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How to take care of injured animals

About a week ago, I was walking my dog through a neighborhood in western Colorado.  In the street I saw a juvenile male robin. The bird moved away from me and the dog, flapping rather ineffectually.  I watched the robin for a bit and tried to shoo the bird off the road so at least he wouldn’t be hit by a car. The bird’s condition was a familiar one to me.  As an intern for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) working on seabird research in Alaska, I’ve seen plenty of young birds in an awkward stage of almost fledging.  I’ve also seen plenty of chicks die young.

As I was watching the robin in the street, I noticed a few things.  First, the bird had plenty of adult feathers but wasn’t completely mature yet.  Second, the bird’s behavior seemed the normal behavior of a fledgling just started on learning to fly.  Lastly I saw that the robin had no signs of injury or sickness, just a frustration from trying to learn to fly.  I decided to leave the bird as he was and hope for the best; the robin was after all just going through the normal process of growing up.  As I determined to leave the bird alone, a woman from a nearby yard started talking to me. The woman said she’d just asked her brother in law to catch the bird for her, so she could help it.  The woman said she thought the bird had a broken wing. I corrected the impression of injury, telling her I’d worked with birds before and this one was just fledging. The woman was well intentioned but it was clear she was determined to intervene on behalf of the fledgling robin.

I thought back to a couple of times when I had naively thought to help wildlife and how poorly it had gone.  When I was still quite young, 10 years old at most, I was playing outside in a tract of prairie near my home in Wyoming.  I often played in the bluffs of the area, catching toads, collecting bones and rocks. On the day in question I came upon a just born Pronghorn fawn.  The fawn looked helpless next to its amniotic sac. As an unwitting but concerned child, I picked up the infant Pronghorn and awkwardly carried her home to elicit my parents help.  

My parents are not wildlife veterinarians.  A call to the Department of Wildlife, Animal Control or some other government agency quickly confirmed my mistake.  It was probably that the pronghorn mother was nearby, watching the fawn, perhaps only scared away by my approach. I don’t remember all of the details of my encounter with the Pronghorn; I’m not sure what the fate of the baby was.  I did learn a valuable lesson though: not every intervention is good. Often nature is best left to its own devices.

In 2016, Yellowstone Insider and many others reported an instance of a man driving through Yellowstone National Park picked up an abandoned Bison calf.  It seems the calf was truly abandoned by its mother and was certain to die of starvation, predation or exposure. In the end the bison calf was brought to rangers for help but was euthanized when it was obvious the calf wouldn’t reintegrate into the herd.  Many were outraged at the naivety of the man who picked up a cold bison calf to help, blaming him for the calf’s eventual death. The sad truth of the matter is that there was nothing to be done to save the Bison calf in Yellowstone that wouldn’t have made the animal captive, an option the Park Service wouldn’t consider.  The Bison like my own Pronghorn illustrates a truth: no matter how well intentioned we can’t always save a life, especially the life of a wild animal.

Keeping in mind the presence of real limitations, there are many cases of wildlife rescued from bad situations, including orphaned infants.  This year, The Denver Post reported that a bear cub was rescued from a wildfire in Colorado.  The cub’s paws were badly burned but the bear is expected to be released by winter.  Of course in the case of bear cubs, a professional is required to keep the cub safe as well as keep the bear from associating too closely with humans, endangering her life in the future.

Struggling birds, like the one I found while walking my dog, are common.  According to, only 30% of young songbirds survive their first year of life.  The website goes on to say that most of the time, birds should be left alone pointing out it’s illegal to take care of native birds in your home.  

I’m reminded of another incident.  A non-native House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) near where I lived was injured by a cat.  My then-girlfriend Erin and I took the sparrow in while deciding what to do to help the little bird or if indeed there was anything to do at all.  Against Erin’s advice, I fed the small bird bits of cracker crumbs. A few hours later, the House Sparrow was dead. It turns out that the high salt content of processed foods is deadly to non-domesticated birds.  I learned that despite volunteering on bird research projects in three countries, despite an education in biology, I knew nothing about caring for a bird.  

A simple Google search reveals that there are many individuals and organizations that are more educated and experienced than I at caring for birds and other injured wild animals.  The Wild Bird Rehabilitation Center of New England is an example plucked straight from a search.  According to the center’s website, they have a caseload of about 2,000 birds annually.  The organization is the largest in the area but not the only, and there are many different wildlife rehab organizations in the US (and elsewhere), it just takes a bit of searching to find them.  You can also call your local animal control branch or division of wildlife can help.

When I was living in South Dakota, I visited a raptor center that cared for raptors injured, often by human activity.  I was able to hold a small owl in my hand, the little bird peering at me with nocturnal eyes through the deepening evening.  The raptors were unable to return to the wild, too hurt, too accustomed to humans. In many areas, raptors (including owls) are taken care of and become part of wildlife education programs in an attempt to increase the public’s understanding of wildlife.  Years ago, in Tasmania, I saw such a program with a Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus) that had lost a wing when striking a powerline diving for prey.  It was there that I learned that the peregrine was indeed a wanderer of almost the whole earth.        

For young animals, especially birds, it’s best to keep in mind that appearances can be deceiving.  An article from PETA says that most fledglings don’t need help.  This is somewhat contradictory with the idea of only 30% of songbirds surviving their first year but it’s more a matter of birds not needing help most people are capable of giving.  

The next piece of advice PETA gives, after assessing the good health of the bird in question, is to try and return the fledgling to the nest.  It’s important here to confront a common misconception. Most people have heard somewhere or other that birds will smell human touch on their young and abandon a fledgling touched by a person.  The fact is, most birds have a poor sense of smell and there’s no evidence that handling a bird will cause her parents to abandon her. I’ve handled many baby birds in Alaska and a few in the Bahamas as part of conservation research and none of them were rejected by their parents.  If you can get a fledgling back into the nest, it’s the best thing you can do. I helped several young Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) by putting them back in their nest once.  It’s important to remember though, the birds are leaving the nest because they’re almost ready to fly; they certainly will leave the nest again.  

The next best thing to returning a bird to a nest is to create a surrogate nest.  A well-padded and well drained container that can be put out of reach of cats and other predators is best.  A fledgling’s parents usually continue to feed their young as long as they’re close to the nest.

If you find an injured animal or one that is truly abandoned, it’s best to contact a rehab facility or government authority such as animal control before you do anything else.  Most wildlife are managed under federal law and even an attempt to help them may be illegal. Besides the law, most of us don’t really understand how to care for our wild neighbors.  

In the end, what did I do with the robin I found in the street?  When confronted by a woman wanting to help, I quickly ascertained that there was little I could do to convey the situation to her and how little she could do to help.  I quietly caught the fledgling robin in my hand. I told the woman and her brother in law when he arrived on the scene that I’d take the bird. I told them that I had worked with birds before, perhaps slightly deceptively.  After I walked away, I returned to the area and released the robin to a small tree in a nearby empty piece of land. I hoped for the best for the robin. The stats were against the small fledgling but then again, robins are everywhere.  One thing I hoped I had achieved at least, by returning the robin, I hoped more than anything he wouldn’t die in a cage.

By Zach Fitzner, Contributing Writer   

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