How to identify, house, feed, raise, and (hopefully) release baby songbirds.
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How to identify, house, feed, raise, and (hopefully) release baby songbirds. Meryl Faulkner, Project Wildlife. SONGBIRDS 101. There’s a knock at the door…. “I just found this little bird, and they told me you could help”

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How to identify, house, feed, raise, and (hopefully) release baby songbirds.

Meryl Faulkner, Project Wildlife


There s a knock at the door

There’s a knock at the door…

  • “I just found this little bird, and they told me you could help”

  • You hesitate. Now, as a rehabilitator, or just learning to be one, you have become an expert to a member of the public

  • You smile, and say – sure, I’ll look at it

But why are they bringing you this bird

But….why are they bringing you this bird?

  • First, if it’s a baby bird – and it looks healthy ask if the mother was feeding it. They say yes.

  • Look at the whole bird – wear latex or nitrile gloves if you have no hand cleaner close by – look at the eyes, head, underside, abdomen, each wing, upper and lower surface. Do the legs and wings work? They do?

  • Suggest they put it back, off the ground and wait to see if the mother continues to care for it.

What if it is injured

What if it is injured?

  • If you do have a center or know a more experienced rehabilitator, call them and ask for advice and see if you can take it there.

  • If you are not near a rehab center, and have no-one to help, perhaps ask a local bird vet if they would be willing to help

  • If all else fails, gently clean any wound with warm water and a Qtip, and try to minimize movement of the affected limb using white ½ inch micropore paper tape.

  • Keep bird warm, dark and quiet, and if it begs feed it the formula your group uses.

Where to raise songbirds

Where to raise songbirds?

  • Quiet area, indoors

  • Access to sink /faucet/ cleaning products

  • Away from view of pets/family

  • Can be bedroom, garage

  • Electrical outlets – for heat, light, fans

  • Windows or full spectrum lighting

Housing equipment needed

Housing/Equipment needed


    • Incubators for nestlings

    • Caging for fledglings

    • Feeding utensils


    • Aviary for juveniles or recuperating injured adults

Home made incubators

Home-made incubators

Consists of two clear plastic containers (brands such as Sterilite from department stores) nested, with water between the two, and an aquarium heater in the water layer. Temp set at highest (93°F), heater can be 100W or 120W

Openings cut in lids are covered with plastic mesh from craft stores



  • These are not as “climate controlled” as commercial kind. Commercial incubators can be contaminated with bacteria if not cleaned regularly. Home made types open from top and are easy to take apart. Commercial kind have side opening – not as much air flow.

  • Paper towel flooring, plastic tops have openings cut, and mesh installed for visibility. Screen with elastic edging can be used as a top if preferred in the smaller size containers.

Hatchlings nestlings


  • Using a 38 watt bulb over one end produces a temp of approx 88-94 deg F. Full spectrum lights a little cooler.

  • More birds in a “nest” means chicks are warmer.

  • Single naked nestlings may need to be kept directly on paper towel surrounded by rim of toilet paper and covered

  • Hatchlings are hard to rear

Feeding tiny nestlings

Feeding tiny nestlings

  • Formula always a controversial subject for hand feeding

  • We use basic mix – science diet feline maintenance, beef or chicken baby food, avian vitamins, calcium carbonate.

  • Add water, make to a consistency of pudding and feed with 1ml syringes

Why do we use this formula

Why do we use this formula?

  • First tried in the 1990’s (originated with WRI in Palo Alto)

  • Birds look good and we have a reasonable release rate

  • Convenient to find ingredients, easy to make, palatable to birds

In addition

In addition……..

  • Large numbers of songbirds are held at our shelter, any plumage problems seem to be present upon arrival (sparrows)

  • The S/D kibbles are palatable to the birds and are picked up (they keep their shape after soaking) and eaten by the fledglings (along with other food)

Diet controversies

Diet controversies

  • Probably most formulas used by wildlife groups and published in the literature are good.

