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Caring for Chicks & Nestlings
Equipment and food
Housing Food Utensils
Ice cream containers Wombaroo Insectivore, Lorikeet mix, Granivore, Syringes with plastic tubing
Margarine pots Avione hand rearing food Droppers
Shoe box or wine cask Vetafarm Neocare hand-rearing food Forceps
Paper towel Rehydration fluid, Polyaid, Digital thermometer Toilet Tissue Egg and biscuit mix Heating pad Newspaper Mealworms Hot water bottle Budgie or canary seed 25/40 watt coloured globes Chicken/turkey starter crumbles Scales Crop feeding needle The rescue When sent on a young bird rescue, it is advisable to take a variety of containers, such as margarine and /or ice cream containers, warmed hot water bottle, cardboard box or pet carriers, as well as some cloth for 'nest' padding. People have different definitions for 'small' and 'large' birds.
Many calls for baby birds have in fact been for something quite different so be prepared. A baby emu turned out to be a plover, a baby pelican was an unfeathered Indian mynah, a sea eagle was a starling and so on! Try to identify the bird as soon as possible.
Clues to identification are:
Χ Where it was found?
Χ What type of nest, if available?
Χ What is the colour inside the mouth?
Χ What does the beak look like?
Χ What is the colour of the skin, down or feathers?
Χ What sound does it make?
Χ What size is it?
Things to check are:
Χ Has the chick been blown or washed out of the nest Χ Is the chick injured Χ Does it have a large parasite load Χ Has it been displaced by a cuckoo Χ Has it been taken from the nest by a currawong and dropped Χ Have the parent birds been injured or killed If the chick is injured or very cold it should be taken into care and monitored.
Take note at the rescue site of exactly where the chick was found, whether there is a nest around, if the parent birds are around and are predators such as cats or currawongs there. If the chick recovers well it might be possible to take it back to its parents. The following steps should be taken.
Identification & Care of Chicks, Nestlings & Fledglings Page 1 Reuniting with parents or adoption Every year the lives of many young birds are upset by people who mean only to help. Fledglings leave the nest some time before they are able to fly. They are left for a time by the parents while they search for food.
At this time the young birds sit quietly waiting, apparently abandoned. It is now that well meaning people find them and by mistake think they need help. Always ensure that rescue is necessary. These members of the public often can help identify reasons for the chick displacement. The birds most commonly brought to us unnecessarily are noisy miners and magpies that are just fledged and plover chicks that have just jumped from a high nest site.
Returning a nestling to its parents requires either making a substitute nest or replacing the young in its original nest. An artificial nest can be make out of a flower pot, ice cream container or similar. Always make sure there is a drainage hole in the bottom.
A chick that is perching can either be returned to its parents or in the case of many Australian birds may be introduced to a substitute family. Birds that breed communally can often be persuaded to take and care for unrelated young. If you have orphaned kookaburras, noisy miners or magpies that are attracting the interest of your local group it might be possible to encourage them to come down, feed and in time take the fledgling off with them. Other species that have been reported adopting orphans are peewees, wrens, currawongs, lorikeets, rosellas and silver eyes. Never try to put unrelated seagull chicks in a nest in the wild - they will be killed instantly.
Don’t feed the chick before returning it as it is important that it beg for food and screech and scream to attract its parent’s attention. Monitor from a distance to make sure that the parents recognise the chick and go down to feed it. If the chick is not claimed by the birds within two hours it must be taken into permanent care or maybe returned a couple of days later to see if it is subsequently accepted.
Chick DefinitionsAltricial young
Hatchlings are young between the ages of 0-7 days, or until the eyes begin to open. Altricial young are helpless, fragile, bottom-heavy and unable to walk. They rely on the parents totally for food and warmth.
These chicks require an ambient temperature of 33-37C, and relative humidity of 50-60%. Hatchlings should be fed a diet consisting of more fluid than solids.
