We say, “if anything”, as contrary to that caring urge many of us get when we see a life in potential danger, sometimes the best thing you can do isabsolutely nothing. That sounds like we’re advocating cruelty, but bear with us, we will explain.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is absolutely nothing
Spring and summer are welcome seasons for many, and with the new seasons comes new life. Birds have chased off rivals from the territory, charmed the females with some ever-so-sexy courtship display, and mating has occurred, hopefully successfully. Somewhere, tiny birds are growing ever bigger, becoming ever louder, and jostling with their brothers and sisters for attention from mum and dad.
If you have trees, shrubs or hedges in your garden or nearby, you may notice bird traffic increasing back and forth. You may live near an abandoned building or open barn close by; keep a watch out for owls at night or swallows and martins flitting to and fro during the day in the summer skies. These birds are now doing the work of the parent – finding food, finding it fast, and finding it often, or the little ones may not make it.
If you do become aware of a nest site, always keep your distance, and if you live in a vicinity that has a noticeable population of cats, try and keep an eye on it from time to time. We don’t want to disturb the nest or let the parents know we know it is there, and potential predation equates to the same thing: maintaining energy levels is paramount, and birds would rather abandon a nest that seems in peril than exert any more energy on chicks that might not make it, and will head off somewhere else that is safer to try again.
But: let us assume all is well, food is plentiful, and those demanding little darlings are growing. Then one day, you find a bird on the ground. You know you should do something, but what?
As with any potential emergency, the very first thing you should do is assess the situation. Are there any risks involved – is it near or on a road or a busy path like a cycle way? If so, you’ll need to follow the steps below and move the bird to safety, but not too far from where you found it. Are there any cats or dogs nearby sniffing out a small snack? If yes, and the animal is yours, move the animal rather than the bird, and take it indoors. If it’s not yours, employ a little water play and squirt water at it, that usually sends them running… If you can, avoid any handling at this stage, and stay quiet – this bird will be stressed, so keep children and pets away from it.
Take a few moments to study the birdand the environment around you and the bird, and resist the urge to step in just yet. You may well need to, but there’s a mental list of a few things to check off first.
Number one: how old is it?
We know, birds don’t carry ID, and you can’t ask them. We don’t mean knowing the exact age, either. The key thing we are looking for here is feathers.
As with any potential emergency, the very first thing you should do is assess the situation
There are two types of chick, those born with pink exposed skin with perhaps a few patches of down feathers, and with closed eyes, and these are known as altricialbirds. They depend on their parents for food, warmth and protection, and will only leave the nest when they become nutritionally dependent i.e., they can get their own lunch. Then there is the other type, called precocial, and they are born with a fine layer of well-developed down all over, have open eyes, and actually leave the nest around 1 or 2 days after hatching. The majority of these birds are domestic or wild fowl like chickens and turkeys, and waterbirds, such as geese, ducks, grebes and so on.
The kind you are most likely to see will be songbirds, like sparrows, finches, robins, titmice, chickadees, also hummingbirds, swallows, flickers, woodpeckers, bluebirds, warblers and so on, and these are all altricial, so it should be easy to tell whether the bird you have found is too young or young enough.
If your bird is either unfeathered or only has a layer of fluffy down, and you can see thin tubes in the skin where feathers are emerging from, this means it is a nestling, (also called hatchlings) it belongs in the nest, and can be anywhere from a day to 14 days old. It has either fallen out ahead of time, or it may have been ejected either by its parents or its siblings.Chick ejection is almost always the result of it being ill or there is something else wrong with it, maybe too small. As harsh as it sounds, this will happen, as there is simply too much at stake to risk that life taking much needed feeding energy away from the successful rearing of the other healthy chicks.
Nestlings will always be in need of some sort ofrescue, as with no feathers it won’t be able to fly and will need much more food to have developed internal organs ready for the stresses of bird life on their own.
Number two: find the nest.
Take a look around, and if you can see the nest, then there is a very high possibility that putting that bird back will help it survive. Contrary to urban myth, birds don’t have that great a sense of smell and won’t abandon it if you have touched it. But you must be absolutely sure that is the nest it came from, as putting a bird back in someone else’s could result in a quick death.
