Each spring and summer, local wildlife agencies, animal shelters, vet clinics and even law enforcement receive many calls from people who have found or picked up what they assume to be lost, orphaned, sick or injured wild animals. Most calls are for young birds that have come out of nests either by trying to fly, being blown out by high winds, or pushed out by their nest-mates. Depending on the type of bird, what you do with it can be the difference between its life and death, or a possible legal violation for picking it up.
The vast majority of baby birds being found are fledglings. This means they have grown too big for their nest and need room to move around, flap their wings, and learn to fly.
In addition, because their parents built the nest, laid the eggs, and fed the babies for a couple of weeks, predators may be homing in on the nest site by now. If the babies leave the nest and disperse into the surrounding vegetation, they can avoid predators. The parent birds keep track of the babies using certain types of calls. When the baby responds, the adults can bring food to the baby.
If the young birds can hop and flutter about on their own, leave them alone. This principle applies to other animals including deer fawns, baby rabbits, raccoons and opossums. Unless they have been brought to you by your pets such as dogs and cats; then you need to return it near to where it was found and where it won’t be threatened by predators.
Nearly everyone has heard the tale that you don’t touch a baby bird or the parents will smell your scent and not return. While completely false, this tale has probably saved countless numbers of birds.
A smaller number of birds found are truly nestlings. They are mostly featherless and sometimes the eyes are not yet open. Without assistance, these birds will probably die. The best thing that could be done is to place the baby back in the nest, if there is one and you can safely do so. Look for a nest within a few yards of where you found the bird. If you can safely replace the nestling, do so as soon as you can.
If you are in a natural area, park, or refuge, it is probably best to leave everything alone. Most birds are not 100 percent successful in raising a brood each year, especially first-time bird parents. Predators often raid nests before the eggs hatch or while babies still are helpless. Nests fail because the parents did not properly build it, or they placed it in an unprotected location. This is why birds usually lay more than one egg, to ensure survival of at least one young from hatch to fledge.
What can you do for baby animals found near your home, along a road, or if they are in danger of being harmed, already injured or you can’t find where to return them? Most parks, refuges, shelters and agencies in our area are not set up to be full-time wildlife baby sitters. And, it is illegal to keep wildlife in your possession. Contact the state NDOW office in Reno at 775-688-1500.
For the Northern Nevada region, there are two licensed rehabilitators: Wild Animal Infirmary for Nevada at 755-849-0345; and Evelyn Pickels at 775-883-8658. Wildlife rehabilitators are licensed and have the proper equipment and facilities dedicated to the care of orphan, injured, and sick wildlife including birds of prey and mammals.
Drivers also are reminded to be more bird aware on country and even some busy city roads this time of year as families of birds with young not able to fly often cross roads in the mornings and evenings when traffic is heaviest. Usually one parent bird stands in the middle of the road and signals the young to follow, then the other parent bird brings up any stragglers lagging behind.
These family groups can behave erratically, and may make several attempts to get across the road. If a bird is in the road not willing to move, or keeps running back and forth to the side, slow down and look for the larger brood waiting to cross. Give them space and they usually complete their journey in less than a minute. If one of the parent birds are hit, injured or killed, the young can survive with the remaining parent. The exception to this is with wild ducks, where only the hen cares for the young; if the hen is killed and the young ducklings can be rounded up safely, get them to a rehabilitator as quickly as possible.
Remember, the best thing you can do for the birds is to not interfere with Mother Nature; she will take care of them. Explain to children not to touch young wildlife, and if your children bring you a baby bird, help them bring it back to where they found it or contact one of the sources mentioned.
Susan Sawyer is a visitor services manager at U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Fallon.