Caring for Orphaned Baby Birds

Filed Under: General Care, Birds

Raising baby birds can be a heartwarming experience. Most do well when you follow some basic rules. Baby animals are not able to maintain body temperature and require an additional heat source to warm up next to or someone to snuggle up to. Hypothermia is the primary cause of death in orphaned birds. When confronted with a baby bird, the first thing is to warm them quickly and gently. A hot water bottle is the safest and can be easily constructed from a couple of empty plastic soda bottles. Fill the soda bottle with hot water and wrap in a towel. For large numbers of fledglings or large birds, multiple bottles may be used. Alternatively, a heating pad may be used to warm young animals but needs to be set on the lowest setting available and should be well padded. Young birds may be too weak to escape a heat source that becomes too hot and may be easily burned while using a heating pad. Hot water bottles must be changed frequently to keep them warm. A wet bird will lose heat more rapidly than a dry bird, so make sure the hot water bottles don’t leak.

Bird parents provide a nest in order to keep the brood bunched together for warmth and support. The nest usually has curved sides which furnishes support for the upper body and will provide a resting place for the bird’s head. This support mechanism is important in feeding and for balance of the baby birds. Small plastic strawberry boxes make excellent nests and may be easily washed when soiled. Rough paper towels may be used to line the bottom. If you think a baby bird needs extra warmth, give them a facial tissue to snuggle under. Never use an old nest for housing orphan birds—it may be housing other pests, particularly mites. The strawberry box should be placed in an additional box (such as a shoebox) to prevent the bird from escaping and injuring itself.

The next step is to determine what type of a bird you are dealing with. There are primarily two types of birds: altricial and precocial.

Birds in the altricial category are hatched blind, unfeathered and helpless. Chicks in this category are only able to open their beaks and yell for food.

Precocial hatchlings are covered with down, can see fully, and are able to run after their parents. Precocial chicks begin pecking for their own food supply once hatched, but require an additional heat source in order to maintain body temperature. They ordinarily do this by snuggling with their parents. Precoical birds include chickens, ducks, geese, and quail. Special heat lamps are often used to keep these hatchlings warm. There should be areas where the chicks may escape the heat lamp whenever it becomes too warm for them to be comfortable.

Warm milk mixed with kayo syrup or sugar may be used as a starter diet for altricial or weak hatchlings and may be fed by a dropper. The liquid diet will help prevent dehydration unless too much sugar is added. A hypertonic solution can actually pull moisture out of tissues; therefore you do not want to use a simple syrup. Dry dog food kibble mixed with warm milk or water may substitute for an insect diet. Canned dog food may also be used and need not be softened. An alternative homemade diet may include a hard-boiled egg yolk mixed with baby cereal and milk or water to a consistency that may be picked up on a toothpick. For those bird species that eat fruit you can use scraped apple, grapes, raisins or berries that have been mashed or cut into bird bite sized pieces. Never feed a bird with metal instruments or they may damage their soft beaks. A toothpick or a plastic straw cut on a slant may be used as a delivery devise for feeding. Some birds such as cardinals and chickadees eat peanuts and sunflower seeds and may alternatively be given some peanut butter a couple of times a day.

Weak birds should be initially fed on 15 minute intervals until they have regained their strength, usually a couple of hours. The interval between feedings may then be increased gradually until hour intervals are achieved. Bird parents feed their chicks dawn to dusk, therefore night feedings are not necessary. Baby birds may be taught to automatically open their beaks to feed when you lightly tap on the side of their surroundings. The hatchlings quickly associate the tapping with food delivery.

Doves and pigeons are more difficult to feed. The mother of these bird species actually feed their fledglings through a special secretion, known as pigeon’s milk. This milk is manufactured in the mother’s crop. A good substitute recipe for pigeon’s milk is made by mashing a hard-boiled egg yolk, three tablespoons of mixed baby cereal, three tablespoons of oatmeal, and three tablespoons of cornmeal. Once feeding has been established for these species, parakeet seed should be slowly added to the mixture. Once weekly a level teaspoon of canary gravel should also be added to that day’s feeding. The dry ingredients are mixed with milk to form a consistency capable of maintaining a small bite sized pellet in shape. Dip each pellet quickly into water before giving it to the bird. These birds can choke easily and therefore should not be given water with a dropper. These birds should be offered water from a container with about an inch of water. Gently dip the beak into the water. Give the fledgling the opportunity to drink but do not force the issue. As the birds get older, larger seed may be given, moving from a parakeet mix to wild bird seed combinations or intermediate chicken scratch.

Pigeons and some species of doves have no sense of season and will try to raise families in the dead of winter. Unfortunately these mid-winter fledglings often need help to prevent the baby birds from freezing.

Hickman, Mae; Guy, Maxine. Care of the Wild, Feathered, and Furred. Michael Kesend Publishing, LTD. New York 1973. pp. 1-12.

Topics: orphans

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