Whether you’re in your own backyard or in the backcountry, encountering an injured bird is enough to stop an outdoor lover in her tracks. But what’s the proper course of action to take—if any? We checked in with an expert on how to proceed.
1. DETERMINE IF IT’S A WINDOW-STRIKE
“The first thing you need to do is make sure [the bird] truly is injured,” cautions Marj Rines, a naturalist with Mass Audubon. To do so, take note of your surroundings. If you encounter a bird on the ground near your home, determine whether or not it could have hit a window. “Windows are death traps for birds,” Rines explains—in particular, large windows without panes. These can reflect foliage so realistically, birds can become confused and think they’re heading deeper into the outdoors.
If you find a bird resting just outside a window, it’s likely a window strike and should be left alone. If the bird is in a particularly vulnerable location, such as the middle of a sidewalk, Rines suggests placing it under a bush for protection. “Very often [window-strike birds] are able to get their act together and fly off uninjured after an hour or so,” she says.
In the wild, away from windows and other hard reflective surfaces, a bird that’s on the ground and unable to fly is likely injured. Before you heed the urge to help, consider that even the best of intentions can prolong suffering and distress. Always observe first and act second. Once you’ve established that a bird is injured, proceed as below.
2. CONTACT A LICENSED WILDLIFE REHABILITATOR
You can find local help via the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association; visit nwrawildlife.org or call 320-259-4086. While these professionals, who are often volunteers, are unable to travel to pick up injured wildlife, they will be able to advise you on next steps. Veterinarians are also legally permitted to provide emergency care for injured wildlife.
3. PROVIDE SAFE TRANSPORT
Place the bird in a small container, with holes punched for ventilation, and put the container in a dark, quiet location for transportation to the rehabilitator or veterinarian of your choice. Providing water in a shallow dish is OK, but do not attempt to feed the bird.
4. KNOW WHEN TO DO NOTHING
If you’re unable to contact a wildlife rehabilitator, you have two choices: You can place the bird out of clear sight of predators, with as little handling as possible. Or you can leave it be. While it might be difficult for hikers, especially young ones, to stomach doing nothing, Rines says the best practice is to avoid touching any injured bird you won’t be able to transport. If you must touch a bird to move it out of harm’s way, Rines underscores the importance of using a towel or another protective barrier. Humans leave their scent behind when they touch a wild animal, and a predator easily can follow that smell trail to a bird.
5. WATCH THE SEASONS
Come spring, different rules apply. “Very often, birds that appear to be injured are just baby birds that fall out of the nest before they are fully able to fly [and] should be left alone,” Rines says. Simple clumsiness or drooping wings—telltale signs of an uncoordinated baby—are often mistaken for injuries.
When in doubt, “I am such an advocate of leaving nature to take its course,” Rines emphasizes. She says that mortality rates among wildlife populations are nature’s way of maintaining the numbers an environment can support.