Free Non-Medical Rescue Manual


Pat Knight

*Unless you have a Wildlife Permit it is illegal to posses animals from the wild.*  

This manual is offered to help you care for injured or orphaned wild songbirds until you are able to find help through your State's Dept. of Natural Resources, Vet Clinic or Wildlife Rehabilitator.   Please feel free to print this Free Manual using your web browser's print icon.

Four bird killers

Now that you have rescued a bird, take a deep breath and let it out slowly.  The four top things that kill birds in the hands of humans are:

Aspiration (getting into the lungs) water or other liquid type food
Lack of warmth, even warming them in your cupped hands helps a lot
Frightening the bird to the point of shock and death
Lack of medical attention.  Find a rehabilitator.  Most vets don't handle wildlife.

Top Priorities

Avoid aspiration
DON'T - Give a bird a drink of water.
Do     Baby bird - chop a small piece of soft fruit, like grape or pear, and put it in the roof of the back of the baby's throat to swallow.  (Illustration #1)   Apple pieces must be completely peeled because apple skin retains a sharp edge and could scratch the throat.

Adult bird - place a small jar lid of water in the box.  Wind a string around the jar lid to prevent it from tipping. (See Illustration #2 below)  An adult bird will drink on its own.



Before doing any type of examination make sure the bird is comfortably warm.

Baby bird - Should feel as warm as toast to your touch. 

Adult bird - Have a skin temperature (on their feet) a little warmer than your skin temperature.  If either bird is overheated it will pant.  For an overheated bird, gently blow across its body like you would cool a spoonful of hot soup.


Do -     Slowly close your eyes, count to 3 and slowly reopen your eyes.  This is a friendship move and will help the bird understand your motive, to help.

                Slowly blinking your eyes makes a big difference in survival rate.

Don't - Think the bird is going to hurt You.  Gently handle it, but
              handle it.  It has no teeth, no great claws and most 
              probably no disease you can catch.  And you can't tell how
              cold or warm it is unless you touch it.             
Don't - Stare or allow people to stand around staring at the bird.

Don't - Show your teeth when you smile.

Don't - Swallow while looking at the bird.  Swallowing is a predator behavior.

Don't - Panic.  A bird will detect your panic and respond by matching it.

Do -      Slow yourself down.  Breathe deeply or whatever works for you.


Medical Attention

You are likely to need a rehabilitator for injuries and illnesses because they have medications and techniques for resolving these problems.  You may be able to get the patient through the night with some of these suggestions, but please, don't keep it 3 to 4 days and then expect the rehabilitator to do magic.  (Coming soon: An Emergency Guide with medical information will be available for sale on this site.  Please check back periodically to see when it's available.  Those who have access to medications will find the guidance of this larger manual of great value for saving the lives of small, wild birds.)

What you will need


Baby bird: 

Small box, like a shoebox lined with a cloth for footing
Source of heat, like a heating pad or small light bulb.
For security, the baby will enjoy a washcloth laid across his back.

Adult bird  

A box about 2 times the size of the bird (so it can turn around) and flaps or a top (for security).  Add a few air holes for ventilation.
Tape to secure the top
Cloth (towel or t-shirt) on the bottom of the box for footing
2 jar lids, 1 for food, the other for water. 
String, to wind around the bottom of the jar lids

Temporary holding

Please don't handle the patient a lot.  The idea here is to keep the bird warm, dry, quiet and fed.  Find a seldom used room like a bathroom or spare bedroom, even the top of the refrigerator if you have children running around.  Now, go figure out where to find a migratory bird rehabilitator for more help.


Be sure your pets are shut out of the area.

Relax and gently hold the bird by placing your hand over its back including the wings.  If you don't hold down the wings, the birds will flap and you won't have any control. Don't crush in the chest with your fingertips by holding on too tightly.  That would cause suffocation.  Relax.  If he gets away from you, he's in the house and you'll catch him again.

If he's really being difficult to pick up, use a washcloth or hand size towel to toss over him and pick him up.  Just don't let go of those wings or you'll be picking him up again.

If it's a wing you're trying to examine, slip your thumb between his body and the injured wing, but cover the good wing with your fingers to hold them down.  Now you can see what's going on with his injury. 

Housing and transportation

Don't ever place a caged or contained bird outside.  Another animal will harm it.



Baby bird:

Warm them to 90-95 degrees (33-35 C).  That's a little warmer than your skin temperature.  Holding them, cupped in your warm hands helps a lot.  A comfortable baby bird should feel warm as toast to your touch and will pant if overheated.

A good set-up (Illustration #3) is a box with a heating pad turned on low or medium placed under one half of the box.  Place folded newspaper under the other half of the box.  Lay a cloth flat across the interior bottom of the box.  Put the baby inside the box and cover him with a light washcloth big enough to spread over both the warm and cool areas of the box.  Now the baby can toddle back and forth to find a comfy temperature. If the bird can't toddle, watch that he doesn't become overheated. 

