Injured and Orphaned Birds — What To Do?

At some point or another, nearly everyone who spends time outdoors or who feeds backyard birds finds a baby bird, unable to fly very well and apparently lost or abandoned by its parents. Our first impulse is to adopt this apparently helpless creature and try to raise it ourselves. But in most cases, the young bird doesn’t need our help at all, and, in fact, we may be doing more harm than good.

If you find a baby bird.

Look the young bird over for signs of physical trauma. If it’s injured, take it to a local veterinarian, or call your local game warden or conservation department for the name and telephone number of the nearest wildlife rehabilitator. (You can carry it in a small enclosed box, such as a shoe box, lined with paper towels. Poke a few holes in the bottom of the box for ventilation.) There’s a list below of some SFV resources, but if you’re having trouble finding a wildlife rehabilitator in your area go to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory.

Nestling or Fledgling?

If the bird is uninjured you should ask yourself “Is it really an orphan?” Nearly always, the answer will be no—most baby birds that people find are actually recent fledglings that cannot fly well. The first thing to do is determine whether it is a nestling or a fledgling.

Let the young bird perch on your finger. Is it gripping firmly? If so, it is a fledgling. The best thing to do, to get it out of harm’s way, is to place the baby bird in a shrub or tree—somewhere above the ground—and leave it alone.

If the bird seems unable to cling well to your finger or to branches, it is most likely a nestling. Look around in nearby shrubbery or trees for the nest the bird came from. It will probably be well hidden. If you do find the nest, simply put the young bird back in it. If you can’t find it, you can provide a substitute nest by tying a berry basket (the kind with holes in the bottom, for drainage) in a tree. Line it with some tissues or other soft material, put the baby bird inside, and leave it alone.

This is usually all the help a baby bird needs. As soon as you leave, the parents—which have probably been watching you the entire time—will return and continue feeding their youngster. If you want to be sure that the parents are still around, watch the baby bird from a distance. If the parents don’t return to an undisturbed nestling in two hours something may be wrong. The parents may have been killed by predators or hit by a car. But don’t worry if you see only one parent—a single parent can raise its young alone.

Should You Hand-raise a Baby Bird?

We strongly advise you against doing this. If, however, you decide to try raising a baby bird yourself, be forewarned: rearing a young bird is an incredibly labor-intensive task. Nestlings are ravenous eaters and must be fed every 15 to 20 minutes from sunrise to sunset. If the young bird is only a day or two old, it may be weeks before it can be released. And adults birds teach their young the skills they need for survival—where to look for food; how to avoid predators; how to communicate. Humans simply aren’t equipped to provide this essential guidance to young birds. Added to this is the problem of a very young bird imprinting on its human caretaker—becoming irreversibly socially-bonded to humans instead of to its own species. Such birds are unafraid of people, vulnerable, and often permanently dependent on humans for food—a bad situation. All in all, despite the best efforts of human foster parents, most hand-raised birds die, often before they’re even old enough to release. If at all possible, avoid rearing a bird yourself.

A Warning!

Besides being difficult, raising a wild bird in captivity is illegal unless you have the proper state and federal licenses. Call your local game warden or conservation officer for advice if you find a young bird that needs care. They should be able to put you in touch with a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who has been trained to care for sick, injured, and abandoned birds and other animals.

Questions and Myths about “Orphaned” Baby Birds

Q. If I handle a baby bird, its parents will pick up my scent and abandon it.
A. It’s a myth that parent birds will abandon young that have been touched by humans—most birds have a poor sense of smell and are probably unable to detect the scent of humans on their eggs or nests.

Q. If I don’t pick the baby bird up my cat or dog will kill it.
A. The best thing to do is to keep your pet inside until the bird is gone. This helpless stage is temporary, and, if the young bird can be reunited with its parents, it will become stronger and be gone in a couple of days. Try to keep your pets under control that long.

Q. Why do birds come out of the nest so early if they can’t fly?
A. It’s to young birds’ advantage to leave the nest as soon as they can. People tend to think of birds’ nests as safe, cosy little homes. But actually a nest is rather a dangerous place because, by concentrating all the vulnerable young in one location, marauding predators may eat them all if they find them. Parent birds work to raise their young and get them out of the nest as quickly as possible. Then they can spread the youngsters out and move them around to a different spot every night, enhancing each one’s chances of survival.

Q. Where can I learn more?
A. For information about Wildlife Rehabilitation try the Wildlife Rehabilitation Information Directory.

For excellent, well-reasoned information about the (few) pros and (many) cons of raising baby birds in captivity, visit Dr. Kevin McGowan’s webpage I Found a Baby Crow. Information there pertains to baby American Crows but applies to other baby songbirds as well.

Urban Mallards

A pair of mallards — where they belong
Photo by James Kenney

It is a common and somewhat harrowing sight to see a duck leading a string of ducklings across a busy road or through the middle of a highly urbanized area.

Many of the calls we receive during the spring and early summer are from people who want to know “Why are they here?” and “How can I help them?” The following are some answers to the most common spring waterfowl questions:

A duck is incubating eggs in my backyard, parking lot, porch, balcony, etc. How long will she be here?

Mallards incubate their eggs between 26-30 days. Males typically desert after the first week of incubation, and the female is left to complete the process and raise the young.

Mallard ducklings are precocial, meaning that they are able to feed and move about on their own within minutes of hatching. They are, however, dependant on the mother for guidance, protection and waterproofing. She will typically lead them to appropriate habit within a day of hatching, and they remain with her for 42-60 days.

