Wild Ideas: Rescuing wild birds is tricky

Following the tip from wildlife rehabilitator Amo Merritt, Flint Hill resident Sharon Payne protects the young barn swallows in her outbuildings by putting Eastern baskets under the nests to catch chicks that fall or provide a secure alternative nesting location. Sharon Payne
Following the tip from wildlife rehabilitator Amo Merritt, Flint Hill resident Sharon Payne protects the young barn swallows in her outbuildings by putting Eastern baskets under the nests to catch chicks that fall or provide a secure alternative nesting location.

What do you do when you find a baby eastern phoebe that has fallen out of a nest ravaged by a rainstorm? Or you find a Carolina wren has nested in an open compartment of a car you keep in a shed? Or you find a red-bellied woodpecker on the road that can’t fly?

As I suggested to the Rappahannock County residents who found birds in these difficult situations, the best thing to do is contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for advice, or call the Wildlife Rescue League’s Wildlife Rescue Hotline, or the Wildlife Center of Virginia (see sidebar). Rescuing wildlife is a complex issue. When we try to interfere with wildlife, we not only risk doing more harm than good out of ignorance, but there are laws, with strict penalties, against moving or otherwise disturbing nests or young of most native wildlife species, particularly song birds, or even moving adults of many native species.

Two of the residents ended up calling the Wildlife Center and the other (with the woodpecker) reached our local rehabber, Amo Merritt, and delivered the bird to her. I visited Amo at her place in Boston on July 18 to talk about how to handle such situations. The breeding season was winding down, and I joined her as she fed the last of the young birds that had come to her this year — chimney swifts, Carolina wrens and another young bird that neither of us could identify. Then we sat down to go through the three scenarios described above.

Following advice from the Wildlife Center of Virginia, this Carolina wren nest with eggs found in the dashboard of a car was moved to a nearby woodpile.Courtesy photo
Following advice from the Wildlife Center of Virginia, this Carolina wren nest with eggs found in the dashboard of a car was moved to a nearby woodpile.

With the phoebe baby, as with any baby bird that falls, or is pushed, out of its nest, the best thing to do, Amo said, is to return it to the nest. As she pointed out, it’s a “wive’s tale” that bird parents will abandon their nests or young if humans handle them. Most birds (with the exception of turkey vultures) also don’t have a good sense of smell, so leaving our scent on eggs or young is not a problem. While we could get “dive-bombed” by the parents, they are likely to return to care for their young once we leave the area.

In the case of the phoebe nest, however, only enough of it was left intact to hold the three chicks that remained in it. For such a scenario, Amo suggested putting an Easter basket (or any small basket with a handle) under the nest or putting the remainder of the nest in the basket, along with the young, adding nesting material (such as dried grass or something similar that won’t mold) to recreate the nest. The basket can then be hung below or next to the original location, or below it, if chicks remain in the original nest. Another option is to use a small plastic tub, such as for margarine, to replace the nest, punching holes in the bottom for drainage and securing the container in the original location, or as near as possible, with wire.

With the wren nest, the Woodville resident who found it said the person at the Wildlife Center suggested she move it to a container or other snug niche at the about the same height — similar to the original location — and move the car out to help the wren parents adjust to the new location. The resident later reported that she had moved the nest to a nice, tight niche in a woodpile in the shed.

With the woodpecker, Amo thought the bird was likely hit by a car, the most common cause of injury according to staff I talked with at the Wildlife Center. Before attempting a rescue, first wait at a distance to see if an animal that is apparently injured or orphaned can recover on its own or the parents come back, respectively. If not, put it in on a clean T-shirt or paper towel in a box that is not much bigger than the animal, to avoid the animal thrashing around and further injuring itself. Close the box up (allowing for enough ventilation for the animal to breathe), put it in a quiet, warm (not hot) location and leave it alone for a while. Often animals are only stunned or overstressed and can recover on their own. If they don’t recover soon, contact a rehabber or the organizations mentioned above.

Above all, don’t feed anything to the animal, as each species has its own dietary requirements and feeding can in itself lead to more harm. Amo says she’s amazed that people feed rescued baby birds milk and bread; as she rightly noted, she’s “never seen mammary glands on a bird.” Baby animals generally need to be fed often (every 15 minutes with bird hatchlings), so getting them as fast as possible to a rehabber familiar with the species and who is likely to have the right food on hand can be critical.

Even administering water to a young or injured animal can be dangerous. Young birds, for example, which normally get all the fluid they need from their food, can easily drown. With adult animals, giving a small bit of water in a dish or using an eyedropper to slowly put a few drops into their mouth is generally okay, Amo says.

Despite a lot of effort on the part of the residents who came to the rescue in the three bird scenarios, the results were mixed: The person finding the wren nest had reported seeing five eggs in it when it was in the car. After the nest was moved, the wren mother attended it for a few days, then disappeared, leaving only three eggs, the resident said. A predator could have been involved, or the wren may have abandoned the nest, possibly starting another clutch elsewhere, as they often do.

The resident who had found the phoebe nestling was on her way out at the time, so took what she could find of the damaged nest that was on the ground and put it into a clean cat-litter box, placing that at the bottom of the pillar on her porch where the nest had been. She phoned the Wildlife Center while she was out, she said, and they referred her to a bird rehabber in Warrenton, whom she planned to call when she got home. However, by then, the nestling had disappeared.

The woodpecker scenario had a more clearly positive ending than the other two: Amo successfully rehabilitated the young bird to the point that, when another red-bellied showed up near the enclosure, the rehabber figured it was a good time to release her patient. She says the woodpecker is still hanging around in the area and seems fine.

© 2015 Pam Owen

Wildlife rescue information

Wildlife Rescue Hotline (Wildlife Rescue League): 703-440-0800

Wildlife Center of Virginia: 540-942-9453

Licensed wildlife rehabilitators: Amo Merritt (Rappahannock County), 540-987-8431 or amomerritt@gmail.com; for other counties, go online to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (dgif.virginia.gov; search on “licensed wildlife rehabilitators”) or call one of the organizations listed above

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