This is the time of year when my garden feels full of life, as the neighborhood welcomes orientals, ruby-throated hummingbirds, and broad-winged hawks returning from their long migrations. At the Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center at the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences, where I work, “Baby Bird Season” is also going on.
The dedicated rehabilitation team will spend the next few months, from dawn to dusk, caring for hundreds of wounded and orphaned birds, keeping them healthy and strong enough to be released back into the wild. However, rehabilitators do not have the resources to leave their current patients and go out to rescue every injured bird. They rely on the rest of us to be their “first responders,” able to watch for a potentially infected creature and bring it in for treatment if needed. Since it can be difficult to distinguish a truly injured bird from a healthy bird, we give these creatures the best chance at survival by recognizing the need for help and knowing exactly how to get it.
Almost all hungry, injured, or weak birds that are treated at the center are brought in by members of the public who find them. They may have hit windows, been hit by cars, or are simply too young to make it out of the nest on their own. Wildlife rehabilitation specialists are specialists in treating sick, injured, and orphaned wild animals so they can be returned to their natural habitats. Because all native birds—and many mammals, reptiles, and amphibians—are protected by law, wildlife rehabilitators are required to obtain permits that allow them to care for these creatures.
The most common interaction people have with wildlife is when a child appears separated from its parents. A young bird out of the nest might really be in trouble — or it might be on the verge of independence. Instead of guessing what might happen, your first step should be to seek advice. If you live in the Upper Valley, the VINS Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center is your closest rehab center. If you live elsewhere in Vermont or New Hampshire, it’s still a good idea to contact VINS, as they can provide contact information for the rehab closest to you. If you are outside of these places, your state’s Fish and Wildlife Agency should have a list of all licensed rehabilitators in your area. (Most rehabilitators are only licensed to care for certain species, which is another important reason to contact before moving an animal!)
Wildlife rehabilitators are very busy people, so you may want to leave a message. Provide as much relevant information as possible, including the type of animal you found and where you live. If you find a young bird, do you see the nest or adults of that species? Is there an injury? If the bird is bleeding, is covered in flies or other insects, or has been observed to have been caught by a cat or dog, the bird will likely need medical attention. It is up to the rehab to listen to these details and advise you on the next steps.
If you cannot get the bird to a rehabilitator right away and are advised, for example, to keep it overnight, you will need to put together a rescue kit. Bring a cardboard box with a lid and a folded soft towel at the bottom, and place the bird inside the box, which should be kept in a warm and dark place. Rehabilitation experts will likely instruct you not to give the bird any food or water.
This is to prevent further stress, as the bird may become chilled from the spill or may be too weak to handle solid food.
Finally, stay safe and wash your hands. Although there are a few diseases that birds can transmit to humans, it is always smart to protect yourself and others in your home.
There are many, many ways wild animals can get injured, and wildlife rehabilitation professionals have years of experience and many resources that allow them to provide the best possible care for wild animals. We can also make our human environments safer for wild birds in a number of ways. Making large windows safe for birds, keeping cats indoors, picking up litter, and avoiding the use of pesticides are excellent ways to help birds in your backyard — and reduce the number of birds that need rescuing.
Anna Morris is an environmental educator at the Vermont Institute of Natural Sciences. Illustration by Adelaide Murphy of Tyrol. The Outside Story is set and edited by Northern Woodlands Magazine and Sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of the New Hampshire Charity: www.nhcf.org.