Baby Birds and Animals: To Help or Not to Help

Last Saturday night, a reader left a comment on my blog, wondering what to do with the fledgling bird that he had found on a busy midtown Manhattan sidewalk.  He left a message with the Wild Bird Fund, but had not yet heard from them and was looking for someplace to take the bird.  Wild Bird left him a message, suggesting that he drop off the bird but, as my reader later reported, the little bird did not survive long enough to get help.

Making the decision to remove a bird that can’t yet fly or feed itself from a midtown Manhattan street seems like a pretty good call.  But it’s not always so easy to know whether to intervene.  Our hearts go out to a fellow creature in distress or a baby animal that we fear has been abandoned.  But rehabilitators and others who work with wildlife stress that the impulse to help is often misguided.  I know from my own experience that compassion needs to be guided by an understanding of wildlife biology and behavior.

When I found a seal pup alone on a Long Island beach last spring, I was quite sure it was too small to be on its own.  After watching it for a while, I feared that it was in distress, either ill or injured.  Seeing no sign of another seal, I wondered if it had been abandoned by its mother.  Concerned, I alerted the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Mammals.  They had already received several calls about the pup but, swamped with calls about stranded seals, they weren’t able to come to evaluate it.  Luckily, it was a cold day, and there were no people or romping dogs nearby.  I waited and watched for a couple of hours, then left the little seal on its own on the empty beach.

When I returned to the city, I called and spoke at some length to a biologist at the Riverhead Foundation who assured me that the seal sounded like a healthy, normal Gray seal pup and was probably just resting.  Gray seals are weaned by the time they are two or three weeks old, she said, and the pup I saw was probably at least two months, and completely independent.  Doing nothing – and keeping my distance while I did it – was the right thing to do.

Of course, doing nothing isn’t always the right thing to do.  Late last spring, I spotted a sweet fledgling on my street.

It was in a large planter right outside the doorway of a neighboring building.

Across the sidewalk in a nearby street tree I saw adult birds watching – probably parents, I thought.  The baby bird was not in a particularly safe spot – it was a couple of good hops away from the street, but for the moment, it was off the street, near vegetation for hiding, and out of the way of dogs and pedestrians.  I left it where it was.  Early the next morning, I was shocked to find its little body lying in the center of the sidewalk, neatly decapitated.

Note:  I’m trying hard not to get sidetracked with the intriguing question of what animal killed the bird and made off with its head.  It’s not relevant to the question we’re considering here of when to intervene to help a wild animal.  But I can’t help myself.  It’s just too bizarre.  There are not that many predatory species on our street to put into the murder line-up.  Known neighborhood predators include raptors (kestrels and red-tails), raccoons (but I’ve not seen one outside the park in over two years),  stray or feral cats (but I’ve never spotted one on my street), dogs (many, but usually attached to a human and not known for such tidy bites), humans and, my personal choice, rats, the kings of the night.  Who do you think killed the bird?  Please leave a comment.

So should I have “rescued” the bird, and taken it to a rehabilitator?  Maybe.  I asked Wild Bird Fund that question on their Facebook page, and they answered: “Since the fledgling was not injured and it was in a decently safe place, you did the right thing leaving it there. So many fledglings are kidnapped from their parents by “rescuers.””

The truth is, outcomes for fledglings are often bad, whether you intervene, as my reader did, or do nothing, as I did.  Even under completely natural circumstances, millions of baby birds do not make it to adulthood.  Had I known about the Wild Bird Foundation at the time, I might have decided to take the bird in.  But would that have been the right decision?

Wild bird experts, including the NYC Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology agree with the Wild Bird Fund that, when possible, fledglings should be left alone unless they are in obvious danger or clearly orphaned.  Many bird species leave the nest days before they can fly, or fly well.  During this risky period of development, the parents continue to watch over and feed the young birds who are easy prey for natural predators as well as those most efficient, human-introduced, non-native killing machines known as cats.

So how do you know what to do the next time you find a baby bird?  Here is a terrific flowchart on how to make a decision.  Scroll down for instructions on how to safely transport the bird, if it is in need of help.

