MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS
Many ideas about birds are so widely held
that most of us think they are facts. This section will help
you learn which of these ideas is true and what is false.
If I return a baby bird to its nest,
the mother will know I've touched it and will reject it.
Unlike mammals and reptiles, most birds have
a very poor sense of smell (except for Vultures) and cannot detect
human scent. Parent birds have a lot invested in their young
and will not reject or hurt a baby bird that has been touched
by a human, even if they see you touch it.
Most birds will look for a missing baby bird
for at least 4 days. An uninjured baby bird that has simply fallen
from the nest can be returned to its nest, and the parent birds
will continue to care for it. However, you must make sure before
returning a baby to the nest that it has no injuries, and you
must make sure you return it to the correct nest. If a baby has
injuries, it must be treated for the injuries or it will not
survive. Also, baby birds depend on the warmth of their nestmates.
So if you do find an uninjured baby and can locate its nest,
you will be doing the parents and the siblings a huge favor by
returning the baby to its home.
(Please note: children should not handle wildlife.
If you are a child who has found a bird who needs help, please
get a grown-up to help you.)
Parent birds can pick up their babies
and bring them back to the nest.
Most birds lack the strength and neck muscles
to be able to pick up and carry their young back to the nest,
unlike mammal parents. They will try to feed their young on the
ground, however, if at all possible. Birds are very devoted to
Mother birds will push their young
out of the nest if they are defective, or when it is time for
them to leave.
Fledgling birds that are around 14-18 days
old (with a tail length of around 1/4"-1/2" long) begin
to get curious about the world and leave the nest on their own.
Parent birds will sometimes remove an egg that has not hatched,
but will not push their young out of the nest. Sometimes a nest
gets crowded and one of the nestlings gets accidentally knocked
out by a nestmate. But it is unfortunately all too common for
many baby birds to be pulled out of the nest by predators.
All baby animals can be fed bread and
Most wild birds are fed high-protein insects
when they are young. The exceptions are pigeons, doves, and some
finches (who are fed pre-digested weed seeds by their parents),
and baby birds of prey (who are fed rodent meat by adults).
Unlike mammals, birds cannot digest milk at all.
They lack the enzymes needed to digest lactose in any form. And
there is no nutrition in bread that a young bird can use for
growing during its critical first fourteen days of life.
Do not believe anyone who tells you to feed
any form of dairy product or bread to baby birds! Baby birds
get very sick and often die when fed incorrectly. Always get
the facts directly from a licensed Wildife
Specialist before you offer any food to a wild bird -- or
any other wild animal.
Wild animals, including baby birds,
know exactly what they should and should not eat and will never
swallow anything that is bad for them.
While it is true that adult birds know exactly
what to feed their babies, hungry baby birds will swallow anything
that is put into their mouths, even if it is likely to kill them.
Baby birds are programmed to beg for food and eat under any circumstances
in order to survive. This is why it's extremely important that
you not feed or water a wild bird or animal you
have found until after you have spoken to a Wildlife Specialist.
Also, many people think a bird in trouble needs water, which
is also not necessarily true and can cause a sick or injured
bird to drown.
Baby birds are not the only ones who don't
always know what's good for them. Many household chemicals are
confusing and hazardous to wildlife and pets. Cats, for example,
have been known to lap at pools of antifreeze. It tastes sweet,
but it is deadly poison. Also, no animal can tell in advance
whether the food it is about to ingest has been contaminated
with a pesticide which is likely to harm it.
So don't assume that just because an animal
accepts what you give it that you are giving it the right thing.
If you are trying to rescue an animal, make sure you have confirmed
with a Wildlife Specialist exactly what you should offer the
animal before you start feeding it. If you must
use pesticides, choose them carefully and use them very sparingly.
And never leave household chemicals lying around or allow automotive
chemicals to pool under your vehicle.
To "eat like a bird" means
to eat very little food.
Birds eat a lot and very often to maintain
their high body temperature and fast metabolism. This is especially
true of baby birds in spring and summer. Because they are growing
so fast, some may consume almost their own body weight daily!
Wild birds make good pets.
It is illegal to keep most wild birds as pets.
They are protected by federal law, and Wildlife Rehabilitators
have state and federal licenses that permit them to care for
these creatures. Wildlife belongs in the wild and not in our
homes. Cute as they are, our native wild birds have a wild outlook
on life and wild instincts, especially around mating season,
that we need to be sensitive to and respect.
