This is a difficult and emotive subject and often the topic of much debate. There is a feeling, amongst the public and some wildlife rescuers, that a broken wing is automatically reason for a bird to be euthanased. Some believe a broken wing can never be fixed and that a bird which cannot fly will automatically be miserable. We feel that such generalisations are dangerous and have ended many lives prematurely and unnecessarily.
First of all, it is worth mentioning that many calls about birds start with the finder expressing their belief that the bird has a broken wing. Often the only 'evidence' that this is the case is that the bird cannot (or will not) fly. In fact, birds fail to fly for many reasons and any general illness can make flight difficult, just as having the flu might stop you going for a jog! A broken wing will usually be hanging down in an unusual position and the bird may have little ability to move it at all. If the wings are held in a normal position, there may well be another reason for the lack of flight.
Regardless, any adult bird which cannot or does not fly is in need of rescue.
You can search for a rescue by entering your location into the search facility on our map page.
If the wing is broken, depending on the type of break, the actual bone involved, the species of bird and the quality of treatment they receive, it is sometimes possible to fix a broken wing well enough for the bird to be released into the wild. We suggest you discuss with any rescues you ring the details of their policy on birds with broken wings. Whilst there are certainly times when ending the suffering of a bird with a broken wing is the kindest option, we would suggest caution with any organisation which has a blanket policy that all birds with this injury should be euthanased. Any bird with a broken wing should receive an x-ray and assessment by a vet experienced with caring for birds in order to make an informed decision about its future.
Whether wild birds which will not fly well enough to be released should be euthanased or given sanctuary is a very contentious topic. Again, it is our view that this should be reviewed on an individual, or at least species, basis. For example, feral pigeons are generally quite laid back birds and many live very happily in captivity. Waterfowl do relatively little flying and do not rely on their wings to carry them away from predators. Birds with damaged wings can therefore be relocated to a safe pond or lake and live relatively normal lives without the ability to fly. On the other hand highly stressed and territorial species are unlikely to adapt to living in close proximity with humans.
Pragmatically, most rescues simply won't have the space and resources to offer sanctuary to every non-releasable bird, especially when you consider that many species can live 15 years plus. If it is important to you that 'your' casualty receives sanctuary, you may need to travel a considerable distance to find an organisation able to offer this.
A bird with a suspected broken wing should be handled with great care so as not to make any injury worse. We recommend, if possible, covering the bird with a towel to minimise stress and movement. Wrap the towel around the bird, holding the wings against the body. Many birds feel more comfortable if their feet are supported when possible. Always keep the beak and talons away from your face to avoid injury.
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 not generally necessary or advisable to provide food and water if you are getting the bird to a rescue quickly. 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.
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.
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.