How Can You Tell When a Bird Needs Help?

It’s a question that comes up often. People find a bird that might be injured and wonder what to do. The answer depends on several factors, but in most instances the best course of action is contacting a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who can help the animal.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

In many cases, people come across young birds and are worried about their health. For these young birds, whether they need help depends on how old they are.


Very young birds, called nestlings, need help if they are found outside of their nests. These birds can’t yet fly and require care from their parents. How can you tell if a baby bird is a nestling? They usually have very few feathers, and they cannot walk or grip your finger tightly.


Nestlings sometimes fall out of their nests, so there’s a good chance if you find one that its nest is nearby. Look around to see if you can find it. As long as the bird isn’t injured and you can find the nest, gently scoop up the nestling and place it back in its nest. And don’t worry; there’s no truth to the rumor that mother birds will abandon their babies if they’ve been touched by humans.


Most often, the young birds that people find on the ground are fledglings, not nestlings. These birds are a few weeks older than nestlings and are busy learning how to be a bird. It’s normal to find them on the ground.


The first sign that the bird is a fledging will be the presence of feathers. Fledglings will also be able to hop around on the ground and may flap their wings. However, they can’t quite fly just yet.


Even though they seem all alone, fledglings don’t need your help. They have left the nest as a normal part of their development. Their parents may be nearby keeping an eye on them. In most cases, if you try to return a fledgling to its nest, it will simply hop out again.


More rarely, you may come across a fledgling on the ground that is hurt or sick, and these birds may need intervention. Signs of this include wet feathers; the presence of flies; and an inability to walk or hop on the ground.


For adult birds, injuries are often easy to see. For example, a bird with a drooping wing needs help, and so do birds that cannot stand or walk on the ground. A bird is also likely injured if it doesn’t fly away when you walk up to it.


A bird that’s sick or hurt may also sit quietly with its eyes closed. In many cases they may fluff their feathers so they look puffier than usual, although this is normal in winter. They may also have difficulty breathing or have trouble holding their heads up. For waterfowl like ducks and geese, they may not be able to swim properly.


A common cause of injury in birds is window strikes. These incidents kill hundreds of millions of birds each year, but many can survive these impacts. When they do, though, they may be stunned, causing them to appear injured or even dead.


If you encounter a bird that you think may have flown into a window, check on it by very gently moving its legs. If its legs don’t move, it’s dead. If the legs do move, it’s alive, but it may be unconscious.


If you find a bird that displays signs of being sick or hurt, contact a local wildlife rehabilitator. You can find a list of rehabilitators who have permits from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources online.


In the meantime, if you can carefully move the bird to a safe place, put it in a box with a lid. Make sure to add some holes to the lid so the bird has air to breathe. When picking it up, move slowly and gently, approaching from behind if possible, to avoid startling it. Place the container in a dark, quiet place like a garage.


If the bird was injured in a window strike, after about 15 minutes, try bringing the box outside and removing the lid to see if it will fly off. If it doesn’t, bring it back to the dark, quiet place and allow it to rest longer. Continue trying to release it every so often but otherwise avoid opening the box unnecessarily to keep the bird calm. If it hasn’t recovered enough to fly away after a few hours, contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.


When handling birds, make sure to always wear gloves. You can also try to use a net to keep the bird from trying to leave the area. Do not give the bird any food or water, because this can make it sick or kill it. Do not handle the bird, and make sure to ask your parents for assistance. It’s also important to keep pets and young children away from it. Remember that contact with humans or other animals will be very stressful for the bird.


If it is cold, try to warm it by placing the box on a heating pad covered by a blanket. You can also wrap a warm (not hot) water bottle in a towel and place it in the box, making sure it cannot roll on the bird.


If you find an injured raptor, including hawks, eagle and owls, or a wading bird, like herons and egrets, do not attempt to handle or catch the bird because it could injure you. Instead, contact a wildlife rehabilitator that is trained to handle and care for these birds.


And remember that it is illegal to handle a migratory bird without a permit. When you come across an injured bird, do not intervene in any other way than to place it in a box with air holes and contact a licensed rehabilitator.

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