In the spring, birds that are repeatedly banging into windows
want to come into the house.
During mating season in spring and summer,
some adult male birds will see their reflection in the windows
on our homes and think they are seeing a rival male trying to
intrude on their nesting territory. This seems to happen most
with Robins and Cardinals although it has been reported in other
species as well. These birds become frantic and can eventually
begin to attack car windows and mirrors! Remember that windows
and mirrors are not part of the natural world in which these
birds have evolved for millions of years, and so they do not
understand these man-made reflective items. The best solution
is to temporarily block the reflection before the defending bird
becomes obsessed and habituated with his reflection. This can
be done by hanging sheets on the outside of windows, or covering
mirrors with towels or even garbage bags for 3-4 days, up to
a week, until the defending bird is satisfied that the intruder
Birds can protect themselves from our
As a recently introduced predator, domesticated
pet cats are not from this part of the globe and our wild birds
have not evolved for millions of years with pet cats in their
environment. They have no physical defense except flight. Very
young birds do not have this defense. If a nesting adult bird
is killed by a cat, it is very likely that the young will starve
While parent birds will try to warn their
young that a cat is nearby, many fledgling wild birds are bitten
each spring and summer and will die from a bacterial infection
in about 48 hours. While these birds can be treated with antibiotics
if found in time, the best solution is to keep cats indoors during the day in spring and summer
Wild birds that are hurt like to be
held and petted by people. It calms them down.
Adult wild birds consider humans to be a dangerous
predator and are afraid of us. Unlike pet cats and dogs, they
do not find comfort in being patted by people. It is very stressful
for them to be handled and causes them to panic rather than to
calm down. They may close their eyes and freeze in fear when
picked up by humans.
Injured birds will act very debilitated
and make a lot of noise when in pain.
Because predators are attracted to anything
that moves oddly (by limping, for example) or makes a lot of
noise, injured birds are programmed to act as normal as possible,
and not to make a big fuss, so as not to attract predators who
might eat them. They generally suffer in silence when in pain.
Baby birds, even when injured or sick, are
programmed to to beg for food, for survival reasons.
This is why birds can be very deceptive about
the state of their health; they have to be. To the untrained
eye they may appear normal, but in reality may be very hurt or
weakened, conditions which may only become apparent upon examination
by an experienced Wildlife Specialist.
Hurt wild birds will bleed a lot, so
any injuries will be very visible.
Birds normally do not bleed readily (the way
mammals do) because they cannot afford to lose much blood. Avian
blood clots very quickly when exposed to air, unless a vein,
artery, toenail, or blood quill (developing feather) has been
Feathers hide a multitude of sins. Generally
in order to see bird wounds, each feather has to be moved aside
to expose the skin underneath. Because it is easy to injure a
bird, this kind of examination should only be undertaken by or
under the supervision of a trained Wildlife Specialist.
If I find a wild bird in trouble, a
good place to take it might be a veterinarian, zoo, or pet store.
Or I can always ask someone who owns a pet bird what to do.
While it is true that most veterinarians know
a lot about animals, and while many of them care very deeply
about the health and welfare of all animals, including wildlife,
taking care of wildlife is a specialty which requires special
training. You do not have to become a veterinarian before you
can become a licensed Wildlife Specialist. However, even veterinarians,
who are usually only schooled in the care of pets and livestock,
have to undertake special training to learn to care for wildlife
effectively. Most of the time, veterinarians receiving calls
about wildlife in trouble will refer callers to local agencies
or to a Wildlife Specialist.
Likewise, although zoos are all about animals,
most do not have the resources to care for and rehabilitate local
native wildlife. Zoos are like living museums, and they are usually
only set up to care for their specimen guests. Some zoos, aviaries
and marine parks do have hospital and rehabilitation facilities
for animals they do not intend to keep, but these tend to be
very specialized and not geared toward the care of all the wild
animals indigenous to the zoo's community.
Pet stores are in the business of selling
pets and things which help people take care of their pets. They
are not allowed to deal in wild animals, especially those which
are federally protected (like birds), and so finding a pet store
with an owner or staffmember who is qualified to help you rehabilitate
wildlife is like finding someone who owns or works in the produce
department of a grocery store to help you farm your orchard.
Even though many pet stores are owned and staffed by very knowledgeable
and caring people, this is not the same thing as being staffed
by licensed Wildlife Specialists.
