How to Feed a Wild Baby Bird
Feeding a baby wild bird is an enormous undertaking and takes time and dedication. Whenever possible, babies should be left with their parents. They will always be best off with their own avian mum and dad. However, there are circumstances in which orphaned wild birds require a little human help. If you find yourself in charge of a tiny, gaping neonate, brace yourself for a labor of love and follow these tips.
Baby birds eat often and require excellent nutrition to develop normally. Start with an instant baby bird formula specially developed for wild birds. This can be purchased online or at your local pet supplies store.
If you have an insect-eating bird, add protein such as hard-boiled egg yolk and/or kitten chow soaked in water until moist. Until you can obtain this formula, a temporary supplement can be made at home by mixing softened cat or dog food with rice cereal for infants.
- Soak dry cat, dog, puppy, or kitten food in water until it is soft all the way through.
- Mix rice cereal with hot water into an oatmeal-like consistency.
- Mix a bit of the pet food in with the cereal and dilute with warm water, if necessary, to make it thick enough to stick to your feeding tool but not so thick that it is glue-like.
- Add hard-boiled egg yolk if you have a bird that usually eats insects.
Mix your formula into an oatmeal-like consistency. (The formula tends to keep thickening for the first few minutes.) Use a SOFT stick such as a cotton swab with the cotton removed. Do not use tweezers or forceps as they can damage the soft lining inside the bird's beak.
Now, dip your feeding stick into the formula. If the formula is the right consistency, it should stick a bit to the Q-tip. Gage the size of the bird's beak to judge how big the bite should be. You can always start small and increase the size; use your powers of observation and judgment.
Hopefully, your baby bird is gaping (opening his mouth) for you. Just pop the food right in his mouth. Stop feeding when the baby stops gaping. If he is not gaping, he is possibly dehydrated or sick.
How Often Should I Feed a Baby Bird?
Baby wild birds grow extraordinarily quickly and must eat frequently. How frequently depends on their age and stage of development. Feeding should start at sun-up and continue until sundown:
- If the baby bird has no or few feathers and his eyes are still closed, this is a very new hatchling, and he must be fed every 15–20 minutes.
- If the bird's eyes are open, but he cannot stand up, he is a nestling and needs to be fed every 30 minutes.
- Older nestlings that have feathers and can stand should be fed every 45 minutes.
- Baby birds that are out of the nest but not yet flying are called "branchers"; they should be fed every hour. At this stage, the baby bird should be offered food to eat on his own, and hand-feeding should be gradually cut back. Keep track of how much food the bird eats himself so that you can supplement accordingly. Or weigh the bird daily to ensure that he is not losing weight.
- Weened fledglings should be kept in a large enclosure so that they can gain strength and develop flying skills.
How and When to Catch a Baby Bird
If a bird is not flying, there is a reason for it. This reason could be because it is a fledgling, especially if it is mid-summer and the bird in question has a short tail and/or looks downy or fluffy. It is normal for a baby bird to leave the nest before it can fly. The parents are probably nearby and will continue to care for their young for some time yet.
The best place for baby wild birds is with their parents. Please do NOT "kidnap" baby birds from their parents. Do keep dogs and cats indoors: then, watch from a distance for up to two hours. If the parents don't show themselves in that amount of time, you may legitimately have an orphan.
If the bird is not a fledgling and is on the ground, unable to fly, it is likely injured or sick. The easiest way to catch a bird that is running away is to use a blanket, sheet, or even a sweatshirt. Throw the blanket over the bird to calm them, then pick them up, through the blanket, and put them in a box. A bird that is shivering or being hounded by flies is unquestionably in need of rescuing.
When to Start With Solid Foods
Like with human babies, solids can be introduced to older babies. To be safe, wait until they are standing to start adding minced bits of solid food to the formula. Birds have varying diets depending on the species; below is a chart of general food preferences by family of bird.
