Rescuing a baby bird is not always a good idea

Rescuing a baby bird that has fallen from its nest seems like an obvious thing to do but it may not be the smartest thing, and the baby’s chances of survival are minimal.

What we should be doing, says veterinarian Dr Jean Russell, is leaving them where we find them.

Here’s why:

Rescuing a baby bird that’s ‘fallen’ from a nest

Spring and summer are nesting time for birds, and our veterinary clinics are overwhelmed by kind hearted rescuers arriving at our reception desk with the babies in boxes.

It’s important to understand, says Dr Jean, that birds don’t live in nests all year round; nests are for hatching eggs and raising chicks to the point at which they fledge (grow flight feathers) and leave.

“If you find a baby bird out of its nest, have a swift but careful look at it. If it has no or very few feathers, and if you can see the nest, pick it up and put it back inside, then leave the area.

“Birds have very little sense of smell and will not reject a nestling on the basis of scent, though the stress of a human in the immediate vicinity could cause them to abandon the nest.”

Rescuing a baby bird with lots of feathers

If the bird seems to have quite a lot of feathers, it is a fledgling. It may be sitting on the ground seemingly unable to fly, but it has made a reasonable descent from its nest, as every bird in the world has had to do. Its parents are undoubtedly watching it from a slight distance and will continue to care for it, feed it and protect it on the ground until it summons the strength for its next flutter. It is vulnerable on the ground, so take steps to keep cats and dogs away from it to give it a chance.

DO NOT PICK UP THIS TYPE OF BIRD AND TAKE IT ANYWHERE. To do so is to terrify it and ruin its chances of survival. It is also illegal. Birds are very capable and are well able to cope with this situation.

Remember that only about 30% of birds survive their first year. This attrition is nature’s way of maintaining a healthy population that the environment can support. It’s a dangerous world for birds but there are lots of things we can do to help them.

What you CAN do

• Plant your garden with trees and bushes that provide good natural cover, and that attract not only birds, but also bees and other insects to your garden. Leave your garden as wild and untamed as you can stand.

• Look specifically at planting indigenous species that provide natural food sources for wildlife. This will always be preferable to bird tables and fat balls.

• Do not use sprays or toxic chemicals to kill pests.

• A pond is a great asset in terms of encouraging biodiversity.

Rescuing baby birds: the cat napper

The bird (or other animal) presented to you in your cat’s jaws, or that has clearly been caught by your cat, is another story. Cats have dangerous bacteria on their teeth and claws. A bite or even a scratch from a cat is very likely to develop into a severe and life-threatening infection. “Catted” birds and animals have little chance of survival so you have two options.

  1. Leave the animal to your cat, preferably having dispatched it humanely yourself.
  2. If you feel unable to do that, pick it up and bring it to your vet or wildlife rehabilitation centre for assessment. This assessment is virtually certain to end in euthanasia as even though it is possible to treat wounds, administer painkillers and antibiotics and feed (or at least try to feed) these creatures, it generally subjects them to inhumane levels of stress and if “successful” means that their chances of an independent life are hugely reduced.

Realistically, the only situation in which it is appropriate to go to great lengths to preserve the life of an injured bird is when that bird is of a species which is indigenous and endangered. Birds like this need immediate expert round-the-clock care in a dedicated bird rehabilitation unit. As your veterinarian for a referral. A general veterinary practice is not the appropriate setting for birds like these, so it is better to take the bird directly to the rehab centre.


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