Birds, especially baby birds, are fragile. Their bodies are fragile, their diets are fragile, and if they have an injury or a bird disorder, even if you perform like a star and try your hardest, they may not make it.
I've been astonished at how many hits this page gets, and saddened by comments of baby birds who didn't make it to flight. I know just how that feels (it feels terrible, usually with crying, dehydration and a crashing headache). But please don't blame this page. I'm sharing what I've had success with. Take freely, and if it works for you I'm really glad! If it didn't, please don't blame yourself (or me).
Baby birds are hard. Sometimes the ones that seem healthiest suddenly decline and die in a single day. Other times, the ones you were sure were going to need burial with flowers and a service in the morning are the ones that fly away healthy, free and joyful two weeks later. If you can handle that, proceed.
If not, take your bird to a rehabber right now and don't wait. Google "animal rehab" and your location. Then get in the car with your bird and drive there.
Disclosure: In many states, it is illegal to care for a baby bird yourself. These states have laws requiring you to take baby birds to a rehab facility. In my area, rehab facilities are under-funded and not trustworthy. Baby birds are a dime a dozen, and take a lot of work and resources to raise. I haven't felt good about leaving a baby bird at facilities where there are endangered snakes, owls, hawks and coyotes, and after a few vigorous baby birds just "didn't make it" after a single day, decided their chances were better with me. What you decide, is your decision. End of disclosure.
So, you found a baby bird!
After writing a post about finding and raising a baby blackbird a few summers ago, the next summer I found another and returned to my page... only to find that I hadn't really organized the information very well, or included enough to quickly get a grasp of what I needed to do!
So here is an organized page that I re-wrote to refer to myself, and I hope it will help anyone else who finds it, too. The original post is at the bottom.
Supplies you will need:
- Plastic syringe (the kind with no needle, about 1cm wide)
Where to get it: Any veterinarian or some pharmacies
(most vets will give you one for free)
You can also get them from Amazon and they will deliver them to your door. Here's a link to a lifetime supply for under $10! If you need to, cut off the narrow tip so the food doesn't block up. I would sand the cut edge to smooth it if you do this, or in a pinch, you can rub the plastic smooth against a cutting board. Be careful not to put a sharp, cut plastic syringe edge in a baby bird's mouth.
Boil it (pierce in the bottom with a thumbtack, boil for 10 min and cool under cold water)
Mash it up with 2-3 tsp of water into as pudding-like a substance as possible
If you already have the Kaytee Exact Baby Bird Food, mix up about two spoonfuls separately from the egg with a few spoonfuls of hot water so it is as much like pudding as possible, and mix it with the crushed egg mixture.
Load it up into the sryinge
- Kaytee Exact Handfeeding Baby Bird Food
Where to get it: Most local pet stores
If pet store does not have it: Amazon will deliver it to your door
- Shoebox with holes pierced in the top for air
As the baby bird matures, you may need velcro to fasten the top shut so the baby does not knock the lid off by trying to get out
- Old t-shirt, rag or hand towel to put in the box for comfortable sleeping
- Soft art brush for cleaning up the bird
- A taller box with holes pierced all over so the baby bird can practice flying when you're not there
- For seed-eating birds, birdseed
You can grind it up into powder and add to the food mixture
Grind it up with a hammer and a baggie, or use a cooking mortar and pestle
Note! You will have to sift or skim off the shells, which the baby can not digest, and which will clog up the syringe.
If you live near a Whole Foods, they have a great selection of raw seeds like sunflower and millet. I got a huge supply of several seeds and seed powders for under $5.
I don't have any Kaytee bird mixture!
The baby bird can survive a little while on just egg and water. I haven't tried to do without the Kaytee mixture for more than a day, but I think a baby bird could go for a few days if you are adding ground up seed for seed-eaters and mashed-up insects for bug eaters.
How can I tell whether the baby eats seeds or bugs?
Search for "baby bird" on Google and see if you can match a picture with your bird. They look a lot different in different stages.
This picture is a baby blackbird. It eats seeds, bugs and berries.
