In early spring and summer, young birds are taking their first flight out of the safety of a nest to which they’ll never return.
“I call it a leap of faith,” says Maureen Eiger, the founder and Director of Help Wild Birds; Roanoke’s only nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation organization that exclusively rehabs migratory birds. “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 all birds like robins, mockingbirds, and blue jays and other migratory birds that may nest in trees or bird boxes.
For Eiger, it’s all birds, all the time. Maureen Eiger has taught other bird rehabbers at State Wildlife Conferences and is a contributing writer for a book about rehabbing migratory birds. She was on the board of the Virginia Bluebird Society, and was 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. You can say her life is very “birdy.”
She is one of few rehabbers who “goes the extra mile” when a bird is non-releasable. She will try to find legal placement for a non-releasable birds. A Screech Owl that she nursed back to health, but failed “mouse school” so it could not be released back into the wild is doing fine in captivity at Mill Mountain Zoo.
She’s sent migratory birds to zoos like the National Zoo, the Columbus Zoo, The Virginia Living Museum and even a Blue Jay went on to be an education program bird at the Cosley Zoo.
“It’s not about how many birds you can rehab,” she said in an interview. “If you do a big number, that means you’re not educating the public. We can rehab them, but what good is that? Rehabbers should keep track of how many young birds we reunited with their parents or put back in the nest or return to the wild. That is what’s most important”
On the phone this spring, she was surprised at how early birds were hatching this year listing doves, house finches and that someone had reported cardinal nestlings.
“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 birds that have tail feathers are called fledglings and are ready to leave the nest. 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’s 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 or on a branch near a tree trunk 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.
If you can see a bird’s skin, the bird, called a ‘nestling’, is too young to be away from its nest and need to be kept warm – you should definitely call a bird rehabber to get instructions on what to do.
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 then call!
- 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 or blood.
- 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 – but not touching – a heated rice sock.
“Never feed a bird or give it water unless directed by a rehabber. You can choke (aspirate) 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, Help Wild Birds. 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.
This article with some revision by Eiger is presented every year in the spring to help both people and birds.