This is a photograph that popped up in my email a couple of weeks ago. It was accompanied by a phone call asking what kind of a bird it was and what “we” should do with it. I recognized the type of bird right way, but after hearing its story of being found and then transported many miles away from its home, I despaired a bit for its future.
Every one of us has either found a baby bird hopping around on the ground making loud, “I-don’t-know-how-to-fly” noises, or we have received such a bird from some well-meaning relative, friend, or acquaintance. This is a situation that pits our emotional selves (“the poor little bird!”) against our scientific selves (“he’s fine, or if he isn’t, that’s fine, too!”).
What do the experts say about this? The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (US-FWS) has an excellent web page about what to do when you find a baby bird. They categorically state that the best thing you can do for the bird is to leave it alone. Its chances for survival are much higher if you don’t interfere with whatever is going on (and this is very important: you don’t know what’s going on when you see this little bird trundling around on the ground! Maybe there are reasons (and benefits) for his being there, maybe it’s just some random mishap. Knowing that you don’t know what is going on may be the first step toward some type of ecological, Socratic wisdom!).
Sialis is a web site named after the genus (and also the species) name of the eastern bluebird (Sialis sialis). It is a wonderful set of pages loaded with a great deal of practical information about bluebirds and many other types of small birds. The web site is the expression of a single person’s emotional and intellectual connection to all of these fantastic, little creatures. I recommend you go there and browse around its pages. Anyway, Sialis has the same basic philosophy as the US-FWS: if you find a bird, leave it alone! Although, the site does then goes into a detailed set of possible contingencies, exceptions and scenarios.
First and foremost you should know that it is illegal to possess a wild bird or any other wild animal. The laws that govern this are extremely logical and are designed to let wild animals live as freely as possible away from human interference. Also, an untrained person trying to raise, say, a wild baby bird almost certainly guarantees that that baby bird is going to die.
So, what if there are dogs and cats around in the yard where the baby bird is chirping about? Best thing to do is to put the dogs and cats somewhere else and let the bird follow its destiny. If that’s not possible, gently remove the bird from the ground level (picking it up in a pillow case or t-shirt is best so that you don’t snag its toenails or feathers) and place it up somewhere out of reach of muzzles and claws (in a bush or up on a tree branch, or back in its nest if the nest is visible and accessible). Your scent will not affect the treatment of the baby bird by its parents (that’s an old Mother’s Tale designed to keep children from handling baby birds). You might even make an artificial nest or protective enclosure for the bird to help to keep it safe (check out the Sialis description of these kinds of nests and enclosures!). If none of these options are possible, then you might have a reason to take the bird out of its yard. This removal should only be done with great caution and reluctance, though. The baby bird’s parents are probably lurking nearby with beaks full of mushed crickets and caterpillars. The web sites say you watch the bird for at least two hours before presuming that it is abandoned.
Why would the baby bird be on the ground in the first place? Maybe the nest got too crowded, and the bird and possibly several or all of its clutch-mates had to abandon their cozy egg-home. Getting out of the nest, in fact, may help to reduce predation on the nestlings! Nest predators (like possums, raccoons, hawks, jays, crows, and maybe even snakes) eventually will cue in on the constant in’s and out’s of the parental birds carrying their phenomenal load of nestling food into the nest. Getting out of the nest as early as possible might just be a very solid survival strategy! Also, many bird species have several days of almost-flying fledging in which the nestlings exercise their growing wings to get to the point of being able to fly. These grounded fledges make up a significant proportion of the “saved” baby birds, but they really don’t need to be saved: their moms and dads are close by and are both watching and feeding them continuously.
Now, that baby bird might be on the ground by accident and for no good reason or for any benefit to themselves is also a possibility. Maybe their nest fell apart, maybe there was a wind storm, maybe the branch the nest was placed was rotten. Equally possible, though, is that the parental birds screwed up. They didn’t display the optimal behaviors in nest site selection or building or in their nestling rearing practices. If so, Natural Selection might be best served if those parental genes were not continued in the population.
Like Richard Dawkins has said: Nature is not cruel or kind, it is just indifferent to suffering.
The little bird that started this whole story is a cedar waxwing nestling that must have gotten blown out its nest in the storm of the night before. He was scooped up into a box and then put into a bag to keep him away from a cat and a dog, and then he was driven to Penn State New Kensington. I retired from Penn State a couple of months ago, but was very happy to get this email and the subsequent phone calls.
I reminded the caller not to give the baby bird any fluids (they would choke) and to see if it would eat some crickets (we keep a supply on hand for our departmental frogs). Young cedar waxwings are fed a rich supply of insects and only slowly transition into almost exclusively fruit eating adults. I also said that they needed to take it to a rehab center. Only a trained person (or a parental bird!) would know how to feed and care for such a young bird.
The very good news is that Lil Waxy (my name for the baby bird) ate a couple of crickets and was taken to and accepted by the wildlife rehab center in Verona. They said that were expecting quite a few cedar waxwing nestlings (the waxwings have a second nesting cycle in August and tend to build their nests quite high up in trees). They would keep the young waxwings together (they are an obligatory group oriented species) until the spring when the migrating waxwing flocks returned to Western Pennsylvania. Then they would release the kept individuals and let them re-join the large flocks. It was a happy ending.
It costs a great deal of money to hand raise and keep young songbirds! I have sent the Verona facility a donation already. If you would like to help out, just click on this link. Maybe Nature isn’t kind, but we all can be!