Frequently Asked Questions - Injured, Orphaned or Sick Birds

Birds are being discovered in various places of the United States to have beaks that are much too long.   The keratin layer of the beak becomes overgrown, resulting in elongated and often crossed beaks. The deformity shows up in adult birds, and most often occurs in the upper beak but sometimes in the lower beak or both.

The cause of the deformity -- called "avian keratin disorder" -- hasn't been determined, but is thought to be the result of environmental pollutants in the birds' environment.  The abnormality -- sometimes accompanied by elongated claws, abnormal skin or variations in feather color -- often impacting a bird's ability to feed and clean itself.

In the past, large clusters of beak deformities have been associated with environmental pollutants such as organochlorines in the Great Lakes region and selenium from agricultural runoff in California.  More recently, crows, chickadees, nuthatches and magpies in Alaska have been afflicted along with numerous other species to a lesser degree.

The Bird Banding Laboratory, located at the U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, controls and issues all federal bands and banding permits under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Banding birds requires a federal permit. Metal leg bands are usually found on terrestrial birds, while plastic leg bands and collars are usually found on waterfowl and shorebirds. Researchers in Central and South America participate in an international banding program where countries are assigned specific colors for leg bands.

All federal metal bands, colored leg and neckbands for geese, and bands from foreign governments should be reported to the Bird Banding Laboratory by calling the telephone number on the band or logging onto http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/BBL/ and following the links on how to identify and report a bird band. The person making the report usually gets a reply with information on the bird that was banded.

A bird with no head feathers could mean several different things. Most birds naturally lose their feathers (molt) and replace them with new feathers twice a year in summer/fall and winter/spring. Usually, this takes place in stages so no part of the bird is entirely without feathers at any given time; but cardinals, blue jays, and other species have been documented losing all their head feathers at once. The reason for this is unknown at present. Other reasons for temporary baldness can be lice, feather mites, or some other environmental or nutritional factor. The feathers should grow back in a few weeks.

You are observing a disease that was first observed in House Finches in the Mid-Atlantic States in 1994, that has since spread to most of North America. It is caused by a parasitic bacterium called Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis. So far, the disease is most prominent in the eastern population of House Finches. However, a few reports of the disease have been confirmed in American Goldfinches, Purple Finches, Evening Grosbeaks, and Pine Grosbeaks, all members of the family Fringillidae. There is a lot of information on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website -- the FAQ page is particularly informative: www.birds.cornell.edu/hofi/abtdisease.html.

The Web site also provides the following Bird-Feeding Guidelines when you see an infected bird:

  • Space your feeders widely to discourage crowding.
  • Clean your feeders on a regular basis with a 10% bleach solution (1 part bleach and 9 parts water) and be sure to remove any build-ups of dirt around the food openings. Allow your feeders to dry completely before re-hanging them.
  • Rake the area underneath your feeder to remove droppings and old, moldy seed.
  • If you see one or two diseased birds, take your feeder down immediately and clean it with a 10% bleach solution.

If you find an injured bird, carefully put it in a cardboard box with a lid or a towel over the top, and place in a cool, safe place. Birds go into shock very easily when injured, and often die from the shock. If a bird has hit a window and is still alive, it may just need a little time to regain its senses, then may be able to fly away. Do not try to force feed or give water to the bird. If it is still alive after a few hours, you can try to find a local wildlife rehabilitator. Many belong to your state association for wildlife rehabilitators, and can be found with an on-line search.

The Wildlife Rehabber website has a listing by state of many rehabbers that might be useful: http://wildliferehabber.com/rehabber-search.

The Wildlife International website also has a directory of rehabilitators worldwide that may have other facilities listed for your region: www.wildlifeinternational.org/EN/public/emergency/emergencyrehab.html

If you have found an orphaned bird, the first step is to determine if it is really orphaned. When many young birds first fledge and leave the nest, they may still have a little down with short tail and wing feathers. Fledglings often also have weak flight muscles and may be fed for a few days by their parents outside of the nest. This is a very vulnerable time for young birds, as they are easy prey for roaming cats and other predators. It is important to keep fledglings safe and to allow the parents to continue feeding them.

If the bird has fallen out of the nest prematurely, or if a tree was cut down and a nest of young is found, a rehabber may be needed. The following chart from the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association can help you determine the proper course of action: http://www.nwrawildlife.org/sites/default/files/FoundBird.pdf .