National Geographic News
Three day old bird being rescued and put back in its nest.

Some advice for Sir Patrick Stewart and anyone else who encounters a bird, baby or adult, in need of help.

Photograph by Shannon Marshall, Your Shot

Marc Silver

National Geographic News

Published May 20, 2013

Sir Patrick Stewart, the "make it so" captain of Star Trek: The Next Generation, tweeted from his New York City home: "Help. Found a tiny baby bird in my garden and brought it in. What can I do?"

We asked Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut, for his perspective. Here's some advice for Sir Patrick and anyone else who encounters a bird, baby or adult, in need of help.

Could a baby bird just take care of itself?

If it's all downy feathers and no real adult feathers, it's prematurely out of the nest. One exception is the great horned owlit moves out of the nest earlier than some birds. And some birds, like sandpipers, as soon as they hatch are running around on their own. In an urban area, a killdeer chick running around is perfectly normal. Turkeys are another bird that can do that.

Should you not touch the bird? I've always heard that your human scent will keep the parents from taking the baby back in.

Birds have a bad sense of smell with a few exceptions. Turkey vultures have an amazing sense of smell, and [so do] albatrosses and seabirds, petrels, and the like. Other than that, birds are very visually and auditory oriented. They have great hearing and vision but not great senses of smell.

So you can touch it. What would you do?

If you can find the nest, put it back in the nest. Another option is to put it in a well-drained container off the ground: a wicker basket or a piece of Tupperware with holes in the bottom. If it's not well drained it could fill up with water and drown the chick. And if there's any bare skin, it's bad to put them in a sunny spot. They can get sunburn just like we can.

Once the bird is in a container, how long should you wait to see if a parent bird comes to the rescue?

They say to give it a day. I'm not sure I could do that myselfthat's a long time. What I would do is put it in a container, watch it for a few hours and see if anybody is coming to feed it.

And if no parent comes, or if the bird is injured?

You should contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Google is a great source to find one in your town or state. In some cases a rehabilitator can come and pick up the bird and start giving it care right away. They're generally volunteers who do it because they love birds.

What if it's an odd hour?

You can usually get their voice mail, and most of these folks are real dedicated people and will check their e-mail. If you call a nature center, you may not be able to get in touch with somebody until regular business hours, so you're better off calling a rehabber directly. Sometimes they put their cell phone number on their contact info.

Are you at any risk of disease from touching a bird?

The main risk would be salmonella, if the bird poops on you. Really that's the main risk, so wash your hands well after touching any bird. There's an infinitesimal risk of avian flu, but it is just so low we shouldn't even mention it.

Another common occurrence is to find a bird that's crashed into a window. What would you do then?

I generally would put the bird in a shoebox out of the way where cats can't get it. Cats are the big risk. Give it a few minutes, even up to an hour, and it'll often just right itself and fly away. If not, call a rehabilitator. Sometimes the bird has neurological damage or, if the bird is drooping a wing, it has broken a wing and is in need of rehabilitation.

And speaking of cats...

If the bird appears to have been attacked by a cat, it almost certainly needs rehabilitation. Cats have bacteria that live in grooves of their teeth. Even if the bird doesn't have a fatal wound, it can easily become infected [and] need antibiotics.

What if you find a bird who's died? Should you just bury it?

That's what I've generally done. If it's a rare bird, you might want to call a nature center or university ornithology department. Sometimes they may be interested in having a specimen of an unusual bird.

Any suggestions on how to prevent a bird from crashing into a window?

[Ornithologist] David Sibley came up with an ingenious solution: Use a yellow highlighter pen to draw a little crosshatch on the window. Generally it's totally invisible to us (you can test it in the corner to see if you can actually see it). But birds, who can see in ultraviolet light, can readily see it.

3 comments
Laurent V.
Laurent V.

disagree with Jango, a bird can damage it's spinal cord very easily, trying to feed it (milk of all things) is likely to contribute to even more shock. It is very unlikely to drink a foreign substance at a time of high stress. By all means offer water but you do not need to force it to drink with syringes...which of the wrong size can also cause damage if you do not know what you are doing.  If this is a regular problem, SORT THE WINDOW OUT with specially designed stickers or old CDs!!!

Jango Mccormick
Jango Mccormick

If a bird hits a window, they're often ust in shock, in which case you wante them in a showbox lined with tissues, and a syringe to feed them milk. It's important to get them fluids, and milk enerally works better than water. I highly recommend the book "Caring for the Wild Feathered and Furred" if this is a regular problem, it gives valuable insight.

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