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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

If You Find a Baby Bird...

I was working this past weekend, which - being a beautiful late spring day - meant that I spent no time at my desk.  Then, I was off on Monday and Tuesday.  When I got back to the zoo this morning, I wasn't the least bit surprised to find that I had about thirty messages on the zoo phone to answer.  Not for me personally, just for "a keeper."  Excluding all of the hang-ups, they all tend to fall into two categories.

There are people who want us to take in their pet parrot/tortoise/python/etc.  And then there are the people who find baby birds.  Once or twice a week there's a fawn too, but mostly it's the birds.

"Baby birds" (and you'll see why I put that in quotations later) are one of the great frustrations of working with animals.  That's because the right thing to do is, for once in life, the easiest.  Nothing.  But people seldom do the right thing.  They want to do something.

The vast majority of the time, the baby bird in question is actually a feather-covered fledgling.  These are the awkward kids of the bird world, just learning to fly and, like kids first learning to drive, doing it badly.  Often they fall out of the nest on that maiden flight and then just sit there, looking kind of dumb.  That's ok.  That's what they are supposed to do.  It's how they learn.  They can't learn, however, if they get scooped up in a shoebox and taken home by someone who means well but doesn't know what they are doing.  The best thing to do is put it somewhere safe nearby, like a bush, out of danger where it can prepare to try again at its own pace.

If it is an actual baby - naked, incapable of perching - try finding the nest and put it back.  Ignore the old adages about "the mom and dad bird will smell your scent on the baby and abandon it" - most birds can't really smell.  If the bird is injured, the best thing to do is contact a wildlife rehabilitator to take it in.  Those folks know what they are signed up for.  You don't.  Hand-raising a baby bird (which I've done, and am still recovering from) is exhausting.  The younger the bird, the more ravenous the appetite.  Sometimes, feedings come at the rate of a few per hour.  Hope you're not a deep sleeper.

As for fawns, this is also one of those rare situations where ignoring the problem makes it go away, usually. Most deer are hiders - they leave their young, tender, highly-edible fawns hidden while they go out to feed, knowing that is is safer hidden in deep brush than it is following mom around, exposed to predators.  Almost all "abandoned" fawns are likely being watched by their nervous mothers nearby, who are stomping their hooves in frustration that humans have found their young.  The best thing to do is leave them be.

None of this is, I have to admit to the panic-filled people I talk with on the phone, is a guarantee that everything will be fine.  We can't promise that, five seconds after you turn your back, a fox won't tear down and run off with that fawn, or a snake won't gobble that nestling bird.  But the sad truth is, that's perfectly natural as well.  What's also a sad truth, however, is that relatively few animals taken in by amateur, unknowledgeable rescuers have happy endings.

As a species, we often feel the drive to act boldly to help those we see as in need.  Sometimes, the most helpful thing we can do, however, is walk away and let things be.  Sometimes, our help only makes things worse.

For more info, here's a list of FAQs from Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology on the subject

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