About once a week I get contacted through my website Ornithology.com regarding a baby bird. Often the explanation is that the “baby fell out of the nest.” Typically, the baby actually jumped from the nest as songbirds do when they fledge. Not quite capable of flight, they walk or hop on the ground, dependent on their parents to feed them. Not wary as their parents are, they often expose themselves to dangerous situations. Then, some well-meaning person figures the bird is an orphan and decides to raise it when all they have done is take the youngster away from its parents. So I just tell the inquisitor to leave the baby be and let nature take its course. Occasionally I get a not-so-polite retort telling me that I’m cruel and that they are going to save the baby anyway. The best thing to do with a baby bird is leave it alone, but there are times when a bird is injured and needs our help. In that case, I suggest calling a local wildlife official or wildlife rehabilitator.
Recently I found myself in a similar situation. About a week ago, a neighbor discovered an emaciated Red-shouldered Hawk that had clearly fallen or jumped from its nest several days before, and unable to fly. The nest was way too high to get to and the parents, who I have seen regularly, nowhere in sight. The bird rehabilitator I know is getting on in years and trying to find a replacement, so I decided to take the challenge myself.
The young bird was clearly malnourished as the keel on its breastbone was sharply defined, meaning the breast muscle had atrophied. I took the hawk home and started feeding it moistened chicken, steak, and even shrimp. The bird ate well. Having no cage, I kept the bird in my workshop in a substantial-sized cardboard box with towels and fed it six times a day. After about a week, it had gained weight and gotten more energetic and was clearly trying to fly as I held it.
One warm evening after I fed the bird, I put the box outside as it was cooler. I folded the four top flaps on the top of the box and covered it with a large towel, as I had done while it was in the workshop. I went back a couple of hours later for the last feeding of the day, removed the towel from the top of the box and opened the box flaps. No hawk. It had escaped. How it did that without knocking the towel off the box, I’ll never know.
I’m sad that he/she is gone, but on the other hand, it is in much better shape than when I found it. The next day I heard Scrub Jays squawking incessantly, so I figured the hawk was around somewhere. Then I heard an adult screaming overhead. I’m hoping the parent found its offspring.
I have experience with birds so I felt competent to rehab this hawk, but I certainly recommend that the average person find a bird rehabber. If it wasn’t for the Houdini-like escape, I’m sure I would have returned him/her to nature successfully. I suspect I’ll be seeing a Red-shouldered Hawk around the neighborhood, and I’m going to convince myself that was the one that got away.