Every backyard birdwatcher has watched baby birds that seem to be constantly crying “Feed me! Feed me! Feed me now!”
They make pitiful calls for attention to their apparently indifferent parents, fluttering their wings and chirping constantly.
It is only natural to want to feed those fluffy balls of feathers, but feeding a baby bird is something you should never attempt unless you are sure that the baby bird needs your help.
Then you must be completely familiar with the foods that a newly hatched bird really needs for health and growth.
Should You Feed a Baby Bird?
The first thing to consider is whether you should be feeding any particular bird still in its mother’s nest at all.
Some baby birds have extremely demanding dietary needs. They may need to eat three to six times every hour from sunup until sundown, for 12 to 15 hours a day.
The hungriest baby birds are those that need constant feeding with tiny insects, caught by their parents that spend all day hunting for them, while also finding enough food to sustain themselves.
This means that just because a baby bird is crying out in hunger doesn’t mean that it is being neglected by its parents.
The busy mother (and in some species, father) bird only needs a few seconds to pop a bug into the baby’s waiting mouth. The adult bird then quickly flies away to look for more.
If you don’t pay close attention to the nest, you may miss the parent’s feeding visits. You may think that the nest has been abandoned by the parent birds, but that may not be true.
The adult birds feeding their hatchlings may be nearby searching for more food for their next feeding, just a few minutes later.
It is also possible that adult birds tend to hatchlings in more than one nest, separated for the safety of the birds that cannot yet fly and fend for themselves.
As a result, it is best not to assume that a young bird is being neglected unless you have not seen an adult bird return to its nest for two hours or longer.
Baby birds get fewer and fewer feedings as they near the time they will leave the nest.
There is no reason to worry about a baby bird as long as you see its parents at their nest, at least occasionally. You can rely on the parents to take care of their offspring in the best way possible, as long as they are alive.
But what do you do when a baby bird seems ill or injured in some way?
Get Advice from Wildlife Rehabilitation Before Feeding a Baby Bird
When you observe a baby bird that seems to be listless and lethargic and losing energy, or that seems to be injured, contact Wildlife Rehab.
In most US states, you should call Parks & Wildlife to find the nearest licensed wildlife rehabber.
In Canada, the place to call will be listed as a “wildlife rehabilitation center.” In the UK, it is The Wildlife Aid Foundation (AID).
If you can’t find a listing for these organizations, you can inquire at your local animal welfare office, ask a veterinarian’s office, or even call the local zoo or wildlife preserve.
Ask an expert to evaluate the bird’s health before you try feeding it.
When wildlife rehabbers think a baby bird needs supplemental feeding, they will be able to recommend the specific foods to give it.
Emergency feeding has some exact requirements, and you should follow their instructions carefully and completely.
What to Do If You Can’t Get Expert Advice
When advice from experts is unavailable, and the baby bird needs your help, keep one general principle in mind:
Baby birds don’t need the same food as adult birds.
You shouldn’t give a baby bird the same food you put out in a bird feeder.
Good foods for baby birds include minced, raw liver and organ meats, with no seasoning. Or moistened dog or cat food. Or ground-up hard-boiled eggs.
There are also foods and drinks that baby birds should not give baby birds.
Don’t give a baby bird water. Its kidneys cannot deal with it.
Do not give a baby bird milk, bird seed, worms, flying insects, bread, crackers, whole bird seed, or kitchen scraps.
Birds that are almost ready to leave the nest may be able to tolerate “normal” adult bird food, however, and they can also survive longer between feedings.
The youngest baby birds may need to be fed as often as 75 times a day. They will let you know if they are not getting enough.
How to Feed Baby Birds – The Right Way
Here are some important tips for feeding baby birds:
- Always offer room-temperature food. It should not be heated or chilled.
- Any food you offer a baby bird should be moist and spongy, but not dripping with water. Baby birds don’t know how to swallow water without choking.
- Tiny birds need tiny bites. Mince or grind food so it is easy for the bird to swallow.
- Never force a bird’s bill open to make it eat. Drop the food into the bird’s waiting mouth, or wait for another opportunity to do your feeding.
It is always best to take an abandoned baby bird to a wildlife rescue center or an experienced wildlife rehabber as soon as possible.
Wildlife rehabbers can not only make sure the bird gets an appropriate diet, they can also teach it how to get food on its own.
Licensed wildlife rehabbers give abandoned birds their best chance to survive and thrive in the wild on their own.
Frequently Asked Questions About Taking Care of Abandoned Baby Birds
Q. What Do You Do First When You Find A Baby Bird?
A. When you find a baby bird on the ground, or your cat has brought one to you, the very first thing to do is to put it in a safe place.
Pick it up gently. Use a soft washcloth or a tea towel if you would rather not touch it directly. Then put it in a box.
Any kind of box with air holes and a loose-fitting lid will work. You just want to get the baby bird into a dark place so it will feel more secure while you figure out what to do next.
The next thing you need to do is to determine whether you are rescuing a nestling or a fledgling.
Nestlings have not yet left the nest on their own. Fledglings have made their first attempt at flight, but if you are finding them on the ground, they weren’t ready yet.
You are much more likely to find a fledgling than a nestling. They spend more time on the ground, and they are much more likely to be caught by a cat.
Fledglings usually look scruffy. They have all of their feathers, but they don’t look as neat as the feathers of an adult.
If the bird you have found is a fledgling, the help it needs most is safety.
Put the fledgling in a box, and then transfer the box to a location where it won’t be attacked by a predator.
Open the lid and let the bird try to fly again when it is ready. Its parents may be nearby, waiting with food.
Contrastingly, nestlings will have few or no feathers. You may find more than one nestling on the ground, if something has disturbed the nest.
When you find nestlings, the first thing to do is to look for their nest. If you find the nest, pop them right back in and leave them for their mother to discover and take care of.
If you find the entire nest intact, try putting it back where you have seen it before.
If the nest is damaged, place it in a pot with some soft nesting material, and wire the pot to a tree limb or a bush.
Don’t consider trying to hand-rear a baby bird until you have made every effort to return it to its nest.
Only if there is no sign of a parent after several hours should you consider taking care of the bird yourself.
Q. How Do You House An Abandoned Baby Bird?
A, When you commit to taking care of an abandoned baby bird, you will need to find somewhere for it to live until it is old enough to take care of itself.
Housing fledglings is easy, since they have already left the nest. You just need to provide them with a safe space in your yard that they can escape when they are ready to go off on their own.
To take care of a nestling, you need to keep in mind that they are messy. They will need a box lined with some kind of non-slip material that is easy to clean.
Nestlings also need some soft material on which to rest, because their bodies are not yet ready to support them.
They need nesting materials underneath their bodies to support normal bone development.
Place a nestling bird box in a quiet, warm, pet-proof place. Don’t use a heat lamp unless the room is very cold, because young birds cannot move if they start to overheat.
Q. What Do I Feed A Fledgling?
A. Fledgling birds are much easier to feed than nestling birds. Try offering a mixture of birdseed and mealworms.
The fledgling will accept its preferred food. You may need to offer the mealworms with tweezers, holding them in front of the fledgling, until it gets used to eating them from a dish.
Place a dish of water in the fledgling’s box, but let it drink on its own.
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