What To Do If You Have Found An Injured Or Orphaned Wild Bird

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What To Do If You Have Found An Injured Bird:

Our infirmary staff is available seven days a week during daylight hours to admit injured birds, but we must rely on the people who find them to bring them to us for care.  If you find a bird that needs help, please read the section below titled Capturing, Handling and Transporting for complete instructions and safety precautions, and then follow the steps below:

  1. Please use a cardboard box to transport the bird.  Prepare the box by punching holes in the sides and lining it with a soft towel or t-shirt.  DO NOT USE A WIRE BIRD CAGE!
  2. Approach the bird with caution.  Again, please see the section called Capturing, Handling and Transporting for special precautions to use with larger birds and raptors.
  3. Secure the bird by throwing a large towel or blanket over it.  Gently but firmly lift the covered bird and lower it into the box.  Close the box securely!
  4. Keep the bird WARM, DARK AND QUIET!  Bring it to us or another licensed rehabilitator for help as soon as possible.  Disturb as little as possible-DO NOT ATTEMPT TO GIVE IT WATER OR FOOD unless instructed to do so by a licensed rehabilitator.  Please do not attempt to care for the bird yourself.


After Hours Bird Drop-Off:

If you cannot bring a bird to us during daylight hours, please leave the bird in one of the pet carriers provided in our admitting office and turn on the heating pad beneath it.  Be sure the heat is set on LOW.  Please fill out an admittance form and leave it by the carrier.

Directions are available on the home page.  Please do not use Map-Quest!

All wild birds, with the exception of exotics (birds, usually non-native species, legally sold as pets), are protected by state and federal law. It is illegal to harm them in any way. (Game birds may be taken according to state hunting laws.) It is also illegal to keep wild birds as pets or to sell them, or their parts, including feathers. Furthermore, the law states that they cannot be held in captivity without authorization from both state and federal wildlife agencies. Obviously, the laws were enacted to protect wild birds from being killed, harmed or exploited in any way. They were never intended to preclude or discourage the public from helping a bird in need.

Providing care for injured and orphaned wild birds is generally not a service of state or federal wildlife agencies. Here in New Jersey, as in most other states, the care is provided by people called avian wildlife rehabilitators (rehabbers).

To be an avian wildlife rehabilitator you must be knowledgeable in all aspects of bird care, pass a written test, and be licensed by both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state in which you reside.

Some rehabbers work at home and receive only small numbers of birds each year. Others, like The Raptor Trust, operate large facilities that care for thousands of birds annually. All rehabbers are dedicated to helping wild creatures, and all provide their services free of charge. The goal of a rehabber is always is to return healthy, self-sufficient birds back to the wild.

Anyone who rescues a wild bird should get it to a licensed rehabilitator as quickly as possible. By doing so, you have broken no law and have afforded the bird the best possible chance of surviving and ultimately being free again.

There are avian rehabilitators located throughout New Jersey. To find one in your area, call one of the following:

State of New Jersey Division of Fish, Game & Wildlife:

-Hampton Office 908-735-8975 (8:30-4:30)
-Trenton Office 609-292-2965 (8:30-4:30)
-Law Enforcement 908-735-8240 (8:30-4:30) (Answering machine after hours)

Or try the following Internet resource:


How To Locate a Wildlife Rehabilitator
You might consider locating a rehabber near you and keeping the phone number and address on file, that way no time will be lost should an actual emergency arise.

Any normal, healthy, wild bird, when approached by a human being, will fly away. If it doesn’t, something is wrong with it.

Most times, it is one of the following:

  • It’s too young to fly away. (See the section called Young Birds)
  • It’s been injured and can’t fly away. (See the section called Injured Birds)
  • It’s sick and too weak to fly away. (See the section called Sick Birds)
  • It’s tame (probably because it was improperly raised in captivity) and doesn’t know it should fly away.

Before addressing the subject of what to do if you find a baby bird, understanding a bit of avian breeding biology might be helpful. Depending on their development at the time of hatching, birds are said to be either altricial or precocial. Altricial young at hatching are helpless, usually naked, have their eyes closed and are totally dependent on the parents for food and care. They are hatched in well-constructed nests built by their parents, usually in trees, bushes or shrubs, and are called nestlings. Robins, crows, cardinals, doves and other songbirds, plus many other species, are altricial birds. Nestlings grow quickly, become feathered and, depending on their species, leave the nest in two to four weeks. When they leave the nest, or in bird terminology, fledge, the young are called fledglings. Most fledglings are still tended and fed by their parents (even on the ground) for a short period of time until they become completely independent.

