Growth of a bird till it flies

Maneka Gandhi


(Bihar Times) Autumn brings calls about baby birds in trouble. Before trying to ‘save’ the bird understand that it’s natural for baby birds to spend some time on the ground as they train to fly. Parents supply refreshments every twenty minutes or so as junior learns. As he gets bigger, they visit less, until finally he’s on his own. So the next time you find a ‘grounded’ baby bird , begin with these questions :
How old is the bird?
His feathers tell his age. Hatchlings or babies upto one week old, are mostly naked. They quickly lose body temperature and should be picked up, warmed in the hands and replaced in their nest. Nestlings or 2-3 week olds are almost fully feathered with still a little fuzzy down. They have none or very short tail feathers. They can hop a little but prefer to sit in one spot. They too need replacing in the nest. If the nest cannot be found, line a small cane basket or plastic butter container with holes punched in the bottom with clean dry paper towels arranged in a conical shape. Do NOT use grass/straw. Tie the new ‘nest’ to a tree closest to the original location, ensuring it is out of direct sunlight.
At 3-4 weeks, fledglings are completely feathered, very mobile but not yet capable of full flight. You can tell a fledgling by his ability to grip your finger firmly. Flight training usually happens near foliage. A juvenile in the open is likely in danger. Drop a napkin lightly over the bird to immobilize. Pick up, grasping firmly around the shoulders so that the wings are against the body and cannot flap. Place him near the closest thick bush or tree, where he can scramble to safety. Keep all pets and humans away and allow his parents to find him.  Watch for birds swooping around the area.
Is the bird injured?
Flying trainees take short, stilted flights, and often fall. They tire easily and rest between test flights. If after 30-60 minutes, the bird is still immobile or sitting/ lying in an awkward position, he needs help. A bird's body temperature ranges from 104-109 degrees and he should feel very warm to the touch. If you notice blood, torn skin, a wing that can’t be folded properly or doesn’t move at all, a broken leg or heavy breathing, intervene immediately. Check for fractures. When you gently extend wings and legs, the baby should be able to easily pull them back into proper position. Fractures need to be set within 48 hours or they heal incorrectly and get infected. Use vet tape (adhesive gauze) to immobilize a broken wing.  Cut a 10-12 inch length of tape.  Secure the broken wing against the body in its natural position.  Wrap the tape on the outside of the broken wing and around the body under the healthy wing ensuring that it is not so tight as to obstruct breathing. Be sure that the feet are behind the tape (on the tail side) and free to move. He might initially be clumsy but will learn to balance. The tape should stay on for 2-4 weeks with a weekly change.   
Once you realize that the parents are gone or there’s no way to put the baby back, or he’s cold, limp or injured, prepare a container. This could be a cardboard shoebox or even a plastic food container large enough for the bird to stand up in or move around. Use tissue, paper towels or clean cloth as padding arranged in a cup like shape. Little birds like to fit snugly into their nests.  The bottom of the baby’s nest not be smooth or slippery. Cover the container LOOSELY with a dark towel leaving a small gap at the edge for air circulation. Place the box in a warm, quiet area of the house. Do not peek or handle. No tobacco, air fresheners or chemical cleansers in the bird's room.                                                                                                                          If the bird is naked or injured, warmth is crucial. Keep the temperature at 95 - 100 degrees F.   You can hang a 40 watt light bulb over the box but darken at night. Once the baby is warm, start feeding. NEVER feed a cold baby.
Naked, unfeathered babies with closed eyes need feeding every 15-20 minutes from sunrise to sunset.  Birds do not usually feed at night. As they get stronger, slowly increase the interval to every half hour to an hour.  Your baby will need 3-4 mouthfuls of food at each meal, each half as big as the circumference of his neck.  If the baby’s mouth is open , use a straw or dull tweezers to place a mouthful of moist food towards the back of the  throat. Feed until the bird stops gaping. If initially the bird won’t gape, tap the side of the beak or shake the "nest" gently. This should trigger a feeding response . Be careful not to give too much food at a time to avoid choking. Do not hold the baby while feeding, and never feed him on his back. As he grows, slowly increase the amount of feed per sitting while decreasing the frequency.            
Baby birds need protein. Meat is the basic diet.  Use mashed meat , canned or dry  dog/ cat food soaked in hot water. Add two parts boiling water to one part dry food and soak for one hour. Drain excess water. Mash well. Mix  with a hardboiled egg yolk and baby cereal.  Grind and use the eggshell for calcium or add a crushed calcium carbonate tablet. Mixture consistency should resemble moist halwa or thick sauce.  Vary the diet. Other meats are raw kidney or liver.  Include grains like cornmeal or oatmeal ground to a powder, high protein dry baby food. Try raisins plumped in water and drained. Gradually add chopped insects like soft caterpillars, grasshoppers. Avoid beetles, bees, wasps, ants, hairy caterpillars, and any hard-bodied insects. No milk /dairy, bread or birdseed. Serve all food at room temperature. After feeding the chick, wipe him down with a warm,damp paper towel. Do not bathe.
Never put liquids including water directly into a bird’s mouth as the entrance to the lungs is on the tongue and he may drown. For a dehydrated bird (dry mouth , loose reddish skin ), use Electral or a mixture of 1tsp salt, 3 Tbs  sugar in 1 litre water. Place drops on the top outside of the baby's beak.  Also feed small slivers of juicy fruit like de-skinned grapes or melon. Force-feeding with a dropper is only necessary when the bird cannot eat or drink and is in danger of dying.                                                                                               When the bird starts to hop up on the side of the box to be fed, it’s time for  cage large enough for the bird to stretch his wings and practice flapping.  Install perches using smooth branches his toes cannot completely surround. Scrape off feces regularly.
In the fourth week, start offering food like worms, bajra, popcorn, dark green leafy veggies and slices of orange or apple in dishes When he is eating enough, it’s time to free him. Test fly him in a screened porch and not around the house as open toilets, ceiling fans, mirrors, windows and lighted stoves are major hazards.  As soon as he can fly confidently, he is ready for release. Choose an area with natural food where you've seen other birds of his species. Set the cage down and open the door. Let him take his time to step out. Once he’s outside the cage, refill the food and water dishes. The bird has never had to 'hunt' for food so if need be, he can come back and eat. Do not be tempted to keep a bird once he can fly. It is a jailable offence under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972 as well as cruel to confine one who belongs in the sky.

To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in


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