Here we talk generally about when to help adult birds of the types you might commonly find visiting your garden or in your local park. If you’re looking for advice on when to help a baby garden bird, please see here. The most common reason for adult garden birds to be brought into rescue is a cat attack. Other commonly seen issues are trichomoniasis (which causes cheesy growths in the mouth), pox (which causes lumps on the face and feet), and flying into windows. All wild birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act which means it is an offence to harm them or interfere with their nests, or to take them from the wild unless they are sick or injured. Once contained, they are also protected by the Animal Welfare Act which protects them from unnecessary suffering.
When to rescue
Birds caught by a cat or dog
Any bird caught by a predator will need to be checked for injuries and given antibiotics. Bacteria on the cat’s teeth can cause fatal septicaemia if they get into the bloodstream.
Birds hit by a car
They may be lucky and escape major injury but its best they go to rescue for treatment for shock at the very least.
Any bird with an obvious injury
Such as a dropped wing, leg injury or obvious wound. The bird will need specialist treatment and rehabilitation.
An adult bird which can be easily approached
All garden birds should naturally be fearful of people. If an adult allows you to get close and does not try to escape, there is a serious issue and the birds needs help.
A grounded swift
These birds cannot take off from the ground. Sometimes they just need help getting air borne again but it’s best that a rescue checks them over first in case there is a medical reason why they ended up grounded.
A bird with visible growths around its face or legs
The bird may be suffering from trichomoniasis or pox, both of which are fatal without treatment.
You can find a wildlife rescue in your area by putting your location into the search facility on our map page.
When to take other action
A bird which has flown into a window
Make sure the bird is safe from cats and other predators and observe. If it doesn’t fly away within a few minutes the bird should be picked up and put into a secure box in a warm, quiet place. Often they just need to rest for a few hours or overnight and can then be released. If there are any obvious injuries or the bird doesn’t recover quickly then do contact a wildlife rescue.
When to leave alone
A bird which looks ‘scruffy’ around the head and neck area in late summer/early autumn
The bird is likely just moulting which is normal this time of year.
Any small bird needs to be handled with care. Their bones are very delicate and it would be easy to injure them by handling them roughly. It may help to pick the bird up in a towel – it will ease both the physical and mental stress on the bird. Although a small bird is unlikely to injure you with its beak or talons you’d be surprised quite how hard a bird such as a sparrow can bite!
If you need to pick up a large bird such as a crow or gull, it is advisable to do so using gardening gloves or a thick towel. Larger birds have powerful beaks and can peck really quite hard. Be sure to keep the beak well away from your face to avoid eye injuries.
Many birds shed feathers when stressed – if they lose their tail feathers they cannot fly and these can take months to regrow. They are also very susceptible to stress and some birds can even die from the stress of being handled by humans. Hold the wings against the body to avoid the bird flapping and to make it feel more secure. Many birds feel more comfortable if their feet are supported when possible.
If the bird is mobile or can still fly you can try to tempt it into a shed, garage or other roofed area to make capture easier. A trail of food may work for confident species such as pigeons or gulls. You could also try setting a simple trap – see our infographic on the right.
Most small birds can be successfully contained in a cardboard or shoe box. For large birds a carry box designed for cats might be better if the bird is still lively and determined. If using a cardboard box make sure the lid is secured to prevent escape and there are sufficient air holes. A towel on the bottom will make the bird more comfortable. Place the box somewhere warm and quiet and keep children and pets away.
If the bird has been caught by a cat then you must seek urgent help. The bird will need to be given antibiotics within a few hours of being bitten or it may develop fatal septicaemia. Some wildlife rescues are available 24/7 for this sort of emergency and we try to give some indication of availability on our listings. You could also contact local vets – although they will not have facilities for the long-term care of the bird, they may be willing to provide a one off dose of antibiotics. Some may even do so free or at a very reduced price.
It is likely that the bird will be shocked or weakened so supplementary heat can be very helpful here. You can put a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel at one end of the box, either inside, underneath or next to the box, ensuring the bird can get away from the heat if it wants to. If the bird begins to pant, remove the heat source immediately.
It is not generally necessary or advisable to provide food and water. Feeding a shocked, ill, or weakened animal can cause lethal complications. Never attempt to force feed water to a bird as it is very easy to drown them and never offer cow’s milk or alcohol to any wildlife.
NB: this advice is designed to cover the first couple of hours or overnight. If you are not able to get the animal to a wildlife rescue promptly, please at least speak to someone by phone for further advice about care beyond this period. If you want to care for the casualty yourself rather than taking it to a rescue, please read the information here.