Mother knows best

Baby hummingbirds

I received a telephone call last week from the receptionist of a local business who had questions about a hummingbird nest outside her office window. The hummingbird had built a nest in a camellia tree and laid two eggs, which had hatched two days before. However, the mother hummer had not been seen since, and her entire office was worried about the baby birds.
I have been doing hummingbird care for both Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center and the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley for a number of years, so I told her I would come to her office and check out the situation. When I arrived, I saw that the babies were alive and their crops were full, a sign that they had been recently fed. However, despite the fact that I watched the nest for 40 minutes, the mother did not appear. I had to leave, but told the caller I’d return later in the afternoon.
When I returned, mother was not there but the babies’ crops were again full, the babies had moved in the nest and they were sleeping peacefully.
I reassured the caller that mother bird can come to the nest and feed the babies in a matter of seconds. If the caller was glancing down at her desk, answering the phone or looking elsewhere for a moment she could easily miss her. The babies were being cared for and I did not think there was any reason to worry. Had mother bird not been caring for her hatchlings, they would not have survived for two days.
I tell this story because it is very typical of the calls wildlife rehabilitators receive every spring. In this case, the story ended well: the concerned party did the right thing by calling a rehabilitator first, and there is every reason to think these babies will grow up just fine. But in some cases, humans decide to take matters into their own hands (we have had people bring in nests full of healthy baby birds) without first seeking professional advice.
Approximately 90 percent of the creatures WERC cares for in the spring are baby birds. Approximately 75 percent of the baby birds who are brought to us did not need to come in. We call these birds “over-rescues.” A mother bird very rarely abandons her babies, although she could be killed or injured and unable to care for them. But mother birds don’t just decide they are tired of parenting and leave for greener pastures.
Occasionally a nestling (a young bird that is featherless, or on whom the feathers are just starting to come in) will fall out of the nest. If you find a nestling on the ground, the best thing to do, if possible, is to gently place the bird back in the nest. The mother will care for it. Don’t worry about your human scent frightening her; birds do not have much sense of smell. If you see a fledgling (a young bird that has feathers) on the ground, leave it alone unless it is injured. Fledglings commonly leave the nest before they are fully capable of caring for themselves, and the parents continue to care for it even if it is on the ground. If the fledgling is in danger of being stepped on or caught by a cat, gently place it on the branch of a nearby bush or tree.
Sometimes people who find a young native wild bird will attempt to raise it. Not only is this illegal, it is rarely good for the animal. Proper care and nutrition are critical to the survival of all baby creatures. A nutritional deficiency can occur within a few days and cost the animal its life.
For example, baby hummingbirds cannot just be fed sugar water; they need protein as well. Wildlife rehabilitators feed them a special formula that contains vitamins and minerals, along with a unique mixture of pulverized fruit flies and other bugs. Baby owls are cute little bundles of fluff, albeit with very sharp talons and beaks, but their bodies will not develop properly on hamburger, chicken or dog food. Such foods do not have sufficient calcium or other elements, and the bird’s bones will be weak, brittle and unable to support the bird. Young raptors raised this way cannot be “cured;” sadly, they must be humanely euthanized.
A young wild bird’s best chance for survival is to be raised by its natural parents. At WERC we always try to return an over-rescue to its nest if possible. Its second best chance for survival is to be raised by a licensed rehabilitator who has the knowledge and the proper food and supplies to be the best substitute parent possible.
Please, if you find a baby bird that appears to be orphaned, call a qualified wildlife rehabilitator for advice before moving it. There are certainly times when the best thing to do is to bring the bird to a licensed rehabilitation center, like WERC, for care. But check it out first.
Amy Randall Yee has lived in Santa Clara County for 35 years and has volunteered at WERC for six years. She is also the President of the Board of Directors of WERC.

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