Baby Bird Rescue 101

A few weeks ago some of the neighborhood girls “gifted” me a fledgling blue jay. My reputation has been well established by my grand-daughter among her barrio playmates. When the crisis arose, these girls knew where to go with the little orphan.  The gringa knows birds.

As I held this fuzzy little creature with its enormously wide baby beak, I knew if it survived the next 24 hours I was in for a complete upheaval of my day to day life, at the beck and call of this little guy round the clock.  I would also be entering into a life of crime.  Using Google to search for information about how to care for a fledgling blue jay, I was disappointed with the lack of information available.  It seemed only two options were offered on what to do in such a predicament:  a. Return the baby bird to the nest; or, b. hand the baby bird over to a wildlife rehabilitator.  It seemed these well-meaning bird rescue professionals had not really thought this through.  Real life is usually not that simple.

Returning the fledgling to the nest was out of the question. These giddy, little girls couldn’t even remember where they had found it.  Even if they had, a blue jay typically has a nest at the most extreme height possible in a tree.  At my age there is no way I was climbing any tree, not even a bonsai.  Setting the baby on the ground beneath the tree, hoping that the parents would return to care for it, was also not an option.  These little girls would most likely hang around to watch, preventing the parent birds from approaching, not to mention all the other kids who would eventually join in, many bringing their dogs with them.

The second option, release the bird to a wildlife rehabilitator, sounds logical.  However, reality is a completely different story. There simply aren’t enough wildlife rehabilitators out there. My experience has been that they have criteria that determine whether or not they will take in a rescue. One of those determining factors is usually how demanding the rehabilitation will be regarding time and effort.

For example, I once rescued a fawn that had been hit by a car.  Its jaw was broken so it was unable to suckle a bottle.  I spoon fed it goat milk.  When the wildlife rehabilitator learned of this, she would not accept the fawn until it was eating on its own.  I think she expected the little girl to die.  She didn’t.  I spoon fed that baby her goat milk rations for a week until she could suckle that darn bottle.  Then the wildlife rehabilitator wouldn’t accept her until she was grazing on her own!  I was fortunate that at that time the hubby and I had not downsized yet and still had a backyard.  We also had an 8’x10’ chain link dog run that became a deer stall.  Eventually she was grazing.  Finally, the wildlife rehabilitator would take her to join a herd she was releasing on some private land.

I was pretty certain the job description of feeding a baby blue jay every 15-20 minutes would not be a welcome undertaking.  This was confirmed in my ensuing conversations with the local wildlife management center.  When I called I told them what the case was and they advised the above two options.  I explained that the girls did not remember the location of where the bird was found.  They advised me just to put it outside in a safe place and leave it.  The parents would find it.  I informed them we had a very active community.  There were lots of children and dogs outside, all over the property.  It would not be safe.  I was told to keep the kids and animals away for about two hours.  I told them they were crazy and out of touch with reality.  That was not a reasonable, workable request. It’s as if they had a mantra of “the parents will return” and could not think outside the box of their perfect, imaginary, wildlife world.  It seemed they didn’t want it.  Even worse, it seemed they didn’t want me to help it.  I’m sorry, but allowing a healthy animal to die for the sake of complying with bureaucratic deficiencies and unrealistic expectations is not an option for me.   Despite all of the fear-mongering the Wildlife Management Office tried to instill in me about my inability to provide proper nutrition and hygiene that would probably result in the death of the baby bird, I chose to attempt to help it anyway.  I am proud to say he is thriving.  They seem to think this is more difficult than rocket science.  If you can raise human children, puppies, kittens, etc., you can use the good sense God gave you and figure out how to feed a bird.  I mean, as far as I can tell wildlife rehabilitators are simply human beings with an acquired knowledge on a particular subject.  They’re not super-humans or aliens.  I can learn what they learn.  I can implement that knowledge.  I can be successful.

So, for all of you fellow bird whisperers out there, I will offer suggestions that are sorely lacking in the public information arena on the subject of rescuing and raising baby birds.  But, beware, you will be embarking on a criminal enterprise.

