Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind

The other day I rescued a Pigeon at work. It had fallen into a gap between two fences and become stuck, but I manged to dig a small hole under the fence and pulled the poor bird out through that. A quick check revealed that the bird was completely unscathed, and it flew off happily after I let it go. Some people said I should have left to die, labeling it a 'rat of the sky' and saying that because Pigeons are so populous they don't deserve to live. I disagreed, however. After all, the Pigeon would have been fine if a human hadn't put up a fence for it to fall down, so wasn't it my duty to help it out? Either way, the incident got me thinking about some of the other brushes I've had with our feathered friends over the past few years.
Like all birds which have been caught by a cat, this young Blackbird needed an antibiotic injection at the hospital
Roughly 90% of all the casualties I'm called out to every year are birds. Of that 90%, probably half are healthy fledglings that people have found in their gardens unable to fly. These birds are usually best left alone, as in most cases the parents will still be close by and will continue to feed their chick until it's old enough to fend for itself. It takes patience to be sure though, and watching the bird from a window for an hour or two is the only way to confirm that the young bird is not orphaned. If no parents come down to the bird within a few hours, it is safe to assume that they have perished, and the fledgling will need to go to a wildlife hospital to be fed by hand until it grows up. 

Sometimes, in gardens regularly visited by cats, it may be too dangerous to leave any fledglings out in the open, even if their parents are coming down to them. This was the case recently, when someone called me about three Robin chicks they had discovered in their garage. After a quick search I couldn't find any nest to put the birds back into, so I left them in a sheltered cage outside, with bars through which the parents could continue to feed them. This way the little Robins were protected from predators, but could still be raised by their parents in their natural environment, and released after a few days when they were old enough.
Raised in a cage- these Robin fledglings were fed by their parents, but still protected from local cats
The other 50% of birds I deal with are injured, usually after being caught by a cat or dog. Many of them have already suffered heavy blood loss by the time I reach them, and go into a condition called Hypovolemic Shock as a result. I've lost too many birds to shock, which is usually exacerbated by the stress of being picked up and handled- they start panting before going floppy in my hand and dying, all within a matter of seconds. 

This began to change when I invested in a heat lamp last summer. Shortly after, I was called to a Pigeon in the village that had been caught by a dog. At first the bird didn't seem too badly affected by the attack- it had shallow puncture wounds to its sides which had stopped bleeding, but otherwise seemed lively enough. Soon, however, it began displaying those soul-destroying signs of shock, although this time I was prepared. I quickly placed the bird under the heat lamp (warmth moves blood out of the centre of the body), and left it in a dark, quiet room to minimise its stress. Uncertain as to whether it would live, I was greatly surprised (and relived!) to find that the Pigeon had perked up completely after half an hour under the lamp, and it survived the journey to the wildlife hospital where its wounds could be treated. My heat lamp hasn't failed me since.
Sitting under a heat lamp in the dark for half an hour saved this Pigeon's life!
My top tips for rescuing birds:

1. Purchase an Aviary Net
Even when injured, a bird will still try its hardest to escape you. Birds with broken wings can still run, and birds with broken legs can still fly, so sometimes catching the casualty in a net can be the only way to secure it quickly and safely. Aviary nets have padded rims which ensure no further damage is caused to the bird whilst you're trying to capture it. But if caught without one, a light towel or jumper thrown over a casualty which can't fly should work just as well.

2. Always hold a bird so that it can't open its wings
The safest way to hold a bird is in a way which prevents its shoulders from moving and its wings from opening. This gives you more control over the animal and helps keep it calm. A small bird (like a Robin or Dunnock) can be held in one hand with its back against your palm and its head poking out between your index and middle fingers. A larger bird (such as a Pigeon or a Dove) needs to be held with two hands against its back-one for each wing. Never put any pressure on the bird's abdomen as this will stop it breathing.

3. Keep handling to a minimum
Birds are particularly susceptible to stress which (as I mentioned earlier) can worsen the shock that any injured animal will already be experiencing. To minimise any stress you may cause to the bird, only handle a casualty when catching or assessing it. If the bird starts to pant, immediately put it into a warm, dark and quiet cage for at least 30 minutes. This will help slow down its metabolism and counter the effects of shock.

4. Transport the casualty in a suitable container
An injured bird should be transported to a wildlife hospital or vet in a container (a box, cage, etc.) that restricts their movement and stops them tumbling about on the journey. This is especially important for birds with broken wings, as being able to flap them about in a spacious cage may cause further damage. If you only have a large container, wrapping the bird's body loosely in a small towel will also suffice. Obviously don't put a casualty into anything that is too small. I was once called out to a Collared Dove which had been stuffed into a hamster carrier. Needless to say, it died. 

5. Never release an entangled bird
Birds can often get caught in the netting and rubbish that we leave lying around. As with all animals which find themselves caught up in such ligatures, entangled birds should never be cut free. Instead, take the bird to a wildlife hospital with any bindings still attached to it. Otherwise a condition called pressure necrosis can develop, which will eventually result in death.  

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