Fetch a soft or paper towel and put some gloveson, and gently place the towel over the chick on the ground. Darkness will help de-stress the bird. Then scoop the edges of the towel underneath the bird and lift it up, and place it back in the nest if you can.
If you don’t know where it came from, you’ll need to keep a safe distance and observe it a little longer, around an hour, and wait to see if the parents come by and try to feed it if they notice it. This could give you a chance to then see where they head to, and locate the nest.
But if you either can’t find the nest, or the nest is inaccessible, then make them a nest, employing those burgeoning crafting skills. Line a small cardboard box or lightweight pot with grass cuttings and tissue, and place it up off the ground in the tree or foliage where you found it. Make sure it is secure and then move away.The parents are probably close by waiting for you to leave and if they do know the bird is there, they will continue to feed it. If you don’t see any activity for at least an hour, chances are that bird will starve, so then you need to call in the professionals.
Number three: is it hurt?
If a bird is injured in any obvious way, such as a bent or broken leg or wing, visible blood and so on, there is usually nothing you personally can do, unless of course you happen to be a qualified wildlife rehabilitator. Injured birds will always need professionalassistance, so locate your nearest wildlife rehab centre or vet (check with the vets first as many but not all will treat wild birds for free) and if it is out of hours then you will need to take it indoors for the night, in a small covered box with air holes. You absolutely must not give in to the urge to feed it or give it a drink: many rehab centres report back that the bird didn’t make it as it has been damaged some way during those very attempts to feed it, either by giving it the wrong thing to eat or tearing the soft tissue linings during a little heavy-handed encouragement. Some report that the birds drown from water being pushed into lungs instead of the correct passageway.
LEAVE THIS BIRD ALONE
Let’s go back to step one, and assuming there is no injury, we see that our bird on the ground is alert, eyes wide open, and has some good-looking feathers going on in amongst the fluffy down. The bird’s beak will also still have that chick look about it at the edges too, but will look more like an adult bird than a helpless pink baby one. This will be a fledgling and these are the birds you are most likely to see on the ground. Fledglings typically leave the nestof their own accord 2 to 5 days before they can actually fly, which seems a bit weird but that’s just the way it goes. You can almost always guarantee that these birds will be under the watchful eye of their parents who will be close by, maybe just above your head.
LEAVE THIS BIRD ALONE. We rarely resort to capitals, but in this instance, we can’t emphasise this point enough. Rehab centres and wildlife charities are absolutely inundated every year with well-meaning members of the public trying to help birds who are doing just fine where they are. If you move this bird or approach it you are putting it in danger of abandonment. Fledglings may not need the nest any more but they still can’t fly and get their own food, so the parents will continue to feed it and roost close by at night. If you are in any doubt if the bird you see is a fledgling or a nestling, take a photo and share it with friends or an organisation that can tell you for sure.
The ONLY times you intervene with birds of this age is if they are definitely an orphan, or if they are in imminent danger – a car, a dog, a cat, and so on. In the danger situation, try and remove the danger element first, like getting those lurking animals indoors. If you have to move it, you get your towel and gloves, and move it to somewhere as close as you can to where you found it. The parents need to know where it isat all times. By all means, observe from close by, preferably from indoors as the parents will avoid the bird if you are too near or they can still see you. If you know for sure that it is an orphan, i.e., you have seen the parents killed by predators or a vehicle for instance, then pick it up and take it to a rehab centre.
This bird will be learning to hop and walk, and will be trying to get the air under and through it’s wing feathers ready for flight, and this can take a few days. The bird may well be making cheeping noises calling for mum and dad, which really does pull at the heartstrings, but please resist and move away, and mum and dad will hear it and come along eventually for encouragement.
You love birds, we know you do, otherwise why are you here reading this, so we also know you want to help them whenever you can. But remember that up to 30% of young birds don’t survive their first year of life due to natural selection and some unknowable balance being maintained, and the last thing we want to do is add to any decreases in populations. Help an obviously helpless bird, by all means, but if there is the slightest chance that bird on the ground is a fledgling just learning the ways of the world, let them learn.