For baby birds, kidnapping is not cool

Lorraine Maire
Staff Writer

Perhaps, despite good intentions, at one time you were guilty of kidnapping. Kidnapping a baby bird from its home range and taking it home is tempting; it can look pretty defenseless, just hopping about. But it was likely doing exactly what nature intended for fledglings.
A fledgling is older than a featherless nestling; it is able to leave its nest, but not developed enough to fly back home. And actually, through nature’s design, it never will.
What the observer of a supposedly dislocated baby bird may not know is that one of its parents may well be close by. During the fledgling days, the parent bird continues to feed the little ones, and is also watching out for predators. In fact, a human visitor may be construed as such, and a parent will make dive-bombing maneuvers, doing its best to scare you off.
That is, if one has encountered an altricial bird species -- one that requires lots of parental guidance. There are also those baby birds that are precocial: after they hatch they can walk about and feed themselves. In that elite crowd are killdeer, ducklings and goslings. Usually their nests are at ground level.
So, what’s the right thing to do for a “lost” baby bird? First, consider reasons for being out-of-nest: a storm dislodged the nest; there were too many fellow fledglings to feed them all, and this one left early; some fledgling’s instincts are “out-of-sync” and they leave prematurely, or, a cowbird was inadvertently hatched (because cowbirds lay eggs in other birds’ nests), and it may have kicked this little one out of its own nest. Yes, even nature can have strange bedfellows.
It’s best to get an idea of the bird’s stage of development. Without feathers, and still sporting a pink skin, the baby can’t fly or even move much, and it does need to snuggle back into its nest. Despite myths to the contrary, touching it is fine. Scientists who study birds, a.k.a. ornithologists, assure us that birds -- with the exclusion of vultures -- haven’t much ability for detecting scent, and parents will not abandon a baby touched by a human.
If a nestling came from a nest too high to reach, or its’ not visible, Plan B is to create a new nest. The parents will end up caring for the same crew, but one will have its own apartment. That makeshift nest can be a small berry basket or food tub, lined with shredded paper towels. (No cotton, which can tangle a baby bird’s feet.) Next up, securely attach the improvised nest to a tree or shrub near where the bird was found. Then place the baby in its new home, feet carefully tucked under its body. Often parent birds will adapt readily to tending two nests.
If the baby bird is injured, rehabbers advise contacting a rehabilitation center quickly. These are operated by licensed volunteers who can be swamped in spring and summer; there aren’t many in northeast Washington (see Sources, below).
For those tempted to keep a baby bird and raise it themselves, the universal message from bird experts and wildlife rehabilitators is “oh no, no, please don’t.” First, to replace the parents, one needs to feed that baby every 15 to 20 minutes, sunrise to 10 p.m. And the baby needs a species-appropriate diet. If the baby is fed worms when it needs seeds, it will die.
Death is not abnormal. Research shows fewer than one in three hatchlings will survive their first year. Many don’t live beyond a few weeks; that’s partly due to so many carnivores scouting for food for their own offspring.
On average most fledglings need to be left alone, much as it’s tempting to have an in-your-hand look. As well, it is illegal to remove a healthy bird from the wild. (There are exceptions: starlings, house sparrows and domestic pigeons, none of which are native to the continent.)
A songbird baby that survives the pitfalls of life in the wild goes through several stages: in its first few days its eyes are closed, and it sports only a bit of wispy down; about day three, the eyes open, and on day four primary feathers emerge – it may resemble a prehistoric-looking pincushion; by day six, a nestling can respond to its parents’ call of alarm, and by day seven the primary feathers are unsheathed. Days 13 and 14 see the little one flutter and hop amongst branches. It will be fully feathered, but the wings and tail will not yet be adult size. Between days 14 and 28, the fledglings are not going to return to the nest, but will still get handouts from mom and dad.
And that is when someone taking a walk may find the youngster.
“As difficult as it may be, oftentimes the best thing you can do is leave a baby bird alone…removing young birds from the wild usually reduces their chances of survival,” writes Ron Hines, DVM, PhD, online. He’s tended baby birds in distress for 50 years, since he was 11. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be useful. Dr. Hines says neighborhood hazards can be reduced, such as keeping kids and pets away from the baby’s territory.
If one does handle a young bird, Dr. Hines cautions it should not be held by a leg or a wing; rather, if right-handed, hold it in the left, cover it with the right. And if it’s an active bird, perhaps frightened, restrain it with a thumb and forefinger around the lower neck. Move slowly and smoothly, and stay quiet -- no loud noises.
Are there disease risks in handling wild birds? “Not likely if you’re healthy,” Dr. Hines says. But if one has fragile elderly people in the home, or people with immune system problems, there are infectious possibilities to consider: salmonella, cryptosporidium, avian tuberculosis, campylobacter and giardia. For birds, as with all life, nature is full of threats. But still, at the end of a spring day, one can be serenaded by the lovely voices of survivors.
Sources: The Biggest Myth About Fallen Baby Birds, 5-24-11, Dr. Karen Becker; Washington state Dept. of Fish and Wildlife website; How to Help Orphaned Baby Birds, by Ron Hines, DVM, PhD; Audobon Society of Portland; for rehabilitation services, regionally there is the Chewelah Animal Hospital, Kettle River Raptor Center (helping birds of prey only), and Michelle Ward, DVM, mobile vet.