For the Birds Radio Program: Baby Bird Week II

Original Air Date: May 22, 1996

How can you keep a baby songbird alive until you can find a rehabber? 4:07

Audio missing


When you find a baby bird, returning it to its nest or a nearby safe spot works 99 percent of the time. But in rare cases, a baby bird requires human help. Inexperienced people have a tragically low likelihood of keeping one alive, much less thriving. Feeding robins worms sounds good, but worms don’t provide all the nutrients that growing birds need. Robins feed their young a variety of insects, berries, and fruits as well. Most songbirds feed their young an array of insects, sometimes supplemented with fruit, but goldfinches, siskins, and other true finches feed regurgitated seeds–hardly an easy task for a rehabber! Unless you know what species you’re dealing with, you won’t know what the natural parents fed it or how to devise a good substitute.

People often find baby blue jays, robins, grackles, and chipping and house sparrows. To keep a nestling alive till you can get it to a licensed facility, house it in an open ice cream bucket lined with paper towels and wads of tissue to change as they get soiled. Baby birds eliminate wastes immediately after eating, making cleanup easy since you’re right there when the mess is made.

Songbirds can survive a short period on bits of dry dog food soaked and softened in warm water. Don’t use milk–many birds are allergic to milk proteins. Mealworms and crickets are much more nutritious than dog food but not easily available for non-professionals, especially in the quantities that baby birds need. Don’t use tweezers–it’s too easy to puncture soft mouth tissue. Plop in pea-sized bits with your fingers, pushing the food deep enough for the baby to swallow. Feed every 15-20 minutes during daylight, giving the baby as much as it wants at each feeding, but never force feed. To encourage a baby to open its mouth, you can gently shake the bucket, zoom food over its head like human parents zoom an “airplane” spoon of baby food to a toddler, or softly touch the “gape”–the soft, colorful tissue at the corner of the mouth. Once the baby figures things out, it’ll pop up and open its mouth like a jack-in-the-box the moment it hears you.

If you must keep a bird for more than a day, add vitamins to prevent bone deformities such as rickets. Jays, robins, and waxwings need fruit as well. The best substitute for regurgitated seeds for baby finches is a commercial hand-feeding formula for cockatiels, available in pet shops. I’ve successfully raised baby woodpeckers using these hand-feeding formulas, too.

The bars of cages fray feathers, making safe release of wild birds impossible. When a baby bird reaches the fledgling stage, it should be kept outdoors for much of the time, which requires an enormous amount of attention by the rehabber. When it does come indoors, it should be kept in a cardboard box.

At this point, it needs an experienced rehabber to teach it survival skills outdoors. Some people take in helpless nestlings, cage them indoors until they fly, and then let them go in the woods. These babies lack the skills to recognize and find natural food and shelter, and to recognize and elude predators. Since birds do learn to fly on their own, it never seems to occur to these misguided people that house-reared birds lack other natural skills that they need to survive. All in all, taking care of baby birds is an enormous and difficult responsibility. It’s better to leave a baby bird completely alone than to take it in if you don’t know what you’re doing.