The return of migratory birds to North America is a ritual of spring. Many species winter in Central and South America but fly north to breed in the United States and Canada. Combined with the resident birds that also breed here, it's not surprising that nearly everyone who spends time outdoors finds a baby bird. For most of us, our first reaction is to adopt this seemingly helpless creature. Usually, however, the young bird doesn't need our help at all.
The Nesting Cycle
As the length of daylight increases and the sun begins to melt the frozen northern hemisphere, there is a profound effect on the physiology of birds. Migratory birds grow restless, sex hormones flow, reproductive organs increase in size. Males proclaim their breeding territories with conspicuous displays and loud songs. Pair bonds are formed (or re-established) between a male and female that may last only a few minutes or for life, depending on the species.
One of the pair (sometimes both) builds a nest. Most birds build a cup-shaped nest from twigs, grasses, or other plant materials. Other species nest in cavities or simply make a shallow scrape directly on the ground. After an elaborate courtship that includes building the nest, song displays, and sometimes ritual feedings, mating occurs and the eggs are fertilized.
Birds have eggs of different sizes, shapes, and color. Many are camouflaged to blend into the environment to avoid detection by predators. The female generally lays one egg each day until the clutch is complete. In most species, incubation doesn't start until the last egg is laid. This insures that the eggs will all hatch at the same time.
The adults sit on the eggs and place their brood patch, a soft patch of bare skin full of blood vessels, directly on the egg to keep it warm. Periodically the eggs are turned to provide even incubation. Most species incubate for about two weeks before the eggs hatch. Most birds are "altrical." They are hatched with eyes closed, naked, and unable to move or find their own food. Some birds are well developed at hatching, a term ornithologists call "precocial." Newly hatched Australian Malee fowl dig their way out of the huge pile of decaying vegetation they were incubated in and are able to fly!
Most baby birds spend a couple more weeks in the nest before they fledge or leave the nest. Most birds fledge before they can fly. The adults continue to feed and care for their young after they leave the nest. It may be several weeks, months, or even years before the young birds are totally independent of their parents.
I Found a Baby Bird! Now What?
If you're outside during May, June, and July, sooner or later you're probably going to find a baby bird. Look it over. If it's injured and needs medical attention, take it to your local veterinarian or a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Call your local game warden for the name and phone number of the nearest wildlife rehabilitator.
If the bird is uninjured you should ask yourself, "Is it really an orphan?" Nine times out of ten the answer is no! Look for nests in nearby trees and shrubs. They are usually well hidden and hard to get to. If you can find the nest, simply put the bird back in it. It's a myth that the parents will not care for young birds that have been touched by humans. In fact, birds have a poor sense of smell. Great horned owls kill and eat skunks without even noticing their overpowering stench.
If you can't find the nest, put the baby bird in a shrub or tree — somewhere up off the ground. You can even provide a substitute nest by tying a berry basket (with drainage) up in a tree. Most often this is all the help a baby bird needs. As soon as you leave, the parents, who were probably watching you the whole time, will return and continue to feed the fledgling. If you want to be sure the parents are still around, observe the baby bird from a distance, preferably with binoculars. If the parents don't return to an undisturbed nestling in two hours, something may be wrong. The parents may have been killed by predators or hit by a car. Don't worry if you only see one parent. A single parent can raise the young alone.
Hand Raising Baby Birds
If you decide to try raising a baby bird yourself, here's what you're in for:
- nestling must be fed every 14–20 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.
You will need to provide a proper diet, clean suitable living quarters, and fresh water every day. Still, despite your best efforts, most hand-raised birds will die. This is the fate of most young birds in the natural world, where 90–95% perish before they're old enough to breed themselves. Call your local vet with bird experience for advice.
Despite the fact that different birds eat different foods, the diet of the young is remarkably standard. Like human babies, birds need protein and lots of it to help them grow at such an incredibly fast rate. For most land birds (robins, cardinals, bluejays, swallows, and woodpeckers) the basic food is meat. Raw kidney, liver, or canned dog food have been used with good results.
Preparation of the meat depends somewhat upon the size of the bird — if it is very small, then the pieces of the meat must also be small. As the bird grows the size of the pieces can be increased. You may cut the meat into strips when fresh and place it in small packages in the freezer to be thawed and used as needed.
Vary this diet with the white of hard-boiled egg cut into strips; and mash the yolk with milk to a thin paste. Raisins soaked in water and drained when plump or dog biscuits soaked in milk may be given to young birds.
Another excellent diet can be provided by mixing the following formula:
1 teaspoon cottage cheese
1/4 cup canned dog food
1/4 hard-boiled egg yolk
1 teaspoon sand or fine dirt
1 teaspoon dried turtle food
Keep out enough of the mixture at room temperature for a couple of feedings, refrigerate enough for the day. The remainder can be frozen for later use. As the bird grows, gradually add finely cut worms, grasshoppers, crickets, and other insects. A good source of insect can be obtained by collecting the insects beneath an electronic "bug zapper." Fruit-eating birds can be fed grapes and berries.
Feeding Baby Birds
The food should be at room temperature and fed to the bird by hand or with dull tweezers or forceps. Place one hand over the bird's back and wings, raise the head into an erect position, and tap the base of the bill lightly to signal that it's time for feeding. Drop a small amount of food into the gaping mouth. If the bird will not open its mouth, gently force it open. Drop the food well into the throat, being careful not to puncture skin in the throat. Do not force feed liquids. Feed the bird until it's full and no longer gapes. Keep handling to a minimum.
Housing Your Charge
Nestling should be kept in a warm shoe box. Line the box with paper towels that can be changed frequently, and place in a warm place. Keep the bird out of drafts to avoid respiratory infections. Sick or injured birds should be taken to a veterinarian. As the bird grows, a larger cage will be needed. Old window screens can be fashioned into an aviary.
Releasing the Baby Bird
Test fly your bird indoors; a screened-in porch is ideal. As soon as the bird can fly and gain altitude it can be released back to the wild. The shorter the bird is in captivity, the better. Release your bird in an area with abundant natural food where you've seen other birds of the same species.
It is against the law to keep wild birds in captivity without proper state and federal permits. Call your nearest game warden or conservation officer for advice before caring for wildlife. Licensed wildlife rehabilitators have been trained to care for injured, sick, or abandoned birds. For information on becoming a licensed wildlife rehabilitator contact your state fish and game agency or write the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, 4437 Central Place, Suite D-4, Suisun, CA 94585.
Reprinted with permission. Copyright Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Bird Bulletin Number 12. Cat. No. 222.