All Fly, but All Different!

Feeding tiny birds is a full time job when springtime, baby season rolls around at the Outer Banks Wildlife Shelter (OWLS) in Newport, NC where I volunteer. There is no down time between feedings because baby birds, especially songbirds, eat every thirty minutes or less, depending upon their size when admitted to the shelter. By the time a wildlife rehabilitator at OWLS has made the baby bird feeding rounds in the infant nursery, it’s time to start the process all over again. And because birds eat from sun up to sun down, the shelter adds a third shift of volunteer personnel to cover evening hours until the sun dips beneath the horizon.
Baby birds are admitted for a number of reasons; some understandable to rehabbers and some not; a tree holding a nest might be cut down, a nest may have been built in an inconvenient place such as on a lawn mower or in a mail box where Carolina Wrens are known to homestead, a baby Robin might have fallen out of a nest and a cat brought him home, high winds could have blown a Cardinal’s nest apart which spilled newborns on the ground for power walkers to find or House Sparrows built a nest in a hanging plant on the porch causing bird parents to dive bomb the residents whenever they were too close to their babies. Now, that last reason is puzzling to wildlife rehabbers because our first thought as an animal caretaker, which we sometimes verbalize, is ‘can’t you use the side or back door until they fledge?’ Songbirds grow and fledge very quickly, in a matter of weeks. Remember, the smaller the bird, the faster they mature and become the capable flyers and self-feeders they need to be in the wild. If an alternate door is not an option, our next inclination is to see if there is a way to relocate the babies to a safe place in the vicinity of their parents. If that is not doable, they or the loner is admitted to the shelter’s nursery, formal identification takes place and care begins.
The keys to taking care of baby birds is possessing knowledge of dietary needs for a certain species, being aware of their unique behaviors and knowing what physical set-up is required for specific birds. Yes, they are all birds and all fly, but they are all so very different. Some birds are Passeriformes or mainly seed eaters, such as the House Finch while a Mockingbird enjoys fruit more, insectivores, like a Chimney Swift, eat bugs on the wing and some birds metabolize protein better than others. Hand held tweezers, that keenly resemble Mom or Dad’s beak, deliver mealworms that are quite popular with most baby birds, and our shelter provides 10,000 a week to nursery mates during peak baby season. At OWLS, we also have species specific infant formulas that are somewhat pasty but filling, nutritional meals we administer with a syringe. We have the gapers, such as Blue Jays, Brown Thrashers, Starlings and Sparrows, who cooperatively hold their mouths wide for feeding time and those who don’t gape at all, such as Mourning Doves or Pigeons, who have crops to fill. Some birds, like Killdeer, are precocial, which means they start eating on their own shortly after hatching. Most birds are built to perch on limbs, but Woodpeckers, Flickers and Chimney Swifts need to cling vertically to a rough surface and still, others, such as Woodcocks or Quail, sit or hide from predators in tall grasses or shrubby areas.
Wildlife rehabilitators need to know what makeshift habitat is best for each bird youngster admitted and provide that environment when they have grown beyond their incubator stay and need to stretch their legs and wings a bit. The knowledge required to appropriately and successfully care for an array of baby birds is quite extensive. That’s why when someone calls the shelter to tell us they found a baby bird and asks what they need to do to keep it alive, we advise the caller to try to get it back into the nest or place the baby bird in a small basket high in a tree so the parents can find the infant and feed him or her until ready to fledge. If that isn’t possible, we ask them to bring the youngin’s to us. Not many people outside the shelter have the time (every thirty minutes from sunrise to sunset, 24-7), particular diets available, specialized equipment and bird know-how to devote to these fragile little beings most of us love to watch in the wild. Birds need to learn to be birds and experience a series of developmental stages very quickly during that process. We don’t want them habituating with human caretakers. So, the faster we get them fully feathered, physically strong, eager to fly and out to our pre-release flight cages the better. Sometimes, in the nursery, a few juveniles are more eager than they are ready and may escape during feedings for short bursts of freedom until we encourage them to return to their enclosure mates. We deal with their acting out!
It’s a busy time at the shelter, but I eagerly invite you to tour the facility at 100 Wildlife Way (252-240-1200) in Newport, NC on Tuesdays, Thursdays or Saturdays at 2 pm. Take the opportunity to check out baby bird care in action! It’s amazing to see birds in their unique developmental stages; from homely bobble headed, skin blobs clad only in fluffy down, if not naked, to the beautiful, fully flighted and self-reliant wildlife they become.

Linda Bergman-Althouse
Author of “Save Them All”