Precocial birds are much more developed at hatching. They are covered with down feathers, have their eyes open, are able to run about (or swim) soon after hatching, and can feed themselves at an early stage. Precocial chicks are usually hatched in nests on the ground and remain with their parents until self-sufficient. Quail, pheasants, gulls, ducks, geese and shorebirds are a few examples of precocial birds.

If you find a nestling bird on the ground and it’s not injured, if at all possible return it to its nest. A nestling cannot walk, hop or fly, so chances are its nest is very close by, maybe even directly above where you found it. It is not true that parent birds will reject their young because they’ve been touched by humans. Birds in general have no appreciable sense of smell, and parents will readily accept and raise their young when replaced in the nest. Altricial birds like robins, grackles and mockingbirds commonly nest in people’s yards. They build sturdy nests, but often after heavy rain or wind storms, an entire nest and its contents may be found on the ground. If the nestlings are uninjured and the parent birds are still around (they usually are as birds are very reluctant to abandon their young), the fallen nest can be replaced. Use a piece of wire mesh, like hardware cloth, cup it into the shape of a nest and secure it in the same place as the original nest.  If the original nest is usable, place it in the wire mesh and return the nestlings. If the original nest is not intact, a substitute can be made using a small berry box (with drainage holes) lined with portions of the original nest and dry grass. After replacing the nestlings, watch from a reasonable distance to make sure that the parents return.

Some birds, such as woodpeckers, bluebirds, chickadees and screech owls, are cavity nesters. They do not build open nests but use holes, generally in trees, as breeding sites. Their nestlings also can be returned to the nest and will be accepted, but it may be more difficult to locate, reach or properly identify the nest site.

If you find a nestling that is injured, cannot be returned to the nest or is really orphaned with no parents in attendance, then you have no choice — rescue it. Here’s how.

Gently pick it up in your hands. If it’s cold to the touch, warm it in your hands until you can get it into a warm environment. Warming the chick is very important. Because young nestlings lack insulating feathers, they can quickly die from exposure.

If you can’t get it to a rehabilitator immediately, you can make an adequate temporary home for a nestling by using a small container (a berry box or bowl) lined with layers of facial tissues. To keep the bird warm and dry, place a heating pad, wrapped in a towel, under the bowl and place a thermometer on the towel. Try to maintain a temperature of between 85 and 90 degrees F.

An acceptable diet for altricial nestlings for short term use is high protein kibbled (dry) dog food soaked in warm water until it’s soft. This can be fed to the nestling, in bite-sized chunks, using a narrow spoon handle or any small blunt object. A healthy nestling will open its mouth and beg for food when hungry. Place the food all the way in the bird’s mouth and it should swallow normally. Three or four mouthfuls are usually enough. Most nestlings will stop begging when full. Be sure to keep it clean. Wipe any excess food from the bird’s face or feathers with a moistened tissue. Feed it at least hourly during the day. The food should be moist (but not runny) and that should suffice for the short time you’ll have it.

Do not give it water. In the wild, parent birds have no way to bring water to their young. They get all their moisture from their food. Water put in a baby bird’s mouth could go down into the lungs and kill it. And don’t give birds milk; they can’t digest it.

Keep the nest box clean. Replace soiled tissues often.  Get it to a avian rehabber as soon as possible!

It’s normal for many young birds to leave their nests before they can fly. When they can stand up and perch (grasp with their feet), they hop out of the nest and spend time in the nearby trees and bushes and sometimes on the ground. Although fully feathered now, they don’t yet fly well but should be able to flutter and climb to the lower limbs of trees and shrubs for safety. Fledglings are fed and tended by their parents until they become self-sufficient. Although the fledgling period can be a perilous time, you should understand that it’s a normal part of the wild bird’s life.

So, if you come upon a fledgling, don’t be in too much of a hurry to rescue it. Use common sense. If it’s uninjured, but in a dangerous place, move it to a safer place, close by. Remember, its parents will not abandon it because you touched it. If the bird is injured, or if after watching for a while you’re sure no parent birds are in attendance, that’s different; by all means rescue it.