  • However no controlled studies have been done comparing birds’ feather size, body weight, growth rate, original intake condition etc in groups of birds reared on differing formulas

Id ing hatchlings and fledglings

ID’ing Hatchlings and Fledglings

  • Not essential to begin with – we (PW) use same formula for all species to begin with

  • But, good to know the species – some inherently more difficult to rear

  • One characteristic – naked versus downy

  • Only 5 common species naked at hatch in So Cal

Naked at hatch house sparrow scrub jays and white throated swift

Other species naked at hatch : Bushtit, Woodpecker, Flicker

Naked at hatch: house sparrow, scrub jays and white-throated swift

Downy birds yellow mouths

Downy birds – yellow mouths

  • Mockingbirds - light chest, spots on breast, long legs, peeping call.

  • Starlings - Dark grey plumage all over

  • Wrens –narrow bill, wide at jaw

  • Phoebes – sword like bill with ridge when viewed from above. Dark plumage

Examples of yellow mouths wrens swallows phoebes starlings

Examples of yellow mouths - wrens, swallows, phoebes, starlings

Downy birds pink or red mouths

Downy birds -Pink or red mouths

  • Sparrow and Jays – no fuzz

  • House finch short beak

  • Brewer’s blackbirds – orange skin

  • Towhees – continuous chirps, slightly bald around eyes

  • Cliff Swallow – flesh colored mouth, sloping head, orange butt

Pink mouths also kingbirds goldfinches cowbird house finches

Pink mouths – also kingbirds, goldfinches, cowbird, house finches

A baby bird arrives

A baby bird arrives

  • Do a physical exam

  • Look at head, beak, eyes (if open) neck

  • Look at underside of bird – is vent/cloaca clean

  • Is abdomen bulging (maybe normal, may be not)

  • Check for air sac ruptures, broken wings, broken legs

  • Lumps, bumps, weird colors

Skin mouth general appearance

Skin, Mouth, General Appearance

  • Check for cheesy deposits, extreme pallor (no bird has a completely white mouth although some are pale)

  • If abdominal skin is wrinkled, maybe dehydrated.

  • Is bird cold – nestlings cannot regulate body temp and cannot digest food– should feel warm to the touch (norms are over 102 deg F)

  • Check for bugs – mites. Dust with Sevin if seen. Mites not a good prognosis

Nest hygiene

Nest hygiene

  • Toilet paper, Kleenex, remove/change after poops build up – once every 1-2 hours

  • Number of chicks to each “nest” – 4-6 small

  • Change paper towels lining floor of incubator as needed 1-3 times daily

  • Keep nestlings clean

  • Pull out top bin and replace with clean bin if debris gets under paper towels

It won t open its mouth

It won’t open its mouth!

  • 1ml syringes help (sometimes with an added tip)

  • Gently pry open. Maybe try dripping some pedialyte (a few drops) on the edge of the beak

  • Gently pry beak open with 1 cc syringe, push gently to back of throat and depress plunger slowly according to size of bird – watch to see if it starts to come up into mouth

  • Withdraw syringe and watch side of neck to gauge if you can do it again

  • Try several times at hourly intervals and normally they start to gape.

It threw up

It threw up!

  • Drat the creature. Try not to feel irritated

  • Maybe it has a mouth infection – goldfinches and house finches shake their food out when they have Trichomoniasis.

  • Red crops are a sign of this, Check with your center or vet and see if you can get spartrix.

  • In the meantime try a small gauge feeding tube carefully inserted into the crop and try gently putting small amounts in.



  • Found on the side of the neck – sparrows and finches have them, jays don’t. A bulging crop means it has enough food

  • Birds with no crops simply gape and vocalize when they are hungry, or you can gently tap the side of the mouth with the feeding implement

How much do i feed it

How much do I feed it?

