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The place for wild birds.

MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS

Many ideas about birds are so widely held that most of us think they are facts. This section will help you learn which of these ideas is true and what is false.

the myth about
human scent and birds

the myth about
birds picking up their young

the myth about
mother birds pushing young out of the nest

the myth about
milk and bread

the myth about
what baby birds will eat

the myth about
how much birds eat

the myth about
wild birds as pets

the myth about
wild birds wanting to enter our homes

the myth about
cats and birds

the myth about
holding wild birds

the myth about
the behavior of hurt birds

the myth about
bird injuries

the myth about
where to take wild birds

the myth about
wild birds being able to heal themselves

the myth about
bird brains

the myth about
pregnant birds

the myth about
wild birds and bird cages




MYTH:
If I return a baby bird to its nest, the mother will know I've touched it and will reject it.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

Unlike mammals and reptiles, most birds have a very poor sense of smell (except for Vultures) and cannot detect human scent. Parent birds have a lot invested in their young and will not reject or hurt a baby bird that has been touched by a human, even if they see you touch it.

Most birds will look for a missing baby bird for at least 4 days. An uninjured baby bird that has simply fallen from the nest can be returned to its nest, and the parent birds will continue to care for it. However, you must make sure before returning a baby to the nest that it has no injuries, and you must make sure you return it to the correct nest. If a baby has injuries, it must be treated for the injuries or it will not survive. Also, baby birds depend on the warmth of their nestmates. So if you do find an uninjured baby and can locate its nest, you will be doing the parents and the siblings a huge favor by returning the baby to its home.

(Please note: children should not handle wildlife. If you are a child who has found a bird who needs help, please get a grown-up to help you.)

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MYTH:
Parent birds can pick up their babies and bring them back to the nest.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

Most birds lack the strength and neck muscles to be able to pick up and carry their young back to the nest, unlike mammal parents. They will try to feed their young on the ground, however, if at all possible. Birds are very devoted to their offspring!

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MYTH:
Mother birds will push their young out of the nest if they are defective, or when it is time for them to leave.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

Fledgling birds that are around 14-18 days old (with a tail length of around 1/4"-1/2" long) begin to get curious about the world and leave the nest on their own. Parent birds will sometimes remove an egg that has not hatched, but will not push their young out of the nest. Sometimes a nest gets crowded and one of the nestlings gets accidentally knocked out by a nestmate. But it is unfortunately all too common for many baby birds to be pulled out of the nest by predators.

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MYTH:
All baby animals can be fed bread and milk.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

Most wild birds are fed high-protein insects when they are young. The exceptions are pigeons, doves, and some finches (who are fed pre-digested weed seeds by their parents), and baby birds of prey (who are fed rodent meat by adults).

Unlike mammals, birds cannot digest milk at all. They lack the enzymes needed to digest lactose in any form. And there is no nutrition in bread that a young bird can use for growing during its critical first fourteen days of life.

Do not believe anyone who tells you to feed any form of dairy product or bread to baby birds! Baby birds get very sick and often die when fed incorrectly. Always get the facts directly from a licensed Wildife Specialist before you offer any food to a wild bird -- or any other wild animal.

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MYTH:
Wild animals, including baby birds, know exactly what they should and should not eat and will never swallow anything that is bad for them.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

While it is true that adult birds know exactly what to feed their babies, hungry baby birds will swallow anything that is put into their mouths, even if it is likely to kill them. Baby birds are programmed to beg for food and eat under any circumstances in order to survive. This is why it's extremely important that you not feed or water a wild bird or animal you have found until after you have spoken to a Wildlife Specialist. Also, many people think a bird in trouble needs water, which is also not necessarily true and can cause a sick or injured bird to drown.

Baby birds are not the only ones who don't always know what's good for them. Many household chemicals are confusing and hazardous to wildlife and pets. Cats, for example, have been known to lap at pools of antifreeze. It tastes sweet, but it is deadly poison. Also, no animal can tell in advance whether the food it is about to ingest has been contaminated with a pesticide which is likely to harm it.

So don't assume that just because an animal accepts what you give it that you are giving it the right thing. If you are trying to rescue an animal, make sure you have confirmed with a Wildlife Specialist exactly what you should offer the animal before you start feeding it. If you must use pesticides, choose them carefully and use them very sparingly. And never leave household chemicals lying around or allow automotive chemicals to pool under your vehicle.

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MYTH:
To "eat like a bird" means to eat very little food.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

Birds eat a lot and very often to maintain their high body temperature and fast metabolism. This is especially true of baby birds in spring and summer. Because they are growing so fast, some may consume almost their own body weight daily!

