Waterfowl refers to birds which live on ponds and lakes such as Swans, Geese, Ducks and their smaller cousins such as Coots and Moorhens. Common issues with these babies are injuries from fishing line or other litter, being seen on their own or failing to thrive. Be aware that older babies of larger species such as swans and geese can be quite strong so should not be handled by the public. Waterfowl parents can also be very protective so do be cautious when interacting with their young.
When to rescue
If the bird has been caught by a cat or dog
Any bird which has been bitten by a cat, regardless of its age or species, will need rescue and treatment. There are bacteria on cat’s teeth which will pass into the bird’s bloodstream when it is bitten. Without antibiotics within a few hours of the attack the bird may develop fatal septicaemia. Any bird caught by a dog should be properly assessed for injuries.
If the bird is obviously injured
If you can see a wound, or a wing or leg is obviously damaged then the bird needs help. Survival in the wild is unlikely with an injury.
A baby is unwell
If a baby is tending to be separate from the rest of the brood, is struggling to swim, looks weak etc then it is likely to be unwell and in need of help.
A bird has been hit by a car
This is common as they learn to fly. The baby may just be stunned but make sure it’s safe and contact a wildlife rescue for advice.
A bird with fishing line or other litter on it
Litter can cause injuries and restrict growth so please contact a rescue immediately if you see waterfowl affected by it.
When to take other action
No sign of parents
Baby waterfowl usually spend all their time with one or both parents. A single chick on its own or a group of babies with no adult around is not normal. Observe from a distance to make sure there isn’t an adult nearby and call a wildlife rescue for advice if none appears.
A duck nesting in an unsuitable location
For example, a garden, hanging basket, on a swimming pool etc. See the advice here.
A bird with ‘airplane’ or ‘angel’ wing
This is a relatively common condition where the part of the wing or wings grow at right angles to the body rendering the bird flightless. Whether they should be rescued depends a lot on their age and the environment they live in. There's more information here.
An older cygnet being attacked by its parents
Young swans leave home between Autumn and Spring and this usually happens without too much drama. Occasionally, the cygnet will fail to leave because it doesn’t have enough space to take off or it’s weak or unwell. When this happens, the parents can become very aggressive and even kill the youngster. Contact your local wildlife rescue for advice in this situation.
When to leave alone
’One legged’ birds
Many species of waterfowl commonly tuck one leg up while swimming or standing. This is usually to either warm up a cold foot or to help with cooling on a hot day. It’s nothing to be concerned about.
If a small baby is out of the water, you may just be able to scoop it up gently in your hands or with a towel. Baby waterfowl are very unlikely to bite but do keep the beak away from your face and eyes. Have something ready to put the bird straight into before you catch it if possible. If they are large, such as a juvenile swan or goose, or still on the water, contact a wildlife rescue for help with capture. Be aware too that any parent birds may be protective and may try to scare you off. Contact a rescue if capturing the baby would put you in danger.
Small babies can be placed in something like a large cardboard box or pet carrier lined with a towel. If using a box, make sure the lid is secure and don’t forget to provide plenty of air holes. 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 much-reduced price.
Do NOT attempt to feed the bird without first seeking expert advice. Never attempt to force feed water to a bird as it is very easy to drown them and never offer cow’s milk, worms or alcohol. Baby waterfowl should NOT be allowed to swim – they may not yet be waterproof and, in the wild, would be dependent on their Mum drying them off. Babies can quickly become waterlogged and hypothermic which can be fatal. If the bird is wet, shocked or weakened supplementary heat can be very helpful. 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.
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.