DETERMINE THE IDENTITY, DIET, AND ENVIRONMENT OF YOUR RESCUE:  Most people are familiar with the identity of the local bird species.  Google some images just to make sure.  Research the diet of the adult birds of that species.  Baby birds eat the same diet as the parents. It is simply watered down a bit into a mushy, regurgitated mess which you can replicate.

GATHER SUPPLIES:  You will need some soft cloths that you can throw away after soiled, newspaper, paper towels, eye dropper, medicinal syringe, plastic storage containers, perches of various diameters (or tree branches), toys, multiple food and water dishes (at least two of each), some type of well-ventilated cage, a sheet or blanket to cover the cage.

SETTLE THE LITTLE BUGGER IN:   The first 24 hour period is the most critical.  Before you do anything else, create a safe place for the bird.  For my rescue I started out with a small dog crate.  I lined it with newspaper, added a multi-tined antler, set upside down, for a perch, and shredded a small dishtowel and formed it into a mound at the very front of the crate.  I then wrapped the baby bird in a washcloth and cozily snuggled him into the mound. I put him where I could see him while I prepared food.

FOOD PREPARATION:   Please note I offered food either at room temperature or straight out of the refrigerator.  Keep in mind that these feedings will also contain the water intake as well so always add proportional water amounts.  I discovered blue jays are omnivores.  The greater part of their diet is grain based and includes vegetable matter, fruits (such as berries), and proteins (insects, small frogs, even carrion).  Suitable substitutes for my bird’s dietary needs could be found in my own kitchen.

FEEDING:  The first week I used baby food:  beef, turkey, chicken, cereal with berries or fruit, peas, sweet potatoes, green beans.  I added enough water to make it easy to draw up in an eye dropper.  The first day I fed every 15-20 minutes. I attempted three eye dropperfuls, but he usually consumed two.  It was a tricky procedure because the baby bird did not understand what I was doing and would struggle.  I kept him gently swaddled in a washcloth with one hand.  Using the edge of one of my fingernails I would gently wedge his beak open just a tiny bit, enough to slip in the tip of the eye dropper.  As soon as he would sense the liquid he would begin to accept the food.  The best advice I can give about portions is that small, frequent feedings are the best.  Also consider the size of his “crop”, which is a small pouch that is a temporary storage area for the food and is part of the esophagus.  After about a day of feedings like this, he began to open his mouth on his own as well as squawk to let me know when he was ready to eat.  His first night I fed him about three times throughout the night.  After that I began to cover his cage and he would sleep through the night.

The second week I graduated him to a sturdier diet that was mashed rather than pureed.  His feeding times became hourly.  My many recipes over the past few weeks have contained a grain/veggie/fruit/protein blend combined from any of the following ingredients:  brown rice, whole wheat spaghetti, grits, oatmeal, cream of wheat, carrots, spinach, peas, green beans, sweet potato, papaya, banana, mango, applesauce, baby food beef/turkey/chicken, scrambled egg, imitation crab meat, shredded tilapia. The solid foods need to be boiled until they are very soft. I then strain the water and transfer it to a plastic storage container.  I use the base of a large, sturdy plastic tumbler to grind it to a paste.  Then I add fresh water to moisten it, keeping in mind this is his source of water as well as food.  The paste was too thick for the eye dropper so I switched to the medicine syringe.  I cut the tip off the syringe close to the body of the syringe and used a fork tine to open it up a little wider, then sanded it smooth.

He has continued this diet throughout his third week, but is gradually beginning to eat on his own.  When he progresses into his fourth week I will make a visit to the local pet store for mealworms and crickets (dear God, I can’t believe I’m actually PLANNING to “buy bugs”).  To introduce him to insect hunting I will use the bathtub for containment.  I don’t want those suckers loose in the house.  When he gets the hang of it I anticipate he will greedily dispatch them as soon as I toss them his way in his cage.  That way I don’t have to worry about unwanted guests around the patio or sneaking into the apartment.

