Want to save that bird? Don’t let it escape

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American Tree Sparrow rescue on Nov. 14.
American Tree Sparrow rescued on Nov. 14.

This lovely little American Tree Sparrow was rescued after colliding with a window at a home in Orleans, and was brought to us to care for overnight until we could get it to the Wild Bird Care Centre. Its prognosis is good, but only because someone scooped it up, put it in a box, and sought help. (Thanks Jennifer! And Andrew for driving!)

This sparrow looks alert and can fly — it reached that perch all on its own. But what you don’t see in this photo are the internal bleeding and the gasping breaths. That’s what makes this a textbook example of why a bird’s ability to fly is not a good indicator of its health, and why Safe Wing does its best to capture every collided bird so that it can receive medical care.

Common misconception

There’s an unfortunate misconception that a bird that can fly away following a window collision will be fine. Safe Wings hears many, many variations on: “The bird was lying there, so I picked it up and held it/stroked it/said a prayer, and eventually it recovered and flew away. Happy ending!”

Sorry, but while the bird may have recovered, there’s a high likelihood that it died later of its injuries, became an easy meal, or collided again.

We hate to be the bearers of bad news, but as an organization working to reduce birds deaths, we feel it’s necessary to educate people about the cold, hard facts of window impacts:

  • More than 70% of birds die of head trauma instantly or within minutes.
  • Of those that survive, the majority suffer a concussion.
  • Many suffer internal bleeding, severe bruising and/or shock.
  • Some are left with a fractured wing, clavicle (collarbone), sternum (breastbone) or other incapacitating injury. 
  • Some suffer neurological damage ranging from torticollis (twisted neck) to spinal injury leading to paralysis. 

And yet, every survivor will try to fly away as soon as it is able. If it cannot fly, it will try to run or hop away. 

Fleeing is an entirely natural response for any creature that is hurt, and it makes sense: An injured animal is vulnerable to predators as well as to rivals that will take advantage of its weakened state. Its best chance for survival is to hide, so it at least has a chance to recover. If it remains exposed, it will surely die.

An injured bird assumes that an approaching human is a predator, and has no way of knowing that this large, looming beast is trying to help it rather than eat it. The poor thing will do everything in its power to escape, summoning every last bit of strength and adrenaline to avoid certain death. 

So, if you can pick up an injured bird, it’s not because it trusts you. It’s not because you’re using a friendly voice or saying reassuring things in the same voice you use to speak to a pet. It’s helpless and terrified, and if it could get away from you, it would.

Please don’t release that bird!

That’s why Safe Wings Ottawa recommends that people safely capture a collided bird as quickly as possible following the window impact, and not release it unless we instruct you to, no matter how lively it seems.

The sooner you act, the better your chances of a successful rescue. The longer you wait, the better the bird’s chances of escaping and, as a result, dying of its injuries.

By rescuing it and getting it Safe Wings and/or the Wild Bird Care Centre, you will ensure that the bird is properly assessed and treated for any injuries. If it’s among the few birds that are only slightly stunned, it will be released in a safe place as soon as possible.

When Safe Wings began rescuing birds, we thought that if the bird had no obvious injuries and was able to fly, it could be released following an hour or two of rest in a dark and quiet place. After all, that’s the advice you’ll find on many other websites, even the Wild Bird Care Centre’s (it needs an update!). Our experience, our research and our own statistics have taught us otherwise. 

Do it now!

If you see a stunned, unconscious or otherwise injured bird, whether on the sidewalk or your porch, pick it up immediately!

Don’t wait to see if it will revive. Don’t first try to find something to put it in. Don’t wait for your spouse to come home to deal with it.

Don’t call Safe Wings first or, as sometimes happens downtown, wait for one of our volunteer to magically appear.

Just pick it up gently but firmly, and hold it until you can transfer it to a suitable container. Enclose it in your cupped hands and ask (holler) for someone to get you a box or a paper bag. Most strangers are happy to help.

If you’re alone, secure it with one hand against your chest, contain it in a pocket, tuck it into your shirt — do what you can to keep it safe while you find a container.

Don’t worry too much about the type of container, especially short-term, provided it’s large enough to hold the bird without squeezing it, and can be closed or covered to prevent escape. We’ve had people place birds in paper cups, plastic iced coffee cups, baseball caps, a Timbits box — whatever works for the time being is fine, except a plastic bag.

Don’t assume that because the bird can’t fly now, it won’t be able to in a few minutes. Close the bag or box.

Once the bird is safely contained, call Safe Wings at 613-216-8999 for advice. If you can, bring it to us or (even better) directly to the Wild Bird Care Centre. If you can’t, we may be able to arrange for a driver to pick up the bird, but please remember that we’re all volunteers.