If it looks like this picture below, it's a wild House Finch and eats only seeds and berries (NO bugs).
How do I feed it?
- Water it first. Hold up your fingertip with a drop of water. The baby bird should peck it off. If it doesn't, see below for how to drip it down a toothpick. Don't use a syringe to eject water into the bird's throat - this will probably cause the bird to choke and drown.
- Load up a syringe with food mixture
- Trap it in your hand, like in the picture above
- Get the syringe as far in it's mouth as it will gently go. You want it pretty much all the way down the throat, on the side closest to your LEFT hand. Baby birds can not swallow, which is why both you and their mother have to stuff the food in pretty far.
- If the baby bird is resisting, be extra careful that you get the syringe on the correct side of the bird's throat - your LEFT side. If you get it on the side closest to your RIGHT, that is the bird's air passage and you will be ejecting food into the bird's lungs.
- If the syringe just won't go into the baby bird's throat, get it as close as possible and push the plunger to eject the food into the baby bird's mouth. Then take a soft, wet art paint brush (the kind with a pointy tip), and push it the rest of the way into the throat, as deep as you can. If you leave it in the mouth, the baby bird never gets it because it can not swallow.
- Don't turn the bird on it's back. The bird should be upright or it could choke.
- After a few hours, you should be seeing poop. If you don't, see below or your bird may die.
- When the bird is done being stuffed with food, wet a soft art brush (flat kind, not pointy, is best for this) and gently brush away food from face, head and feathers. A damp paper towel will also do in a pinch. They like this a lot.
How do I prepare the mixture?
- If you have the Kaytee mixture, get a couple of spoonfuls in a small dish with a deep-ish bottom. Teacups are ideal - you want to be able to syringe it easily, and it's not easy if you use a flat-ish dish.
- Cut or pulverize half a boiled egg yolk and add it to the mixture.
- Add your ground up seeds (with shells sifted out), ground up berries, and/or ground up bugs.
- Add small amounts of warm water until it's about like pudding - not chunky, but not runny.
- If you have plenty of mixture left, put it in the fridge. But at feeding time, it has to be warm or the baby will not like it. When it's time to feed again, put 3 inches of water in a pan and set the teacup in the pan - when the pan's water boils, immediately take the teacup out and stir the mixture well. The food should be warm (room temperature is ok too), but not hot. I test it with my finger tip. If you don't leave the food out, the food will stay good for about two days. If you leave it out, it lasts for about one day. (If it starts to smell bad, don't feed it to your bird! It has bacteria in it, and your bird may die!)
- NEVER microwave the mixture. It creates hot pockets, and can burn the baby bird's insides when you syringe it in.
The syringe is sticking and won't move!
Get a drop of olive oil and drip it in. Work it around until it un-sticks. In a pinch, use soft or melted butter or a little bit of mayo.
Should I put the baby bird back?
- If you can get to the nest and the mother is still taking care of other baby birds in it, and you are sure it is the right nest (the right kind of bird and the bird's actual mother, not a different mother of the same kind), YES. Go put it back! It is not true that the mother can smell you and will reject it. If the baby bird falls out again, it's not because the mother rejected it, it is because whatever caused it to fall the first time (it was too active, nest was too small, or it tripped), caused it to fall a second time too. If you are not sure you can get it to the nest, or you are not sure it is the right nest (if you put it in the wrong nest with older birds, it could be suffocated under them, or in the wrong nest with younger birds, it may weigh too much not to suffocate them), proceed down this list.
- If you know for sure that the mother is dead, or you have no idea where she or the nest is is, NO. It's up to you.
- If it can't fly up but only drifts down while fluttering, NO. It can not escape a predator.
- If it can fly up, and you are sure it can fly competently, MAYBE. Some baby birds can fly on their own before they can eat on their own. I would keep it overnight with some seeds and/or bugs and see if it can really eat. If it can't, I'd proceed with feeding.
How often will it need food and water?
