Raising wild birds isn’t easy


At the time of writing, Wildwoods has admitted only five nestling birds this season. We know from experience that many, many more are on their way.

As spring finally takes hold, eggs are beginning to hatch and we will receive several calls a day about them. Sometimes pets get ahold of baby birds and bring them to their owners, very proud of their hunting prowess. Sometimes strong winds blow nests from trees. Sometimes homeowners doing spring yard work don’t realize there is a nest where they’re working and inadvertently destroy it. There are many reasons why baby birds find their way to Wildwoods, but all of them require near round-the-clock care. Songbird nestlings must be fed every 15 minutes until they’re old enough to start finding food on their own.

We must be careful to consider what type of bird we’re dealing with when determining a care plan. Different species eat different foods or even eat in different ways. We have to be mindful of that when we decide what and how to feed them during the various stages of their development. To properly raise nestlings to adulthood requires an intimate understanding of a species’ life history, stages of development and the circumstances of each individual bird.

Most nestlings are fed when the parent puts food in the mouth of the offspring. Pigeons, however, do things the opposite way. Their nestlings put their beaks into the parent’s mouth and suck down a slurry of partially digested food from the parent’s crop. In each instance we emulate that behavior, using different types and sizes of syringes. The imitation of feeding styles doesn’t stop when they get older. Some birds, like swallows and chimney swifts, eat “on the fly,” catching insects as they maneuver through the air. When they’re old enough, we have to be sure to train them to do this, rather than offering them a tray of dirt to dig through for worms, like we would with juvenile robins.

The types of food that different species eat and the nutritional requirements at each stage of development must be accounted for as well. Adult robins eat worms, but they also eat berries and other insects. Crows are carnivores who eat small mammals and other birds, but they also eat fruit and seeds. When they feed their offspring, the nutritional makeup of the meal will be different between species. We don’t feed nestling pigeons the same formula that we would feed a nestling sparrow.

With all these differences that need to be accounted for, how can you help if you find a baby bird? First, call us at (218) 491-3604. We’ll ask some questions to determine the situation. Based on the circumstances we may ask you to bring them in or we may encourage you to leave them right where they are. Nestlings may need help while fledglings often just need some space to learn to fly. (Other factors need to be considered, so please call us).

What’s the difference between a fledgling and a nestling? One, does the bird have fuzz or feathers? If the answer is fuzz, it’s a nestling. If feathers, you have a fledgling. Two, do you see naked skin? If yes, you have a nestling. Three, what does the bird do most of the time? If it spends a lot of time sleeping, it’s a nestling. If it’s often sitting upright, looking alert, it’s a fledgling.

If you find a fledgling on the ground, leave it alone and keep kids and pets away from the area. If you find a nestling on the ground, try to put it back in its nest. If you can’t find or reach the nest, poke holes in the bottom of a margarine container, line it with some grass, and nail it to the nearest tree, placing the nestling in the nest. Observe from a distance for an hour and if you see a parent coming back to feed it, all is well. If not, call us. During the summer we’re open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

For more information and to see a slide show about nestling and fledgling birds, you can visit here.

Wildwoods is a 501(c)(3) wildlife rehabilitation organization in Duluth. For information on how you can help wildlife, including volunteer opportunities, visit wildwoodsrehab.org, call (218) 491-3604 or write to P.O. Box 3161, Duluth, MN 55803.