  • Size matters:

  • Tiny hatched house finch –perhaps 0.1-0.2 mls (ccs)

  • Very young starling/mocker – 0.5 mls

  • Age matters:

  • Goldfinches / house finches can beg and swallow a full 1 cc (goldfinch) to 1.5 cc (house finch) when they are feathering out. I try to not fill them completely just in case they inhale food (not good)

Syringe feeding house finches

Syringe Feeding House Finches

For small birds give them many small bites until they stop gaping

Photos by Gladys Gilliam-Soeterik

Food how often

Food - How Often ?

  • Wild birds are fed frequently since parent birds bring back only with a beak-full

  • Some rehabilitators feed at set intervals – once every 45 mins, every hour, others feed on demand.

  • Generally, one feeds tiny birds about every 45 mins to an hour, app.10 hours a day. Larger older more active birds every hour to 90 minutes. It is usually possible to miss a feeding if feeding time is extended to later in the day. As birds feather out and begin to pick up food, hand feeding can be reduced. Individuals may vary

Caging for fledglings

Caging for fledglings

  • We use welded wire caging 1/2inch by 1inch mesh

  • Small birds can be housed in17x12x12inch cages with two perches

  • Large birds (mockers jays starlings) in 24x16x17. 2 parallel perches (branches)

  • Ideally a suspended floor with removable tray

  • Newspaper layered on floor

Caging for fledglings1

Caging for fledglings

  • Avoid overcrowding, but species can be mixed –here bluebird, oriole, 2 kingbirds in a 12x 12 x 24inch cage

Larger wire cage

Larger wire cage

Cage hygiene

Cage hygiene

  • Newspapers layered on floor work well

  • Food and water dishes should not be under perches

  • Replace dirty water dishes as needed during the day

  • Clean cage or move birds to a clean cage when necessary

  • Detergent solution and brush can be used to remove grime. Replace perches as necessary



  • Natural daylight is best, however indoors substitute full spectrum light so that the lamps are approx 6 inches from birds

  • Full spectrum lighting helps prevent metabolic bone disease in some species

  • Placing caging outdoors runs a risk of attracting predators – hawks or cats

They re still begging

They’re still begging!!

  • This is why stick feeding is a good idea as they start to perch.

  • Use a bamboo skewer (supermarkets sell them) and impale a soaked SD kibble on it

  • Insectivores become interested in worms – mealworms. Finches like green stuff - put broccoli or a branch of native plant such as quail bush (atriplex) in there.

Kibble on a stick

Kibble on a stick

  • When bird gapes, pop it in. You can also skewer pieces of cheese, bits of soft fruit

  • Small birds like goldfinches will pick at the kibble, and realize it’s edible. You then leave the slightly mashed kibbles in/on a plastic holder, and the bird continues to eat on its own

Other foods to encourage self feeding presentation helps

Photo by Meryl Faulkner

Other foods to encourage self feeding- presentation helps!!

  • Fruit

  • Soaked kibble

  • Mealworms (for insect eaters)

  • Sprays of millet (finches)

  • Broccoli (hung on cage side)

Birds still resistant to self feeding

Birds still resistant to self feeding

  • Different individuals in the same species vary in their development

  • Continue to feed birds – hungry birds will regress and beg.

  • A well fed bird will investigate interesting foods – insectivores and seed eaters will pick at mealworms

Sick juvenile songbirds

Sick juvenile songbirds

  • If a songbird is sleeping a lot, is fluffed up, seems to be getting thinner, and has loose stools, remove it to another cage.

  • Difficult to diagnose illness – sometimes a fecal will help diagnose the problem

  • If funds allow, and several birds die, try for a necropsy or at least a fecal

Volunteer safety

Volunteer safety

  • Most humans have more bacteria which can infect birds than vice versa. However cleanliness and sanitation are necessary for both birds and humans.

  • If gloves are not worn, wash hands between handling individual birds, or use the disinfecting gels which minimize bacterial contamination

Preparation for release

Preparation for Release

  • An aviary is essential for pre-release conditioning.

  • Minimum size (IWRC/NWRA guidelines) for songbirds is 4ftX8ftx8ft.