Adult bird  

Adults don't usually need extra warmth, but the baby set-up will work for them if necessary.  Otherwise, put air holes in a cardboard box that is twice the bird's size (so he can turn around), place a hand towel on the bottom for footing and be sure the box has a top or flaps that can be taped down for security.


Usually a cardboard box with air holes and towel flooring is best and easiest to find.  But, if it's cool outside and you are transporting a baby, he will need extra warmth for his trip.

Baby bird   Add warmth to the box.  Make a hot water bottle by filling a jar with a screw on lid with hot tap water and covering the jar entirely with a wash cloth held in place with a rubber band.  The little bird must not be able to touch a hot surface.  Put the jar in the corner of the box.  Or fill a sturdy, non-leaking, zip-lock bag with hot water.  Place it on the floor of the box and cover it with a towel.  Place the baby on top of the towel with a wash cloth across his back and you are ready to transport.  Double check that the zip-lock bag is not leaking.



One feeding problem is Foul Odors.  Birds and their droppings should not have any odor.  The exception is woodpeckers that smell woodsy or earthy.  A foul odor indicates an illness called sour crop.  It is fatal if left untreated because the bird won't eat and many times will hang its head over and look just pitiful.  A vet can prescribe Nystatin which is given before each meal for 24 hours, then reduced to 3 to 4 times a day for another couple of days.  (A rehabber may have this medication on hand.)

Substitution:  While waiting for vet help, you can give a couple of drops*, full strength, of either liquid Digel or Mylanta about 10 minutes before feeding.

          *Liquids MUST be given with great care.  Place the droplet in the ROOF

            of the mouth, as FAR BACK in the throat as possible.  A bird's airway

            starts at the back of their tongue; therefore, liquids can be easily aspirated into

            the lungs and drown the little guy.  See illustration #1.

Feeding - except Doves and Pigeons which are discussed later.

Little birds eat every hour between sun up and sun down.  You are only going to feed this baby until you find help, so what is listed below is for emergencies only.  Hopefully, you have some of these items on hand or can run out to an all night store for them.  These are not nutritionally sound to raise a baby bird


Dropper or syringe
Tape to wrap around the sharp ends of tweezers

If the pet store is still open you might purchase any of their commercial powdered baby bird formulas.  Brand isn't important.  Mix it according to package directions, making it slightly stiffer than recommended.  A stiffer formula gives you more control over spills and slips.

Substitution 1:  For all types of birds.  Cream of Wheat or an unsweetened cereal like Cheerios crushed and moistened will do.  If using cereal, place some in a small zip-lock bag and crush it with a rolling pin.  Now you can mix it with water.  Water used to mix formula should be warm to your lips, but not hot.

Substitution 2:  For all types of birds except Doves and Pigeons, scrambled eggs work as a great, drop-in-their-mouth food.  Stir up an egg in a microwave safe bowl and cook at full power for 1 minute.  Cool, chop and serve.  This food does not have enough moisture, so add about 10% fruit to the diet.

For fruit and insect eaters use soft fruit like grapes, pears or berries for 10% of the diet.  More fruit could cause loose bowels.  If you only have apples, peel them completely. Apple skin retains sharp edges that could scratch the bird's throat.  For the insect part of the diet, you can use canned dog food (no cat food) or using the Substitution #1 above or commercial powdered baby bird food for a day will do no harm. 

If you feel your baby bird is not doing well on what you're feeding him, watch his droppings.  It should come out as a large blob in a nice clear membrane sack.  If it looks more like diarrhea, switch to the other substitute formula.


How Much To Feed

Lots of birds have a crop that is featherless and will bulge out under the right side of the throat (illustration #4) indicating that the baby is full.  For those birds without that revealing crop, start with ¼ to ½ teaspoon as the amount to feed.  If the baby continues to beg, give him more.


Feeding Techniques

Cereal formula - Place the dropper or syringe in the ROOF of the mouth to the BACK of the Throat and give just a SMALL squeeze (illustration #1).  Don't drown them. WATCH for a small crumb of the formula to become stuck in the end of the dropper or syringe.  If you are squeezing and nothing is coming out, STOP.  Pointing the utensil AWAY from the baby, squeeze again.  If no formula is coming, clear the utensil, test it and start feeding the baby again.

Dog food, fruit or egg pieces - These can be picked up with a toothpick and placed in the back of the throat.  If using tweezers, tape the sharp points to blunt them.  Often the baby will lunge up to take the food and scratch his throat on the sharp points.  To maintain cleanliness, the tape must be replaced and the tweezers washed before each meal.

Unwilling baby - There are a number causes for a baby bird to become unwilling to eat, but don't think for a moment it's because he isn't hungry.  With their high metabolism, they are little eating machines.

Wrap your little bird in a wash cloth.  We refer to this as a dinner jacket, but really it's a straight jacket.  In the wash cloth he should not be able to run or flap, just sit there. Remember to blink slowly and sound encouraging.  Pry open his beak and feed him.  You may need to feed him this way for a couple of meals before he gets the idea.

