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Dealing with Injured or Distressed Birds
By Reinier Munguia

Each year thousands of injured birds are found. Some have little chance to survive, but others, when helped in time, can make a full recovery. Flying and swimming can be hazardous activities for most humans, yet birds do this all the time.  A typical bald eagle may fly up to 50 miles in a day just to procure food, and a ring-necked duck may dive 100 or more times a day to feed in the shallows of a lake. The closer these activities come to our homes, the higher the chances of these birds to get injured. Power lines, discarded fishing lines, vehicles, trash and chemicals are among the endless list of things that can cause damage to our avian friends. As bird watchers we have a commitment to protect and help the subjects we enjoy the most. Unfortunately our current wildlife agencies are understaffed and unequipped to care for wildlife or to rescue birds in distress. Wildlife rehabilitators are tied-up with taking care of their patients that arrive to their facilities and rarely have time or enough volunteer power to actively provide rescue operations. Instead, they rely on people like you and me to bring them any birds they find.
For the past ten years I have provided this type of service to various rehabilitation centers including the Bush Wildlife Sanctuary, Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, Suncoast Bird Sanctuary and many others as a way to help the birds while reducing the work load for these facilities.  Bird watchers and nature enthusiasts should know what to do when they find a bird in distress and who to contact. While you may not be able to provide the assistance yourself, perhaps you can find somebody that could help.

In this article I’ll give you some ideas of what to do when you encounter an injured bird. If you decide to get more involved, you can actually request a Wildlife Rescue permit free of charge from the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission. The permit will allow you to possess a migratory bird for a period of 24 hours for the purpose of transport to a rehabilitation facility.

Remember possession of any migratory bird species or endangered species is illegal without the proper permits.

Here are some of the most common injuries and maladies we find in birds. Large birds such as eagles and vultures are among the most common cases of electrocution from high power transmission lines.  They also get involved in a lot of collisions with cars due to their habits of feeding on dead animals close to the roads. Waders and divers are usually injured when they get entangled in fishing lines or something such as nylon mesh gets entangled in their bills. Many birds injure their wings when they fly into power lines. Pelicans, gulls and terns are usually prone to getting injured by hooks and fishing lines, or starving during inclement weather when is difficult for them to catch their food. Passerines usually suffer from various diseases that can bring them down. Additionally, they’re prey for many other birds and mammals, thus increasing their chances of getting injured. Domestic animals including cats and dogs also hurt many birds when allowed to roam freely.

While experience dealing with injured birds is highly recommended, general animal husbandry and care will suffice for most rescues.

Below are a few things to consider when rescuing a bird.

Things to Consider

Observe the area where the bird is found to ensure there are no other dangers that may affect you or the bird.

It’s normal for birds to be injured when they fall prey to another animal. That’s why it’s important to look around and assess the situation before committing to rescue a bird. Taking away a predators prey is not helpful, unless the predator has lost interest or can't subdue its prey.

Ensure you have the right equipment to reach the bird. Raptors will require heavy gloves to protect you from their powerful talons.  A large fish net can be helpful when restraining large birds such as egrets, herons and pelicans.

Do not try to give any food or drink to the bird. Providing fluids incorrectly to a bird can cause a lot of harm such as water in their lungs. Injured birds usually reject any food or water, and feeding will stress them even more. Wild birds will react as such. It is important to keep your face away from the sharp bills of herons, anhingas and other water birds.

What to do when you find an injured bird or distressed bird?

Entangled Birds

When dealing with birds that are entangled with fishing lines or any other material, reduce the stress by covering the eyes. Sliding a sock over the head may help reduce the stress. Secure the bird in a way that the wings can not be extended. Have an another person cut the lines in sections without pulling on the line. If a hook is found, push it through the skin until you see the barb. Cut the barb off with a wire cutter then back the rest of the hook out.

Stunned Birds
Occasionally when birds fly into a window or get hit by a car, they may be simply stunned by the impact. Carefully pick up the bird, keeping the head upright to facilitate breathing. Put your hands around the wings and hold firmly but without excessive pressure.
Put the bird inside a cardboard box lined with a bed sheet or similar fabric.  Do not use towels. The loops in the towel can easily get tangled in the bird’s feet, causing more stress. Wait for a couple of hours and then check for any signs of recovery in the bird. Usually birds with a mild head concussion will recover if left alone. If the bird looks recovered after the recovery period, then take the box and the bird to a suitable release site (away from vehicles) and preferably the proper habitat for the bird.
If the bird can’t fly, contact your local rehabilitator.

Birds with Broken Wings

Birds with broken wings need to be handled with care to avoid any further damage.Try reducing its visual stimulation by covering the bird with a blanket. This will also prevent the bird from flapping thus reducing its chances of getting harmed. Bird bones heal fast, so immediate attention will ensure a full recovery.  If handling pelicans, do not shut their bills completely. They need enough separation between the upper and lower mandible to breathe.

Baby Birds

If the baby bird is in good shape, you should place it back in its nest if possible.  Branchers (babies about to fly) can be relocated to a high enough branch where the adults may find them. Keep an eye from a distance to ensure that the adults find their baby. Baby birds are left unattended for extended periods of time while the adults look for food. Be patient. Make sure the bird sits in a safe branch away from direct sunlight to avoid dehydration.If the adults do not show up to assist the fledgling, it’s time to call your local rehabber.

While these are only some basic guidelines, you will soon learn from your local rehabber what needs to be done. Some wildlife rehabilitators will help you with instructions on what to do in specific bird species. Call them and let them know the situation, before driving to their facilities. That way, they'll have a better idea and can prepare to give full attention to the incoming patient.

Below are some of the most common injuries and problems that wild birds encounter
  • Broken wings
  • Broken legs
  • Entangled birds
  • Blunt trauma
  • Injured in territorial fights
  • Electrocution
  • Poisoning (Bad food, chemical, or bacterial)
This anhinga was found in Lake Parker with some kind of netting on its bill.
This bald eagle was rescued after getting into a territorial fight. The bird was exhausted and grounded with only minor injuries.
A young wood stork fell from the nest during a massive storm.
This sandhill crane stuck its bill into an irrigation pipe. It took several tries to capture the bird, and finally a net gun was used to get it. Few days later it was released.

Emergency contacts:

All Birds
Woodland Wonders: 863-967-3298

Center For Birds of Prey:407-644-0190

Sea Birds & Waders
Suncoast Bird Sanctuary: 727-391-6211

Lake Region Audubon: 863-797-7374


115 Lameraux Road ∙ Winter Haven, Florida 33884 (863) 259-8497