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March 23
1886 - Film director Robert N. Bradbury born in Washington state; launched John Wayne's career in Placerita Canyon [watch]
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Let's Go Outside | Commentary by Evelyne Vandersande
| Thursday, Jun 13, 2013

evelynevandersande_mugA little while ago, I received this phone call:

“Evelyne, I need help. A coworker found a baby barn owl in the parking lot, put it in a box and brought it to the office. What should I do?”

It is the time of the year when those calls come on a regular basis, and you are dealing with somebody with a big heart who wants to help a bird in distress – but you know they will not like what you have to tell them.  So you must be gentle, clear and certain you understand the situation.

I started by asking the most important question: “Is the bird covered with feathers or is it naked?”

“Oh, no. It has feathers but does not seem to be able to fly.”

eve061313a“That is good. Does it seem injured?”

“No. It looks fine.”

When you have those two things out of the way, the answer is obvious: You are dealing with a fledgling – not a baby bird, but a toddler learning to fly.

Their flight feathers are not fully developed and they can flutter from branch to branch. Sometimes they fall from that branch, or they are just taking a rest on the ground from their strenuous and tiring flying lesson.

The important thing to remember is that the parents can and do feed the baby on the ground.

So I told my friend:

“This is hard to do, but you have to take the bird back to the parking lot where it was found. Come on, be brave, you can do it. Put it back where you found it. Try to make sure it is protected from cars, but wait until the evening. A barn owl does not come to help the baby during the day; it is just too risky. If you want to see how it all ends, stay inside your car, because mom or dad should not see you; otherwise they won’t come to help the baby.”

This lady was dedicated, and she was on a mission.  She did as I instructed, and when it grew dark, she saw the shadow of a bird coming to the nearby tree, and the baby was gone when she checked a few minutes later. Mama came to rescue her baby.

eve061313cowbirdAt the Placerita Canyon Nature Center, at this time of year, people bring birds they have “rescued” every day, and I was asked to write this article to explain a few things that will help you kind-hearted people know the right thing to do.

If the bird seems to have a full plumage, is not hurt and looks like a young bird, it is probably a fledgling. That means a bird that is on the ground, but the parents will take care of it.

We cannot match the wonder of nature and the care of the real parent. Even if we can bring this bird to a rehabilitator to feed it, it won’t have a good chance of surviving in the wild later on. Only the parents can teach this bird how to hunt and take care of itself.

That is so important. Please try to spread this fact. It is late in the season, and most of the birds we are seeing at the Nature Center should not have been separated from their parents in spite of all good intentions.

A chirping baby robin on the ground might upset you, but it is most likely telling its parents where it is, that it is hungry, and that it wants to be fed.

Robins are gentle birds, but a friend of mine heard a fledging in the grass, chirping with this dramatic insistence that all babies in the world have (human babies scream the same way). Although she knew better, her curiosity won, and she approached the baby. Mom was a scrub jay, and those are not shy or timid birds. She had to run back home while mom tried to attack her, and she had to cover her head really fast with her hands.

Don’t forget that some birds, like sandpipers and killdeers, actually nest on the ground. Not too many of those in Santa Clarita, I admit.

Being a fledging is the most dangerous time in the life of a bird, and depending on the species, this stage can last up to seven days.

eve061313dNow that I’ve spent this whole article telling you not to touch a fledging, I have to make another point clear:

Birds do not have a sense of smell, so parent birds do not abandon their babies if they have been touched by people.

If you find a baby bird on the ground with no feathers, you should locate the nest and put the baby back into it, then step back. Do not stay around; the parents will come to the rescue.

If you cannot find the nest, this is a good time to bring the baby to the center.

Put it in a small, dark box with holes punched into the lid. Do not try to feed the bird. Keep it warm and bring it full-speed to the center. If the bird is injured, it will need professional help as soon as possible.

The best way to catch an injured bird on the ground is to drop a towel gently over the bird. The darkness will calm the bird, and you can gently pick it up.

Feeding a baby bird is difficult and time consuming, and you might be surprised that it is against the law to own a wild bird. You must have a permit to do so.

Many things to remember. I am sorry about that, especially as I know you only want to help and do the best you can. This is why a little bit of nature education will make you more effective and give you a better understanding of how to proceed in each situation.

Thank you for reading this, and good luck to all of the birds and bird lovers.


Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at Placerita Canyon Nature Center for 27 years. She lives in Newhall.




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  1. David G. says:

    Many years ago, my wife saw a little pink thing wriggling in the grass in her front yard. It turned out to be a baby bird. She rescued it, put it in a shoe box, and took it to work. (She was working on a project with many animal care experts and zookeepers at the time.) They advised her on how to feed and care for the bird, and despite the incredible work of feeding it and caring for it, the bird survived.

    As it grew feathers, my wife discovered it was a female house sparrow. The bird had injuries to her legs (whether she was kicked out of the nest for being a gimp, or suffered the injuries in the fall from the nest, there was no way of knowing), and could not perch. The experts said she could not survive in the wild, so my wife kept her.

    So when I met my wife in 1996, she had a pet sparrow. “Thrasher” became a part of our household. She was a smart bird, who knew her name, and could follow simple instructions (“go to your cage”). Thrasher lived for seven years. Not as long as the record captive sparrow, but far longer than she would have lived in the wild.

    I tell this not to contradict anything in your story, but to illustrate that not all wild bird adoptions end in sadness. We did not know a permit was required to keep a wild bird, but we certainly would have applied for one if we knew.

    • Evelyne Vandersande says:

      I have to say that about the permit but… I had a pet crow for many years. I think what you wife did was fantastic. I love, love your story and I am sure little Trasher gave you much happiness. You gave it a long and happy life while it could not have survived outside. Thank you for caring and give a hug to your wife from me.

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