It is especially important that you take any rescued nestling or fledgling to a licensed rehabber as soon as possible. Food and shelter, which you can give it, may keep it alive, but to have any chance of growing up to be “normal” and surviving in the wild, its greatest need is to grow up with others of its own kind. Only an avian rehab center can provide the right circumstances to properly raise an orphaned wild bird. So make haste, before you get attached to the bird, or worse yet, the bird gets attached to you.

The young of wild precocial birds are much less likely to be found in need of help than those of altricial birds. Two common exceptions are Canada geese and Mallard ducks. In recent years both species have become more domesticated and now regularly live and breed close to human habitation. Often they choose poor locations for nesting, such as under residential shrubbery, near backyard swimming pools, in office building atriums and courtyards, and even on rooftops.

Ducklings and goslings that hatch in such places face insurmountable obstacles and seldom survive. We strongly urge that you discourage ducks and geese from nesting in such inappropriate locations in the first place. If chased off early in the process, they will seek another, and with luck, more suitable nest site.

Ducklings often become separated from their mother on the (sometimes long) walk from the nest site to water. If you find unattended ducklings or goslings, remember that even though they seem well developed, they need parental care for a certain period of time and cannot survive on their own at this point. Don’t just take them to the nearest body of water and leave them there. Gather them up, put them in a box, and keep them warm.

Orphaned ducklings tend to run around and peep a lot. Sometimes people assume that this means they’re “happy.” Just the opposite is true — they are panicky and extremely stressed and are calling for their mother. Put one or two rolled up towels in the box for them to snuggle up next to. If you have just one duckling, a small mirror may help to calm it.

If you can’t get to a rehabber right away, offer a small, shallow bowl of drinking water — no swimming yet. Sprinkle some finely ground dry dog food in the box for them to peck at. For goslings, the advice is the same, except offer fresh grass clippings to eat along with the finely ground dry dog food. And of course, get help ASAP.

Many, perhaps most, of the injuries suffered by wild birds are caused by, or related to, human activities. The vast majority of the injuries are not intentional, but accidents, and often difficult if not impossible to prevent. (See What you can do to help prevent injuries to wild birds.) Most of the wild bird injuries we see at The Raptor Trust are caused by impacts. Birds regularly collide with motor vehicles, hit tall buildings and fly into glass windows and doors, not recognizing that glass is solid. These impacts result in everything from concussions to nerve and tissue damage and broken bones. Birds also get tangled in fishing line, are poisoned by chemicals, fly into wires and, sadly, many protected species are still shot by lawless, irresponsible people with guns.

Any bird that has sustained a serious injury is in deep trouble, and without human assistance has little to no chance of surviving. Broken bones seldom heal properly on their own — not in humans, not in birds. So if you find an injured bird and you wish to help it, capture it and get it to a rehabilitator as quickly as possible.

Human Health Risks. Like all other animals, wild birds can and do get sick. Most avian diseases are specific to birds and cannot be transmitted to humans. So the chance of anyone becoming ill from handling a wild bird is remote. Rabies, the most serious wild animal disease which can be contracted by humans, is a mammalian disease and is not carried by birds. Lyme disease, another recent human health problem, is transmitted only by ticks. After handling any wild bird you should wash your hands thoroughly. If you ever have your skin punctured by a bird’s beak or talons, check with your doctor on the advisability of an antitetanus booster.

The degree of difficulty and the risk involved in attempting to rescue an injured wild bird depend greatly on the following: what kind of bird it is, how big it is and what’s happened to it. In general, small birds are easier and much less risky to handle. A hawk that’s been hit by a car and knocked unconscious is no problem to pick up, but the same bird, if alert, can be a handful. An injured bird will not know you are trying to help it and will resist your efforts in whatever way it can.

Most of the injured birds people find, primarily songbirds, are easily handled and pose little risk to their rescuers. Large birds like geese and swans are much more difficult to capture and handle because of their size and strength. They use their wings as weapons and can deliver serious blows with them. A few groups of birds such as raptors, loons, herons and egrets can be risky, even dangerous to handle. When rescuing these birds the rescuer must take precautions to avoid being stabbed, bitten or clawed by the “rescuee.”

The best way to contain and transport an injured wild bird is in a cardboard box. Shoe boxes work well for small birds and can usually be found around the house. Larger and heavier boxes can be obtained from a supermarket. The box needs to be large enough so that the bird fits comfortably in it without being cramped. Punch a few air holes in the sides and put a towel or a piece of old carpeting on the bottom so the bird is not on a slippery surface, and tape the top closed. Small birds may be safely transported in a paper bag, again with a towel to stand or lie on. Airline sky kennels and other pet carriers can also be used. Placing the bird in a closed, secure, darkened environment is very important. It will help keep it calm, reduce additional stress and prevent it from causing further injury to itself. Do not transport wild birds in wire cages or glass aquariums.

