It’s raining birds at the SPCA Serving Erie County in Tonawanda.
This spring, like every spring, a room hardly larger than a closet in the wildlife department is occupied by dozens and dozens of baby birds in every stage of development, from tiny naked ones sprawled in incubators to bright-eyed fledglings hopping around a large flight cage.
When a staffer enters the room, every beady eye is on her; when she slides open one of the incubators, a wave of piercing, hungry peeping arises and dozens of tiny round heads rise on wobbly necks, bright yellow triangular beaks opening wide for a syringe of the high-protein food.
The staffers are on a demanding schedule. The tiniest babies must be fed every 30 minutes, with larger ones needing hand-feeding every 45 minutes and the largest babies still ignoring trays of food and waiting for their hourly feeding. Timers at each enclosure bing at feeding times.
“We are full of birds,” said Mary Jo Sicurella, a Wildlife Services associate. “Our brooders are full.”
Birds – starlings, sparrows, robins, mallards, Canada geese and assorted songbirds – are the most common babies that find themselves in peril. “Either something happens to the mother or they get separated somehow and we end up with the babies,” said Sicurella.
Most of the baby birds brought to the SPCA survive. “There will be an occasional one that won’t eat or is too far down by the time we get it, but for the most part they graduate from incubators to the flight cage and to the outdoor aviary and then they get released,” said Sicurella.
“We don’t release them here, we take them out into the country where there are more of their own kind,” said Beverly Jones, assistant director of Wildlife Services.
Although baby birds that are injured should be brought to the SPCA, fledglings, or adolescent birds that have fluttered down from the nest but cannot yet fly much, should be left where they are. The parent birds will usually be hovering in nearby trees and feeding the fledgling until it is strong and skilled enough to fly. “If they’re hopping around and seem OK, they are probably being fed on the ground,” said Sicurella.
If a young hatchling without feathers is found, “you should first look up and see if you can see a nest,” said Sicurella. “If you can safely return that baby to the nest, you should do that.”
If the nest is inaccessible or if it has fallen or been broken apart, a small plastic bowl can be used to fashion a replacement nest. “Take what is left of the nest, put it into a plastic container, poke holes in the bottom so the nest has drainage, and put it in a safe place where it is kind of sheltered from the rain,” said Sicurella.
Although people should wear gloves when touching any wild animal or bird, its parents will not reject a baby that has been handled by humans.
Mallards often build nests in hazardous, well-traveled spots, and predators or ill-timed attempts to cross roads sometimes leave chicks orphaned.
The SPCA has dozens of baby mallard ducks that have lost or been permanently separated from their mothers. They are kept in groups in wooden pens until they are old enough to go to an outdoor enclosure that has a small pool.
Nests of bunnies
After birds, the SPCA gets the most calls about Eastern cottontail rabbits, which also build their nests in unlikely places, including shallow holes in suburban lawns.
The mother rabbit will usually be absent when the nest is discovered, and the babies may appear to be abandoned. “But the mother is just not around during the day, because her presence could attract predators,” said Sicurella. “So we ask that people take six long strands of dental floss and criss-cross the nest, three going each way, and check in the morning to see if the strands are disturbed.” If the strands have been rumpled, the mother has returned and the babies are being fed, she said.
A baby rabbit can be returned to the nest if one can be found. But some small babies are old enough to be on their own. The SPCA says that bunnies that are the size of hamsters, have spiky-looking fur and erect ears are old enough to be out on their own, while babies that have slicked-back fur and ears that lie back may need assistance if a nest cannot be found.
Squirrels in danger or the attic
Many calls about squirrels come from people who have found a nest in their attics. Unlike baby rabbits, which leave the nest in three or four weeks, squirrels grow slowly and will be in the nest for months.
To evict the squirrels without harming them, the resident should put a bright light and a loud radio near the nest. “This should drive them out,” said Sicurella. “Squirrels always have an alternate den site, and if you aggravate them enough they will take their babies and go. Then you have to repair the spot where they came in or they will return.”
A baby squirrel on the ground that is calling and active may have fallen out of its nest. It should be put in a shallow, open container and left nearby so its mother can return for it.
The SPCA also gets calls about fawns, which are sometimes discovered lying down in bushes or tall grass where their mothers have put them. “If the fawn is quiet and lying down, it has probably just been stashed there by the mother,” says Sicurella. “But if it’s standing up and vocalizing, it’s probably hungry, and if that is still going on after a day, give us a call.”
Many people who call about baby animals or birds are concerned that cats will kill them, said Sicurella. “Sadly, it does happen, but we don’t have room to take every wild animal out of its environment just in case it might get attacked by cats.”
But a person who finds an injured baby bird or animal or who sees a cat with one should call the SPCA immediately, said Sicurella. “A cat bite can turn into an infection very quickly. We’re going to want to put it on antibiotics.”
Anyone who has questions or concerns about wildlife should call the SPCA’s main number, 875-7360, Ext. 3528 during the day. After business hours, call 556-0076.