Nestlings: are chicks still in the nest, with open eyes and quills. Chicks should be fed a slightly higher proportion of solids than hatchlings. After about 10-12 days, the nestlings may be able to thermoregulate.
Fledglings: are young birds that have full length primaries. When nestlings approach the fledgling stage they will become more active. They may start hopping around or may instantly fly. At this stage they should be transferred to a lined cocky cage or small aviary. At first they should be still kept indoors, then after a short time the young should be moved to a sheltered outdoor aviary.
Precocial young Chicks: are the young of precocial birds. They are able to see from the moment they hatch, are covered with down and many are able to thermoregulate at this stage. They imitate the parents, and some start selffeeding straight away, others are fed by the parent for some time as they learn. They snuggle up to the parent at night and in inclement weather for warmth and protection.
Identification & Care of Chicks, Nestlings & Fledglings Page 2 Reasons for chicks coming into care Blood sucking insects Nests accumulate a number of parasites - fleas, lice, fly larvae and mites - which can be discarded with the nests, but re-used nests, particularly nest hollows, are likely to carry parasites from previous years.
The nests of swallows, martins and swifts are notorious amongst bird nests for their high ectoparasite populations. Two entire families of specialist lice-like flies feed on the bird’s blood, whilst their maggots feed on skin fragments and chick’s blood. Unfortunately the more bugs in a nest the more weight a nestling loses each night when the bugs bite. Sickly chicks may be kicked out of the nest by the parents.
Cold is another killer. Both altricial and precocial birds need to be kept warm for several days after hatching. Swifts and swallows must leave their chicks alone in the nest in order to maximise their foodcollecting abilities. Their chicks, sheltered from the rain in a semi-enclosed nest, are none the less prone to chilling. Swift chicks, therefore, conserve fat reserves by remaining torpid until their parents return.
Whereas most chicks would die without daily feeding, swifts can survive for a week or longer. (‘The Private Life of Birds’) Hole nesters like kingfishers and kookaburras, are at an advantage where chilling is concerned but they can accidentally fall from the nest doorway as they back up to the light to defecate. These young can usually be safely returned to the nest hole to rejoin their siblings. However, if they are cold or slightly injured they can be kept in care for a short time before returning them to their parents.
Leaving the nest is the most hazardous step for a young bird, and for some this can be a rather premature but nevertheless essential event. Wood ducks nest in high tree hollows, but almost immediately after hatching the chicks are forced to follow their mother down to the forest floor. They bounce on the leaf litter at the bottom and, although there are some casualties, most chicks make it and run away with mother.
In the city, plovers often nest on the roofs of buildings, the chicks are also forced to follow the parent to the ground, often onto the concrete pathway or parking lot below. Some make it and run off with the parent but others injure themselves and are rescued by caring people.
Some just get left behind in the rush to find cover and if the family is tracked they can be reunited. At this stage there is a lot of elastic cartilage in the skeleton instead of bone and the young appear to hit the ground and bounce, without damage.
A Shearwater chick is hatched in a deep dark hole in the ground with no siblings for company. The parents spend their days foraging for fish which on their return they regurgitate into the chick’s mouth. When the chick is one huge ball of fat the parents then go off and leave it alone. Instinct or frustration tells the chick to crawl out of the burrow. Everything looks OK out there and with a flap of the wings the young bird takes off and heads for Alaska! No wonder, therefore that in autumn we find some of these juveniles on our beaches, exhausted, bewildered or just plain 'lost'. A few days of care are generally sufficient to see them on their way, refreshed and confident.
Identification & Care of Chicks, Nestlings & Fledglings Page 3 Cuckoos Brood parasites, such as cuckoos have a hollowed back. When the young of the host bird touch the cuckoo’s back it rears up against the side of the nest and heaves it out. Since the host parents are unable to retrieve it, the tiny, naked, blind nestlings die, or are brought to a carer to rear.
Some birds, such as herons lay eggs at intervals. They hatch at intervals and if there is a shortage of food available the younger ones are the last to be fed.