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MYTH:
Wild birds make good pets.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

It is illegal to keep most wild birds as pets. They are protected by federal law, and Wildlife Rehabilitators have state and federal licenses that permit them to care for these creatures. Wildlife belongs in the wild and not in our homes. Cute as they are, our native wild birds have a wild outlook on life and wild instincts, especially around mating season, that we need to be sensitive to and respect.

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MYTH:
In the spring, birds that are repeatedly banging into windows want to come into the house.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

During mating season in spring and summer, some adult male birds will see their reflection in the windows on our homes and think they are seeing a rival male trying to intrude on their nesting territory. This seems to happen most with Robins and Cardinals although it has been reported in other species as well. These birds become frantic and can eventually begin to attack car windows and mirrors! Remember that windows and mirrors are not part of the natural world in which these birds have evolved for millions of years, and so they do not understand these man-made reflective items. The best solution is to temporarily block the reflection before the defending bird becomes obsessed and habituated with his reflection. This can be done by hanging sheets on the outside of windows, or covering mirrors with towels or even garbage bags for 3-4 days, up to a week, until the defending bird is satisfied that the intruder is gone.

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MYTH:
Birds can protect themselves from our pet cats.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

As a recently introduced predator, domesticated pet cats are not from this part of the globe and our wild birds have not evolved for millions of years with pet cats in their environment. They have no physical defense except flight. Very young birds do not have this defense. If a nesting adult bird is killed by a cat, it is very likely that the young will starve to death.

While parent birds will try to warn their young that a cat is nearby, many fledgling wild birds are bitten each spring and summer and will die from a bacterial infection in about 48 hours. While these birds can be treated with antibiotics if found in time, the best solution is to keep cats indoors during the day in spring and summer months.

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MYTH:
Wild birds that are hurt like to be held and petted by people. It calms them down.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

Adult wild birds consider humans to be a dangerous predator and are afraid of us. Unlike pet cats and dogs, they do not find comfort in being patted by people. It is very stressful for them to be handled and causes them to panic rather than to calm down. They may close their eyes and freeze in fear when picked up by humans.

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MYTH:
Injured birds will act very debilitated and make a lot of noise when in pain.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

Because predators are attracted to anything that moves oddly (by limping, for example) or makes a lot of noise, injured birds are programmed to act as normal as possible, and not to make a big fuss, so as not to attract predators who might eat them. They generally suffer in silence when in pain.

Baby birds, even when injured or sick, are programmed to to beg for food, for survival reasons.

This is why birds can be very deceptive about the state of their health; they have to be. To the untrained eye they may appear normal, but in reality may be very hurt or weakened, conditions which may only become apparent upon examination by an experienced Wildlife Specialist.

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MYTH:
Hurt wild birds will bleed a lot, so any injuries will be very visible.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

Birds normally do not bleed readily (the way mammals do) because they cannot afford to lose much blood. Avian blood clots very quickly when exposed to air, unless a vein, artery, toenail, or blood quill (developing feather) has been damaged.

Feathers hide a multitude of sins. Generally in order to see bird wounds, each feather has to be moved aside to expose the skin underneath. Because it is easy to injure a bird, this kind of examination should only be undertaken by or under the supervision of a trained Wildlife Specialist.

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MYTH:
If I find a wild bird in trouble, a good place to take it might be a veterinarian, zoo, or pet store.
Or I can always ask someone who owns a pet bird what to do.

Bird icon. MOSTLY FALSE! Bird icon.

While it is true that most veterinarians know a lot about animals, and while many of them care very deeply about the health and welfare of all animals, including wildlife, taking care of wildlife is a specialty which requires special training. You do not have to become a veterinarian before you can become a licensed Wildlife Specialist. However, even veterinarians, who are usually only schooled in the care of pets and livestock, have to undertake special training to learn to care for wildlife effectively. Most of the time, veterinarians receiving calls about wildlife in trouble will refer callers to local agencies or to a Wildlife Specialist.

Likewise, although zoos are all about animals, most do not have the resources to care for and rehabilitate local native wildlife. Zoos are like living museums, and they are usually only set up to care for their specimen guests. Some zoos, aviaries and marine parks do have hospital and rehabilitation facilities for animals they do not intend to keep, but these tend to be very specialized and not geared toward the care of all the wild animals indigenous to the zoo's community.

Pet stores are in the business of selling pets and things which help people take care of their pets. They are not allowed to deal in wild animals, especially those which are federally protected (like birds), and so finding a pet store with an owner or staffmember who is qualified to help you rehabilitate wildlife is like finding someone who owns or works in the produce department of a grocery store to help you farm your orchard. Even though many pet stores are owned and staffed by very knowledgeable and caring people, this is not the same thing as being staffed by licensed Wildlife Specialists.