What to Feed Various Types of Songbirds
|Songbird Family||Species Included||Substitution Foods|
Nighthawks, poorwills, Whip-poor-wills
Waxworms, mealworms, crickets, softened high-protien dog or catfood, chopped hard-boiled egg (shell included), wheat germ, bone meal, cuttlebone, avian vitamin and minerals
Hirundinidae (Swallows and Martins)
Tree, Bank, Cave, Cliff and Barn Swallows, Martins
Waxworms, mealworms, crickets, softened high-protien dog or catfood, chopped hard-boiled egg (shell included), wheat germ, bone meal, cuttlebone, minced grapes, spinach and grated carrots, avian vitamin and minerals
Corvidae (Jays, Magpies and Crows)
Jays, Clark's Nutcrackers, Magpies, Crows, Ravens
Lean ground beef, Mice, Nuts,Grated cheese, Waxworms, mealworms, crickets, softened high-protien dog or catfood, chopped hard-boiled egg (shell included), wheat germ, bone meal, cuttlebone, minced grapes, apple, berries, pear, banana, melon, spinach, lettuce, alfalfa sprouts, beans, peas, corn, and grated carrots, avian vitamin and minerals
Waxworms, mealworms, crickets, seeds, nuts, rolled oats, grated cheese, blueberries, currents, alfalfa sprouts, softened high-protien dog or catfood, chopped hard-boiled egg (shell included), wheat germ, bone meal, cuttlebone, avian vitamin and minerals
Bluebirds, Thrushes, Robins (American), Babblers and Wrentits
Earthworms, Waxworms, mealworms, crickets, seeds, nuts, rolled oats, grated cheese, blueberries, currents, alfalfa sprouts, softened high-protien dog or catfood, chopped hard-boiled egg (shell included), wheat germ, bone meal, cuttlebone, avian vitamin and minerals
Columbidae (Doves and Pigeons)
Doves and Pigeons
Millet, poultry starter, whole corn, sunflour seeds, pigeon pellets, wheat, barley, rice, minced grapes, berries, currents,spinach, lettuce, alfalfa sprouts and grated carrots, avian vitamin and minerals
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More About Helping Wild Birds
- What to Do If You Find an Injured Wild Bird
This article teaches you 5 easy steps to help you care for an injured wild bird. Learn what you must do if you find one, how to catch it, how to stabilize it, and whom to call for help.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Betty Pohl Barnes on July 21, 2020:
We just found a very young meadowlark. He has some feathers but cannot fly. What can we do to keep him alive and well?
Mrs. Menagerie (author) from The Zoo on November 28, 2012:
Last summer was such a busy one, I actually miss the little guy that was in this video. He was evicted from someone's attic when he was about a week old. (Probably because he was so darn loud.) We named him Fritz, he was hilarious! We released him when he was about 6 weeks old...so cute.
KerryAnita from Satellite Beach, Florida on November 28, 2012:
I love this hub! I grew up in a woodsy area and I can think of several occasions when my Mom would find an orphaned baby bird in our back yard and she would nurse it back to health. I would love to help her feed them. We were successful in releasing a few of them back into the wild:)
Mrs. Menagerie (author) from The Zoo on May 24, 2012:
Oh my Scribenet...I forgot to mention that you can knock off for the night! Yes, feeding should be sun-up to sundown! Thank you for bringing that to my attention!
Thank you Letitia...I'm glad to hear the starling is doing well!
LetitiaFT from Paris via California on May 24, 2012:
This is fantastic! I sure could have used this info last week when my husband brought home a nestling starling after a carrion crow dropped it in on the lawn in the Tuileries gardens. I looked all over Internet for this info, to no avail, and voilà, here it is right in my own backyard so to speak! No worry for the starling. We cancelled our Saturday night plans, my husband dashed off to get the car and I filled a ziploc baggy full of luke-warm water to keep it warm during the drive to the wild bird shelter outside of Paris. Latest news is its appetite is huge and its wing is healing. It'll be released in the countryside later this year. Voted way up.
Maggie Griess from Ontario, Canada on May 23, 2012:
Animal lovers will thank you for this one. I had no idea what to feed little fledglings and definitely no idea of the feeding intervals. Now I will be prepared! I imagine the little guys sleep thru the night? (hopefully)
That is a cute video... really showed how effective your method is...thanks!