HYGIENE:  For the first couple of days, if he got messy I would gently clean him with a warm, wet paper towel, drying him thoroughly with a washcloth.  Much to his dismay this meant gently spreading out his wings but he eventually grew to like his grooming sessions.  When he was better adjusted, I used the water sprayer in the shower to let him experience “rain”.  The water would be cool and the spray on a gentle setting.  I would place him on the antler perch out of reach of the spray.  He could go in and out of the water as he pleased.  This also enabled him an opportunity to practice flying, making daring attempts to perch on the shower curtain.  Eventually he was successful.  I would usually do this while I was cleaning his cage.  I replaced the paper whenever it was soiled but at least once a day, sometimes twice, I cleaned the inside of the crate with a sponge and mild dish soap.  I would dry the cage, dry the bird, and, voila, all clean again.

MOVING OUTDOORS:   By the third week, I was fairly certain he would survive into adulthood and I could release him.  It then became important for him to move to an outdoor cage.  Our night temperatures were a safe temperature, in the mid 70’s. During the day my patio would provide adequate shade and protection from direct sun, wind and rain.  I moved him to the patio, into a flight cage that allowed him to exercise and fly around. He had additional toys and tree branches at various levels.

At this time I began offering a small bowl of bite size food tidbits.  I started out with four tidbits each of a protein, grain, vegetable, and fruit (example: tilapia, whole wheat spaghetti, peas, and banana).  Knowing how many tidbits were in the bowl helped me know how much food was consumed.  For about a week he only responded to the food bowl with curiosity and played with the food.  Soon he began eating everything in his bowl early in the morning before his first feeding.  I was a late sleeper and he would be too ravenous to wait for me.  I hung a chunk of suet and cuttle bone and scattered seed on the floor of the cage at various points.  I positioned the scattered seed so that it would not be directly under perches in order to avoid being soiled by droppings.

Although my routine was to feed hourly, he was now able to wait longer if I had other things to do away from home.  These time extensions between feedings encouraged him to eat the food left in his cage.  This was also when he began bathing himself in the large, shallow bowl of water in his cage. I knew now he was on his way to becoming independent.

BONDING & COMPANIONSHIP:  Like most birds, his nature is to establish a strong bond. He has bonded with me and I don’t know if he will want to leave when the time comes.  The next month or so will determine whether he will leave or want to stay.  It’s his choice.  When my little bird is ready, I will attempt to release him.  If he flies away, I will be happy for him.  If he has bonded to me, his cage door will remain open.  He will be free to come and go as he pleases.  I do not consider myself his “owner”.  But, I admit, it will be very hard to say good-bye.

THE LAW:   Unfortunately, everything I have done, though right, good, moral and ethical and, my only workable option, is actually criminal in this country.  I think this is absolutely absurd.  It is just another example of how lawmakers in their marble state houses are totally out of touch with the realities of life as a regular person.  According to the Migratory Bird Act it is illegal to own any native bird species.  Well, I don’t own him.  I think he actually owns me.  It is also illegal to rescue and care for these birds if you are not a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

I contacted a local wildlife management center and they didn’t seem to think this little guy needed help.  It is not my desire to break the law, but, rather, due to the inadequacy of Federal Wildlife Management to provide enough wildlife rehabilitators that participate with this law, I am left to either live with the possible death of a healthy animal I could have helped weighing on my conscience or, I can become a criminal.

I would love to be a legitimate wildlife rehabilitator but my research has revealed that I don’t measure up to their standards.  To rescue and rehabilitate most native bird species, a federal permit is required.  My apartment and patio would not meet their space standards.  The rescues would have too much exposure and contact with the humans and other animals of the household.  So, working class folk such as this gringa, who obviously have the skills and abilities to succeed as wildlife rehabilitators, are prevented because they can’t afford the square footage and cage guidelines.  Until permit laws reconsider such things, and the law becomes more flexible to allow for situations like this, or more wildlife rehabilitators exist that actually want to believe you when you tell them the little bird needs help and will receive these orphans with open arms, good-hearted, capable people in the barrio will rescue and rehabilitate at their own risk.

I hope sharing my experience has been helpful if you have found yourself with a baby bird on your hands this spring.  You should probably copy and paste, or share, this article.  I won’t be at all surprised if some government wildlife Nazi, er, I mean, agent, eventually comes knocking and asks me to remove this helpful information.  I don’t think they want us regular folk helping out without guv’ment approval.  Hopefully this gringa won’t be going to the slammer!