Please note that not all little birds need saving. If they look bright and alert, move fine, look symmetrical (eg without a drooping wing or a limp) and look almost like an adult bird, but without the ability to fly, they might be a fledgling that has just left its nest, but is still being fed by its parents. Please only move these babies if they are in a dangerous place. Best to call a wildlife rescue for advice if you are in doubt.
However, for a nestling that you are unable to put back in its nest or an injured or ill bird your intervention could mean the difference between life and death. Their metabolism is incredibly fast, so without warmth and nourishment they can go downhill in a very short period of time.
Lucifer (the fallen angel 🙂 ) is a sparrow nestling, and was found laying on his side on the floor of a barn, stone cold, gasping for air, right next to his already dead sibling. He was clearly dying.
In these instances you have to act immediately, you don’t have much time to save a little life! (I am sure I was just a couple of minutes late from being able to save his sibling too, as his rigor set in soon after I found them.)
Here is what you can do:
1) Please provide a warm environment.
You can use a hot water bottle or the so called ‘hot hands’ (disposable gloves filled with warm – not hot, as it is gonna burst the gloves – water). Please wrap hot substances in towels or paper towels to avoid scolding of the rescue animal.
2) Rehydrate and provide energy source
Whilst nestlings usually don’t need to drink water, in Lucifer’s case he was unable to feed on his own when he was found, so I needed to rehydrate him with some sugar water first – just mix some sugar or honey in water (only put the solution – water – in the baby bird’s beak, not the sugar granules or the honey itself). You can do this with a syringe, but this time I could only use a teaspoon, as I did not have any of my medical equipment on me. Just be inventive! Open their beaks gently and let a couple of drops flow in. Be careful not to overdo it, as they might aspirate while half conscious. Try to wait for the swallowing reflex and just go drop by drop.
When he came to consciousness and was able to take food by himself, I switched to cat food instead. Mush some pouch food with a fork or spoon and feed small pieces at a time. Moisten if you feel necessary.
You can use a spoon or tweezers.
3) Check for injuries.
It is always a good idea to keep some iodine solution (preferably not soap) at home. You can use it for a variety of surfaces, it can even touch eyes, mouth, open wounds, even open fractures, abdominal or chest cavity. It can be used as a desinfectant basically anywhere on the body.
You can dilute it with lukewarm water until yellow and gently clean dirty, worrisome looking injuries with it as a first aid, then wrap the rescue in a clean, soft blanket. Make sure you don’t perform painful procedures like this often and not to be too vigorous when touching sensitive areas. Be very gentle.
Also, the smaller the patient the more care you want to take not to soak them – they can get hypothermic very quickly.
If you don’t feel comfortable treating wounds the above way or the injury looks very serious, please leave it to professionals and take the rescue to a shelter or rescue center (if the injury looks severe, a vet practice) ASAP. You already helped a lot by providing warmth, rehydration and some nutrition.
4) Finally, please be aware that taking care of baby animals, especially birds is extremely exhausting and needs some expertise. Some nestlings need feeding every 20-40 minutes, and you might not have the knowledge required to decide what their appropriate diet should be. Therefore, it’s always best to take rescues to shelters and rescue centres after you are done providing first aid. If they are not anymore recumbent, stuporous, are fairly warm and got some fluids and energy in them, they are ready to travel. It is always better to reach a stable clinical state like that though before you set off to the shelter. As mentioned above, minutes can make the difference between life and death and if you don’t stabilize these fragile creatures first, you might deliver a dead baby to the rescue.