Encouraged by the high volume of incoming queries, messages and emails, it seemed to be a good idea and not too late for another blog post to address first aid and emergency care measures, which are likely to be relevant for all native rescue bird species including corvid nestlings and fledglings.
Many people believe that food is the most important first aid ‘measure’ to be offered to an injured or poorly bird. This is a very common mistake, and a dangerous one, which can potentially put the life of any rescued bird at risk. However, the most important life saving measure is to keep a rescued bird safe, quite and warm, or to gently and gradually warm a hypothermic bird up. This is the true life saver, in particular for hatchlings and nestlings, and applies to older birds like fledglings and in fact to any poorly bird regardless of its age. Birds have a very high metabolism and a higher normal body temperature than mammals. When a bird is poorly, he or she will have difficulties to maintain this higher body temperature. If the body temperature drops below a certain point, then the bird will not be able to digest any solid food. Feeding these birds straight away with solid food, without getting the body metabolism back up to normal levels, will most likely cause severe gastrointestinal problems and may even kill the animal. Although it might sound counterintuitive, but this applies even more so to birds who are severely malnourished and starved.
Lack of food is never the most serious problem in an emergency situation, at least it is not the problem which needs to be addressed first. Having said that, any kind of disease or injury will lead to a certain degree of fluid loss and subsequently dehydration. The amount of fluid required to address this deficit, and the amount of fluid needed to maintain normal body functions after the deficit has been addressed, should ideally be exactly calculated. But this may turn out to be a difficult task for an inexperienced person. However, it is safe to assume for any poorly bird that there is always some degree of fluid loss leading to varying degrees of dehydration, which needs to be corrected after the bird has been warmed up sufficiently. This means that any bird can be safely given varying amounts of fluid, as explained below, before considering further dietary requirements.
To get some idea of the nutritional state of the rescue bird, a visual analysis of the number, volume and general appearance of droppings will provide valuable clues. The lack of the dark dropping component or faecal matter indicates some degree of starvation, which becomes more evident and severe when the droppings begin to show bright green bile-like components. The white dropping components, ranging from almost dry and powdery to very runny, suggest that the kidneys are functioning at least to some degree. To find out more about the extent of dehydration one should closely examine the area around the bird’s eyes. If the eyes appear to be sunken in or dull, or the skin surrounding the eyes has a wrinkled appearance, then the bird is likely to suffer of dehydration. Dehydration can also cause the bird’s mucous membranes, located inside its mouth, to become sticky or dry. Another visible feature to look out for is the skin elasticity. One needs to check areas without or underneath feathers or wings by pinching them gently, lifting a section of skin and then releasing it. If the skin takes longer than a second to go back into place smoothly, then the bird is dehydrated, as reduced skin elasticity is a common symptom of dehydration. Also, being more non specific, dehydrated birds often appear lethargic and weak.
If no commercial rehydration fluids are available, it is easy to prepare your own emergency rehydration fluid. One needs 1 tablespoon of lukewarm, boiled water, 1 pinch of sugar or a drop of honey, and 5 tiny grains of salt. After the bird has been warmed up sufficiently, this homemade rehydration fluid can be applied and should have ideally body temperature when given to the bird. There are various safe methods how fluids can be given to birds, depending on the species and the age of the bird. The safest way is to use a clean small soft artist brush, which should be soaked ever so slightly in the rehydration fluid, and carefully ‘emptied’ into the beak by gently wiping the brush off. Sometimes nestlings will even start to suckle on the wet brush to extract more fluid. Another option is a 1 ml insulin syringe or eye dropper pipette, where one should give only single droplets onto tip of the beak or along the outside of the closed beak. One has to always wait for the bird to swallow before applying the next droplet. Swallowing can be induced by gently stroking the throat. This way one can minimise the risk to drown in particular small bird species, as any bird is at risk of aspiration and suffocation when larger amounts of fluids or food are administered. The overall volume of rehydration fluids required varies greatly and depends on the species, disease or injury, and the degree of dehydration. It is important to monitor the droppings, which will give an idea how the metabolism responds to the treatment.
After successful rehydration, which might need to be done over a 24 hour period or even longer, severely starved birds should now be started on an easily digestible liquid food supplement, which is something that cannot be easily made at home. Critical Care Formula CCF by Vetark is a widely available and very good universal formula, which can be used, at least temporarily, for almost all bird species. However, certain bird species like raptors and seabirds, need to be changed over later to a more species specific formula like EmerAid LLC. The transition from rehydration fluids to liquid emergency nutrition, and from there to normal species specific solid food, is the recommended and safest approach. This gradual approach will benefit the recovery of all poorly birds. The time frames of the individual steps will vary greatly. Very mildly starved birds can often gradually be reintroduced to solid foods without using liquid emergency nutrition by maintaining rehydration with rehydration fluids and gradual introduction of very small amounts of species specific solid food.
Corvid nestling and even young fledglings may need to be handled and encouraged to eat, at least initially. Most of the young birds may not gape, even when hungry, which means that these birds need to be hand fed. Hand feeding requires the rescuer to gently open the beak, and to place the food item into the mouth to induce the swallowing reflex. It may be useful, at least for an inexperienced person, to have a helper at hand, where one person holds the bird and the other is doing the feeding. It may also be useful to wrap the bird into a thin towel, especially when the bird is very mobile, which will immobilise the bird and protect the plumage. The food item needs to be placed very carefully deep into the throat, behind the clearly visible opening of the windpipe and without occluding it. This procedure will trigger the swallow reflex. Plastic tweezers may prove very useful to achieve exactly that. It may take a while for the bird to get the idea, but eventually young dependent bird will start gaping again. Older birds might dislike the idea of being fed, and will most certainly start eating by themselves. At the end of every feeding session, small droplets of fluid should be offered as described above, ideally enriched with multivitamins.
Wet or tinned cat food is not suitable for hand feeding of corvids. The nutritional value is usually not adequate for young birds, as the protein contents is too low. In the absence of species specific natural food, the easiest available hand feeding food for corvids is Purina GoCat chicken and duck, which are dry cat biscuits. These dry cat biscuits need to be soaked in cold water for a couple of hours, until they are soft but remain still intact. If the bird is younger or small, one may want to half the pieces to be fed. Supplemental natural food items like small amounts of soft feathers can be given occasionally together with the biscuit in particular to older nestling or fledgling crows and ravens, which will aid the production of pellets. All birds should have multivitamin and mineral supplements. Natural minerals can be used as well, such as cleaned and finely ground snail shells or cuttle fish bone.
At the same time, whilst still hand feeding fledglings, one should offer a dish with food and water, to encourage self feeding. This food dish should contain pieces of fruit like soft pear, melon or grapes, and also soaked cat biscuits, minced beef, live meal worms, defrosted crickets, pieces of oat biscuits and a good wild bird food mix enriched with suet pellets and dried mealworms.
Please note that all hand raised wild birds, and in particular birds raised without company of their own kind, will be imprinted on humans and cannot be released. Also, it is not recommended to hard release hand reared birds, or any bird which has been kept in human care for longer than 14 days. All these birds require a soft release setup in a group of birds of their own kind, which is best done after the breeding season by the end of summer and in early autumn. These birds have to be kept in an adequate outdoor flight and release aviary, where they are able to exercise, can interact with wild birds, adapt to the outdoor environment and learn to forage. For these obvious reasons, which are usually not available to every finder of a bird in need of help, the best option is quite regularly to find as soon as possible an experienced corvid friendly bird rescue or rehabber, who will take over the care of the rescued bird.