Baby Bird Blues

by Calah Beckwith
Lead Wildlife Keeper

Each spring, we anxiously await the arrival of our first baby birds. Caring for baby birds is very difficult, delicate work, and it requires a lot of time and experience; but baby birds are also some of the most rewarding patients in avian rehab. There is nothing more fulfilling than watching a baby bird grow and thrive, and knowing that we have provided the proper environment, diet, and enrichment.

But sometimes they don’t grow and thrive. Despite our best efforts, sometimes baby birds don’t survive. This was our unfortunate experience with our very first baby birds of the year. They were newly hatched when they arrived, looking like little pink, squirming wads of gum. They were, of course, American robins.

Though the reason for their abandonment was unknown, it was immediately apparent that one of the babies was struggling. His color was a bit pale, he was not begging for food, and he seemed to have a hard time breathing. Shortly after his arrival at the Wild Bird Hospital, this tiny bird died.

His sibling, however, appeared very pink and healthy, was begging vigorously, and was pooping well (an important requirement for any healthy baby). He was vibrant throughout the day, but things changed dramatically the next morning. At his 6am feeding, he was weak and unable to beg. By 8am, he seemed to be struggling to breath. A short time later, we observed swelling and bruising around his abdomen which had not been there previously – a sign of possible internal trauma. Many times, internal injuries aren’t apparent until well after the trauma has occurred. This appeared to be the case with the baby robin. By late morning, it was apparent that the baby was not going to bounce back as we had hoped, and we made the decision to humanely end his suffering.

As both a bird-lover and a rehabilitator, these decisions are excruciating. My co-workers and I are passionate about our work, and we are dedicated to saving birds’ lives. Every choice we make weighs every possible outcome, and we always strive to do what is most ethical and humane for the animal. Sometimes, this means we have to make difficult decisions that make us sad. Ultimately, we must understand that though our primary job is to help any wild bird in our care to heal, recover, and grow, another important part of our work is to know when to let them go.

It’s hard to know what type of trauma these little ones experienced prior to their arrival at VINS. They may have had a hard fall from the nest and were suffering from internal trauma that we couldn’t see, they may have gotten colder than their little bodies could tolerate (temps below 90 can be fatal), or they may have gone too long without food before their arrival at our hospital (feedings every 15-30 min are vital). What we do know is that once they arrived at VINS, they were given the best care possible.

So what can you do to ensure that baby birds have the best chance of survival? For nestling birds like the robins in this article, your first priority should be to keep the baby warm – then call the VINS Wild Bird Hospital at 802-359-5001 ext. 212. For detailed instructions on how to help a baby bird in need, click here to read Baby Bird Rescue 101.

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