In early spring and summer, young birds are taking their first flaps out of the safety of a nest to which they’ll never return.
“I call it a leap of faith,” Maureen Eiger, director of the bird rehabilitation and education organization, Help Wild Birds said. “When it’s time, a fledgling—a young bird with feathers—will just jump.”
Plopping into the grass, they “fly-hop”, strengthening and testing their wings. But that flailing is alarming to people who fail to realize the bird doesn’t need help, its parents are feeding and guarding it, and this is the natural process for birds like robins, mockingbirds, and blue jays and some other birds that don’t nest in tree cavities.
For Eiger, it’s all birds, all the time. She cares for birds – as she talks on the phone, she’s just received an indigo bunting whose wing has been torn off—in a facility beside her house. She’s on the board of the Virginia Bluebird Society, before that the vice president of the Roanoke Valley Bird Club. She is a state and federally permitted wild bird rehabilitator who runs the busy rehabilitation facility, Help Wild Birds in Roanoke.
She s one of few rehabbers if bird is non-releasable, she’s sent birds to zoos like the National Zoo and the rose-breasted grosbeak to the Columbus zoo and a screech owl to education program.
“Right now, I’m up to 100 this year. Generally, 200 a year. That’s a lot for one person, but the object is not to have high numbers – it’s not how many you do. If you do a big number, that means your not educating the public. We can rehab them, but what good is that?” The more important number is species 45 different species.
“The thing about birds is that you can never know everything. You can never get bored,” she said
At this time of year, wild bird rehabilitators like Eiger get calls from people unsure what to do when they find a baby bird.
Eiger says that, if you see a young bird on the ground, watch from a distance to see whether parents are bringing it food. The adults should herd the fledgling into tall grass or bushes in the evening to hide from predators.
“But sometimes, if the parents have several young, they can lose one or it can wander away, so if a young bird is still in the middle of the lawn when the sun goes down,” Eiger said. “it may need help.” That when you should make a call to a bird rehabber.
She says most healthy fledglings can be re-united with their parents if you return the fledgling as soon as possible to where it was found. Place the fledgling in a safe place like under a bush and the baby bird will call to its parent. Then, watch from a distance to wait for the parent to begin feeding the fledgling again. If the parents don’t come back, call a rehabilitator like Help Wild Birds for further instructions.
Fledglings have feathers and are ready to leave the nest, but if you can see skin, the bird, called a ‘nestling’, is too young to be away from its nest.
It is a myth that handling a bird will cause the parent bird to abandon the baby.
Eiger writes about successfully “re-nesting” uninjured baby birds to avoid disrupting the adult bird’s breeding cycle.
“Experience shows that bird parents do feed babies in makeshift nests,” she writes.
She has reattached fallen nests to tree branches, bushes, gutters, and even tree cavity sections duct-taped to another tree.
“A parent bird’s instinct to feed and protect its young is very strong and they will not willingly abandon their babies,” she writes.
Callers to Help Wild Birds have reported situations like a robin’s nest full of babies fallen from a rain gutter onto a patio. Eiger advised putting the babies back in what was left of the nest placing the nest on a table on the deck to see if the parents would come back.
“The adult robin came with a mouthful of worms to feed the babies on the table,” she said. The homeowner was amazed!”
Ultimately, the people figured out how to replace the nest back on the rain gutter. “The nest was restored, firmly in place and the baby robins were being fed by the parents. Success!” Eiger said.
But sometimes, putting a baby bird back in its nest is not the right thing to do. Ten situations in which one should call a federally permitted bird rehabilitator are when:
A baby bird is on the ground with NO or very little feathering, and you can’t find the nest.
A baby bird is on the ground and something is wrong, seems injured. It falls down a lot.
Baby birds feel ice cold in their nest and seem lifeless. Remove and warm them immediately!
If the babies’ heads don’t pop up, and the parent birds are absent for hours.
A baby bird has a lot of mites. (little black/red specks crawling around the nest and birds) Mites will eventually kill the bird.
A child brings home a baby bird, and it’s been gone from nest for hours.
If one or both parents are confirmed dead.
If a hummingbird is on the ground.
If you know or even suspect a bird has encountered a dog or cat. Even if you don’t see puncture wounds.
If it seems to be missing feathers or the feathers are out of place.
To prepare a baby bird to travel, make a cloth or tissue “nest” in a small box with a few air holes in the side. Then place the bird in the “nest” and close the box.
Keep a featherless bird warm, preferably on a heating pad set on low. Or next to – not touching – a heated rice sock.
“Never feed a bird or give it water unless directed by a rehabber. You can choke the bird. Baby birds get their water from the food mom and dad brings, usually insects or fruit,” she said.
Because it’s illegal to keep a wild bird, proper care and correct diet for a wild bird is not publicly available. That means what you read on the Internet is not necessarily true. In fact, feeding a wild bird can cause them harm no matter what a website states. Different bird species need different and complicated diets. Liquids and food fed improperly may sicken or even kill a bird.
A permitted bird rehabber can be found at www.animalhelpnow.org.
Help Wild Birds can be reached at (540) 342-4890. Eiger also provides “public service tweets” on her Facebook page. Donations are, of course, deeply appreciated.
“If you have the desire to rescue and feed baby birds, become a volunteer with a Federally Permitted Bird Rehabber; we can always use the help!” Eiger said.