Birds are unique creatures. Every species of bird have its ways of catching a human’s attention. Either we get mesmerized by their looks or the beautiful sound of their chirping. Now and then, we see them flying back and forth to their nest to feed their newly born babies.
But imagine what would happen if you found a baby bird on the ground? Your immediate thought will be if it’s hurt. And the next instinct that will come to our mind is to save it. This fascinating creature that we see every day that sits and sings on the trees, fly on the wind, should not be lying on the ground.
That instinct to save it becomes more like a compulsion when it’s a baby bird. The reason is quite simple: it looks fragile, vulnerable, and cannot protect itself from other predators.
But before swooping in for a recuse, take a second to think and watch from a distance if the baby bird’s parents come for it. In most cases, you may think the baby bird has been abandoned, but if you leave the bird alone and wait and watch, one of the adult birds will probably come and feed the young bird within a few minutes.
If not, then try to contact a bird rehabilitation centre immediately. Still, if you have decided to nurse the baby bird yourself, you must understand your commitment. Baby birds are very delicate, and they need to be fed frequently. If you think you are up for the job, this article is for you!
Find all the relevant information about ‘how to take care of a baby bird’ to ‘what to feed a baby bird?’.
A. How Old is Your Baby Bird?
Before jumping to the question of what to feed a baby bird, you first have to know how old is your baby bird. People often get confused when it comes to identifying the bird’s age. Well, it’s not that difficult. Let’s see how it is done: All you have to do is to identify whether it’s an altricial bird or a precocial bird.
1. Altricial Bird
Altricial birds are born with closed eyes, without feathers, and completely dependent on their parents for food and heat. Most perching birds and songbirds are altricial birds.
For example, robins, blue jays, and cardinals.
2. Precocial Bird
Precocial birds are more developed upon birth; they hatch with their eyes open and have soft, downy feathers. They can walk and immediately start following their mother around, pecking at food.
Examples of precocial birds include killdeer, ducks, and geese.
B. Identifying Whether It’s a Nestling or a Fledgling
If you have seen a baby perching or songbird who you suspect has fallen or been abandoned, you must first identify whether the baby bird is a nestling or a fledgling. And this is how you can know:
Nestlings are baby birds who are too immature to leave the nest, as they have not fully developed their feathers and may not have opened their eyes. If you have found an abandoned nestling, then something is seriously wrong. Either it may have fallen out of its nest or been pushed out by stronger siblings. An abandoned nestling has almost no chance of survival if left alone.
Fledgling is an older bird that has grown most of its feathers, can hop around, and can even fly a little. At this stage in its development, it is supposed to be out of the nest and hopping around on the ground, trying to scramble up into small trees.
And in a few days, the baby bird can fly. If you observe the baby bird long enough, the parents will probably return to feed it at regular intervals. If this is the case, you should definitely not intervene.
It is important to distinguish them because some bird species jump from their nests even when they are not completely flighted. They are meant to be hopping and learning to forage on the ground, with either their mom or dad keeping guard a few feet away.
C. If the Baby Bird is a Nestling, What Should Be Done?
If you have identified the baby bird as a nestling, it would be better if you reintroduce the baby bird to its nest. Search where the nest is; it probably might be in a nearby branch. When you do, pick up the baby bird cupping it in one hand and covering it with the other until it becomes warm.
Look it over for any injuries, then if it looks okay, gently place it back in the nest. And don’t worry about the ‘human’ smell on the baby bird; it’s just an old wives’ tale!
(If you see any injury on the baby bird, immediately contact a professional wildlife rehabilitator)
Note: If you see any dead baby birds inside the nest, then the entire nest has been abandoned, then it will be no use returning the fallen baby bird as the parent birds will not return. In this situation, you will need to care for it and any of its surviving brothers and sisters if you want to ensure their survival.
D. How to Take Care of the Nestling?
‘What to feed a baby bird’ is an important question, but several other questions follow.
For the artificial nest, you can use the old nest if it’s still intact, then you can place it in a berry basket or butter tub (with punched holes for drainage) and use some wire to hang the nest from a tree branch. If possible, try to place the nest in its previous location.
If this is not, then place it in a nearby branch. Just make sure that the location is sheltered, away from direct sunlight. The parent birds may be suspicious of the new nest at first, but their instinct to care for their baby should help them to overcome this.
However, if you’re certain that the baby bird is abandoned, try to contact a wildlife rehabilitation centers. These centres have experienced wildlife rehabilitators (a wildlife rehabilitator is a person with the skills and training to take care of baby birds, injured birds, etc.) who have much more experience in taking care of baby birds and increasing their chance of survival. If you can’t get a hold of them, then a local veterinarian will also do the work.
If you have decided to take care of the baby bird yourself, then you first must keep the baby bird warm. After that, the main question arises ‘What to feed a baby bird”. A heating pad set on low and put under half of a small box with air holes and a soft lining will do the trick. The bird can move to the cooler side if it’s too warm. Keep the baby bird in a quiet and dark place.
