Birds: frequent questions


How to free a trapped bird How to keep birds from flying into windows How to care for an injured bird Is it OK to observe babies in their nest? How to care for an orphaned bird How to care for a rescued bird Do baby birds have to be taught to fly? How do birds stay warm in winter? Do birds use birdhouses in winter?

How to free a trapped bird
It can be hard to lure a trapped bird out of an attic, chimney or room. The key is to make it brighter outside the room than inside, because the bird will navigate to the brightest area. If he’s in an attic, turn off the attic lights and turn on all the room lights. Make the room as bright as possible and close all the doors. Eventually, the bird will be drawn to the brightness. If you’ve opened windows (assuming it’s sunny outside), perhaps the bird will just fly right from an attic or chimney and out through a window. That may be too hopeful — so, if he doesn’t, dim the room lights and pull the shades on all but one or two open windows. The bird will be stressed, so give him some time to find his way out.

You can also try to catch a bird by throwing a towel over him as he perches or if he gets cornered. Then carefully scoop the bundle up and release him outside. Or, you may be able to pick up a cornered bird with your hands. Fold his wings against his body and cradle him in your hands, as you see in the photo to the left. Be gentle, birds are fragile, with legs not much thicker than a toothpick.

How to keep birds from flying into windows


Window Alert ® Decals product photo

Do you notice this happening more at migration time? Millions of birds migrate at night. But even in daytime, migrating birds are flying into unfamiliar surroundings. Moonlight reflects on glass, as do trees in daylight. Birds don’t realize until too late that they’re flying toward a solid surface. At other times, panicked birds fly into windows while being chased by a predator, or birds who know better have a momentary lapse of judgment. Whatever the reason, the result can be deadly. An estimated 100 million to one billion birds are killed every year from window glass collisions in the U.S. alone. Although this can’t be prevented entirely, there are a few things you can do to help:

Place bird feeders and birdbaths at least 25 feet from windows. This gives birds room to change course or apply the “brakes” when they realize what’s ahead.

  • Or, place bird feeders and baths within 2 or 3 feet of windows. This prevents them from gaining enough speed to cause injury.
  • Decals may help. Those such as Window Alert, shown here, seem to work best. Apply them to the outside of windows. They have a coating that reflects ultraviolet sunlight — it glows for birds, but isn’t visible to humans. You’ll need more than one decal per window.
  • Mylar reflective strips pinned at the top on the outside of windows will move in the breeze to help alert birds.
  • David Sibley, noted bird guide author and illustrator, suggests trying this. It isn’t foolproof, but may help: Draw X’s using a yellow highlighter on the inside of windows. The florescence of the highlighter is visible to birds. It works best in sunlight and not very well on cloudy days or low light.

How to care for an injured bird
Every year, millions of birds are killed when they fly into window glass. Fooled by reflections in the glass, they don’t recognize until too late that it’s solid. A bird may survive if he doesn’t strike the glass too hard. Often he flutters to the ground, stunned, unable to fly for a time. He may sit or lie still, often with eyes closed, while he recovers. Here’s what to do for him:

He’s highly vulnerable while he’s recovering, so keep an eye on him until he rallies and flies away (usually an hour or less). If you have pets, keep them away. A good way to safely contain a bird while he recovers is to place him in a small paper bag with paper towels on the bottom (don’t shred the towels.) Secure the top, but cut a few small air openings in the bag, and place it in a quiet, darkened room where he’ll be safe. Make sure the bird’s movements can’t topple the bag onto the floor. Check him periodically; if he acts feisty and tries to get out of the bag, it’s probably time to release him. Take the bag outside, reach down into the bag and grab hold of him (hold his wings folded next to his body to keep them safe). Or you can slowly turn the bag on its side, open it and allow him find his way out. Release him at ground level rather than throwing him into the air. If he still seems stunned, keep him safe another hour. If he’s still not well by then, call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Is it OK to observe babies in their nest?
If you’re able to peek into a nest, by all means do so, it’s just too tempting to resist. But don’t do it too often, and only when the parents are away. Bird parents are very devoted to their young and will tolerate some disturbance. Too much, however, and they’ll feel forced to abandon them. How much is too much? You won’t know until it’s too late. So, peek a few times, but otherwise watch the bird family’s activity from a distance. By the way, you shouldn’t touch the babies, but it isn’t true that human scent alone will make the parents abandon them.

