For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Birds

Original Air Date: July 8, 1988

Laura gives some tips for if you find a baby songbird.

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What do you do when you find a baby bird?

If it’s a duckling, grouse, or killdeer–one of the precocial species–leave it alone. It has already imprinted on its mother, and its chances of survival without her are virtually nil.

If you find a baby songbird, like a robin or sparrow, the first thing to do is to decide whether it is still a nestling or if it’s a fledgling. A nestling is completely helpless–it’ll have a lot of naked patches of skin, and its wings’ll be unformed. A fledgling is more feathered out, and can usually walk or hop and even flutter its wings.

A nestling should be returned to the nest if at all possible. It is not true that the parents will reject it if it has the smell of human hands–the only bird with any sense of smell is the turkey vulture.

If the nest has been knocked out of a tree, like in a storm, you can put the baby birds back in it and set it on some support. There’s at least a chance that the parents will return to it. But if you know for a fact that the parents are dead or have abandoned a nestling, you can try to take care of it yourself. Be prepared for disappointment–it is very hard to successfully rear a baby bird.

You’ll need some dog food–canned or dry–crushed hard-boiled egg yolk, applesauce, cottage cheese, and oatmeal. Mash all these ingredients into a moist paste, but don’t make it too runny–nestlings have trouble swallowing water without it going down into their lungs. Make sure to add vitamins. Birds need a version of vitamin D with a slightly different chemical structure than the vitamin D mammals need, so you have to be sure to buy vitamins specifically for birds. Wad up a plop of the food about the size of a large pea on your index finger, and drop it in the bird’s open beak. It’s also a good idea to feed it mealworms several times a day. Never force-feed a baby bird.

Nestlings grow incredibly fast, so they need food as often as their digestive system can empty their gullets. Be prepared to feed yours every fifteen or twenty minutes during daylight hours–that is, from about four a.m. until about nine p.m. You have to be a workaholic to raise a baby bird. And you have to keep the baby clean, dry, and warm– its body temperature should be maintained at around 105 degrees. Remember–the best chance for the baby bird to survive and for you to retain your sanity is to return the nestling to its nest.

If you find a fledgling already feathered out and hopping around, chances are the mother is near–searching for food. You might set it on a branch off the ground, to protect it from cats and dogs, but it’s useless to put it back in the nest, because it’ll just hop out again. The parents try to keep all their babies together, but have as much trouble herding them as human parents have keeping their toddlers together in the toy department at Target. But the parent birds seldom completely lose track of a baby.

All in all, it’s not only illegal to bring most baby birds home, but it’s almost impossible for a person to keep one alive and healthy without some training and a lot of time. This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”