Saving Baby Birds

Recently, we noticed a cardinal nest in the pine tree right outside our family room window. Last week, the eggs hatched, and there were three teeny babies popping their heads up waiting for mom and dad to feed them. We positioned a ladder inside the house, right near the window, so that we could observe the birds without disturbing them. I made sure our bird feeders nearby were always full so the parents had plenty to eat, and we have a pond right underneath the tree where there is always fresh water available. They picked a great location, sheltered from the elements, and I had high hopes that babies would thrive.

Yesterday afternoon, my daughters called me at work, frantic. One of the baby birds was dead (all that was left on the ground was a wing—a stray cat must have made off with the rest) and another of the babies had jumped out of the nest and was floundering on the ground. I thought at first that it was pushed out, but no, my eldest said she saw the bird jump out of the nest on its own.

My daughters know enough about wildlife not to handle the bird, but they managed to put a deep plastic popcorn bucket next to the baby and it hopped inside. The bird had feathers covering most of its body, but was unable to fly yet. It was chirping away, eyes open and clear, and looked quite healthy. I figured I’d have to find some way to get this little guy back into the nest as soon as possible. But, as it turns out, I was wrong.

I came home and immediately called an Avian Refuge Center, and the woman who answered was very helpful and knowledgeable. She explained that one of the most common reasons a baby bird will bail out of the nest is because the nest is infested with mites. The mites bite the birds and can eventually kill them. The bites are painful, and that’s why the birds jump out. Otherwise, they end up anemic and die. I took a look in the bucket, and sure enough, I could see several tiny specks—the mites—crawling around near the bird.

What she advised me to do was the opposite of what I expected: she didn’t want me to put the bird back into the nest, and instead, she wanted me to get the remaining baby bird OUT of the nest as soon as possible. She explained that there are special medicated powders and sprays available that will kill the mites without harming the birds. She also said that I needed to create a new, clean nest for the birds, and that if I put it back in a spot close to where the original nest was, the parents would probably come back. She said that the mites wouldn’t harm me, and that they would wash off, unlike lice or ticks which burrow or cling. Ugh…fabulous.

So, with my daughters guarding the bird in the bucket and monitoring the one still in the tree, I went to local pet store and got the spray. I also picked up a deep basket made from natural material and some fiber nesting material (the woman from the avian center said to make sure the material is not water-absorbent, and to supplement it with organic materials like soft pine needles and grass).

By the time I got back, my husband was home from work and ready to begin Operation Cardinal Save.

We brought the ladder outside and Rich was able to reach the nest and bring the other baby to safety. The fact that he is smiling in this picture is a testament to his love for wildlife: taken only seconds after he’d gotten the nest down, he already had dozens of mites crawling up his arms.

Yes, they did wash off quickly, but neither one of us was expecting there to be quite so many. When I sprayed the first bird—he was quite a bit larger than the one still in the nest—hundreds of mites starting jumping off his feathers. I had to keep moving him onto a clean paper towel, and with every shift, hundreds more mites dropped off. Over and over again, we kept transferring the birds to a clean paper towel, only to have the obnoxious specks rain down every time the bird moved. I had a bowls of water nearby and needed to rinse myself off frequently because the mites were all over my hands every time I transferred the birds from one towel to the next. They didn’t bite me, but still….blech!

Eventually, the mites subsided, and it was time to relocate the birds. I prepped the new nest and spritzed some mite spray around it for good measure. My husband found a perfect spot for them in a tree right next to the original one, less than six feet away from where the first nest was, so that we can still observe them, and the parents can find them easily. The woman at the avian center said that the parents probably had some mites, too, so there was no way to fully eradicate them, but that the new nest would certainly bring them a great deal of relief. All they need is a few more days to get stronger so that they can leave the nest and start flying, and the mites won’t be a danger to them anymore.

It’s the morning after the big rescue, and so far, the two babies are still in the nest. They’re chirping and moving around, but don’t seem to be trying to escape just yet. In the picture below, you can see the new nest in the tree on the left. The tree on the right is where the old nest was located. I filled my bird feeders in the hopes that it will entice the parents to come back, but so far, I haven’t seen them. The woman at the avian center said that if I thought the littlest bird was anemic (the larger bird’s mouth was a healthy deep pink inside, so we knew he was fine), I could feed it some crushed up berries with an eye dropper, so if I don’t see the parents by mid-day, that’s what I’ll do. It rained early this morning, so I know they had some water. Now, it’s just a matter of waiting and hoping that the parents will return.

****UPDATE**** Things looked promising earlier this morning: an adult cardinal pair did come to the bird feeders, and the babies were still chirping. We decided to wait just a bit longer to see if Mother Nature would cooperate and the parents would tend to the babies. Unfortunately, when I checked on the birds a bit later, I discovered that they did not pull through. It’s a sad ending, and not the one I had hoped for, but at least we know that we did everything we could to give them the best possible shot at survival. If there’s a “next time”, we’ll be well-prepared on what to do.

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