When I found out I was picked for a Wildlife Center wildlife rehabilitation externship scheduled during baby season I was super excited. I figured all the baby mammals would be just too cute to handle (and don’t get me wrong -- they are) but I’ve come to realize that baby birds are some of the most adorable things ever.
A couple weeks into my externship, two nestling house finches were brought into the Wildlife Center. Baby birds have distinct features that help with identification -- beak shape and color, the color of the outer edges of their beaks (gape flanges), the presence and coloring of down and feathering -- or lack thereof! Baby birds were difficult to identify at first, but I’ve definitely improved with practice.
Once I knew a little bit about identification, I learned how to set up a home for them. Baby birds can’t thermoregulate until they are feathered, which is why unfeathered birds are immediately put into an incubator at the Wildlife Center. Once the baby birds are feathered, they graduate to an aquarium on a heating pad.
I was taught how to prepare a formula for nestling songbirds, or as we call it, FONS. FONS is a mixture of very high-quality soaked cat chow, powdered egg whites, a variety of special vitamins, and baby food that provides a lot of the nutrition baby birds require. When I was told that these babies birds needed to be fed every 15 minutes for 12 hours a day, I thought the rehabbers were joking -- but they weren’t.
Once baby birds started coming in to the Center, the rehab externs were scheduled for bird feedings starting at 8:00 am. We rotate in four-hour shifts throughout the day until 8:00 pm. We prepare a baby bird tray containing FONS, chopped fruit, dead insects, and soaked cat chow; each baby bird gets a variety of these different foods. The insects are also soaked in vitamins for additional nutrition. This allows the baby birds to receive the proper well-balanced diet and attempts to mimic what mom feeds them in the wild. Feathered young birds receive a small bird meal suited to their particular species, so that they can begin learning how to self-feed. To ensure each bird is gaining adequate weight and receiving enough food, they are weighed every day.
When their flight feathers begin to grow in and they are beginning to attempt to fly out of the aquarium, baby birds are moved to a reptarium. This is known as the fledgling stage. A typical reptarium contains a couple of perches, a bird meal, and a bowl of water. If the bird is an insect-eater, live insects can also be added to their meal so that the birds can learn how to capture the insects. After a few days in a reptarium, the baby birds become “acclimators” and their reptariums are moved outside during the day. This allows the birds to become accustomed to the outdoor environment prior to being placed outdoors in the aviary, and eventually released. At the end of each day, the reptariums are brought inside. Once a bird becomes an acclimator, the feeding schedule decreases to every half an hour, and when moved into the aviary, birds are fed every hour. I will never forget my first time feeding in the aviary. We had a room full of 22 starlings that would swarm the person walking in to feed. I had birds on my arms, latched onto my belt loops, and even sitting on my head! It was by far the funniest thing I had done thus far.
Being a baby bird mom is a difficult job and there’s no rehabber that can be as good as the baby’s actual mom. It is a myth that a bird mom will reject a baby bird who has been touched by humans. If you happen to find a baby bird and can find its nest, it definitely has a better chance of survival if it is placed back where mom and dad can find it.
I want to thank the Wildlife Center for allowing me this opportunity, Kelli and Amber for passing on their knowledge of wildlife rehabilitation, as well as interns Kelsey and Jordan for training me throughout this journey. Three months seemed like a long time before I started, but it flew by and I’m so glad I got to work with some amazing people while saving animals along the way.
WCV Class of 2014