As a child, I remember rescuing a bird from the mouth of my cat and trying to do my best for the wee thing.
I recall making up a box for a bird with some paper in the bottom, diligently going to the garden to find worms and chop them up to feed a sparrow and checking on it every ten minutes or so to see if it was OK. Some hours later if it was still alive I would convince my parents to drive us our local wildlife rehabilitator where I would gratefully hand over the sparrow and wonder how it would fare.
Many years later and I now know much better on what to do (and what not to do!) when helping a sick or injured bird. There are many well-intentioned people trying to do their best to help, but sometimes what we think is best is actually harmful to a wild bird.
So how can you best help a bird that is sick, injured or abandoned?
First of all, a bird that is sick or injured will be in some kind of shock – they may have lost blood or have significant injuries. It’s important to pick them up gently and avoid any further injuries by using a towel or soft cloth if you have one handy and place them in a suitable sized carboard box lined with a non-ripped towel or paper towels.
The best thing for a bird in shock is quiet, warmth and darkness.
Image © Wild Bird Care
When I was a kid everyone had hot water cupboards, but they are less common these days. To give warmth, you could place the box in a hot water cupboard, or you could warm up a small room with a heater. If you have a hot water bottle you can use this on the bottom of the box under the towel - just ensure the bird cannot get scalded. The pocket hand warmers found in hiking stores are also good emergency sources of heat.
A bird that is injured does not need food – the only exception is nectar eaters or very small birds such as waxeyes that have high energy requirements. For these birds you can place half a cut orange in the box with them.
Sick or injured birds will often quickly become dehydrated, so they can benefit from fluids. However, it is not advised to try dribbling water in their beaks as they can choke. Giving oral fluids (by tubing) is not something to be attempted unless you are confident and is something that your WReNNZ rehabilitator or vet can provide. Do not leave a dish of water in the box with them as some birds may drown or get wet and cold.
Restrain yourself from checking on the bird too often. In a wildlife hospital, we normally assess the bird 2-3 times a day only, to reduce stress. Remember that to a wild bird you are a predator: Think how you would feel if a wild tiger was repeatedly “checking” on you or gently nuzzling your shoulder when you were too ill to move!
Once you have them warm, safe and quiet, contact your local WReNNZ member for advice, or take to your local wildlife-friendly vet if the injuries are significant. It is best to try and identify the species – you can check NZ Birds Online for some great tools for identification.
If you think you have found a protected native species, and especially threatened or rare species, ensure you call the Department of Conservation hotline 0800 DOC HOT.
Janelle Ward, WReNNZ Chair and Wildlife Veterinarian