Rescuing / Caring for Baby Birds

This article covers the do’s and don’ts of caring for a wild rescue chick, followed by a real-life story of one of our readers – Ernie Wilson who cared for and raised a wild Pine Siskin chick.

Relevant Web Resources

Dos for caring for baby birds

  1. Baby birds without many/any feathers need to be kept warm (body should be warm to touch)
  2. Baby birds need lots of different foods for a healthy diet – variety is the watchword
  3. Most baby birds eat a wide-variety of rather soft-bodied insects – they need lots of protein for growth
  4. Baby birds eat about every 20 minutes or so during daylight (dawn to dusk)
  5. Baby birds should be encouraged to beg for food (open mouth with eager calling)
  6. Baby birds have a swallowing reflex that is triggered when food is placed in the back of the mouth
  7. Baby birds sleep at night and are not fed by their parents
  8. Food can be skewered on a toothpick and placed in the baby’s throat
  9. If enough food isn’t available, you can give dry cat food (see info below) as a temporary measure (NOT a steady diet)

Don’t’s for caring for baby birds

  1. Don’t give water directly to your baby bird (they get enough in their food)
  2. Don’t give sugar water to your baby bird
  3. Don’t give ANY bread to your baby bird
  4. Don’t give ANY birdseed to your baby bird
  5. Don’t give a steady diet of any single food to your baby bird
  6. Don’t gear your baby’s diet around worms
  7. Don’t give your baby bird a bath, it doesn’t need one

Appropriate invertebrates you can look for include – flies, horseflies (remove the wings), grasshoppers without wings and legs, crickets, soft caterpillars, grubs, mealworms in small amounts, spiders, and earthworms in limited amounts. Avoid beetles, bees, wasps, ants, hairy caterpillars, and any hard-bodied insects. If you can get an insect net and sweep your yard or nearby field, you’ll get lots and lots of good insects. You may need to be a bit selective so you don’t use any bees or wasps, but you’ll have many others to choose from.

Providing insects for your bird may become difficult at certain times so you may need to supplement its insect-diet with something else. Dry cat food can be moistened and made into small globs on a toothpick and offered. The cat food is higher in protein than dog food and will help sustain your bird until you can feed more appropriate foods. Do NOT provide a diet of just cat food or your bird will not be healthy and may not even live – this is only an interim measure.

If all goes well and your baby grows and develops, a time will come when you recognize that it needs to get ready to be on its own. In nature, when a baby leaves the nest, it’s called a fledgling and although it may not fly well, can flutter here and there and usually ends up on a low branch in a bush or low tree.

At this point the parents are still feeding their young even though they may not be obvious to the casual observer. This is one of the times many people think a baby bird has been abandoned. As “your” baby grows and gets to the point where it can flutter a bit, it should be allowed greater freedom.

Even with this freedom, your bird will continue to let you know when it is hungry and needs food from you.

Once it is coming to you for food you’ve crossed a big hurdle and can now feed it when necessary but allow it to forage on its own too.

Soon your baby will be coming to you less and less and eventually not at all – your baby has graduated and you’re a proud parent!

If you find a chick in obvious distress you can contact a wildlife rehabilitation center in your area. However, first consider — does the chick need rescuing?

Real-Life Story of Raising a Wild Chick

Ernie Wilson from Novato, CA (just north of The Golden Gate Bridge) reiterates his experience with a Pine Siskin Chick:

Ernie observed that a chick kept falling out of a nest. He took dried leaves and placed them on the ground around the nest to cushion the falling chick, and he also added some branches under nest to break its fall.

Ernie emphasizes that chicks do not get abandoned by their parents after their young have been handled by a human. It is fine to gently handle the chick and check on its condition. The parents readily come back to the nest once the human is out of sight.

He watched the chick closely and noticed that the parents weren’t feeding it sufficiently to sustain its life.  The chick was obviously hungry and the rescuer decided to supplement its feedings (instructions below).  After each feeding he would place the chick back into the nest.  However, after a while he noticed that the nest was falling apart and the parents only provided sporadic feedings, not enough to sustain the chick and, therefore, he decided to pull it permanently from the nest.