Why do mallards sometimes nest far from water?

Mallards look for nesting locations away from likely predators. In urban environments this may include raccoons, coyotes, dogs and cats. Urban parks are typically over-populated with ducks, and females may also look for nesting locations away from drakes (male ducks) that may attempt to copulate with them even after egg laying. It is not uncommon for ducks to nest as far as a mile from water.

What should I do if I see a mallard with ducklings?

Once the young hatch, mallards will lead their young to water. Sometimes this requires traversing a hazardous route. It may require crossing roads. Although it is tempting to try and “rescue” the ducklings, it is important to allow the mother to continue to care for her own young.

Attempts to capture the young and transport them to “safer” locations frequently cause the mother to “spook” and fly away. Ducklings will often scatter and can be very difficult to catch. Although well meaning, attempts to interfere usually make a bad situation even worse.

What should I do if I find a lost or abandoned duckling?

Ducklings frequently become separated from their mothers. If the mother is believed to be nearby, it is best to leave the duckling alone. It will “peep” and alert the mother to its whereabouts.

If the mother has been spooked and has left her ducklings behind, they can be gathered and placed into a cardboard box with the top open to the sky. She will usually circle back shortly to relocate her ducklings.

If there are ducklings known to be orphaned, they may be brought to Portland Audubon’s Wildlife Care Center.

What should I do if I find an injured or malformed duckling?

Ducks typically have between 8-10 young. Most of those will not survive to adulthood. Birth defects and developmental problems are common in ducklings.

Those that are not thriving are left behind so that the mother can focus on those with the best chance. Injured ducklings can be brought to the Wildlife Care Center. However, these types of problems are typically not “fixable” and deformed and badly injured ducklings are usually euthanized.

Why do the males attack the females?

“Drake Rape” is a common occurrence in urban parks. Several males may attempt to copulate with a single female at the same time. Oftentimes this leads to injuries along the neck, back and legs.

In extreme cases it can lead to death from either trauma or drowning. This behavior is associated with over-crowding and it is exacerbated by the fact that the large domestic ducks that are often found in parks are bred for food rather than for survival and are not built to escape.

Why is there so much color variation in our park mallards?

Many ducks found in parks are abandoned domestic ducks (and their offspring) that have been bought at pet and feed stores and then released into the wild.

Releasing domestic ducks into the wild is illegal and punishable by both fines and jail sentences. It is also inhumane as these ducks typically have a difficult time surviving and exacerbate the over-population problems that already exist in urban parks.

Wildlife Care Center Duck Intake Policy

The Wildlife Care Center accepts injured adult mallards for rehabilitation. Our goal for healthy native mallards is to rehabilitate these birds and return them to the wild.

In cases where ducks are clearly domestic, donors should be aware that these are “abandoned” domestic animals that require not only treatment but also a permanent captive home. Donors may take direct responsibility for these animals themselves.

If transported to the Wildlife Care Center, they will be treated and placed in permanent captive situations as resources allow. It is possible that domestic ducks will also be euthanized.

Saving injured or orphaned wild birds

People frequently contact SFVAS concerning oiled, wounded and sick birds. Below are the bird rescue operations in our area of which we are aware.  If you know of others, please let us know and we will add them to this list.   All of these organizations are non-profit, need donations, and frequently solicit volunteers, with the exception of the two organizations listed at the end. If no one answers it is because clinic personnel are currently busy with feeding or emergency procedures. Please leave a message – they will return your call as soon as possible.

Please, always call these organizations before you attempt to deliver an animal to their Center.  You may waste valuable time.

Please note: The rehabilitation organizations listed below are not bird sanctuaries or bird boarding facilities, and with the exception of the two organizations at the end of the list, are not nuisance wildlife removal agencies. They are not permitted (by law) to admit domestic animals or birds. It is always illegal for non-permitted parties, including Veterinarians, to keep or care for wildlife.

If you have any questions not covered below, you can call Dave Weeshoff at (818) 618-1652 or email 

California Wildlife Center
Phone: 310) 458-WILD [9453]
PO Box 2022
Malibu, CA 90265

International Bird Rescue:
(Wild, aquatic birds only)

Phone:   310-514-2573
3601 So. Gaffey Street Box 3
San Pedro, CA. 90731

Ojai Raptor Center
Phone: (805) 649-6884

South Bay Wildlife Rehab
26363 Silver Spur Rd.
Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275
Phone:   310-378-9921

City of Los Angeles Department of Animal Services

Small Animal Rescue Team (SmART)
Los Angeles Wildlife Program
Phone: (888) 452-7381

The fastest way to reach a Los Angeles City Animal shelter is:

  • Dial 888-452-7381
  • Press 1 for English or 2 for Spanish
  • Press 4
  • Connect directly to any of our shelters

Humane Animal Control
Phone: (855) 548-6263

Wild neighbors too close for comfort? Wildlife problems can and should be resolved with compassion and humanity – with respect for life and the environment. Where traditional pest control companies focus on trapping and killing animals, HAC focuses on the cause, for lasting results.  Fees may apply.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act: Most wild birds are federally protected. They must not be chased, harassed, captured or harmed in any way. Their eggs and nests are also protected.
Occasionally, it may be necessary to move a bird or its nest. We are permitted through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to handle protected migratory birds on a case by case basis.

For a full listing of all legal and licensed wildlife rehab facilities in California, click here.