Birds

FAQs About Birds

Wood Thrush. Photo: Mary Parker Sonis
Birds

FAQs About Birds

From "I found an injured bird" to "A bird keeps attacking my window! What do I do?" we answer your most common questions here. 

Q: What do I do if I find a baby bird?

If you find a baby bird of any stage of development that you know has been attacked by a cat, contain the bird safely in a quiet, dark space (a shoebox lined with a cloth will do well); do not attempt to feed, water, or treat it; and contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator immediately. The bacteria in cats’ mouths often cause fatal infection, even if the chick initially appears to be all right, so your local rehabber might want to examine and treat the bird preventatively with antibiotics. If your baby bird has not been attacked by a cat, read below to find how to help chicks at different life stages.

The first step is to determine the bird’s age. While many people assume a feathered bird that cannot fly has “fallen from the nest,” this may not be true. Many kinds of birds such as American Robins continue to care for their young once they leave the nest and before they fly well. If a bird has feathers and is able to hop around on the ground, it is likely a fledgling – a bird that has left the nest and will not return – and its parents are probably nearby. Spend some time (even up to an hour) watching for the bird’s parents. It is best to leave offspring with their parents if it is at all possible. If you think it is a fledgling, leave the bird where you found it and wait to observe the parents. However, if you are concerned about the bird’s safety—such as if it is near a source of danger such as a busy road—evaluate the situation and decide what is best for the bird. Placing a bird up in a shrub or another safer spot very nearby may be the best option. Touching a bird will not cause parents to abandon it. Please keep pets and children away from the bird while it tries out its flight skills!

If the bird is naked, has very few feathers, or has its eyes closed, it is likely a nestling. If possible, try to locate the nest by looking in nearby shrubs, trees, or potted plants. Returning the nestling to its nest is by far the best solution. Many people believe that once humans touch a bird, the parents will not take care of it. However, birds they will not reject their young if you handle them. They have invested a great deal of time and energy in their offspring!

Sometimes nests are destroyed in bad weather or by predators. At other times, putting nestlings back into a nest is impossible because it is too high. Again, the best scenario is to try and leave these nestlings under the care of their parents. One option is to create a makeshift nest with a plastic butter tub (with holes punched in the bottom to drain water) or a berry basket. If the nest is still intact, place the nest in the basket or tub and replace babies. If the nest is gone, line the new “nest” with dry paper towels and put young inside. Use wire to place the nest as close to the old nest as possible in a tree or in a shrub and try to give it some cover to avoid sunlight and rain. Watch to see if parents find the young in the new nest you have created.

If for either fledglings or nestlings the parents do not return—remember to watch for at least an hour—then the baby bird might have been orphaned. Only if the parents are truly gone should you then contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator who will have the knowledge and experience to raise baby birds to fledging. Remember, only licensed individuals can legally keep wild birds captive during rehabilitation.

For an illustrated flowchart, see this downloadable pamphlet [PDF]

Q: Do you take in injured or orphaned wildlife?

We do not. Caring for wildlife requires many hours of training and licensing by the federal government and the state of North Carolina for the wildlife rehabilitator. Often the animals need round-the-clock care and expert assessments. Audubon North Carolina does not have the specialized facilities needed or a licensed wildlife rehabilitator on staff. Visit the NC Wildlife Resources Commission website for a list of wildlife rehabilitators in your area.

Q: I found an injured/sick bird. What should I do?

Although your initial reaction is probably to help the bird, don’t forget to consider your own safety. Birds of prey like hawks or owls have powerful talons, capable of exerting enough pressure to puncture skin and muscle, even through cloth and thin leather. Species with long bills such as herons and egrets and even loons use their bills as defensive weapons because they are scared and protecting themselves. When confronted by a predator they will strike toward the eyes of a perceived enemy. Therefore, if you choose to handle any bird, use caution and prudence.

The best first step to take is to assess the situation fully. Is the bird really injured or in trouble? A good indication, if you can’t see a visible wound, is if it can’t fly, is moving awkwardly, or is behaving strangely such as allowing people to approach closely. If you determine that something is truly wrong, your first step should be to contact a license wildlife rehabilitator for instructions. Visit the NC Wildlife Resources Commission website for a list of licensed wildlife rehabilitators in your area, or search online.

Make sure you have relevant information for the rehabber, such as where the bird is, what kind it might be (or relative size and coloration if you don’t know), and its problem appears to be. You may be asked to safely capture and contain the bird, if possible, or you may be asked to keep an eye on it until help arrives. Remember that wildlife rehabilitators are often volunteer-run non-profits, so response times and protocols may vary and they may request your help, such as in transporting the bird to them.

If you choose to capture the bird yourself, keep it in a quiet, dark location while you work to get it to a licensed rehabilitator and do not try to give it food, water, or medical attention. While you may possess a bird while you are in the process of getting it to into the care of a licensed rehabilitator, it is otherwise illegal to possess wild birds or keep them captive.

Q: I found a sick bird at my feeder. What should I do?