E. What to Feed a Baby Bird?
One crucial question that comes to the mind of an individual when he/she decides to nurse a young bird is “What to feed a baby bird?”; followed by a few more like “Is feeding wild baby birds difficult?”; “What sort of food should be given to them?”; “Do even baby birds eat?”; or “Do you even know how will you handle wild birds?” etc.
So, without any further ado, let’s begin:
Feed the baby bird every 15 to 20 minutes from sunrise to sunset
Feeding baby birds has a very tight schedule. A baby bird’s parents make hundreds of feeding trips every day. Hence to clone this particular feeding schedule, you must feed the baby bird every 15-20 minutes from sunrise to sunset.
When the baby bird has opened its eyes and developed some features, you can wait 30 to 45 minutes between feedings. Once the baby bird is strong enough to leave the nest and hop around, you can feed it about once an hour. Little by little, you can reduce the feeding time once to 2 or 3 hours and leave bits of food inside the box so the bird can pick it up by itself.
If your baby bird is a recently hatched altricial bird, then the best starter diet should include 60% puppy or kitten kibble, 20% hard-boiled eggs, and 20% mealworms (which can be purchased online). Soaking dog biscuits or kibble in water will create a mushy consistency that’s easy to take and digest for young birds. This mimics the texture of the food given by mama birds in the wild and is also a high-protein option, which is extra important for nestlings.
Baby birds’ nutritional needs are very different from their adult parents. What the baby bird’s parents eat can harm them, but as the young bird grows, its diet can be adjusted, and more raw meat should be included because they will get the necessary protein from it.
And you don’t have to feed the baby bird water as they will get it from the food they eat. To maintain the healthy growth of the baby bird, it is important to keep up a steady schedule. It is very important to know what to feed a baby bird so that it will provide similar nutrition to its natural diet.
Things to feed a baby bird
- moist dog food
- raw liver (no seasoning)
- dog/ cat kibble
- moist dog biscuits (moistened)
- hard-boiled egg
Things that should not be given
- whole birdseed
Unlike mammals, birds do not drink milk as their digestive systems won’t tolerate milk. Unfortunately, it is a common misconception that mixing bread and milk makes for an ideal feed for baby birds. Milk can be toxic to birds, so avoid feeding it entirely.
As the baby bird matures and starts hopping around, you can change the diet to what an adult bird eats, like earthworms, crickets that have been chopped up very small, along with berries and grapes, and raisins soaked in water, etc.
Mind all the points about what to feed a baby bird to give your baby bird a healthy life!
Know Which Bird Species Need a Special Diet
The exceptions to this diet include birds like doves and baby pigeons, parrots, hummingbirds, fish-eating birds, birds of prey, and any precocial chicks. Doves, pigeons, and parrot-like birds commonly eat “pigeon milk”.
It is a substance that the mother regurgitates. To replicate this, you will need to feed these baby birds a hand-feeding formula designed for parrots (available at any pet store) through a plastic syringe with the needle removed.
You can also make “pigeon milk” at home if needed immediately.
You will need the following substance;
- 50% cornmeal
- 50% ground bird seed (mainly millet and milo)
- Soybean milk (like Similac or Enfamil)
- Apple juice
Make a thick slurry from the cornmeal and ground bird seed(ground it using a coffee grinder) by adding the soybean milk and a touch of apple juice. The cornmeal, bird seed, and apple juice provided the needed calories and vitamins, and the soybean milk provided the protein and more vitamins.
One more important thing to remember is that all food must be prepared fresh for every feeding.
F. How to Feed a Baby Bird?
After the question ‘what to feed a baby bird, the next one that comes to mind is ‘how to feed a baby bird’?
Remember to offer foods that have a spongy consistency instead of dripping with water, which can suffocate or drown the baby bird. All dry food should be softened before offering it. Food should only be offered at room temperature, never heated or refrigerated.
Keep food pieces small and proportional to the size of the bird — tiny birds need tiny bites. Cut or crush food properly to fit the size of the bird. When feeding the bird, be as careful as possible to minimize the risk of additional stress or injury. Never force a bird to eat its food; it could cause more harm to them.
G. Feeding Tips
A hungry baby bird will open its mouth wide. This behaviour is called gaping. If it isn’t opening up, gently tap on the makeshift nest. This signals to the baby bird that it’s time to feed. If you still get nothing, the bird isn’t hungry or extremely ill and should be taken to a local veterinarian immediately.
Baby birds need to be fed very carefully. The best way to do this is by using dull tweezers or plastic forceps. If you don’t have either of these, then a chopstick narrow enough to fit in the bird’s mouth will also do the work. To feed, take a small amount of food between the tweezers, forceps, or on the edge of the chopstick, and drop it gently into the baby bird’s mouth.
How will you know whether the baby bird is done eating?