View this document on Scribd

Good luck to the late-summer fledglings, and to all the migrating birds already making their way south.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2011, Birds, Fall, In the City, Sea Mammals, seals, September, Wildlife/Natural History

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12 Comments on “Baby Birds and Animals: To Help or Not to Help”

  1. […] The abandoned head reminded me of another dramatic wildlife story that unfolded on my block. As I left that day, I noticed a fledgling sparrow hopping about inside the large planter of a nearby building. The little bird was clearly not yet able to fly, and was probably being fed by a parent hiding in a street tree. I made the decision not to intervene, since the planter seemed as safe a spot as any on a city street for a still earth-bound baby bird. Early the next morning, the decapitated dead body of the baby sparrow lay on the sidewalk. The head was nowhere to be found. (I wrote about the fledgling’s predicament, and my own, in Baby Birds and Animals: To Help or Not to Help.) […]

  2. […] know it’s generally best to leave baby animals where one finds them. But I can’t leave it on the road.  And does it need water or land? I […]

  3. […] Out Walking the Dog, has a thoughtful post on what to do about baby animals found here at the sharp edge of urban […]

  4. mthew Says:

    This a great piece, and should be reprinted in the spring, when fledglings abound.

  5. Lloyd rescued a baby possum which our cats had ignored (because it was playing possum)… kept it warm in his pocket… the possum rescue lady told us to release it in the back yard; tough call. it probably didn’t make it. thanks for the flow chart and the considered and compassionate exposition on this, plus your own tale of avian drama on Manhattan’s streets. great post, Melissa!

    • Didn’t Mae West once say: Is that a possum in your pocket or are you just glad to see me? Thanks for sharing the story, Louise. It is hard to know what to do, and hard to accept the uncertainty of these animals’ existences.

  6. Charlotte Says:

    Great informative post, and thinking how this same policy might apply to all stray wildlife. For instance, I never knew that by removing coyotes from their natural habitat the success rate (for their survival) is very poor. Same for ants. Probably the same for baby birds, but what a heartbreaking surprising ending to your fledgling bird story. My take is that whoever decapitated it had a big mouth. My vote goes to a cat, not a rat, but then again I’m biased.

    • Charlotte, I heard from a wildlife biologist that the head-biting culprit may well be a raccoon, so your favorite species may be off the hook. And yes, there are all kinds of problems with relocating animals, including introduction of disease (southern raccoons that were relocated by hunters led to the terrible on-going rabies problem all over the northeast … but that’s another story) and unwelcome competition with others of the same species.

    • Charlotte, I heard from a wildlife biologist that the head-biting culprit may well be a raccoon, so your favorite species may be off the hook. And yes, there are all kinds of problems with relocating animals, including introduction of disease (southern raccoons that were relocated by hunters led to the terrible on-going rabies problem all over the northeast … but that’s another story) and unwelcome competition with others of the same species.

  7. linda ekstrand Says:

    I found a baby pigeon in the garden of a lovely church on 88 st between 1st and 2nd avenue.I had stopped to use my cell phone and this baby pigeon who looked oddly like a quail came running up to me making so much noise.I ran an errand came back and he was still there so I called Wilds Bird Fund ( via Animal General)and they very graciously( it was a Sunday) let me bring the pigeon over and they told me he was young enough not to have made it on his own.They judge by the length of the tail.

    A few days later I saw a baby sparrow on 3rd and 85 but the mother bird was present – it was an awful corner to be on especially since he was resting in the doorway of the Gap.I didnt do anything.

    About 7 or 8 years ago I saw a young couple with a fledgling hawk in a shoebox Tthey were visiting from Long Island and had found him near Wall St ( a homeless man actually gave the bird to them).I saw them on the street near the Animal Medical center.This was before Pale Male etc and the AMC had not helped them.I suggested they walk up to Central Park and ask for an urban ranger it was a summer evening and i hope they persevered and found someone to take the hawk.Obviously now with all the publicity about the hawks this would not have happened.At the time I did not know about the Wild Bird Fund.

    • Linda, thanks so much for sharing your stories. Seeing that little pigeon run right up to you must have been so touching. Your sparrow story is very much like mine, and you probably did the right thing – regardless of the outcome. This is, after all, the world these little guys will have to live in, and many of them simply will not make it. And your hawk story – wow! Pretty amazing that it would be so hard to find anyone to take in a hawk in need, isn’t it? Which is why NYC needs the dedicated wildlife rehab center that Wild Bird Fund will be opening.

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