A bird in the hand — or not: Do's and don'ts for would-be rescuers of chirping chicks

You walk into your backyard and find a tiny bird stranded on the ground. Should you pick it up, or leave it alone? A local wildlife rescue expert has some advice.

Finding a stranded baby bird can be a 'panic-inducing emergency situation', says Calgary wildlife expert

A nestling sparrow, just one of the hundreds of urban birds that are brought in to the Calgary Wildlife Rehabilitation Society every summer. (Andrea Hunt)

The sound of chirping chicks signals the welcome arrival of spring. Some of those baby birds, however, are about to learn how cold and cruel the world can be, even when the weather is warm.

These featherless nestlings sometimes find themselves prematurely out of their nests — a potentially fatal turn of events.

After hearing the tale of one Alberta woman who rescued a baby robin this week, the Calgary Eyeopener decided to ask a Calgary expert if and when you should swoop in to rescue the delicate creatures.

Jenna McFarland, animal care operations manager with Calgary Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, says the woman mostly did the right thing, keeping it warm and bringing it to a rescue centre. But she also had more advice for well-meaning baby bird rescuers.

Nestlings have a very good chance of being returned to the wild if they are rescued says the Calgary Wildlife Rehabilitation Society. (Andrea Hunt)

The organization gets between 100 and 200 nestlings and song birds dropped off throughout summer, including robins, finches, swallows, woodpeckers, magpies, crows and pigeons. There are many scenarios with stranded wildlife, says McFarland, and some are better left alone, but nestlings and fledglings usually need a hand. 

Q: Should you give a bird food and water?

A: Depending on how dire the situation looks for the bird, you generally should not give them water. Giving them a couple of drops of water definitely helps but you have to be really, really careful they don't choke on it. We say don't feed just because it can be really dangerous.

Q: Should you pick up a bird stranded on the ground?

A:  You have to be very careful because they are so fragile.Their skin is super delicate … so we always recommend using a little paper towel or tissue … to pick them up gently off the ground and pop them in a little box so they have something soft around them, but they are not being constantly held in your hand."

This featherless nestling is too young to determine what species it is. (Andrea Hunt)

Q: How do you know if a bird needs to be rescued?

A: We definitely see a lot kidnapped with the intent to rescue birds … in the fledgling stage. That's when birds have a lot of feathers and they are hopping around on the ground. But when we're talking nestlings they can look like little gummie bears with little tufts of feathers and those guys are not independent. They definitely need help; they should not be on the ground.

Q: Should you bring it to a rescue centre?

A: Here at Calgary Wildlife our mandate is to mitigate the damage that animals living in urban environment are being faced with. We want to provide a service to members of the public. Finding a nestling is a pretty exciting, panic-inducing emergency situation for most people, so we want to be able to provide them with the support they need. In most cases, if you find a baby bird, I would say yes, go ahead and give it a hand.

Magpies are among the many bird species rescued. (Andrea Hunt)
Q: How many survive after they are dropped off at the Calgary Wildlife centre?

A: For nestling song birds, which is the huge volume of the birds we get, they do very, very well. Especially if they've just fallen out of nest, or if a sibling kicks them out of the nest; that happens quite a bit. We just feed them here. We keep them in incubators. If they've been attacked by a cat they don't do so well, but as far as raising baby songbirds, they do really well raised in captivity.

Q: What happens once they're released? 

A: They know how to fly; they'll figure it out. If you take a moment and watch these animals you've been caring for … take their first steps in the wild or their first flight, it's pretty overwhelming; it's kind of incredible work.

The Calgary Wildlife Rehabilitation Society is holding a Living with Wildlife town hall on June 8. You can also check its website for common wildlife rescue questions.

Rescued nestlings and fledglings are kept warm in blankets and knitted nests. (Andrea Hunt)

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener