22nd Sep, 2020

Written by Lynn Rabat

What should you do if you find an injured or baby bird? Most people mistakenly believe that there are only two options: leaving a bird to die, or trying to help it with whatever they have available, whether it’s the right thing or not. But it’s crucial to do the right things as good intentions without the correct knowledge and experience can make situations worse.


Some of the issues we as bird rescuers encounter include fledglings learning to fly being taken away from their parents, people just guessing what to feed baby birds, and even trying to fix painful injuries and fractures themselves. This causes so much unnecessary suffering and often death or permanent damage. 

We also battle with people refusing to hand birds over to receive proper treatment and rehabilitation. They insist that looking after the bird makes them feel good, the bird is cute, or it gives the kids something to do, even if it will most likely cause the bird’s death.

We’re begging people to do what is best for the birds and get them to experienced and permitted people as soon as possible. This greatly improves their chances of surviving and thriving in the wild one day.

When taking in a baby, sick or injured bird, its whole life is in your hands, and whether it will have a future or not depends on you! When you pick it up, it’s a promise to help. They need the right food and care; without it, they will not survive. Not really caring and basically just helping enough to extend its suffering is cruel! Please be serious and committed to saving it, or get it to someone who will.


There’s nothing in this world more rewarding than helping a little helpless life that will never be able to repay you. But helping wildlife consists of three parts: Rescuing, Rehabilitating and Releasing!

Unfortunately, most people only do the first part and then keep the animal because they become attached to it, or they release it without rehabilitating and following the proper steps. All three parts are equally important, because no wild animal should have to repay its debt for being saved behind bars making you happy.

When helping wildlife always remember this quote from Edwin Way Teale: “Those who wish to pet and baby wild animals ‘love’ them. But those who respect their natures and wish to let them live normal lives, love them more”.

It takes real unselfish love to put an animal’s happiness before your own and rather let them be happy, free and with their OWN kind.

When to step in and when to leave

A general rule of thumb is: if you can easily catch a bird, it probably needs help. Fledglings learning to fly will be up in the tree around the nest – by the time they’re ready to come down to the ground, it’s difficult to catch them.

If it’s a youngster, even if the parents are around they won’t raise the baby on the ground or keep it warm. If a human can catch it, any predator (cat, dog, rat, other bird) can as well. The exception for this will be birds that live and breed on the ground, but, even then, a healthy bird should be able to run away.

Finding a fledgling

If you find a fledgling (a young bird that’s leaving the nest), the most important thing is to try and reunite it with its parents. If you can reach the nest (and you’re 100% sure it’s the right one) try to put it back. Don’t build your own nest; the parents will see the strange foreign object as dangerous and will neither sleep in it nor keep the little one warm.

If you can’t return it to its nest, and the bird is fully feathered but too young to fly, try putting it outside in a small cage during the day so the parents can feed and look after it. Cover half the cage and keep an eye on it. If it hasn’t been reunited with its parents by evening, or if the weather gets cold, bring it inside. They can often be released to be with the parents in two to three days, as they should be strong enough by then. This should be carefully supervised, and if the parents disappear, he needs help.

Always watch that the parents are indeed coming to feed the fledgling and that predators can’t get to it.

Feathered first aid

If you can see the bird does need help, the best thing is to get it to an experienced rescuer or vet immediately, but if this is likely to take some time, you can start first aid steps. Always remember:

  1. Birds die if they’re cold or too hot, so temperature is crucial.
  2. Keep things dark and quiet, as this minimises stress.
  3. Never give a cold bird food or fluids; always warm it up first.
  4. Do not force feed. A bird should at least be able to sit up by itself. Never force fluids down its throat or drip water directly into the beak.
  5. Fluids should be lukewarm, not cold or hot.
  6. Birds eat different things, so, before giving any food, find out the species (bearing in mind there are over 900 species of bird in South Africa). 
  7. Have the right mindset: you’re saving a life, not raising a new pet.
  8. Be committed – if you start helping, you need to keep it up, otherwise you’re just prolonging suffering.
  9. Birds succumb to illness, stress, and injury quickly, so be prepared that they may not survive. And, if they do, you’ll need to release them into the wild.


Your goal is to give this helpless little bird a second chance at a normal, free life – as if you were never involved. You are NOT raising a new pet but a wild bird that will be rehabilitated and released.

To make this process easier for the bird and minimise the chances of imprinting, don’t play with it, bond with it or cuddle it (no matter how cute it is or lonely it seems). All this sounds heartless, but it’s in the bird’s best interests and will improve its chances of being successfully rehabilitated and released.

If you’re unsure whether to help a bird or not, please phone a wildlife rehabilitation centre or post on the group, and they’ll gladly advise you on what to do in your specific situation.



Start by checking its temperature. Feel the skin under wing: the bird should feel a bit warmer than you. If it’s cold, you need to warm it up immediately. Once warm, contact your local wildlife rescue. Don’t just cover it with a blanket – once a bird is cold, it can’t regain its normal body temperature on its own, so covering won’t help.

Use a warm bean bag or bottle with warm water (not boiling!) and a soft blanket. Make sure it doesn’t get to hot – if the bird is sitting with wings away from the body or breathing with an open mouth, it’s overheating, which can be fatal. A lamp with a bulb works well for keeping a baby warm, but a bottle/bean bag is more effective to warm a cold bird. Don’t use cotton wool, fan heaters, or energy-saving light bulbs. Don’t warm a bird with a fever or concussion.

Hatchlings (no feathers) should be kept at 32-35°C, Pinfeathers at 25-30°C and sick birds at 30-35°C. The temperature should be consistent and reliable.

Hydration and food

Once the bird is warm, check if it’s dehydrated and if there’s food in the crop. Dehydrated birds  have wrinkly skin (especially around the belly), dry mouth and sunken eyes. The crop is in the throat area and if it’s empty will be flat instead of nicely rounded and plump.

If the bird is dehydrated, the crop is empty, or you’re unsure (and it’s sitting up on its own) start with lukewarm electrolyte water, preferably Darrows or Ringers, but you can make your own: 9g (about 2 level teaspoons) salt, 4 teaspoons of sugar in 1L lukewarm previously boiled water.

Aside from basic emergency rehydration, what and how to feed an injured or baby bird is complex and detailed and shouldn’t be attempted unless you have experience. Please visit Helpless Wings for more information.


The type of bird will determine what the housing should look like. However, in an emergency, a soft blanket placed on a towel in a cardboard box works really well. Smooth surfaces cause splayed legs. Boxes, instead of cages, are recommended for baby, sick or stressed birds as they hold heat better, birds can’t hurt themselves or damage their feathers, and they tend to stress less.

Injuries and illnesses

After making sure the bird is warm and hydrated, you need to do a health check to assess what your next step should be. Keep handling to a minimum, as this is highly stressful. Try to judge by looking at their general behaviour and any visible injuries (such as a wing hanging uselessly). Don’t try treating any illnesses or injuries yourself – and don’t delay in getting them to expert help.

Birds should be alert and responsive. Puffed-up feathers and a bird sitting with its eyes closed is a sure sign that something’s wrong. Breathing should not be heavy or clearly visible (body or tail moving up and down). The beak should be clean and free of any growths or mucus; eyes should be bright and clear. If you’re able to examine it, check for injuries, dark/purple stains under the skin, swelling, fractures or anything “odd”.  

Helpless Wings

Now that you’ve stabilised and checked the bird’s condition, you can take the next step by calling in expert help. South African Facebook group Helpless Wings is an excellent resource for people to get the right help and advice. Animal lover Thersia Du Plessis started it after she was given the wrong advice by well-meaning but inexperienced people that almost led to the death of the bird she’d rescued. Fortunately, the bird survived, and now there are several experts sharing their knowledge on the group and many useful advice documents you can download, including a list of wildlife rescue organisations. Join the Facebook group at

Safety note

Always wash your hands thoroughly before and after handling any wild animal, for your sake and theirs. If you have pet birds, never just place wild birds in with them, as they could have illnesses or parasites that can be transferred.

Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre List


  • Vischkuil, South African Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, 0731121131
  • Midrand, Johannesburg Wildlife Veterinary Hospital, 071 248 1514
  • Kyalami, Friends of Free Wildlife, 082 5613681
  • Douglasdale, CARE, 0836593727


  • Cape Town, CoGH SPCA Wildlife Unit, 021 700 4158 / 083 526 1604
  • Plettenberg Bay, Tenikwa, 044 534 8170
  • Cape Town, SANCCOB Penguin Rescue Station, 041 583 1830
  • Mossel Bay, SAPREC, 082 364 3382


  • Hartbeespoort, Owl Rescue Centre, 082 719 5463
  • Rustenburg, Wildforlife, 014 5926007/ 0834107962


  • Phalaborwa, ReWild, 0824577297 / 0828516570
  • Hoedspruit, Moholoholo Animal Rehabilitation, 015 795 5236
  • Thabazimbi, Gitta-Martula, 014 786 2903
  • Tzaneen Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre 083 273 6793


  • Hectorspruit, Wild and Free, 079 988 5748
  • Nelspruit, Second Chance Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, 082 899 4108
  • Dullstroom, Dullstroom Bird of Prey and Rehabilitation Centre, 082 899 4108


  • Durban, CROW, 031 462 1127
  • Howick, Freeme KZN, 0333303036


  • Pieter Saunders, Bird of Prey, 083 339 6773


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