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How to rescue a bird

Updated: Jul 17, 2019

All too often birds are rescued and taken to bird rescue centres or vet clinics, when in fact they should have been left where they were – especially baby birds! There can be some obvious signs a bird needs help – but sometimes subtle signs too.

Nesting Pukeko

Help a bird if…

  • There is blood, an open wound or a recognisable break

  • It cannot stand on its own

  • There are flies hovering around the bird

  • One of its legs or wings is hanging useless

  • It cannot fly and it is not a nestling or fledgling being coached by nearby parents

  • The beak is damaged

  • It has oil on its feathers

  • There is fishing line or string caught on the bird

  • The bird has been caught by a cat or dog even if it seems fine

  • The bird is unconscious or “sleepy” during the day (other than nocturnal birds of course!)

  • If there is any difficulty breathing

  • If it does not try to escape when you approach

  • It has been in the same place for hours/ days.

Juvenile Black-backed Gull entangled in fishing line after swollowing a baited hook

Does it need rescuing?


Don’t “bird nap” – make sure that the bird needs assistance. If the bird looks orphaned, wait a while and observe, the parent birds may be off searching for food. If a nestling (featherless chick) has fallen out of its nest try to put it back, making sure that it is the correct nest. Wait and watch for the parents to return. If you find a fledgling on the ground and you are worried that a dog or cat might get it – put it in the nearest bush or tree. Watch it from a distance for a while, you will probably find the parent birds are not far away.


If it is an adult bird and it has no obvious injuries spend some time observing it. During the nesting season some birds pretend to be injured to draw you away from the nest i.e. Oystercatchers.


This Variable Oystercatcher is doing everything it can think of to draw the attention of the Ranger who is filling a tyre with sand and shells near the VOC’s nest. The reason the Ranger is doing this is because a king tide is expected in about a week, and she is raising the level of the VOC’s nest by building it up on tyres (2 to 3 tyres in height and each tyre is added over a period of days). The ranger will move the egg/s onto the tyre - works a treat!

How to rescue the bird


Once you have assessed the situation and you have decided that there is a need to help the bird, and it can be done without endangering yourself or others, do so quickly and quietly. Note that some birds have good defence weapons such as sharp beaks and claws – ensure you either have control of these parts (control the head or legs) or at the very least know exactly where they are to avoid them!


Use a towel or lightweight blanket to throw over the bird, it is usually quicker therefore less stressful for the bird. Towels also help to reduce flapping and prevent dirty hands from damaging their feathers. Place the bird in a secure, appropriately sized box with air holes and a towel on the bottom, close the lid - the darkness will help calm the bird. Place in a room where it is warm and quiet and away for pets and children.


Warmth is critical and if it is a baby bird, duckling or a debilitated adult you will need to keep it warm, the main exception is usually penguins as they can overheat, but a very sickly penguin will also need some warmth. If you have a hot water bottle, milk bottle or container that will hold hot water from the tap wrap this in a towel and place it under the bird. Boiling water should never be used!


Once you have secured the bird, you should contact someone for help, such as a vet clinic or rehabilitator.


Capturing an Albatross

What not to do


Do not try to feed or give fluids unless you know what you are doing. If given fluids or food incorrectly the bird could inhale it accidentally and choke or even die.


Do not tape a birds’ beak closed! Some birds have internal nostrils and they cannot breathe if the beak is closed i.e. a cormorant/shag


It is always best practice to contact someone who is experienced in bird care for advice… or become a carer yourself and undertake some learn bird care training!


Unwell juvenile white fantail pigeon

Who to contact


Most regions and areas have someone willing to take sick or injured wildlife, but in some cases, you may need to help transport the bird to the nearest carer or vet clinic. Potential options include:

  • Local dedicated bird or wildlife rescue centre

  • Local vet clinic

  • Local conservation or wildlife government office (if a threatened or protected species)

  • Local RSPCA/ rescue centre that takes birds

  • Local rehabilitators network or group e.g. WReNNZ, WIRES


We hope these tips will help you make better judgement calls on what to do if you think a bird needs a helping hand.


Written by

Mandy Robertson

Wildlife Rehabilitator

(All photos and videos are the copyright of Wild Bird Care-NZ)

Learn Bird Care was co-founded by Dr Janelle Ward and Mandy Robertson. Learn Bird Care offer specialist online courses on wild bird rescue,1st aid and care.

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