Finally, beyond certain obvious physical traits (such as feathers), pet birds are nothing like wild birds. A friend or neighbor of yours might have a very healthy parrot or cockatiel and might know exactly how to care for it very well. However, this person will probably not know anything about the special needs of wild birds, especially traumatically injured or sick wild birds, and without knowing better, and certainly without meaning to do harm, this person could give you some very wrong advice -- advice which could injure or kill a wild bird, especially with regard to diet.

Any wildlife you find in trouble and wish to help should be taken immediately to your nearest Wildlife Specialist.

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MYTH:
If left alone, hurt birds will heal on their own.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

Many songbirds that have serious injuries will not heal on their own, and will perish without human intervention. Some facts:

• If not set within 72 hours, broken bones mend as "non union heals," meaning they never knit together properly. This renders the bones involved permanently useless as support structures.

• Untreated, most cat bites will develop infections within 48 hours. These infections are almost always fatal.

• Most small birds that are hurt will succumb to a predator, hypothermia, or starvation before their wounds even have a chance to repair themselves.

Now, many people hold a fervent philosophical belief that we should always let nature take its course and not intervene no matter what. As you might have gathered, we here at The Place for Wild Birds do not quite hold with that belief.

We have come to believe differently in large part due to the kinds of injuries and other types of distress most frequently sustained by the birds we are given to care for, including but not limited to things like cat attacks and pesticide poisoning. These events are always the result of humans entering the natural landscape and permanently changing the exact same delicate and complex balance of nature which non-interventionists seek to protect. Although we respect this desire to protect nature, and although we recognize that humans are part of nature, we also know that wherever humans live we bring tools, pets, chemicals, machinery, and architecture which are not part of nature -- and which often cause harm to native wildlife populations.

We cannot save all the avian casualties of human influence upon nature. However, by caring for sick, injured and orphaned wild birds, and by educating the public about wild bird protection, rescue and rehabilitation, we at The Place for Wild Birds attempt to undo some of the damage our species has already done to the balance of nature. We also seek to prevent further damage and to help keep the global population of birds from shrinking any more rapidly than it already is. Since most birds cannot heal themselves of the injuries our presence inflicts on them, we feel it is not just acceptable for us to be making this attempt, but that it is part of our responsibility as humans.

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MYTH:
Birds are not smart (hence the expression "birdbrained").

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

Studies have shown that birds are actually very intelligent. Some can count up to 7, invent and use tools, and even learn by playing. Pigeons have demonstrated the ability to recognize human individuals, and to perform tasks for a reward. Highly adaptable, the brain of a singing bird undergoes annual cycles of cell death and regrowth, very likely allowing birds like Canaries to master new songs. A new study suggests that as the Chickadee hides seeds in the fall, its brain adds memory cells which allow it to locate the hidden food. And in some areas, such as spatial orientation and navigation, birds have a learning ability that is not surpassed by any other animals except the highest mammals.

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MYTH:
Wild birds that look big and fat are pregnant.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

Adult female birds lay eggs which develop inside their abdominal cavity. However, these eggs are not visible from the outside, so unlike with mammals, it is impossible to spot a breeding female bird by just looking at her from a distance.

More likely, birds that appear big and fat are puffing out their feathers in order to trap air and keep warm. Healthy birds will normally fluff out their feathers in the cold weather, and sick or hurt birds will puff up even in warm weather because they are not feeling well. This behavior can make a very thin bird appear to be very fat!

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MYTH:
A bird cage is a good place to put wild birds.

Bird icon. FALSE! Bird icon.

A wild bird may injure itself when put into a bird cage, even temporarily. While cages with metal bars are fine for domesticated pet birds, wild birds do not have any experience with cages and will try to escape through the bars. They may hurt themselves, especially in a car while being transporting to a Wildlife Rehabilitator.

It is best to put a wild bird that needs help in a dark box, on a towel. Being in a box actually calms a wild bird, because it feels safe and less vulnerable to predators. Placing a wild bird in a box helps it to feel like it is hiding.

A box with a lid is best so that the bird is in the dark, and a few small air holes will help with air circulation. The size of the box should not be too large. A box that allows the bird to turn around comfortably without hitting the walls or lid is best, as this will limit activity and the possibility of further injury to the bird.

For more information on what to do with a wild bird in trouble, please see our Emergency section.

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Feather.

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This website and all its contents belong to The Place for Wild Birds, Inc.
Copyright © 2002, all rights reserved. Reproduce only with permission.
All photographs by Walter S. Bezaniuk. Most illustrations by Kathleen Frisbie.
Site design and some illustrations by Sara.