Capturing, Handling and Transporting

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.

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