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers helpful tips and information about common bird ailments for people who find sick birds at their feeder.

Q: I hooked a pelican (or another bird) while fishing. What should I do?

The best way to avoid interactions between birds and fishing gear is prevention. If a bird is diving at your lure, stop casting until the bird leaves or relocate to a new spot.

If you do accidentally entangle or hook a bird, the most important thing is not to cut the line. You will not get in trouble for catching a bird, and if you cut the line instead of freeing the bird, the line will eventually tangle in the bird’s wings or vegetation, leading to a slow and painful death.

Protect your eyes with sunglasses and gently reel the bird in. Hold the bird by folding its wings against its body and securing the bill if it is a pelican. Covering the head with a jacket or towel will help keep the bird calm while you disentangle it or unhook it. Cut off or flatten the barbs on any hooks that are in the bird and back them out. If the bird is vigorous and does not appear to have sustained serious harm, release it. If not, or if the bird has swallowed a hook (in which case you should not try to remove it because you could cause serious injury), call a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

For video and step-by-step instructions see this website.

Q: When can I safely mow my field without disturbing nests?
Hayfields, meadows or fallow fields are habitat for several species of grassland nesters including the BobolinkEastern MeadowlarkGrasshopper SparrowDickcisselVesper and Savannah Sparrow. Ideally, fields should not be mowed until late July or early August to avoid killing nestlings. If that is not possible, walking a field regularly and watching for nests can help determine when the young have fledged. This way, you may be able to get in a mid-summer cutting before the birds nest a second time. If you must mow during nesting season, we recommend planning to mow field sections in alternating rotations to leave adequate areas in higher grasses at any given time. For more information on the management of grassland birds, check out this USDA leaflet.

Q: How can I keep birds from flying into my windows?
Sadly, an estimated one-hundred million to one-billion birds crash into windows every year in North America. These collisions are often fatal and are caused by birds seeing reflections of trees and shrubbery reflected in the windows keeping them from discerning the glass from habitat.

 The Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) website has helpful tips for keeping birds away from your windows. Placing silhouette images in windows is not effective over the long term as birds become acclimated to the static image. However, here are some steps you can take:

  • Hang a sun-catcher or drapery over windows to reduce reflection.
  • If you have bird feeders around your house, place them close to windows instead of far away, so that approaching birds are already slowing their speed in order to perch on the feeder.
  • Design windows that are installed at a downward angle. The glass won't reflect the woods and landscape from outside, nor will it impede your ability to look out the window.

If you're interested in saving energy along with birds, you can apply a thin opaque film to the surface of the windows that prevents infrared radiation from coming through the glass. The film is only slightly visible, but its reduction of heat entering your home can dramatically cut cooling costs.

Q: A bird keeps attacking a window - what should I do?
Birds that are defending nesting territory around your home, including bluebirds, cardinals and flycatchers, might see their reflection on the glass and misinterpret the image as another bird invading their territory. Seeing their image prompts some birds to do battle against themselves, banging and flapping against the glass for minutes and even hours on end. The solution to this is to take away the reflection with window screen, hanging panels or other outside window coverings during the nesting season.

Q: What can I build to help birds on my property? 
The easiest things to construct are feeders and houses. Species have specific requirements for things like the interior size of the nest box and most importantly the diameter of the entry hole. For examples, check out https://nestwatch.org/learn/all-about-birdhouses/.

Another simple project that can benefit birds is to build brush piles for the winter months, especially in a corner of the yard or near your feeding station if you have one. These simple piles can protect birds from predators, give them a sense of safety to approach your feeders and provide shelter from inclement weather. You could also add water features to your yard, as you can attract just as many species with water as you can with food or shelter. For a bigger project, try a Chimney Swift tower

Q: What can I do about woodpeckers pecking my house?
Male woodpeckers sometimes pound on chimneys, gutters, window shutters or other hard surfaces to advertise their territory. Early morning is often a favorite time for this display, and woodpeckers will select the surface that gives them the sound that carries the farthest. This behavior is short-lived and should be tolerated if possible. You can also try spraying a pepper spray on the surface the bird is hammering. Hanging pie pans and balloons in the area may also scare away the bird. Nonmoving objects such as scarecrows and silhouettes may work initially, but birds quickly acclimate to their presence.

Woodpeckers rarely damage wood if they are using it for territorial display. However, if a woodpecker is causing physical damage to walls and siding, it may instead be because there are insects in the wood that the woodpecker is trying to extract, including carpenter bees, ants and termites. If a woodpecker is chiseling a building in pursuit of food, the remedy is to remove the food source and repair the damage. Once the food is removed, the woodpecker will likely not return.

Q: What is this bird that is singing at night?
Male Northern Mockingbirds will sing at night while their mate is sitting on eggs, and will usually stop as soon as the eggs hatch. The reason he does this is not fully understood, but it may have to do with pair-bonding and territorial display. The Northern Bobwhite Quail and Eastern Screech Owl may also be heard calling at night, but their singing is usually not as persistent or as varied as the mockingbird.