How to care for orphaned birds
Most “orphaned” birds aren’t orphans. Here’s how to decide and what to do:

1. Is he featherless or nearly so?
Is he alert and opening his mouth (indicating hunger)? If so, put him back in his nest, if possible. He’ll probably be under the tree from which he fell. If he can’t be returned, build a makeshift nest out of a butter tub lined with grasses. (Be sure to poke some holes through the bottom for water drainage.) Secure the tub to the tree as close as possible to the original nest and place the baby in it. Keep an eye on the new nest to see if the parents find it. They’ll probably carry food to both nests. If after an hour the parents haven’t returned or are repeatedly ignoring cries from the new nest, wrap the baby in a soft cloth, keep him warm, and transport him in a box immediately to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

In the event you can’t find the original nest, leave the baby on the ground and observe from a distance for up to an hour. He’ll cry out periodically for his parents and, hopefully, they’ll arrive with food for him and his siblings. You can then track the parents’ path to the nest. If that fails, take the baby to a wildlife rehabilitator. Your local birdseed store or Parks and Wildlife Department will be able to tell you who to contact.

Found outside their nest, these babies would need help. (© Kuan Chong Ng / Dreamstime)

2. Does he have feathers?
If the bird has most of his flight feathers, he’s a fledgling who has voluntarily left the nest. He’s still growing his feathers and will spend a week or more on the ground while learning to fly. His parents will watch over him and continue to feed him. If he’s exposed, like in the center of a turf area, gently pick him up and place him on one of the lowest branches of a nearby shrub, then move away. He’ll cry out when you grab him and you may find yourself being dive-bombed by his parents! He may run from you into grasses or under shrubs, which is just fine, because there he’ll be hidden from predators.

3. Is he a ground-nesting bird?
Some birds are supposed to be on the ground. Although we may be more familiar with birds that nest in trees, there are species that nest on the ground. “Precocial” species are feathered from the moment they hatch. Although not able to immediately fly, they start following their mother around and they’re able to feed themselves. Killdeer, sandpipers, Whip-poor-wills, Nighthawks, quail and pheasants are some of the birds that do this. So, unless the foundling is visibly ill — can’t stand or peeps weakly — it’s best to leave him be, his parents are probably watching.

Take care not to leave your pet (especially a cat) outdoors while a fledgling is on the ground.

How to care for a rescued bird
Keep a rescued bird warm, but not too warm as they can quickly overheat and die. You can warm a nestling by cupping him in your hands until you feel his body warm up, then place him in a warm, quiet room in a container lined with soft cloth or paper towels. Keep him warm with a hot water bottle, or even two bottles filled with warm water, one placed on each side of the bird. Take care not to heat the water warmer than you would a baby’s milk bottle.

You can help a rescued nestling survive while getting him to a rehabilitator by giving him three to four bites of canned dog food on the tip of a toothpick and one drop of water every hour. You don’t need to hold the bird. If he’s healthy, he’ll hold his mouth wide open. Place the food on the back of his tongue. If you do hold him, don’t lay him on his back, which could cause him to inhale the food or water. Take care if the foundling is a bird of prey (raptor). Raptors are carnivorous, many are very powerful, and they’re all equipped with sharp — razor sharp — talons. Their beaks are designed for killing and for tearing flesh — including a human’s. Wear thick leather gloves when dealing with a feathered raptor, restrain his feet and keep feet and beak away from you.

Leave a fledgling on the ground for his parents to tend to, but try to return a featherless or downy raptor to his nest. Either way, beware of his parents. It may be difficult to find the nest —many raptors place them so high in trees they can’t be seen, or at least too high to reach. If returning a baby to his nest is hopeless, call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

Do baby birds have to be taught to fly?
Birds instinctively know how to fly. When a young bird leaves his nest his feathers aren’t completely grown, but he’ll optimistically take flight in a great leap of faith in his ability to go airborne. He just takes a hop and spreads his wings. It will take him awhile to get the hang of it and he may first fly only a few feet and plop to the ground. But he’ll hone his skills over the next few days. His parents will watch over him and bring him food for a few days to a few weeks, depending on the species. You can tell when a bird is nearly ready to leave his nest, as you’ll see him hanging halfway out of his birdhouse opening or perched on the rim of his nest.


(Jesse Bryan / Flickr; cc )

How do birds stay warm in winter?
They fluff their feathers to trap air (which provides insulation), tuck their feet and legs into their breast feathers, and shiver to generate body heat. They also roost together to pool body heat (as many as 10 bluebirds have been found together in one tree cavity.) Some species enter a state of sleep called torpor, which is deeper than normal sleep, but less deep than hibernation. Their temperature drops and metabolic rate slows to conserve

Do birds use birdhouses in winter?
Some birds will use them. All the multi-colored birdhouses in this photo look cute, but the National Wildlife Federation suggests that, in winter, birdhouses be mounted 10 feet or higher on poles to protect them from predators, such as raccoons. Be sure to block the ventilation holes loosely with foam weatherstripping (and also be sure to unblock them in the spring). Don’t block out all light, as birds don’t like to enter pitch-dark boxes. For winter, a larger than usual entrance seems to be preferred.