It depends. A very young bird with mostly fluff instead of feathers and a soft, frowny "baby beak" that isn't yet hard enough to break a seed probably needs feeding every two hours during the day, but once it's dark its parents wouldn't be able to feed it and you don't have to, either. However, within about two hours after sunrise, it will be very hungry, and just like its parents, you should be giving it something to eat! If your bird is at this stage, it probably also needs to have its box on a heating pad, turned on medium. With my heating pad, which I got from a drug store, the "High" setting gets too hot. You should also make sure the pad does NOT have the safety feature that turns the pad off after two hours. A cold baby bird can not digest, and will die whether or not you are feeding it. It should not feel cold in your hand, or it is too cold. It should be about the same temperature as your hand.
My birds have all been as you see in the pictures - they still have the little "baby fringe" around their heads just like Bela Lugosi, but they are no longer "naked" and can hop. During this stage, they can be fed less: three times a day is my minimum. I work full-time, so to give you an idea, I feed and water the bird in the morning and work all day. Sometimes I come home as late as 12 hours later, and feed again, then wait 2 hours and feed once more before bed. Generally speaking, 3 times is good and 4 is better.
Most baby birds are aggressive about asking for food when they are hungry. If you have a bird that is chirping or squawking aggressively for food, don't go by a time estimate for how much it "should" need from anyone - me included - it's hungry! So load up a syringe and feed it!
As a last remark, make sure you are giving proper nutrition. Baby blackbirds of all ages need ground seed, ground fruit, and some form of ground protein - either ground boiled egg or ground insects depending on the age of the bird. (Baby house finches need the same, only no bugs.) None of these ingredients are nutritious enough alone, and even if you are including earthworms, they are not very nutritious. Mealworms are better, and mealworms plus moths and beetles are best - yes, you have to grind them, and yes, it's gross. The Kaytee mixture provides some, but not all of the nutrients needed. You must give the baby bird full nutrition or it will starve even though you are feeding it.
How long will it take before I can let it go?
It depends on how old it was when you started. It has to be able to eat, drink and fly up on its own. The baby blackbird below, took a week. The baby house finch, above, took four weeks.
It won't open it's beak!
If you know it hasn't eaten for several hours, tap on the side of it's beak with the syringe. If it still won't open, you have to get ready to use some extra skill. (If it was fed less than 2 hours ago, it may just not be hungry yet.)
- get a toothpick and slightly blunt the tip
- gently wedge the baby bird's beak open with the toothpick and leave the toothpick in place
- use your finger to drip water down the toothpick and into the beak
- gently wedge the syringe into the baby bird's mouth next to the toothpick
- now it gets tricky - you have to get the toothpick out of the way without dislodging the syringe. If another person is nearby, ask for help. If not, my strategy was to gently wiggle the syringe while it was halfway in the bird's mouth, and gradually get the toothpick to fall away.
I don't see poop, or there was poop before, but now, nada.
Baby birds don't have a lot of muscle development. Your bird may be so young, it has not developed the muscles it needs to poop properly. Do this...
- Check it's underside - if there is a lump of dried poop there, it could be clogging up the pooper.
- Keeping the bird trapped in your hand, rinse the area gently with warm water until there is no visible poop. You can also gently brush away the old poop with a wet art brush (but, don't use the same brush you use to feed or water the bird). A paper towel soaked in warm water also helps.
- If you see that it's lower tummy is discolored or swollen, the poop is clogged. Point the bird so it is over the sink - you don't want the next step to result in poop shooting out onto your cocktail dress or favorite black jacket.
- Gently stroke the area downwards with your finger. You are being the muscles the baby bird has not yet developed. Poop should come out.
My baby bird is panting with his beak open. What's wrong?
He is stressed and can die unless you remove him from all stimulation immediately. If I see a baby bird do this, I put him back in his box right then, close the lid, and put him in a dark, quiet room with the door closed for at least an hour. Birds in this condition have died in my hand. Don't mess around. Get him away from all stimulation in a safe, quiet, dark place as quickly as possible.
My baby bird is getting weaker and weaker. I'm doing everything. What's wrong?
- Is the bird pooping? If not, see "I don't see poop". If you're sure there's poop, see the next possible answer.
