May brings on a rush of “helpless” baby birds along with flocks of well-meaning humans who sometimes are not helpful at all.
There are times the little ones could use a helping hand, but other times they are better off when left alone. Nature can be tough on critters at the lower ends of the food chain, and sometimes that’s hard for people to witness. Sometimes we just can’t help being, well, human.
“People are always calling and saying the adults aren’t coming back to the nest to feed the chicks,” said Jan McKay, a wildlife artist and licensed bird rehabilitator with Wildlife In Need Group in Tulsa. “It’s usually because they’re staring at it. I tell them, ‘Just walk away, and the parents will come back.’”
McKay offers a flowchart of appropriate actions from the National Audubon Society as her go-to piece of basic advice for anyone concerned about a nest, chicks (she calls them pinkies) or fledglings.
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The first question is whether the bird is obviously injured. If so, then a call to a licensed bird rehabilitator is the first step.
The next question is whether the bird is a nestling, which would have very few feathers, if any, or if it is a fledgling. Fledglings are fully feathered but might not be great at flying just yet. Still, it’s likely they have left the nest intentionally and are still being watched over and cared for by the parents. The advice in that situation is to leave and make sure your dogs or cats won’t bother them.
“Just give them space,” McKay said.
If it is a nestling that might have been knocked out of a nest by a storm, or fallen out, or been accidentally tipped after building a nest on something stored in your backyard, the best move is to just put it back and keep an eye on it from a distance. Watch for one hour to see if the parents return. If the adults are absent, then a rehabilitator’s services might be required.
If it’s the nest itself that has fallen out of a tree or off an eave or other spot, people can make a simple container and attach it to the tree or other structure, put the nest inside and see what happens.
McKay recommends using something like an old plastic butter tub or an old Cool Whip container.
“Just poke holes in the bottom so if it rains it will drain out,” she said. “I just did this at my neighbor’s house the other day. Get a ladder and put it back up as high as you can in the tree and nail it, or tie it, or use wire to secure it in place. The parents will find it. The mother bird is always a lot better at raising them than me.”
At any time during the spring, often depending on the weather, McKay said she might be caring for any number of birds in various stages from eggs in her incubator to fledglings that have grown to spread their wings in her aviary.
She works with veterinarians to help severely injured birds. All that are healthy enough to live on their own are released back into the wild. Currently, she has nearly 30, including 15 house finches that had the misfortune of hatching in nests built on things like trailers and boats in storage, and not noticed until it was too late.
People who need to find a rehabilitator can often get a reference through their veterinarian. Some rehab groups are active on Facebook and can be found by searching there, as well. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation also keeps a county-by-county list of licensed rehabilitators and their specialties on its website at wildlifedepartment.com/law/rehabilitator-list.
Kelly Bostian is an independent writer working for the Oklahoma Ecology Project, a 501c3 nonprofit dedicated to in-depth reporting about environmental issues for Oklahomans.