Baby Doves and Pigeons

These little guys are special cases.  They suck up warm food pretty willingly from a jar lid or cut straw.  Simply dip the beak in the warm cereal formula and the baby should do the rest.  Never give them dog food, egg or fruit, they just can't digest it.  If they are unwilling to suck up the formula, wrap as instructed above in Unwilling Baby and feed using an eye dropper or syringe, taking care to give small amounts at a time.

Doves and Pigeons have a HUGE, feathered, exterior crop that extends from just under their throat to the mid-chest area.  Even an unfeathered, tiny dove can eat about ½ teaspoon of formula at one sitting.  A feathered, non-flying toddler dove can eat 1 to 1 ½ Tablespoons.  Feed these birds every 3 to 4 hours.  By touching the front of the chest, you can tell if the bird is empty or full.


Being able to identify your little bird and feed him exactly what he needs would be ideal, so I've included a basic list of birds and what they eat.  If you absolutely cannot identify you bird, it's safest to go with the cereal diet.


Insect Eaters Seed Eaters Eats Anything
Woodpeckers Grouse Blue Jay
Cuckoo Dove Crow
Nighthawk Cardinal Starling
Swifts Towhee Meadowlark
Flickers Grosbeak Red Wing Black Bird
Kingbird Buntings Orioles
Flycatcher Dickcissel Grackle
Swallows Goldfinch Cowbird
Purple Martin Sparrow Tanager
Chicadee Quail Cedar Waxwing
Titmouse Pheasant Bobolink
Nuthatch Turkey Wrens
Mockingbird Pigeon Catbird

Injuries and illnesses

Broken bones:

They hurt
They must be set properly
They must be set soon

The bird must see a rehabber soon to have the bone set and wrapped.  A broken bone will start to mend itself almost immediately in a crooked position and that would cause permanent disability.  Please find help in less than 36 hours.  Until then stabilize the patient and arrange safe transport.



Cuts, scrapes, scratches from pets, and puncture wounds can all be deadly to birds.  If you know a cat or dog has been playing with the bird, the bird must have antibiotics. Substances found under pet claws and in pet saliva carry deadly bacteria, so medication needs to begin within 24 hours.

Don't use peroxide on wounds.  Hydrogen Peroxide can kill tissue (muscle) if the wound is deep.

Don't soak the bird by trying to rinse or clean the wound with water.

Do use a bit of tepid water on a Q-Tip or piece of paper toweling if you need to clean the area and see exactly what type of injury the bird has.  Dry with a paper towel to absorb all moisture.

Do apply sparingly, a bit of Neosporin, Triple Antibiotic, or other First Aid type cream that does not sting.  Sparingly, I said.  Too much makes the feathers a greasy mess and your bird won't be bathing any time soon.

Do place a non-stick telfa pad over the wound (cutting up a Band-Aid for the little white pad works) and wrap it securely with gauze or cloth - not tightly.  Tape the gauze or cloth to itself.

Don't put tape on feather or skin.  Their skin is so fragile that it may tear when the tape is removed unless it's soaked off.

Hematoma:  A large pool of blood just under the skin, cause by a blunt trauma (hit).

Don't poke it, pinch it, or bother it, unless it's leaking.  The loss of 4-5 drops of blood is traumatic to a bird.  They just don't have that much blood by volume.  To rupture a hematoma could be fatal.

Do - If it is leaking, wrap it securely just like a wound, not tightly to protect it.  Otherwise, leave it alone and it will heal in 10-14 days.

Window Hits

Each year scientists estimate that 100,000 birds die from hitting windows.  Usually one of four things happens.

They die instantly
They get up and fly away
They get up and run around, but don't fly away
They lay there and flutter or turn in tight circles, but neither run or fly away.

In the latter two cases it may be possible to save them.  If they get up and run around, but don't fly away, they have probably broken a bone.  It is either in the wing or the collar bone (clavicle).  If it is a wing, straighten it, wrap it and make it comfortable until you find a rehabilitator.  Remember; don't put tape on feathers or skin.

***If your bird is fluttering on its side or turning in a tight circle, he probably has what is termed a closed head injury.  You need a rehabilitator very soon.  They have the medication to reduce brain swelling and permanent disability.  Getting him help in 12 hours is preferred, but within 24 hours is acceptable.  These patients get worse with time and the medication has less and less effect as the hours tick by.  Keep the bird in a dark box with air holes and a soft towel for footing or falling.  Don't give any food or water.  He will just roll through it and become a dirty mess.


I certainly wish you the best of luck in your effort to help your little bird and hope that this information was able to give you some good suggestions.

Soon I will have an emergency rescue bird manual with medical information available for sale on this site.  Please check back periodically to see when it's available.  Those who have access to medications will find the guidance in this larger manual of great value for saving the lives of small, wild birds.

*Note: When the emergency is over, call your State Dept of Natural Resources, or check the internet for rehabilitators with Migratory Bird Permits.  It is illegal to keep wildlife without a permit.