Finally, beyond certain obvious physical traits
(such as feathers), pet birds are nothing like wild birds. A
friend or neighbor of yours might have a very healthy parrot
or cockatiel and might know exactly how to care for it very well.
However, this person will probably not know anything about the
special needs of wild birds, especially traumatically injured
or sick wild birds, and without knowing better, and certainly
without meaning to do harm, this person could give you some very
wrong advice -- advice which could injure or kill a wild bird,
especially with regard to diet.
Any wildlife you find in trouble and wish
to help should be taken immediately to your nearest Wildlife Specialist.
If left alone, hurt birds will heal
on their own.
Many songbirds that have serious injuries
will not heal on their own, and will perish without human intervention.
If not set within 72 hours, broken
bones mend as "non union heals," meaning they never
knit together properly. This renders the bones involved permanently
useless as support structures.
Untreated, most cat bites will develop infections within
48 hours. These infections are almost always fatal.
Most small birds that are hurt will
succumb to a predator, hypothermia, or starvation before their
wounds even have a chance to repair themselves.
Now, many people hold a fervent philosophical
belief that we should always let nature take its course and not
intervene no matter what. As you might have gathered, we here
at The Place for Wild Birds do not quite hold with that belief.
We have come to believe differently in large
part due to the kinds of injuries and other types of distress
most frequently sustained by the birds we are given to care for,
including but not limited to things like cat attacks and pesticide
poisoning. These events are always the result of humans entering
the natural landscape and permanently changing the exact same
delicate and complex balance of nature which non-interventionists
seek to protect. Although we respect this desire to protect nature,
and although we recognize that humans are part of nature, we
also know that wherever humans live we bring tools, pets, chemicals,
machinery, and architecture which are not part of nature -- and
which often cause harm to native wildlife populations.
We cannot save all the avian casualties of
human influence upon nature. However, by caring for sick, injured
and orphaned wild birds, and by educating the public about wild
bird protection, rescue and rehabilitation, we at The Place for
Wild Birds attempt to undo some of the damage our species has
already done to the balance of nature. We also seek to prevent
further damage and to help keep the global population of birds
from shrinking any more rapidly than it already is. Since most
birds cannot heal themselves of the injuries our presence inflicts
on them, we feel it is not just acceptable for us to be making
this attempt, but that it is part of our responsibility as humans.
Birds are not smart (hence the expression
Studies have shown that birds are actually
very intelligent. Some can count up to 7, invent and use tools,
and even learn by playing. Pigeons have demonstrated the ability
to recognize human individuals, and to perform tasks for a reward.
Highly adaptable, the brain of a singing bird undergoes annual
cycles of cell death and regrowth, very likely allowing birds
like Canaries to master new songs. A new study suggests that
as the Chickadee hides seeds in the fall, its brain adds memory
cells which allow it to locate the hidden food. And in some areas,
such as spatial orientation and navigation, birds have a learning
ability that is not surpassed by any other animals except the
Wild birds that look big and fat are
Adult female birds lay eggs which develop
inside their abdominal cavity. However, these eggs are not visible
from the outside, so unlike with mammals, it is impossible to
spot a breeding female bird by just looking at her from a distance.
More likely, birds that appear big and fat
are puffing out their feathers in order to trap air and keep
warm. Healthy birds will normally fluff out their feathers in
the cold weather, and sick or hurt birds will puff up even in
warm weather because they are not feeling well. This behavior
can make a very thin bird appear to be very fat!
A bird cage is a good place to put
A wild bird may injure itself when put into
a bird cage, even temporarily. While cages with metal bars are
fine for domesticated pet birds, wild birds do not have any experience
with cages and will try to escape through the bars. They may
hurt themselves, especially in a car while being transporting
to a Wildlife Rehabilitator.
It is best to put a wild bird that needs help
in a dark box, on a towel. Being in a box actually calms a wild
bird, because it feels safe and less vulnerable to predators.
Placing a wild bird in a box helps it to feel like it is hiding.
A box with a lid is best so that the bird
is in the dark, and a few small air holes will help with air
circulation. The size of the box should not be too large. A box
that allows the bird to turn around comfortably without hitting
the walls or lid is best, as this will limit activity and the
possibility of further injury to the bird.
For more information on what to do with a
wild bird in trouble, please see our Emergency section.
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belong to The Place for Wild Birds, Inc.
Copyright © 2002, all rights reserved. Reproduce only with
All photographs by Walter S. Bezaniuk. Most illustrations by
Site design and some illustrations by Sara.