If the young bird stops gaping, it is done eating, and you should stop feeding it. You might also see the area beneath the baby bird’s chin protruding. It is also a good sign that the small bird is full.
Always wear gloves while handling the baby bird because even baby birds can carry mites, lice, ticks, bacteria, and other unpleasant parasites that can be transferred to humans. And after handling the bird, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and mild hot water.
As mentioned earlier, avoid giving the baby bird water. Baby birds get the required amount of water from the food they eat. If water is given to the baby bird, the fluid will likely fill its lungs and cause them to drown. Water should only be given when the bird is old enough to hop around the box.
Make sure to place a stone or a couple of marbles into the water container so the young bird does not stand on it, or the container will trip, and the water will fall inside the box.
H. Taking Care of the Baby Bird
After finding the solution to most of the questions, including the most crucial one, ‘What to feed a baby bird’, let’s get a little more information.
1. Make A Temporary Nest For The Baby Bird
The most suitable way to make a temporary nest for your baby bird is by using a covered cardboard box, such as a shoebox, in which you must punch several holes in the bottom. Place a small plastic or wooden bowl into the box and line it with an undyed paper towel. This will make a nice, snuggly nest for the baby bird.
Do not line the nest with stringy or shredded bedding, as these can wrap around the baby’s wings and throat. Most people often commit a common mistake while they prepare a makeshift nest for their baby bird by using grass, leaves, moss, or twigs. Avoid using them as they can be damp and easily become mouldy.
2. Keeping The Baby Bird Warm
As ‘what to feed a baby bird’ is a really important question, it is also very vital to keeping the bird warm.
As the young birds’ parents keep the baby bird warm, you, too, must keep your baby bird warm. If the young bird feels damp or chilled, you will need to warm them up as soon as you place them in the box.
There are several ways you can do it:
- If you have a heating pad, you can set it to low heat and place the box on top. On the other hand, you can fill a ziplock bag with warm water and place it in the box or hang a 40-watt bulb above the box.
- It is also very important to maintain the birds’ nest at a regular temperature, so if it is possible, it would be best to keep a thermometer in the box. If the baby bird is less than a week old, its eyes are closed, with no feathers, then the temperature should be around 95 °F (35 °C). This can be reduced by 5 degrees with every passing week.
- One more thing to remember is that you should put the box in an area away from direct sunlight. And you should do this because newly hatched baby birds are very susceptible to chilling and overheating, as they have a large body surface relative to their weight and have not yet developed insulating feathers.
3. Keep The Baby Bird In A Stress-Free Environment
Baby birds will not thrive unless they are kept in a calm, low-stress environment. When baby birds are distressed, their heart rate rises notably, which is harmful to their health.
And in conclusion, the box where you keep the baby bird should be kept in a quiet environment, inaccessible to pets and children.
You should also avoid exposing the baby bird to the following things: Excessive or improper handling, loud noises, incorrect temperatures, overcrowding (if you have more than one baby bird), disorganized feeding schedules, or incorrect food.
You should also try to observe and hold the baby bird at eye level, as birds do not like to be peered down on. Holding them at eye level makes you seem less predatory.
4. Chart The Baby Birds Growth
You can monitor a baby bird’s development by weighing it daily to ensure it is gaining weight. You can use a diet or postage scale for this purpose.
The baby bird’s body weight should increase every day; after a week or so, it should have doubled its hatching weight. To be sure whether the baby bird is growing normally for its breed, you will need to consult a growth chart. If the baby bird is gaining weight very slowly or not at all, it is a symptom of something wrong. If this happens, immediately take the baby bird to a local veterinarian or a bird rescue organization, or it is likely to die.
5. Help The Young Bird Learn To Fly And Then Release It
Once the baby bird has become fully developed, fledgling or fully feathered, you can move it to a larger cage or a screened porch where it can spread its wings and learn to fly.
A bird’s ability to fly is instinctive. It might fail at the first few attempts, but it will do fine later. Once you have noticed that your bird can fly easily and has gained altitude, it is time to release it outdoors. Take it to an area where you have seen other birds of the same species, and there is sufficient food ability; open the cage door and let it fly away.
But if you are releasing the bird into your garden, put the cage outside with the door wide open. Then the bird can decide for itself when it is ready to leave.
One thing to remember is that the less time a bird is kept in captivity, the better the chance of survival in the wild, so don’t put off the release date until it is extremely necessary.
Hope you find this article helpful about ‘what to feed a baby bird’ and answers some of your questions. Don’t forget to research properly if you have more doubts about what to feed a baby bird or how to take care of them, try to get in touch with a Bird Rescue Organization or a Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre for more advice to maximize the chances of a successful release.
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Priyanka or Priya as most of her friends call her is a degree final year student who is going to graduate next year. She loves to write and read. Many of her stories have been published in different anthologies and one of her pomes also got a special feature in a magazine. She plans to publish a book of her own someday. Her pronouns are she/her.