You don’t need to intervene if you find a baby bird. Truly, fledglings don’t need your help. But an injured bird is another matter. If one flies into your streak-free window, for instance, and is now lying on your deck, it only makes sense that you’d want to help out your tiny, feathered friend. You can do that, but you have to be careful. Here’s the best approach to helping a hurt bird.
Watch the bird for a while
Mother Nature has persisted with the cycle of life for millions of years without human intervention. In fact, when we do get involved, things can go badly, to say the least. Don’t rush to scoop up a bird just because you see it on the ground. Instead, as advised by Mass Audubon, observe the bird for a few hours to be sure it really is hurt and not just an uncoordinated fledgling that hasn’t gotten the hang of flying yet.
“If it can walk, hop, and flap its wings, or if adult birds are nearby, leave the bird alone. The parents will continue to care for it,” notes the organization.
Other birds, like hawks, may perch for hours at a time looking for prey. This is not a sign they are injured either, so don’t assume every bird you see hanging out in a tree for a while is hurt. If you see one on the ground and it appears unable to fly, though, that’s a good sign the bird is unwell. Slowly approach it, and if it doesn’t fly away when you’re within 10 or so feet (or less if it’s an NYC pigeon), feel free to assume there is an issue.
What to do if the bird is hurt
Once you’ve determined a bird is hurt and not just hanging out, start by reaching out to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. These organizations tend to be staffed by volunteers, so it might take some time to reach one, but it’s worth the effort. They will be able to make an informed judgment about whether further care is possible and give you advice on what to do.
If there are possible predators around, gently pick up the bird while wearing thick gloves and place it in a ventilated box, then put that box somewhere dark and quiet. Feel free to put a water dish and a bit of seed in there, too, but don’t force-feed the animal. Wash your hands thoroughly after handling the bird.
Mass Audubon advises that if you can’t reach a rehabilitator, put the bird out of sight “and let nature take its course.” If there is a vet nearby and you can’t reach a wildlife rehabilitator, consider bringing the bird in. (I once brought an injured pigeon into a vet in New York City. It is with some embarrassment I admit I was crying at the time, and only in retrospect did it occur to me what the veterinarian’s promise to “take care of it” meant.) In a best-case scenario, the bird will shape up and be freed. In a best-worst case scenario, it will die someplace comfortable.
If the bird you’re worried about dies (or you find a bird that is already dead), take a moment to research whether any disease outbreaks have been reported in your local bird population. Reach out to your local or county health department or the National Wildlife Health Center for guidance on what to do, but be prepared to collect and/or dispose of the body if they advise you to do so. In some cases, you could be asked to bring the body in, so be sure to wear gloves and wash your hands thoroughly afterward—again, just as you should if you handle a live, injured bird. According to the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds, health departments usually can’t analyze a bird that has started to decay, so you might be asked to double-bag the body and put it in the freezer if you can’t bring it in right away.
What to do when a bird hits your window
When a bird hits your window, per Mass Audubon, brain swelling may incapacitate it temporarily, but there are instances when the bird will recover fine on its own after a little downtime. Your job in this situation is to be alert for cats or other predators while it’s incapacitated. Carefully place the bird in an enclosed box or under a colander to keep it safe, but try to avoid handling the animal much, if at all. Do not try to give it any food or water.
The swelling should subside and you’ll see it become more active, at which time you can release the bird. If that doesn’t happen, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, or follow the other steps outlined above.
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