Pine Siskin

Setting the Chick Up:

Ernie made her a soft bed in a Stouffer’s lasagna dish, lined it with a cotton / T-shirt-like material and put the chick and  its soft bed into a cat’s carrier, with a heating pad under the carrier. (AvianWeb Note: Adding a piece of paper towel or tissue under the chick on top of the lining will facilitate clean-ups.). Ernie covered the cat carrier with a towel to keep in the warmth. He left the heating pad under the carrier 24/7.


Feeding Utensil and Technique:

Basic Recipe for Baby Bird Food:

  • 1 can dog food (or 2 cups of dry dog food soaked and mashed can be used in place of the canned food.)
  • 1/2 cup poulty mash (the poultry mash is important as it provides calcium and other essential vitamins)
  • 1/4 cup applesauce
  • 1 Tablespoon finely chopped hardboiled egg

Avianweb Note: Insect-eating chicks can be fed kitten chow soaked in warm water, then mashed and fed with a syringe (without a needle, of course); or insects, such as crickets or wax worms (available at pet stores).  It’s best to kill any biting insects though before feeding them (or else their bites may cause internal injury).  Below is a photo of a Woodpecker chick being fed insects:

Handraising a Downy Woodpecker Chick (Picoides pubescens)

Other Formulas / Food Items:

She also liked to eat Oatmeal with Apple and the Apple/Wild Blueberry formula, also with added peanut butter. Butternut squash, as well as Bartett Pears with Peanut Butter were other favorites of the little chick.

Ernie continued to add new food items to her diet, feeding her 3 to 5 mls of whipped hard-boiled eggs, which she very much enjoyed.

As weaning period approaches, a good quallity seed mix should be provided so that the chick can familarize itself with adult food. First, it will play with it — but eventually, you will see the chick starting to feed itself. Spray millet (available at pet stores – in the Bird section) also works great as a weaning food.

Growing up “Chick”:

After a few weeks, the fledging period began. The little siskin stood up regularly flapping its wings. The chick became really vocal at that time, trying to answer other finches that she heard. She was fascinated by everything, except for the Blue Jays, who scared her.

Ernie periodically took her outside regularly to ensure that she remained close to nature; and he remembers walking past the tree where her nest used to be and it became apparent that she remembered the nesting site.

Eventually, the practicing of the wings paid off. Her muscles had developed nicely and she started to fly short distances. At this point, she was ready for weaning food. Ernie provided her with a Finch seed (seed, fruit, and greens) – an appropriate diet for adult siskins

Chicks first Bath:

Ernie filled a 5″x5″ plastic dish with an inch of warm water and put it in her cage. She jumped up onto the rim and carefully inspected the water, then leaned down and stuck her beak into it and swiped it across a few times, then she jumped right into it and started fluffing her wings and wiggling her body, dipping her head under the water … just as if she had been taught to do it!! It was obvious that she really enjoyed the experience.

Gaining her Independence:

One day, she took off flying off into the distance. However, she came back the next morning looking for food. Ernie fed her 4 mils of food immediately. Afterwards, she spent about 30 minutes chirping as if telling Ernie a long story of her exciting adventure, and then she went to sleep.

The next day, she was getting antsy and flew off again.  When she was “out and about” she answered Ernie’s “chirps” and responded to his voice. She readily came over to be held and stroked by the rescuer. Sometimes she would land on his arms and Ernie would reward her with a nice feeding, which she would eagerly accept.

In the meantime, the little finch had learned to frequent local bird feeders and seemed to enjoy socializing with other birds. Watching the other birds survive in the wild was crucial in helping her develop the skills she needed to survive and thrive in the wild.


The little finch has been outdoors for the last month and is doing very well. Ernie is delighted that she will answer him when he calls her. He can tell her “voice” from all of the others in the area. She also visits frequently. In his words,

“this was an incredible experience”

Thanks, Mr. Wilson, for sharing this delightful story with the AvianWeb visitors!

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