and children, an area that is quiet and in the dark, not air-conditioned and not in the sun. Then leave him alone.
Important: Do not give the bird any food or water unless a rehabilitator specifically instructs you to. It is very easy to drown a bird.
Who to call to help an injured bird
See “Wildlife Rehabilitator: How to Find One” if you don’t know who to contact. Remember to call the rehabilitator before you transport the bird, since you’ll need to find out if the rehabilitator takes songbirds and if he or she has further instructions for you.
How to transport the bird to a wildlife rehabilitator
Your goal is to get the bird to a rehabilitator as soon as possible, ideally within an hour. On the drive, keep the box with the bird in it out of the sun and air-conditioning. If air-conditioning is necessary to maintain a temperature of 85-90 degrees, protect the bird from the breeze. The box needs to be out of any breeze, including a breeze from slightly opened windows. The bird will need quiet, but soothing music at a low volume is fine.
Carry and place the box gently in the car. Young children should not hold or sit next to the box; they are not able to hold the box level and steady enough to avoid re-injuring the bird. If possible, it is better not to bring children with you.
The rehabilitator may have a wildlife center or may be doing rehabilitation out of his or her home. Don’t be alarmed by the latter. Many rehabilitators operate out of their homes, and they are just as qualified as those in wildlife centers.
Be prepared to provide some information, such as your name, your address, the time and the exact location where you found the bird, and a description of the incident, if you saw what happened to the bird. If you wish to, ask the rehabilitator if you can call later to find out how the bird is doing.
Once you’ve turned the bird over to the rehabilitator, congratulate yourself on doing the best you could to help an innocent little bird to live and be released back to the wild.