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A Bird In The Hand Is Better Left Under The Bush; Young Animals Don't Usually Need People's Help, Says Colorado State Expert

Wednesday, June 17, 1998

FORT COLLINS--The best thing you can do to help a young bird found on the ground is to leave it alone, said a bird expert at Colorado State University.

Chances are the parents are nearby, waiting for humans to leave so they can continue feeding and protecting the fledgling, said Judith Scherpelz, director of the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program at Colorado State's Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

"We get a lot of immature birds of prey, and other agencies get songbirds and other species, brought in by concerned and well-meaning people who think the young bird's in trouble because it's on the ground," Scherpelz said. "That's possible, but in the vast number of cases the young bird's okay, the parents are present and the best thing someone can do to help is to do nothing."

With birds on the ground, check for no or few feathers. Birds that are young probably fell or were blown from a nest. If you can spot the nest and it's accessible, gently return the young bird to it. Since birds have poor senses of smell, Scherpelz said, human scent on their offspring won't bother them. If the young bird hasn't been out of the nest for more than about 24 hours, adults probably will continue to care for it if it is replaced with a minimum of disturbance.

On the other hand, an immature bird on the ground with most of its feathers, particularly one who's flapping, is probably exercising and learning how to fly. The parents are nearby, watching. Again, the best action is no action.

"There's often a period of a few days to a couple of weeks when a young bird is on the ground, trying to figure out how to fly, and that's when people think it needs help," Scherpelz said. "That's when you should just leave it alone."

So when does a young bird need help? It's a matter of judgement, she said, but clear indications (some requiring patient observation) for human intervention include:

* an obviously injured young bird or one that appears bedraggled after a prolonged rainy period;

* a bird too young to care for itself from a nest that has obviously been destroyed, for example, after a tree has been cut down or a gutter has been cleaned;

* a bird that has obviously been abandoned by its parents. Abandonment isn't necessarily obvious; look around and watch quietly to make sure the parents are gone, Scherpelz urged.

In addition, Scherpelz offered three tips on helping birds and other wildlife.

* If you bring a bird to authorities, make sure you can describe exactly where the bird was found. The information will help return the bird to the wild.

* Control your pets - especially cats. "In some areas, domestic cats are responsible for up to 80 percent of all deaths of young birds," Scherpelz said. "Keep pets under control, indoors or on a leash.

"Feral cats are a serious problem for birds and for other wildlife, but well-fed, healthy pet cats are stronger, are better hunters and are more likely to kill birds."

* Don't try to take care of an injured or orphaned bird or other animal on your own, for several reasons.

In the case of virtually all bird species, possession of a wild bird is illegal under federal laws, Scherpelz said. In addition, birds of prey may "imprint" on humans, have no fear of them and see them as a source of food; this could lead birds of prey to fly after - or, from the human perspective, "attack" - people. Such birds pose dangers both to people and to themselves. Providing a proper diet, especially for raptors, is difficult. Surprising as it may seem, a diet of pure meat will cause malnutrition and death.

State laws require that indigenous wildlife in trouble be taken directly to rehabilitation authorities, and excessive handling of a bird or other wildlife can transmit disease to humans.

If you're sure the bird or other animal is really in need, cover it with a coat, towel or other cloth. Don't feed or water young creatures; place in a ventilated box or bag. Put a baby bird in a small container lined with paper towel or tissue for support and transport it to a wildlife rehabilitation facility.

If a bird needs help, get it from experts. Along the northern Front Range, bring injured or abandoned raptors (for example, American kestrels, great horned owls and screech owls) to Colorado State's Veterinary Teaching Hospital, 300 Drake Ave., Fort Collins.

Other injured or abandoned wildlife can be taken to the Humane Society for Larimer County, 6317 Kyle Ave., Fort Collins, for care by Wildkind, the Humane Society's wildlife rehabilitation program. If you find wildlife, call (970) 226- 3647; after hours, leave a message.

Scherpelz suggests that in other locales, people finding injured birds or wildlife might check with the Human Society, the local Audubon Society or the state's division of wildlife for further assistance. They can often provide advice or referrals.

"There are ethical issues involved," Scherpelz said. "Some people feel that interfering with any wild animal is unethical and that nature should take its course. Others think human development has caused many of the problems that wildlife face and that it's our responsibility to intervene and care for them.

"But, when in doubt, let the bird or animal alone - you're probably doing it, and its parents, a favor."

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