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On Common Ground: How, when to care for a seemingly injured bird

A pair of house finches are shown. Photos by Kim Barker/California Wildlife Center
A western scrub jay fledgling is pictured.
Denys Hemen, Hospital Manager, California Wildlife Center
11:46 am PDT June 1, 2017

Spring and summer are busy seasons for songbirds. Mates are found, nests are made, and eggs are laid. You may be watching this magic happen in your yard before your eyes. When the moment arrives, and little chicks emerge from their eggs, the parents begin bringing food to the hungry chicks at a frenzied rate. These little guys need to grow exponentially every day. Life is tough being so small. There are many predators searching for easy prey so they must grow up fast!

As the chicks get bigger, they begin to outgrow the nest. Now they are becoming more visible to predators and are like sitting ducks! Once most of their feathers have grown in they get a little bouncy and decide to leave the nest. They take the plunge and flutter to the ground. The parents are well aware of their location and begin visiting them on the ground. The hungry baby takes cover in low lying trees, high grasses, bushes, shrubs and anywhere else it can find cover. It will be a few days before the young can fly, but at least they are mobile on the ground rather than stuck in a nest.

This is how most songbirds in Southern California begin their lives. They learn how to fly from the ground up. That is why it is very important not to jump to conclusions when you see a bird that cannot fly, but is still mobile and running around on the ground. Take a minute to stop and watch. Do you see the mother flying to it and bringing it food? Do you see other similar looking birds in the area watching you closely? If so, make some distance between you and the bird and watch for a while. If you see this activity, leave the baby alone. You only want to intervene if the bird looks injured. The most obvious injuries are wings dragging on the ground, a limp that prevents the bird from moving around quickly, or a cat attack. 

If you happen to find a nestling or hatchling, you will always need to intervene. These birds are helpless. They have less feathering than a fledgling, usually have very fuzzy heads, and are not able to move around too much. These birds must be placed back into their original nests. Do not worry about touching it. The stories about mothers rejecting baby birds if she smells humans on them are false! Look for the nest in the general vicinity. These birds cannot travel far. 

If you find a whole nest that has fallen and all the birds are uninjured, you can gather the materials and create a fake nest. Be sure that it is about the same size as the original. Use a shallow plastic container and put many holes in it for drainage. Attach the nest to the tree nearest to where you found the birds, and up as high as you can. Watch from afar for a couple hours to check for parental activity.

So what if the bird you have found is injured or is unable to be renested? Find a small, closable box with air holes. In the bottom of the box, place something soft like an old T-shirt or some paper towels. If the bird is a tiny nestling, you can roll up some toilet tissue into a bowl shape and place the bird inside. Pick up the bird, place it in the box, and close it securely. Bring the box inside, place it somewhere quiet, and call California Wildlife Center at (310) 458-9453 as soon as possible! 

On Common Ground is a monthly column written by various California Wildlife Center employees. CWC, a nonprofit located in Calabasas, cares for injured wildlife in Malibu and beyond.