  • House birds for approx 2 weeks or until birds are bathing without getting wet, and flying without gasping for breath.

Aviary construction

Aviary construction

  • Should be secured by wire (perhaps lined on the interior with plastic mesh)

  • Sand floor or concrete (I prefer sand- it can be raked and replenished with a topping of fresh sand as needed

  • Part of roof should be covered for protection from inclement weather

Criteria for release

Criteria for Release

  • Birds should be checked either by weighing or palpation of the keel

  • Wings and body feathers should be undamaged

  • Birds should not be tame

  • Birds should be able to fly without panting

  • But not while being chased with a net

Release sites

Release sites

  • Ideally at the aviary site so that food can be placed on aviary roof for supplemental feeding

  • If habitat not suitable, check for best location in your area and wait for good weather forecast for the next three days

  • Release at a time of day when people are not around, and no predators are in the area

  • Make sure you are not violating any rules (ask for permission from ranger or park official)

Problems illnesses

Problems, Illnesses

  • Hand reared birds are already stressed by being brought in by the public

  • Diseases are hard to diagnose birds mask their symptoms

  • If several birds are sick or die attempt to get a diagnosis by necropsy at a lab or veterinarians’ office

Common diseases

Common Diseases

  • Avian pox – virus – skin lesions – all species can be affected, we see it in mockers and finches

  • Trichomoniasis – cheesy deposits in mouth. Rarely seen as an eye infection in Cliff swallows. Common in pigeons and raptors. Causes sneezing in mockingbirds

  • Coccidiosis –protozoan infection – diarrhea, “pumping” when defecating

  • Respiratory infections

  • Bacterial infections – E coli etc- diarrhea /loss of appetite or weight/sudden death

Traumatic injuries

Traumatic injuries

  • Ruptured air sacs – due to trauma- air bubble under skin. Often the “bubble” can be popped by sing a sterile scalpel blade.

  • Head trauma – bird hits window- severe cases head is swollen. Best to euthanize if severely injured

More causes of death

More causes of death

  • Cat caught birds – many do not survive

  • Hand reared birds inadequately fed, die of effects of malnutrition

  • Glue/sticky traps damage skin by tearing out feathers as bird struggles. Often bird dies of shock/stress/bruising



  • Most species (unless endangered or possible candidates for education) should be euthanized if they:

  • Have a missing wingtip

  • Missing portion of leg, or whole foot

  • More than 1/3 of the upper or lower beak missing

  • Blind in one eye

More on release criteria

More on Release Criteria

  • Can vary for differing species, but minimum 2 weeks in an aviary

  • Longer time may be needed for some. Overwintering may be necessary for some species like orioles with plumage inadequate for migration

  • Birds with shoulder injuries sometimes need a month or more for full flight recovery

  • Several days of good weather ahead

  • I put supplemental food on top of my flight cage (soaked S/D and cheese) – some come back, some are gone without a backward glance. BUT - a hawk may come, and then you have to place the food under cover of a bush or a tree (or remove it for a day or two). Yeah, I know, hawks have to eat too – just not birds I’ve raised!

Useful references

Useful References

  • The Birders Handbook by Ehrlich, Dobkin and Wheye

  • The Sibley Guide to birds by David Sibley

  • A Guide to Bird Behavior by Donald and Lilian Stokes

  • Both IWRC and NWRA have useful publications for bird rehabilitators

  • A Guide to Wildlife Food Habits by Martin, Zim and Nelson (this is the one where they examined stomach contents)



  • My thanks to Project Wildlife – all the staff, directors and volunteers of organization – for the support in my rehab efforts

  • Gladys Gilliam-Soeterik who originally gave a songbird presentation and who gave me permission to use some of her photographs

  • Members of the songbird team and the current team leader Anysia Dickson, who have provided invaluable help and support

  • Biologists and birders in San Diego – too numerous to mention - who have helped with identifications and suggested release sites

  • The unsung heroes and heroines in the USFWS and CDFG who support rehabilitation while facing budget cuts and staffing issues.

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