My Experience With Raising a Baby Sparrow
The Legalities of Keeping Wildlife
To begin, I should mention that it is illegal to keep a wild bird in captivity. Given that and the enormity of the challenge, it is always best to seek out an animal shelter or rehabilitator and surrender the bird for proper care.
With the disclaimer out of the way, I will also say that your success in finding such a place may depend upon the type of bird you have found. Being as ours was a common house sparrow, considered a nuisance bird by most communities, I was not able to find anyone willing to take the little guy in.
Nuisance or not, he was still one of God's creatures, and we could not leave him to die. The following is our experience in raising the featherless little nestling. Hopefully, it will inform, entertain, or otherwise amuse you.
My wife actually found the sparrow on the playground of the daycare, at which she teaches. The nest had been overturned, and he was the only survivor. He was in danger of being trampled by the excited toddlers, just as his nestmates had been. She quickly scooped him into a shoebox, with a towel to keep him warm, and took him inside.
With the entire nest being destroyed, we were convinced that the mother would not have returned. We have since learned differently. Upon speaking with experts, we learned the correct way to approach the situation, if we were to encounter it again.
If you find a baby bird on the ground that has feathers, do not touch it unless it is in immediate danger. This is a fledgeling, and has likely left the nest in its first attempt at flight. If it is in danger, you should put it on a branch, or under a bush, away from danger, and clear the area. If you have a cat, it would be wise to keep it inside for a day or two, until the bird is strong enough to fly to safety on its own.
If you find a bird that has no feathers, this is a nestling, and has probably fallen or been knocked from the nest. Barring any immediate danger, you should leave it alone, and clear the area. If the mother is going to return for her baby, she will do so within 20-30 minutes. She will not return, however, as long as there are people or animals in the area. If the baby appears to be in danger, you can return it to the nest. It is a fallacy that a mother bird will reject a baby that has been handled by humans. If you cannot find, or reach the nest, you can simply place the bird away from danger, on a branch near the spot where you found it.
Once you have removed the baby from peril, watch it for about 30 minutes. If after that time, the mother has not claimed her nestling, you may begin the rescue process.
We did eventually find a shelter, but they told us it was too late. It seems that imprinting occurs within the first week of life, and if released, our bird would not be likely to thrive. As I understand it, this basically means the bird has accepted us as its family and has become dependant upon us. It is possible to raise more than one bird for release, without fear of imprinting, but a single bird will always imprint upon you.
Bringing Baby Home
Now is the time to start trying to locate a shelter. There are dozens of raptor rescue agencies in my area, but the sparrow doesn't seem to get much love. In either case, the baby is going to need shelter and food.
For shelter, we used a cardboard box. In the bottom of the box, we placed an electric heating pad, set on low. The preferred temperature is around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, but the heating pad worked fine. On top of the heating pad, we placed a hand towel, to temper the heat. On top of that, was another towel, formed into the shape of a nest. The box should be large enough to allow some space around the nest. This is because the bird will not eliminate waste inside the nest. It will instinctively back up to the edge of the nest, and drop it outside. The heating pad is only required until the bird has grown all of its feathers. The first sign that we noticed was that he seemed to be panting like a dog on a hot day. After removing the heating pad, we kept an eye on things for signs of distress.
As for feeding, the bird will need an hour or so to get used to its new surroundings. After that, it will need to be hand fed every 20 minutes, for about 12 hours out of the day. If he is reluctant to accept food from you, try gently tapping on the top of his beak as a sign to open up. He should recognize you as a source of food within a few feedings. It may be difficult to find baby bird food specifically for wild birds, but the commercially available hand feeding formulas for domesticated birds worked fine for us. There are clear and easy to follow instructions for mixing and feeding right on the label. Give him all he wants. You cannot overfeed him. He will simply stop taking food when he has had enough. Do not be alarmed if, while feeding, you notice a lump forming on his throat. This is called a crop. It is where he stores the food before it is digested.
It should be noted that you must NEVER give water to your baby bird. It will get all the water it needs from the formula. If you try to get it to drink, there is a very good chance it will drown, or get pneumonia.
The photo at the top of this article is of our bird telling us that he is hungry. Basically, this involves a shrill chirping, while "gaping." Get used to this, as it happens several times every hour. Continue to follow the feeding instructions on the formula, until he is ready to wean. As his feathers begin to grow, he will require fewer feedings. Every 45 minutes for partially feathered birds, and about every hour for fledgelings with all of their feathers.
At around four weeks of age, it is safe to start leaving small bits of food around the nest. The bird should start to eat these on its own. As it gets used to feeding itself, it will take less food from you. He should be completely weaned by 6-8 weeks of age, and will not take much food by hand at this point. Once it has been self-feeding for three or four weeks, it may be transitioned to an adult diet, which consists mainly of insects, and seeds. We started with bloodworms, which we chopped into small pieces, and he loved them. Avoid mealworms, as they have a shell that is difficult to digest.
A Word About Cages
When you notice that your bird is hopping up onto the edge of his box to be fed, it is time to consider a more permanent shelter. In general, the larger the cage, the better. He will be wanting plenty of room to develop his flying skills. Bar spacing is of utmost importance. The space between the bars should be less than a half inch. This will minimize the chance of his head becoming stuck between the bars, which could result in strangulation.
Handling Your Bird
If you have more than one nestling, you should not handle them unless it is absolutely necessary. This will allow them to imprint upon each other, and it is more likely that they will be able to be safely released.
We, however, had just one. Since he could never be released, he easily became a happy member of our family. We handle him regularly, and he enjoys playing with us. We do try to maintain a healthy diet, but he will simply not allow me to open a bag of cheese curls without giving him the first one. He also occasionally enjoys a few rice crispies.
Below are a few photos of our sparrow (his name is Drumstick) at various stages of his early life with us. In the first one, I have put a quarter in the picture for perspective.
Today, Drumstick is about five years old and is happy and healthy. As I understand it, he may live to be 15 or 20 years of age.
As I have already said, this is an enormous undertaking, and should only be attempted if you have no other choice. I have also been told by some experts that it is rare for a featherless nestling to survive such a rescue. They generally die in transit or fail to thrive in a new home. With that in mind, while praying for the best outcome, you should be prepared to accept a less than happy ending.
The Year of the Bird
That time in our lives has come to be known, by us, as the year of the bird. We encountered about half a dozen baby birds throughout that spring. Armed with our new knowledge, we were able to reunite most of them with their mothers. One, however, was never reclaimed. It was a baby crow. That one required a feeding, and a 60-minute drive to an area shelter. Following up a couple of weeks later, we were told he was fine, but he would never be released. He was a single bird who had no choice, but to imprint upon the rehabilitator. If you have ever heard the boisterous caw of a crow, you will understand when I say better her than us!
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.
© 2008 rmr