If you should find an injured bird in a situation you cannot resolve yourself, don’t risk getting injured — get help. Call your local animal control officer or a rehabilitator for advice. Songbirds are by far the most common group of birds people come in contact with. They are generally quite small, often tiny, colorful birds that are not difficult to handle. Injured songbirds are easily captured by simply walking up to them and picking them up in your hands. If you’re apprehensive about touching them with your bare hands or afraid of being bitten (seldom very hard) use gloves. If you own or can borrow a small fishing or butterfly net, you can use that. Or you can drop a lightweight towel or tee shirt over the bird to secure it. Handle the bird gently to avoid further injury.

Wading birds such as herons, egrets and bitterns are difficult to handle and can be very dangerous to rescue. Most are large (Great blue herons are four feet tall), long-legged, long-necked, birds with formidable beaks. They primarily eat fish, capturing them by stabbing and impaling them with their beaks. These birds are capable of inflicting a painful and serious wound. Be careful when handling them. The best way to capture any of these birds is with a long-handled, large fishing net. If a net is not available, use a blanket or coat and cover the entire bird before picking it up. If you must carry the bird in your arms, be sure to keep its beak away from your face. Place it in a box suitable for the bird’s size, and keep it warm, dark and quiet until you can get it to a rehabber.

Loons are dangerous to handle because, like herons, they have long, sharp, stabbing beaks. If you come across a stranded loon, you won’t have to chase it to capture it because once on the ground, they stay grounded. Their legs are located so far back on their heavy bodies that they are very clumsy on land and cannot take off from solid ground. To pick them up it’s best to employ the “cover ’em completely technique” using a coat, blanket or heavy cloth of some kind. If you must hold the bird, be sure to hold the head or beak firmly with one hand, keeping it away from your face. Use a heavy cardboard box for transport.

Raptors are another group of birds that can be dangerous to handle. Also known as birds of prey, they include hawks, falcons, eagles and owls. Raptors come in all sizes from diminutive American kestrels, not much larger than Blue jays, to huge eagles with seven-foot wingspans. The most common species in New Jersey are Red-tailed hawks, American kestrels, Great Horned and Screech owls. (See Hawk Facts and Owl Facts.) Raptors can be recognized by their hooked beaks and taloned feet. Although their beaks are formidable weapons, the real business end is their incredibly strong feet. Their grip is vise-like, and large hawks and owls are capable of seriously hurting a human. The best way to capture an alert raptor is to completely cover it with a jacket, coat or blanket. If possible wear heavy gloves. Gather up blanket and bird together, keeping it away from all parts of your body that you deem valuable. Cardboard boxes work well for transport.

By rescuing an injured or orphaned wild bird you’ve taken the very important first step in saving its life. You’ve taken it out of harm’s way and have it safe and secure in a box. We strongly urge that your next step be to get it to a qualified and licensed person as quickly as possible. Do not try to raise a baby bird yourself, no matter how appealing, or treat an injured one, no matter how tempting. Realistically, even experienced rehabilitators can’t save them all, but they can offer the bird its best second chance at survival, self-sufficiency and freedom.

  • Every bird rescue is unique depending on the bird’s size and injury type. You may be able to toss a tee shirt, towel or sheet over the bird and scoop it up gently. A fishing net or butterfly net may be used as well.
  • The safest way to contain and transport most injured birds is in a cardboard box large enough that the bird is not tightly confined. Punch air holes in the sides of the box and place a towel or old carpet on the bottom so the bird doesn’t slip around while traveling.
  • Small birds may be safely transported in a securely closed paper bag. Place a paper towel or small washcloth on the bottom so the bird doesn’t slip around while traveling.
  • Pet carriers can also be used. Drape a towel over the entire carrier to create a visual barrier for the bird.
  • Placing the bird in a quiet, warm, dark environment is very important. It will help keep the bird calm, reduce stress and prevent it from causing further injury to itself.
  • Do not transport wild birds in wire cages or glass aquariums. These can cause them harm.
  • Do not offer water or food! For the short period of time the bird will be traveling it is not necessary.