Waterfowl refers to birds which live on ponds and lakes such as Swans, Geese, Ducks and their smaller cousins such as Coots and Moorhens. This page covers adult birds. If you need advice on baby water fowl, please see here.

Living on water affords them some protection from natural predators but unfortunately they are commonly affected by fishing line, pollution and dog attacks.

When to Rescue 

Birds hit by a car or attacked by a dog 

The bird should be treated for shock and properly assessed for injuries. 

Any bird with an obvious injury

If you can see a wound, or a wing or leg is visibly damaged, the bird will need help.

Birds with fishing line wrapped round them or in their mouth

This can prevent flight and cause wounds so rescue is definitely needed.

A domestic duck or goose abandoned in the wild

This is unfortunately common. These can often be distinguished from wild birds by their colouring (wild ducks aren't usually white) or shape (heavy in the body with small wings meaning they can't fly). They won't survive in the wild and need to be rescued.

When to take other action

A bird with a deformed 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

Birds on an oiled body of water

See here for more details of when to help

A duck nesting in a garden or other unsuitable location

See the advice here

When to leave alone


A bird standing on one leg or tucking its leg up on to its body

These are normal postures for waterfowl. Unless you see the bird limping, or the leg has a visible wound, this isn't a cause for concern.

Capture, Containment and Care


Do not attempt to capture large birds such as swans and geese yourself. Whilst tales of swans breaking your arm are somewhat exaggerated, these are big, powerful birds who could certainly cause a few bruises and should only be handled by experts.

Smaller birds such as ducks and moorhens can be caught quite safely, though they can give a fairly good peck so you may wish to use gloves or a towel. It is wise to point the rear end away from you if possible as they have a habit of relieving themselves when scared and this will be liquid and travelling at a surprising velocity! If the bird is still mobile, you do need to be careful not to scare it back into the water or into flying away so, if you are not sure you can pick the bird up easily, it’s best to seek assistance from experienced rescuers.

A large, sturdy cardboard box may be sufficient for small birds but a carry box designed for cats might be better if the bird is still lively and determined. If using a cardboard box, ensure the lid is secured to prevent escape and make sure to provide air holes. Place the box somewhere warm and quiet and keep children and pets away. 

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 not necessary, and would likely be harmful, to allow a waterfowl casualty to bathe. Oiled, unwell and baby water birds may not have the waterproofing needed to swim without becoming water logged and may then become hypothermic if allowed to get wet. If you pick up a baby who is wet, especially if it appears weak, it may be beneficial to gently dry them with a warm (not hot) hair dryer. Whilst it is common knowledge that oiled birds are bathed with washing up liquid, please do not attempt this yourself. It is vital that the bird is stabilised and rehydrated first.

NB – this advice is designed to cover the first hour or so. If you are not able to get the bird to a wildlife rescue within this time, 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.

You can find rescues in your area by putting your location into the search facility at directory.helpwildlife.co.uk. If you are unsure whether to intervene or you have difficulty finding a rescue who can help, you can contact us via helpwildlife.co.uk/helpdesk and our volunteers will give you advice and support.