Sometimes the parents leave the nest with the larger birds, leaving the smallest to look after itself. These are often picked up on the ground weak and thin. They can be cared for, and in the case of the White-faced Heron, returned to the parents should they return in a week or two when the first young are able to care for themselves.
Precocial chicks, whilst able to feed themselves, are still dependent on their parents for defence. The first line of defence is the alarm call. On hearing this, chicks freeze, making them less obvious to predators.
Unfortunately dogs, cats, foxes and cars are not anticipated. The chick may be told to freeze on the approach of a human being. This human, being well meaning, sees the chick all alone and picks it up unnecessarily to care for it.
If a nest full of young birds approaching fledgling stage are disturbed by a predator they will leave the nest even earlier than normal, scattering into whatever cover is available, even though unable to fly. This desperate reaction may allow some to survive. This, and the earliest stages of flight when fledgling, will usually explain why seemingly helpless young birds are sometimes found.
A substitute nest can often be made from an ice-cream container, and the young put back into the tree in a sheltered spot.
The young of open nesting birds are often preyed upon by larger meat eaters such as kookaburras, magpies and currawongs. They have been known to drop their prey after being hassled by the distraught parents. A sign in this instance is often bruising on the neck of the dropped chick.
Seagulls chicks are commonly brought in around Christmas time. The parents lay their eggs on boats and come holiday time people find them and they intend going away on holidays. Some are brought into WIRES, some are just thrown overboard, to be fished out and brought to us by caring people.
Identification & Care of Chicks, Nestlings & Fledglings Page 4 First Aid Hopefully, your homeless or orphaned chick will not arrive injured. Some chicks hardly seem to notice that they have been through any trauma at all and are ready to be fed. Others may be suffering from some degree of shock or stress, and may be cold. A chick will normally feel quite hot as its body temperature can be five degrees hotter than a human’s. If it is cold, then your first priority will be to put it in a warm, dark box in a quiet place to recover and get its body temperature back to normal. Don’t feed the chick until you are sure it is warm and stable.
Rehydration - a chick coming into care will be suffering from some degree of dehydration. Dip its beak into some warm water or alternatively dribble it onto the outside of the beak and wait for it to swallow it. One teaspoon of glucose in a cup of warm water is acceptable, but there are also special products available such as Vetafarm "Spark". A dehydrated bird will have wrinkled skin. In severe cases subcutaneous fluids can be injected under the skin by a very experienced carer or veterinarian.
Altricial Nestling Housing Unfeathered birds need a temperature between 33C and 37C. This would need to be gradually lowered as the feathers grow. You will need to estimate the maturity of your bird and the temperature it may require. The nest will be placed in a hospital cage or brooder, and the environment should be kept humid. This can be done by placing a dish of water in the brooder. It will be easier to feed the bird if the accommodation has a door that opens from the top.
Cup nesting birds can be housed in a lined dish or ice cream container depending on the bird's size.
Bunch up the material (paper towelling or toilet tissue) so that the nestling is cushioned on all sides, not floundering loosely. The bird can be covered with a light cloth to simulate the mother sitting on it. The container should be of such a size that the nestlings can place their behinds over the edge to deposit the neatly packaged faecal sac.
Hole nesting birds however will need a different arrangement. A shoe box or wine cask with an opening at the end is suitable. This can be lined at the inner end with tissues, and the nestling will move backwards towards the hole and defecate through it. Hole nesters include lorikeets, kookaburras, kingfishers and galahs.
How to recognise the correct temperature?
Χ Does the chick feel hot or cold? A bird's body temperature is 42C. As this is higher than a human body temperature the chick should feel warm to the touch.
Χ If it is restless and the wings are extended, it is too hot. It may also breathe with its mouth open wide and neck stretched to attempt to cool itself.
Χ If it is lethargic and the crop isn't emptying, it may either be too cold, or very sick.