Two nighttime singing birds include the Whip-poor-will and Chuck-will's-widow, insect-eating members of the goatsucker family of birds that sing to proclaim territory and maintain pair-bonds with a mate.

Other nightly singers include a host of frogs and toads, along with many kinds of crickets and their kin. While the sounds some of these animals produce may be annoying, imagine how frustrating our domestic noises are to wildlife; from bustling trucks and cars to raucous outdoor sporting and music events. While this is no consolation, it does underscore the old adage: One animal's concert is another's cacophony.

Q: I found a live/dead bird with a band on it. Do I need to report it?

It’s very helpful to scientific research to report banded birds! Most banded birds will have a plain metal band with an 8- or 9-digit code on it. Others will have multiple bands, sometimes colorful plastic ones, some of which may also have codes on them. These plastic bands are intended to be read “in the field”—when the bird is alive and biologists or the public are observing them. The metal bands are generally only possible to read if the bird has been recaptured or found deceased. Observations of both are important.

If you find a deceased bird, it’s always a good idea to check the legs for bands. If it is banded, note the type of band(s) (metal or plastic), their location on the leg(s), the color of the band(s), and any writing on them (often a numeric or alpha-numeric code). Taking pictures is often very helpful. You do not have to collect the bands from the bird, but you may if desired. When you report the band, you will also be asked the date you found it, the location, and the species (if you can determine it). It’s all right if you’re unsure of the species, and you can consult a field guide such as Audubon's online bird guide for help.

If you notice bands on a live bird, try to use a spotting scope, camera, or binoculars to figure out the same information as above. Again, photos can be invaluable to determining the band code.

To report any species of banded bird, and to learn more about bird banding in the United States, visit the Bird Banding Laboratory website. If you are outside the U.S., use a web search or ask a local expert to find the appropriate organization to report to.

Q: What types of birds are threatened or endangered where I live, and how can I help these birds?
Audubon's website provides helpful resources about birds in decline and special reports on some of the threats that birds face.

Q: I think I've spotted a rare bird in my yard. How can I be sure it is a rare bird? Should I contact someone even if I'm not sure?
Consult a field guide such as the Sibley Field Guide to Birds so you can properly identify the species. If you are unable to identify the bird using a field guide, check out an online guide on the Audubon or Cornell websites. If your online search proves fruitless, experts at your local Audubon office will be happy to help you. 

Q: A development is planned for some nearby woods, and I know it's going to harm the birds. What should I do?
Do not trespass, even for the sake of birds and wildlife. Instead, have a friendly, informative conversation with the developer about what birds and wildlife you think use the property. It's important to contact the developer before construction begins when you might be able to convince the developer to consider minimal and low impact building practices such as clearing vegetation on a lot by lot basis, beginning with house and driveway footprint areas only. This process of clearing land is highly selective; it only removes vegetation that's required for construction.

If plans are to extensively develop the land for marketing purposes, you can share statistics with the developer that show how it is more economical to develop in an environmentally friendly way than it is to clear land and later be forced to pay a landscaper to redesign and replant vegetation. Be sure to narrate the natural history of the land to the developer while providing good ideas for land use practices that will help sustain the natural quality of the land and work with the developer's corporate goals. Also, don't underestimate your influence at the city and county levels. Attend city council and county commission meetings to make sure developments are being built in an environmentally sensitive manner. Most Audubon Chapters are involved in efforts to help protect natural resources in their area, and chapter contacts can be found on this page. For additional resources, check out our Bird-Friendly Communities page.

Q: What can I do about sparrows or other birds nesting on my house?
House Sparrows and European Starlings are non-native species, brought over from Europe that have adapted to nesting on homes and other buildings since the beginnings of the Agricultural Revolution more than 10,000 years ago. They build their homes in gutters, vents or other openings in buildings. Sparrows can gain entrance to holes as small as 1 1/4 inch in diameter, while the larger starlings need holes at least 1 5/8 inch in diameter. 

The best way to stop these birds from nesting on your house is to block any and all possible nest holes with boards or another physical barrier that might be cosmetically and structurally appropriate. Birds can nest in gutter downspouts if there is a horizontal section of pipe near the entrance at the top, so avoid this gutter design. While native bird nests, eggs and babies are protected by law and cannot be moved or destroyed, Starlings and House Sparrows are not protected, and you may legally remove them from your home or building. 

For native birds such as House Finches (often nesting in hanging plants), Mourning Doves and American Robins (nesting on ledges), Carolina Wrens (nesting in buckets, shoes, or mailboxes) or Barn Swallows (nesting over doors or on porches), it is best to discourage them before they start by eliminating or blocking access to potential sites. If you want to encourage these birds to nest on or around your home, you can build ledges or provide nesting boxes to attract them. Since these native birds are protected and beneficial, once they are nesting they should be left alone for the four weeks between the laying of eggs and the chicks leaving the nest. Remove the nest and clean the area with a strong disinfectant after the birds are gone.

Q: I have a question that is not addressed on this page.
Please visit the Frequently Asked Questions page on the National Audubon Society’s website.

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