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Orphaned Baby Birds


Sometimes birds seem to be lost or to have fallen out of the nest.  Before rescuing these birds, watch for awhile from a distance.  Most of the lost bird’s parents are taking care of these orphans, and they can do a better job than humans in providing support and food.  Usually the parents will attend to the fledgling within 8 ? 10 hours.  Contrary to belief, touching an orphan will not cause most parents to abandon the baby.  If you notice a baby bird on the ground, the best thing you should do is walk away and let its parents take care of it.

If you have found an orphaned bird and it is hurt and/or known that the mother is not taking care of it, then the species needs to be determined if possible.  Raptors, or birds of prey, and any other endangered or protected species require that the Division of Wildlife be notified.  All wild birds should be returned to the wild once they can eat and fly by themselves; your veterinarian or wildlife officer can advise you on ways to reintroduce the bird back into nature (3 ? 4 months for precocial birds).  By limiting your time with the nestling bird you’ll have a better chance of reintroducing the bird into nature again.

There are two types of baby birds, altricial or precocial.  Precocial birds are born almost “ready to go” such as quail and waterfowl. The altricial babies need to be feed frequently by their mother or the person who rescues them.  Raptors and songbirds are altricial birds.  Most altricial mothers do not abandon the nestlings and the birds can be placed back into the nest.  Observe first to see if the parents are taking care of the bird on the ground.  The altricial birds are more difficult to feed than the precocial birds.

Cold, dehydrated birds should be fed promptly with a temporary formula of 1 teaspoon salt, 3 teaspoons of Karo syrup in a quart of warm water (not hot).  Using an eyedropper, give 5 ? 10 drops every 15 minutes until the bird is normal.  Too much formula can eventually cause diarrhea.  The above formula is for an emergency situation; a permanent formula for feeding should then be obtained the next day.  We prefer Nutristart or a similar commercial product made for birds such as Harrison’s.  Wrap the cold nestling in a towel and place 1 – 2 feet under a 60 – 75 watt light bulb.  Use a thermometer and keep the air temperature around 90?95 degrees by moving the bulb up or down.  The temperature should be lowered 5% per week of age, gradually, once the bird is normal. Five week old altricial birds should be kept at 75 degrees for more.

The age of an altricial baby bird can be estimated by looking at its feathers.  A chick less than 3 days old still may have its egg tooth.  This “tooth” falls off after being hatched, and it is used in the pipping process (breaking out of the egg).  Less than 1 week of age, the bird has no feathers.  By two weeks the pinfeathers are present, with the other feathers appearing later.  The nestling will be fully feathered at 3 weeks, and can fly between 4?6 weeks of age.

Precocial birds can be cared for in a box with 1/2″ holes for ventilation, a heat source (light bulb), newspaper on the bottom of the box, and placing the box in a draft?free area. The area should be increased with age, but start with 2 birds per square foot. The water can be provided in a lid, with small rocks in the water to prevent drowning if under 2 weeks old.  Chicken or turkey starter?grower mash can be used as feed, and should be kept in a small bowl.  Change the paper, food, and water daily.  By 4 ? 6 weeks of age, a larger area can be provided with gradual introduction of foods & grit that the bird will find in the area to eat when released.

Altricial birds, unlike precocial birds, should have a circadian light period (a lighted period, with 8 hours of dark).  Once the bird is eating and appears healthy, we advise this day/night cycle after 2 weeks of age.  Inside the box place a heating pad on low, and place a blanket between the bird and the pad.  We recommend leaving an area not heated, in case the birds get too hot.  Initially keep the temperature near 90 degrees right above the pad, with the box covered at night.  Measure the temperature after the lid is on the box.  If a commercial food, such as Nutristart is not available, you can make a temporary liquid diet of 2 parts canned dog food (i.e. Hills P.D.) + 1 part of crush hard boiled egg + 1 part drained chopped spinach, with a small amount of powdered milk and bird multivitamins mixed with water till of a fluid consistency (not watery).  Another temporary formula is 1 cup of oatmeal, 1 tablespoon of Nutrical and mix with warm water to make a gruel.  It is best to have a mixture such as Nutristart or Harrison’s around, as it takes too much time to go find homemade ingredients when a bird is very sick.  (And yet other homemade mixtures, such are a 50/50 mix of Gerber’s Banana & Tapioca Baby Food plus Gerber’s Powdered High Protein Baby Food; add 1/4 teaspoon of an Avian vitamin/mineral supplement or Nutrical, with or without Soylac or Neo-Mull-Soy, in a milk shake consistency is adequate).  After a day or two you should obtain a commercial diet formulated for baby birds.  Refrigerate the mixture and warm the food as needed, using a Q?tip, dropper or syringe to feed. Very young altricial birds need to be fed every 1?2 hours.  If tube feeding, start with 1/4 cc, then move up to 1 to less than 2cc per oz body weight.  If the bird has a clocacal (rectal) temperature less than 95 degrees, only 1/4 the amount of food should be given until the body is warmed up; if there is a body temperature under 95 degrees, there is very little absorption.  Over 1/2 of the mammals with a temperature less than this will die; yet warming up too quickly is also detrimental.  The bird needs up to 25% of its weight in food a day; or 30cc per pound body weight minimum ???? split into many different feedings, at least 3 ? 4x a day (7cc/oz would be 1 cc orally every 3 – 4 hours).  One cc is the same amount as 1 ml.  As they grow, the time period between feedings will decrease.  If the crop is empty, the bird may cry or be gaping.  If the bird is eating okay, food is in the crop and the nestling is not hungry, delay feeding awhile to prevent “sour crop”.  Sour crop is not caused by only leaving food in the crop; some studies show that by constantly feeding the birds they may do better.  Sour crop is from an infection, which can be from various sources.  Always use clean utensils and food preparation procedures.  Besides having clean food equipment to prevent sour crop, we recommend a small amount of Bene Bac or a similar probiotic such as or Probios, Microvet (4+ types of good bacteria); adding up to 5% yogurt to the baby formula is a distant third choice.  Monitor the bird’s weight with a small scale.  If they are gaining weight you are doing okay.  With any precocial birds provide a variety in the diet after 1 month of age.  When ready to be released, we advise the outdoor bird feeder to be kept full of birdseed for awhile.