- Have you been giving the bird water? Leaving a dish of water near the bird is not enough for very young baby birds. Give it water from your fingertip, or see above for how to water if it won't open it's beak.
- Has it been eating less? After a certain point, if you've been feeding Kaytee mixture only, or Kaytee mixture and eggs, the bird needs ground seeds or ground bugs. The baby blackbird (below) lost all her weight over two days, and only gained it back and resumed growing and being healthy after a lot of bugs were added to the mixture.
- Does the bird have scratches or wounds? If it was bitten by an animal before you found it, it may have developed an infection. Cross your fingers because this is really tough for little birds and they don't usually survive infections. They just don't have enough of a working system yet to fight it.
I'm pretty sure my baby bird is a raptor (hawk, eaglet, falcon, or some other big thing like a crow). What should I do?
Wow !! I've always wanted to find one of those. Before you do anything, secure it away from children and pets. Sharp claws and beak can slice skin, and you will want to have heavy gloves handy if you are really going to take this on. I don't know how to take care of one of these, so keep hunting around on the web. Good luck!
Should I take it to a wildlife rescue?
I wouldn't. No rescue agency has ever saved a bird I brought them, and some people (including me) have had a bad feeling as they left some agency that had injured snakes or baby raptors that might conveniently be fed a weak baby bird. Baby birds are a dime a dozen, but they take a lot of effort to help. I don't think agencies want them and I do suspect they often are just fed to other animals that are likely to be considered more important.
The baby bird died. Am I a total failure?
No. My success rate is only 50%.
Does it's mama care?
My House Finch cheeped near an open window and his mama appeared instantly. She was beside herself and both of them had a passionate conversation along the lines of "You get your butt back in the nest!!!" and, "I can't - this HORRIBLE MONSTER has trapped me!" Neither one realized that the baby could not fly back to the nest, and the mother could not lift him there. I could not put him there, either. It was 5 yards straight up. She was all over the windowsill and the porch several times, talking to her baby. What a great mama. Even his daddy was checking in from the fence across from the windowsill, or from the tree by the porch. It was pretty amazing.
Should I worry about mites?
I don't. If you see mites, don't try to clean the bird. Baby birds easily frighten and die if they are overstimulated, especially in the first 24 hours. Just get them when they are off of the bird. I dampen a paper towel, rub some olive oil onto it, and swipe wherever I see mites. Oil of any kind suffocates them almost immediately.
Good luck to all baby bird rescuers from me. The original post, below, has the story of my first bird and a few helpful pictures. Best wishes for your baby bird!
This is the original post. The information above was organized and added later, when I found my second baby black bird and then even more birds. There is some useful information in it, but the above information is easier to read for quick answers if you have come to this page for help with a baby bird of your own.
I found a baby bird at the barn where my horse is stabled ! It was sitting on a shovel and I might have left it there, only a baby chickadee had died in the atrium area of my workplace after being abandoned by the rest of its family. It hadn't been strong enough to fly out and it cried all day. That night it actually hopped into the office out of desperation. It was gently replaced by a well-meaning person... but then died of hunger the next day. I was still upset about it.
The bird I found had been sitting on the shovel for two hours, and no other bird came near it... but a cat walked right by without seeing it, and that's when I made my mind up to grab it. It let out an enormously loud shriek considering it's tiny size ! All of the horses jumped around and snorted in their stalls, and I truly felt like an awful person. But my grabbing it was not at all the worst thing to happen to the baby bird, although it thought it was. The worst thing that could ever have happened to it had already happened - it became separated from its parents.
I took it home in a paper bag and found out it was a baby blackbird. It was totally adorable. Here is a picture:
I found several sites on the web that gave me good information about what to feed it. The best site by far was this one, which told me to boil an egg and feed little parts to the bird.
My bird was really excited about this. Because it was brown and snuggled into my hand so contentedly when done, I started to think it was female. She liked the boiled egg a lot - this makes sense, since egg white and yolk are created as nutrition for an incubating chick while it is still in its shell.
When I told one of my co-workers about this, he said, "Isn't that cannibalism or something?" I explained about the white and the yolk, and that it's only cannibalism if the egg is fertilized - then it would be a growing baby bird, instead of just protein and nutrients. He made a horrified face and said, "Oh, let's not go there!" He meant, let's not consider that if a fertilized bird egg counts as a real bird, a fertilized human egg might also count as a real human. I like Allen, who is gay, very much, but this made me see how eager people are to stay blind to obvious truths especially if examining them could lead to some inconvenient conclusions.
Anyway, the next day I also got my bird some baby bird mixture at PetCo. I mixed this with the boiled egg with good results.
WARNING ! If you use the baby bird mixture ("Exact" hand feeding mixture by Kaytee), read the instructions! They have important information. For instance, microwaving the mixture can create hot pockets in the mixture, which will burn a baby bird's mouth and throat.
I saw that my baby bird had a pre-digestion area in her throat. Here is a picture. Whatever she couldn't really digest yet, got sent back out from here. For instance, she couldn't eat raisins no matter how much I mixed them up. For the first few days, blackberries got sent back too.
To feed her, I basically trapped her in my hand and used a plastic syringe full of boiled egg mixed with the Kaytee mixture to get the food into her throat. Baby birds don't know how to swallow at first - that is why the food has to be stuffed in as far as possible. They don't mind, and will let you know when they're done. When there was food in her mouth, I used a soft art paint brush to push it down and if I was in a hurry I used my finger, which also worked although possibly nothing at all has ever made me feel so barbaric as using my finger to literally stuff food down the throat of a baby bird. I also used a soft art brush to clean her up afterwards, and she really liked that.
She needed feeding at least three times a day, and I came home at lunch to feed her. She needed water too, which she took in drops from my fingers. She was so aggressive about asking for food, but when she was only thirsty, she was very polite and made sweet, musical sounds that were very gracious and pretty.
After about the fourth day, she wasn't excited any more about boiled egg and mixture, and she started losing weight. But she still couldn't really fly! So I did something I never imagined - drove over to my parents and collected a really sterling selection of slugs, pillar bugs, beetles and raspberries, squashed them all up into a nauseating but nutritious mixture, and fed them to her with the syringe. I even fed her a spider that I found in a corner of my townhouse. It was so gross !! But also so satisfying to see her get her appetite back and weigh something again.
Here is a picture of the supplies:
I knew it was important that she learn to use her wings and get strong, so she wouldn't get trapped like the little atrium bird had. We did a lot of flying exercises. After dinner, she would sit on my fingers and I would lift my hand and drop it - like the Drop Zone at Great America. This forced her to flutter to keep her balance. I also lifted my arm way high and then moved it way low, so she had to cling at steep up and down angles. We did back-and-forth like a branch in the wind, and around in circles just for fun. She got very good at all of these and when she finally went outdoors, she could cling to the vertical corner of a stucco building - something I've never seen any other bird do.
I had her for about a week. Here is a picture of her right before I let her go - you can see she's lost her punk-rock fluff:
I knew it was time to let her go when I came home from work one night and she had jumped up and down in her box so energetically that she knocked the top off and flew up to the curtain rod.
She stayed outside that night in a little orange tree on my porch, and flew away in the morning. I saw her flying around with another bird, and she landed on my roof as I was about to go to work. I really wanted to get a good breakfast in her for starting her new life of freedom, and I asked her to come down. She tried to, but she just didn't have the confidence yet to fly at such a steep angle through tree branches. Some smaller birds took a friendly interest in her, and I saw her tasting different things to see if she could eat them - a leaf, a twig, an orange blossom. I had to leave for work, and I haven't seen her since.
I hope she's okay. I feel really privileged that I got to be so familiar with something so small, gentle and wild. How many people get to hold and feed a baby bird, or help it practice flying? Not many. I miss my baby bird and think about her often. I've never thought about putting up a bird feeder before, but now I've put one up for other birds, so they don't have to worry about finding enough food. Now whenever I see a little female blackbird, I'll always wonder if she could be my blackbird. I do think I hear her sometimes, but I can never be sure. I pay more attention to birds now. It was a really special experience.